Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Figuring Out The Bones of Your Story With Tess Mallory

"I always fall back on the basics--Who, what, where when and why."

My guest today has worn several hats in her career. She is a former journalist and currently she is a full time writer who has written nine books and counting. Tess also teaches Writing Workshops.

Today she shares some great writing tips to help develop the bones of your story and help in organizing yourself when writing.

Hi Sia and Coffee Readers!

It’s great to be here today * Tess takes a sip of her latte* and I’ve been thinking about what I could share Over Coffee, and what came to mind was all the people over the last few years who have written me and said, “I’ve always wanted to write” and “I have an idea for a story”.

A lot of these folks want me to write their idea into a book. But you know, I could never write their book the way they could, and that’s what I tell them! It always makes me a little sad, because I know most of these people will never even try to write their amazing stories, because the thought of it is too overwhelming.

So, while thinking of this, I decided, hey, I could share some of the ways that I get myself started on a new idea, just on the off chance that some aspiring writers are sitting here with me and Sia around the table sipping lattes. (BTW mine is delicious, and will someone please pass the chocolate chip cookies?)

Writing on the computer can be daunting, even to seasoned writers, so a great idea when getting started is to buy a notebook. Not just any notebook, but a special notebook. I credit my friend the amazing Luann Long with reminding me about this great motivating idea. She buys a special journal or notebook for each book she works on, and uses it to make notes and keep track of the story she’s developing.

I just bought a new notebook, and soon I will start the process! First, I’ll just think about my idea or story for a while, and then I’ll make some decisions. As a former journalist, I always fall back on the basics--Who, what, where when and why. Broken down, that translates into these questions, among others: Who are my characters? What kind of story is this? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? And most important, Why oh why should my reader care about any of it?

I generally start by writing out an overview of the kind of book or story this is going to be, and what I want to see happen from start to finish. Nothing too detailed. Later I can write a detailed synopsis, or outline, but right now, I get to just ramble on as much as I’d like. It helps to jumpstart my excitement about the story!

Next I think about the characters. I jot down ideas in my handy dandy notebook about them. Who are they? What do they look like? What are their names? Where do they live? When are they alive? Why are they interesting? How do they know each other? When do they meet up? What do they have in common and what do they NOT have in common? What are potential conflicts between them?

I daydream about the setting—where does this story take place? Why is this the best place? I write down possible places, then go on the Internet and look at maps, pictures, place names, countries, etc. Man, has the Internet changed everything about research! I’ve never been to Scotland, but I’ve written six books set there! . (Be aware that in romance, publishers are very fixated on certain countries, and very against others! Go figure.)

If you decide to try this idea, take your notebook with you wherever you go. You never know when inspiration is going to strike!! I get ideas everywhere I go. Maybe I’ll see someone who looks just like I picture my heroine looking! Maybe I hear a voice that sends a chill down my spine. Inspiration is truly everywhere!

Once I’ve gotten some of the “bones” of my story figured out, it’s time to start writing. For aspiring writers, set aside a certain time of day, every day, even if it’s just an hour, or even just thirty minutes. Overwhelmed at the thought? Here are a few more tips:

  • It isn’t necessary to start at the beginning of your book. What is the part of your special story that always comes into your mind? Do you see the guy and girl walking by the ocean? Sitting and having coffee? *Tess remembers her latte and takes another drink. * (Yum!) Whatever that scene is, start there. Write what you “see”.

  • Still having trouble getting started? Start with some dialogue between two of your characters. Some people have an easier time with dialogue than description. Let your characters “talk” to each other for a while. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about them!

  • Is description your strength? Start with the setting. Describe where some part of the story takes place. The most important thing is to get started!

One big mistake beginning writers make is assuming that the first thing they put down on paper has to be perfect. I promise you, nothing I ever write the first time is perfect! I rewrite much more than I write. Give yourself the freedom to just write and learn as you go, because something really amazing happens during the writing of a first novel.

By the time the end of the book is reached, you have learned so much about what to do or not to do. Enjoy your story, and have fun with it, and it will turn out so much more than you ever believed that it could!

Writing a story or a book is like building a fence, or so Western writer Elmer Kelton once told my father. You dig the holes. You plant the fence posts. You string one wire at a time. Then you test the strength of your work. Sometimes you may have to tear down a few wires and put them up again. Maybe you’ll have to go back and dig out a rotten post. But in the end, ya’ll will have a mighty fine fence, podnur!

Gee, I suddenly morphed into a cowpoke. * smile * What I mean is, eventually the book of your dreams will start piling up, page after page, on your desk beside you, and one day you’ll write those awesome words “The End” and know you’ve done a great job!

* Tess looks down into her coffee cup and sees that her latte is gone *

Okay, it’s time for me to go and jot some things down in my own bright lime green notebook about some unruly characters that need to tell me more about who they are.

Have a great day and no matter what – Keep Reading! Keep Writing! Love is Timeless!

Tess Mallory is the published author of nine novels, the most recent, Highland Rebel, released March 2009 from Penguin-Putnam. Tess lives in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes full-time, teaches writing workshops, and takes care of assorted pets and children. Tess has written several plays, two musicals, and also many stories for children, published by Highlights for Children magazine. She is a singer/songwriter and wants to be a starship captain when she grows up. Visit her websites at and, which both need work, or at where you can become her MySpace friend. Check her out on facebook, and follow her on twitter!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Paperback Writer And Settling In

My guest Over Coffee is Paranomal Romance author, Kendra Leigh Castle. She has a dual career as a working mom and Naval Officer's wife--which I can assure, comes with social obligations and work; plus she is the author of The MacInnes Werewolf triology, nominated for RT Reviewer Choice awards. She is also busy writing a new series for Harlequin Nocturne. As you can see, Kendra leads a busy life.

So how does she juggle it all? How is she adjusting to being a busy working mom?

The other day, another mother said something to me, in passing conversation about being impressed that I was a working mom. My first thought was “Huh? Me?” Probably because I’ve been doing my own thing and raising my kids for so long now that it’s just not a term I have ever associated with myself. I mean, yeah, we all work, right? At least, this is what it feels like when I’m slipping in dog puke on the kitchen floor on my way to wipe my preschooler’s nose; all while my two older kids are rapidly progressing towards a fistfight over my daughter’s refusal to share looseleaf paper.

But despite the circa 1980s vision of a “working mother” that pops into my head every time the phrase comes up (big perm, briefcase, power suit with big shoulder pads, and I know, I watched too much TV growing up), I suppose it’s true. Writing is, after all, a hell of a lot of work. But with three young kids, I guess everything sort of flows together…I don’t look at one thing as more work than the other. The moving parts are just different. My day is work, with fleeting moments of relaxation and/or the eating of something from my candy stash that gives me that ahhh feeling. My writing is just a part of the routine now, scrounged out of my three-year-old’s quiet times and pushed into tired nights when I might rather slink off to watch Ghost Hunters (thank God for DVR). But my surprise at the label, I’ve come to realize, is simply emblematic of me finally settling into my life as a published writer. The process is still as frustrating and fascinating as it ever was, but it’s not novel anymore. I go in my office. Small people follow me into my office and demand things like food and dispute mediation (which they often ignore, leading me to chase them away and in the direction of their other, louder parent). The pets snooze in here while I work. My husband gives the computer dirty looks when I’ve spent too much time with it on any given day. It’s all so…normal.

The settling in has been an eye-opening process for me. When my first book came out last year, I was an utter neophyte. As in, when it came to the world of publishing, I was about as dumb as a box of rocks. I’m a pretty smart girl, but I will admit to total failure to comprehend anything much at the beginning except “me write book/me sell book.” I’d written one (bloated, reasonably bad) manuscript, joined RWA, shopped the MS around, cried over a bunch of rejections, and finally, buried the no-go book in my closet and tried again. Wrote the Scottish werewolf book I’d been kicking around in my head, started subbing, and BOOM, suddenly I had an agent. Not long after, I had the sale. Two books, two years, start to…well, publication. Which is both very cool, and, looking back, incredibly overwhelming. My learning curve was huge from the start. A year after the release of Call of the Highland Moon, and having just finished up the trilogy with Wild Highland Magic, I’m still rushing up that curve, but there are a few ways I know I’m settling in:

  • I confuse family members when I start to talk about the business aspect of writing, and so wind up fleeing to my writing friends, who actually understand what the hell I’m talking about.

  • I actually have writing friends.

  • I’ve been through both a publisher change AND an agency change (my agent recently formed her own agency with a partner, so of course I went with her), and I didn’t freak out.

  • I have a blog, website, MySpace and Facebook, and I actually know how to use them. Mostly.

  • Bad reviews no longer make me cry (brood or steam, maybe, but not cry).

  • When I tell my family “I’m working,” they assume I’m doing something other than looking at Perez Hilton and may even let me write. Yes, sometimes I sneak over to Perez Hilton anyway, but my procrastination habits are too scary to really go into here.

  • The word “deadline” now inspires more dread than excitement

And most importantly…

  • When I talk/think/dream about what I’m doing, it always involves the word “Career.”

My life has always been a little crazy. I’m a Navy wife, with an often-absent husband, three young kids, two little dogs with a penchant for regurgitation and an occasionally sympathetic cat. People are constantly telling me (as I’m sure people tell every writer) “I don’t know how you do it.” But see, I’ve managed the whirlwind that is my life by having a head full of stories. Some things are always going to be rough, I think: putting out a new submission, for instance, still makes me a little sick to my stomach. But I don’t turn red when people ask me what my stories are about anymore (yep, I can say “sexy Scottish werewolves” with a totally straight face now, even to strangers), and I can even tell you a little bit about my own personal writing process, when pressed. I’d probably still pass out if Nora Roberts said hello to me, but I’m getting it. Slowly but surely, I’m getting it.

I’ve always written. But I finally feel like a writer. And no matter what comes next, that’s a pretty cool place to be.

Thanks for having me over for coffee, Sia!


Kendra Leigh Castle is the author of the MacInnes Werewolves trilogy, as well as the upcoming series The Fallen, coming from Harlequin Nocturne. She lives in Maryland with her husband, three kids, and menagerie of pets, and loves to be visited online at and at her blog,