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Category Archives: Writing Info

The Makings of a Villain

A couple weekends ago Handsome and I went on a date to see Skyfall, the newest James Bond movie. What struck me—besides how gorgeous Daniel Craig is, how amazing the movie was, or mesmerized by the gun fights I became—was how brilliantly well-done the bad guy, Silva, was.

Which got me to thinking, when writing…what makes a really great villain? You know me well enough by now to guess…I went and made a list 😉

1)       Do not make them cartoonish.

Twisting their mustache and cackling whenever things go according to plan is not allowed. Evil for the sake of evil is incredibly difficult to write without the character becoming a cardboard cutout. It’s far more chilling to make an evil character that has actions and behaves in a way that a typical person would react given the right set of circumstances and a hard enough push. Think about it, what’s more scary: some pure evil abstract character who is trying his hand at world domination, or the Jeffrey Dohlmer-type who just walked past you in the grocery store?

2)      Play on real/current fears.

Why did the Joker in The Dark Knight chill us to the bone? Because even though Gotham is fake, it felt like we we’re watching a post-9/11 world much like our own.

3)      Make your villain intelligent and challenging.

I’m sorry, but a stupid and easily overcome villain just means that your hero was equally stupid (as if he couldn’t handle anything harder). Craft a character that makes the reader think there is no hope for the hero. When a hero is forced to go above and beyond to overcome a villain it makes your hero more credible in the end and his journey worthwhile. Along the same lines, give your villain interesting and meaningful things to say. Make them both compelling and convincing.

4)      Give them qualities that are sympathetic.

The best villains are the ones we as readers, despite everything, feel a connection with. Remember, no person is all good or all evil. Just as much as your hero should have flaws, your villain should have some admirable qualities. Does your villain, like President Snow from the Hunger Games, enjoy cultivating roses? Or does he provide care for his sickly sister? Rescues abandoned pug puppies? Possibly he’s like Darth Vader and the love of his children holds him back in the end. Give the villain some secret like this that the hero can discover—then you can explore if your hero is the type of person to use the villain’s vulnerability as leverage or is he too honorable for that.

5)      The villain should have sufficient motivation.

The villain wants something, or needs something to occur, and they have a belief that what they are doing is necessary in order to accomplish their goal. I once heard the saying, “Everyone is a hero of their own story” and that thought has stuck with me. See, no one views themselves as the villain.

Not even your bad guy, no, your villain thinks he’s the good guy!

Remember that as you write. In his head he has formed justification for why he does what he does. And these motivations must come across on the pages. As a reader I must be able to process that maybe I would have chosen a different path, but I understand why the villain  is the way he is and feels the need to take the actions he does.

If you master these five, then you’ll have one excellent and compelling villain. After that, you can play around adding deeper layers. Think Darth Vader (in the original trilogy) his character arc serves as a lesson for what will happen to Luke if he doesn’t get his act together. Or, the musical and book Wicked serves as an excellent example of seeing your villain in a different light. Ask yourself while writing, if given different circumstances to view them through, would my villain still be a villain?

Who is your favorite (or the best) villain in a movie or a book? What makes them stick with you? Did I miss an ingredient to a good villain? What would you add to the list?

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Music of our Lives

True story: there’s something weird about the way I write. Many of you know, I’m kind of a freak about music. See, I make my own soundtracks and listen to them (like crazy) while I’m writing. This isn’t normal. It’s not advised in most circles.

Making a soundtrack for inspiration is nothing new, even Stephanie Meyers did it while writing the Twilight series. Most of my author friends do it too. But they listen to them while they’re plotting or relaxing.

I listen while I’m writing. There are certain songs for certain scenes and they get played over and over and over again. I listen to my manuscript soundtrack the entire time I plot, write, and the whole time I’m not writing. I make CD’s and play them on my drive to work (which is an hour each way) the entire duration for my work on a certain manuscript. It’s kind of nuts.

All this to say, I’ve decided to share my playlists on this website! My taste in music is all over the place. I hope you enjoy!

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Yeah…I’m discerning in my listening tastes….sometimes.

Where have all the writers gone?

Do you have a writer in your life? Have they suddenly gone missing? Not answering calls?

Don’t worry. They’ll resurface in December.

Every November, writers across the nation join together for Nano Wrimo: National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write an entire manuscript in just the month of November…an almost impossible task, and yet people do it every year. AND go on to get these manuscripts published!

So if you see a ground of people sitting at a table together at the library or at your local coffee shop, all typing furiously away on their laptops, it’s a good guess that they are writers at a Nano Wrimo write-in event. The organization, My Book Therapy, hosts their own Nano Wrimo complete with awards.

Should you have a writer in your life there are a couple ways to help them this month:

  1. Let them go into their writing caves without guilt. It’s one month. So if the dishes don’t get done that day so that the writer in your life can get out 7,000 words that day, so be it.
  2. Encourage them! Let them know you support their writing and that you’re willing to help them brainstorm or listen to them hatch out their plots.
  3. Send them something to fortify them. Many writers end up skipping meals and sleep during Nano Wrimo, so dropping off some chocolate or pushing a sandwich our way is much appreciated.

And, no, I’m not formally participating in Nano Wrimo this year. I don’t do well when I have to race others to get to a certain word count. It’s just not how my mind works. One of the rules with Nano Wrimo is to turn off your “inner-editor,” and that’s just not possible for how I write. Not editing as I go actually slows me down big time.

I’m not participating, but I’m still going to be keeping my nose to the grind. I have a manuscript to rewrite and a whole new manuscript to start.

Pressing on! And accepting chocolate…

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When it all becomes real

Last spring, I signed my first novel-length contract with Love Inspired. Soon after that, I had to dive into edits for them which was followed by more edits and reviews and more edits and reviews.

After that, there were months of waiting. Did they like it? Was this for real?

Then today an email fluttered into my inbox that stopped me dead in my tracks: My cover art!

That’s when it all became real. Soon, very soon, there will be a book in my hands with my name on it. Not a book I share with anyone else like I have in my prior publications–this one is all mine.

Many authors talk about either loving or hating their cover art. See, as an author you don’t get much say as to what will be on your cover. I have author friends who have covers with characters on them that have the wrong hair and eye color. Wrong age. Or a scene that never occurs in the book.

So my hand hovered over the mouse. Should I look at my cover? Um, yes, absolutely!

And……I’m in love. It’s beautiful. The art department at Love Inspired hit this design out of the ball park! The house is exactly as I imagined down to the steps going up to the porch and the wide porch with chairs on the deck. Uncut grass in the fields and horses (the right color horses mind you!) in the pasture. The Bitterroot Mountians rising in the background are stunning and hopeful. And the colors take my breath away. I want to move there…today. That, and I want to know how those artists got into my head?!

So here it is friends. The cover we’ve been dreaming about since last April.

What do you think???

Here’s the awesome backcover copy that the team at Love Inspired wrote:

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“I made a promise to protect you.”

But pregnant Ali Silver’s husband broke his vow and walked away from her. After being injured in combat, Jericho has finally come home to Bitterroot Valley to make peace with his father and regain Ali’s trust. But the single mom’s keeping secrets of her own. And someone’s killing off Ali’s cattle and sabotaging her horse therapy business. Jericho will do whatever it takes to protect his wife and be a real father to his son. Because when it comes to love and second chances, he’s one determined cowboy.

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If that wasn’t enough, I have even more exciting news. Home for Good is now up on Amazon.com for preorder! You can go to Amazon and type in Jessica Keller and it’s the first option that pops up. That or you can click here and you’ll go right to it!

Thank you everyone for celebrating with me! This is truly an amazing day.

The Perfect Way to Kill a Character – why authors do it

Warning: This post includes spoilers for Harry Potter, Divergent, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Read at your own story-spoiling risks.

You’re reading a book. It’s three in the morning, you should be sleeping, but you just can’t stop turning the page. The characters have come to live for you. You’re invested in your story.

Then it happens…

That horrible author kills one of your favorite characters. Oh the humanity of it! You want to toss the book across the room. In fact, if the author was right there, you’d give them a piece of your mine. Tell them what that should have written. Ask them why.

Well, because we’re mean, heartless people who like to torture our readers.

Um, that’s absolutely a lie.

Authors kill characters because they have to. Believe me; it pains us more than it pains you. We created that character. We know them in a way that’s never shown on the page. But sometimes a death has to occur. There comes a point when a stubborn main character needs to lose someone important to them in order to cause change, or we the readers need to grasp how dangerous the world the main character exists in truly is.

J.K. Rowling is masterful at this. Many of the most beloved side characters in the Harry Potter trilogy perish. Why? Because we needed proof that Voldemort really was dangerous. We (the readers) had to believe that if the Death Eaters won, that the world would be left in a terrible situation and there would be a lot of suffering. Characters we loved had to die so we could see that the danger was very real and know the stakes that Harry and the D.A. were up against. Fred Weasley, Cedric Diggory, Dumbeldore, Lupin, Snape, Hedwig, Dobby, Mad-Eye, and Tonks had to die. More than that, Rowling handled all their deaths with respect. We felt each one and mourned them. In the end, we understood.

Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, also handles killing her characters well. At the end of Divergent Tris loses both her parents and has to kill her friend, Will. This had to happen for us to believe that Tris was in grave danger carrying out her mission. Even more, these deaths had to happen to prepare her to be willing to sacrifice herself to save Four. We wouldn’t have believed the power of the mind control if all these deaths hadn’t happened.

Twilight is an excellent example of a story that failed because it needed death. Meyer’s did her story a disservice when she decided she was too attached to her characters to put them in any real danger. The fourth book of the Twilight series is nothing short of jumping the shark for this very reason. The Vulturi become a laughable group of enemies. Sure they kill humans, but…um…isn’t that pretty normal for a vampire? I mean, that doesn’t make them scary. You can repeat one hundred and five times in a story how powerful an enemy is, but when the enemy appears and they can’t do anything to hurt the good guys, well, you’ve just lost the story. Not to mention wasted 400 pages worth of my time. The only way the story could have been redeemed at that point would have been for a Cullen to die. But Meyer’s couldn’t do it. She loved her characters more than her story, and it showed.

On the other hand, sometimes authors can overdo their point when it comes to using death to show how dangerous the story world is. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this. Sure, in book one, Rue had to die. There was no other way. We mourned her. It caused a change for the reader and for Katniss. But by the time we get to book three, Collins’s use of death was gratuitous at best. Kill Finnick? Why? We already knew the terror of The Capitol. It served no point to kill him and it wasn’t done in a manner that respected the impact of that character. Collins allowed her theme to railroad her characters, which is unforgiveable. My friend Amanda Stevens had an awesome post about The Hunger Games that I highly recommend.

Sidenote…yes…I cried when Dobby died.

My First Contract!

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“I’ve pinched myself so many times today to make sure that this was real.”– Anne Shirley

Yes, there is an Anne quote for every occasion, and this huge milestone in my life is no different. Because today is the day I get to announce that I’ve signed my first book contract.

I always had writing a book on my list of pipedreams. Just something nice to say, “oh, someday I’ll write a book.” Did you know that 80% of people who dream of writing a book never succeed? That’s crazy.

But I’ll hold my pipedream in my hands before my thirtieth birthday.

The manuscript I sold was titled Home for Good (originally titled: Left to Chance). I know it sounds silly to say this, but I love it. I love the characters and really cheered for them and I hope you will too. It’s the one that won me all the awards on my bio page.

Here’s a quick blurb: Ali Silver wants to raise her son on the family ranch in Bitterroot Valley and bring hope to handicapped children through her therapeutic horseback riding program. But her well-ordered life takes an unexpected turn when Jericho Freed, the husband who deserted her eight years ago, returns to town. Ali can’t decide if it’s the request Jericho makes or the attraction she still feels for him that terrifies her more. When she finds herself—and all she holds dear—in peril, can she depend on the God she feels doesn’t care and the man who once let her down? Or will bitterness choke out any hope of a second chance?

My manuscript was bought by Love Inspired—the Christian imprint of Harlequin. Home for Good will release in February 2013 and will hopefully mark the beginning of a long publishing career.

Five Keys to an Effective Critique Group

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Finding a good critique group can be as difficult as finding that elusive pair of perfect-fitting jeans. Don’t commit to a group too soon. Make certain to find a good fit. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1)      Find People Whose Writing You Enjoy

Make certain that you enjoy the writing style of the people you are committing to critique. I’ve been in groups before where I wasn’t excited about a particular writer’s voice (meaning the sound of their writing) or the content of their manuscript.  Know what happened every week? I’d wait until an hour before group and force myself to go through their submissions. Ouch. Not so great of me. They deserved more attention, and they deserved someone who was thrilled with what they were working on.  Critiquing shouldn’t be a chore. You should look forward to your group members’ next installments.

The group I’m in now is a perfect for me. When I see a new email from another member I skip every other message waiting for me and open up their note because I’m so excited to get their next submission. I LOVE reading through their pieces and rejoice at the opportunity to help them make said pieces stronger.

You don’t have to find people who write the same as you. Within my critique group we have a suspense writer, a spec writer, a YA writer, and a romance writer. Some of us write historicals, some write contemporaries, and some write in the future.  It works because we all respect each other’s writing.

2)      Find People Who Like Your Writing Voice

Each one of us writes in a way that is unlike anyone else. This is your writing voice. We’re not meant to sound like another author, in fact, that’s boring and probably won’t sell. The problem is many novice writers kill each other’s voices. They innocently believe they are helping that author by cutting out all the things that make that author unique. They tell them to stick to rules, or point out when a writer is doing something “not right.”

Find people who enjoy your writing style and who are going to make your voice stronger. Don’t stick with critique partners who strip your piece of its voice. If after their changes, your piece reads like just about anyone walking down Main Street could have written it, then dump that critique partner quick! Your uniqueness and voice is what draws a readership. That’s the thing that’ll catch an agent or an editor’s eye. Find people who can critique YOUR voice.

3)      Find People Who Know What They Are Talking About

But wait, Jessica – I’m an unpublished author and I only know other unpublished authors. Do you mean I have to befriend J.K. Rowling and see if she’ll critique my stuff? No, absolutely not. Although, sending her homemade cookies couldn’t hurt. In all seriousness, you don’t need to find accomplished writers to find effective critique partners. But you do need people who are knowledgable.

Case in point, I use to belong to a group of wonderful writers. Within the group I was the only fiction writer and they all wrote non-fiction. We all had encouraging things to say about each other’s writing, but we couldn’t truly critique.

Find people who are actively learning about the publishing industry and niche that you are writing within/for. Someone who wants to write for the ABA market will have different things to say than someone who wants to write CBA. A writer’s conference is an excellent place to meet critique group members (that’s where I found mine!).  The other members should be just as motivated as you are to keep up on industry standards and trends. They need to be people whose opinions and advice you’ll trust and respect.

4)      Choose A Manageable Number

Focus on your work load when making a choice of what type of group to join. A group with ten people might sound tempting (I mean, nine people giving feedback!), but remember that means nine people’s stuff you have to critique constantly. Do you have that sort of time? I don’t. My group has four people (including me). We each get one week a month to submit 5000 words, the other three members critique before Saturday each week. When there are other circumstances (looming deadlines and whatnot) we send a call-out for help and one or more other members will step up and help critique full manuscripts  or larger portions as needed. This model works well for us. We can all focus on our own writing, knowing that each week our responsibility is manageable (20 pages a week).

5)      Find People Who Have Different Strengths/Weaknesses Than You

Before you commit to a critique group, sit down and be honest with yourself. What are your writing strengths? What are your weaknesses?  Discuss these things with potential critique partners. Find people who have strengths that will improve your writing and weaknesses that you can help them with.

Know what? I’m terrible at grammar and the mechanics of writing. Embarrassingly so. But I can craft a plot that’ll keep readers guessing and can make-up characters that leap right off the page. I’m also strong at sensory details and describing things in unique ways. If I found critique partners who needed grammar help, what good would I be to them? It would be a waste of time.

When all is said and done, a critique group can be a huge encouragement, or just a lot of extra work. It all depends on who is in your group and what your goals are.

Write on -Jess