Guest blog: Fiona Mcvie


Interview with Lynda Engler
Guest blog from Fiona Mcvie, March 3, 2017

Fiona: Tell us your latest news?

I’m very excited to announce that Into the Yellow Zone book 2 in the Into the Outside series, is releasing March 31, 2017. All my beta readers say the first book was good, but this sequel is awesome. I agree. Part of becoming a better is writer is improving along the way, and I’ve taken that to heart. I love to learn and grow as an author and as a person.

Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve always written short stories as a kid, and I wrote for the school paper in college, but I didn’t write my first full-length novel until my son was in middle school. It started out of a project her was doing in school and we wrote the novel together. Well, I wrote, and he read and gave me “what if” contributions. That book became the middle grade, time travel fantasy The Forgotten Isle.

Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When The Forgotten Isle was published I knew I was a “writer,” but writing (and dreaming) has always been part of who I am.

Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?

I’m very conversational… most of my action moves forward as the characters converse. I tend to write the entire scene with dialog first, then go back and write in the stage directions, and lastly, I put in the scenery and sensory details. I don’t know if that counts as a writing style or a method, but it’s how my brain works.

Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? 

Classic sci-fi has influenced me a lot, especially Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, but more recent authors such as Jack McDevitt and Robert Sawyer are ongoing influences. I love the way they weave a story together, revealing important details little by little, and wrapping it all up in the end in a way that satisfies.

Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who  is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Oh boy, that’s a tough one. There are so many great new authors in the last ten years. If I had to pick just one, my favorite – hands down – is Jodi Taylor. I have read every one of her Chronicles of St. Mary’s series of time travel books, including the short stories she released in between novels. Her writing is snarkily humorous, smart, and every story keeps you on the edge of your seat with expectations around every corner.

Read the rest of the interview

INTO THE YELLOW ZONE – Coming March 31, 2017

Available March 31, 2017.

Into the Yellow Zone, by Lynda Engler


Shelter-girl Isabella journeys into the dangerous Yellow Zone to find the one man who might save them all. But can her brother Luke catch her in time to save her from a deadly disease? Into the Yellow Zone is a thought provoking YA dystopian romance, set in a darkly riveting world that will appeal to fans of Marie Lu’s Legend.

Humanity has hidden underground for fifty years since the Final War destroyed the Earth. Above ground, short-lived, mutated humans eke out a meager existence. When 16-year-old Isabella falls in love with a mutant tribe’s 17-year-old leader, she leaves her shelter to follow her heart into the dangerous Outside.

They have found happiness in the small mutant settlement of Telemark, but when their Wiccan seer has a vision of an old scientist mixing things in test tubes, Isabella and her new husband, Malcolm, are certain the old man is working on a cure for the poisons Outside. Together, they leave the community and most of their tribe behind, to find him. Now they journey into the dangerous Yellow Zone to find the one man who might save them all.

Unknown to Isabella, her cousin-brother, Luke, escapes from the military base and races against time to save her from a deadly disease she does not know she is carrying. Can Luke find her before she succumbs?

Young Adult Science Fiction (Ages 15+)
ISBN: 978-1-53718557-6, 276 pages, 6″ x 9″
Available March 31, 2017.
Kindle: US $0.99, UK £0.83, EU 0.83
          FREE for Kindle Unlimited subscribers!
Paperback on Amazon: US $10.99, UK £6.99, EU 9.99

How to Start a Novel

Guest Blog, by Jim Aikin.

How to Start a Novel

No, I don’t mean, “How to start writing your novel.” That’s a different topic. Lately I’ve been pondering how novelists begin their narrative: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page. The conventional wisdom is that the writer needs to hook the reader without delay by deploying an element that’s compelling, that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

Good writers have always done this. Two thousand years ago, Virgil began the Aeneid by saying, “Arms and the hero I sing….” The singing bit was, of course, what poets were felt, at that time, to be doing. The hook is that he’s going to tell us about war and heroism.

The danger, for the aspiring or inexperienced writer, is that the opening can be handled in a cheap or misleading way. I remember taking a look not long ago (I didn’t read much past the opening) at a novel in which, in the opening scene, the viewpoint character and her boyfriend are on a picnic and are suddenly menaced by monsters. That’s certainly a grabber. The trouble is, a few pages later she wakes up. It was only a dream.

This cheats the reader: There was no actual danger in the scene. A writer who cheats the reader cannot be trusted. If you lose your reader’s trust on page five, you’re doomed. Dream openings are almost always a mistake. If you feel you have to start with a dream in order to give the reader a compelling scene, possibly you need to rethink the whole story. Or possibly you just need to relax and not try so hard.

Opening scenes with pulse-pounding action are popular these days in genre fiction. I glanced at a book this week (using Amazon’s handy Look Inside feature) that opens with the heroine shooting someone. In the first paragraph, blood spurting. That’s certainly effective as a way of getting the reader’s attention, but I would never start a book that way. Two things make me nervous about such a dramatic opener. First, where can you go from there except down? If you try to keep up that level of intensity for 300 pages, your readers will soon be exhausted and probably bored. Second, an opening that’s a shocker leaves too much unexplained. Why are these people shooting at one another? Should we care?

I prefer to start with an opening that leads the reader forward in a more subtle way. If there’s going to be a gun battle in Chapter One, start by showing your hero loading the gun. That will get our attention, and you’ll have a few pages to establish a context for the impending violence.

In the 19th century, novelists weren’t competing with TV and the movies, so they could indulge in longer, more leisurely openings. Dickens begins Nicholas Nickleby with the marriage of Nicholas’s grandfather and then lets us glimpse Nicholas’ uncle Ralph as a schoolboy. By Chapter Three, Ralph (now middle-aged) is center stage, and Nicholas himself hasn’t yet appeared. But Dickens was a master storyteller, and his readers knew it. He could get away with a slow opener.

A century before Dickens, Defoe opened Moll Flanders with a little more punch. It’s narrated in first person, and starts like this: “My true name is so well known in the records, or registers, in Newgate and at the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there relating to my particular conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps after my death it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exception of persons or crimes.”

There you have it. The narrator is telling us straight out that her conduct has been so infamous that she’s going to have to disguise her identity. As an opening hook today, the language would have to be very different, but in 1722 it was perfect.

Here’s another fine example. David Goodis is largely forgotten today; a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, he wrote moody crime novels, including Dark Passage, which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Dark Passage opens like this: “It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.”

Writers today are admonished over and over to “show, don’t tell!” That passage from Goodis is pure telling; there’s not a speck of showing anywhere in it. Yet the telling is absolutely essential. If Parry himself protested his innocence, we would have to doubt it. Killers love to proclaim their innocence. No, the author has to tell us in order to set up the plot properly. And as an opening hook for a crime novel, that paragraph would be hard to beat.

You don’t need blood spurting. A good opening should lure the reader in by presenting the essence of your story in a provocative and somewhat mysterious way. A novel is a big, big canvas: You’ll have plenty of time to show us the blood spurting.

See more of Jim’s work at Jim Aikin’s Oblong Blob: Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Three Easy Steps to Successful Editing

Three Steps to Successful Editing

The writers brain – okay maybe every brain! – has two sides. The left is for editing, the right is for creativity. One side comes up with inspiration and the other side perfects it. I don’t care what you think: you cannot do both at once. Effective writing means turning off the editor brain and just writing, writing, writing. But once you are done with all that creativity, it’s time to turn on the editor side of your brain. Trust me – this works.

Finish your novel. Then, step away from it for a while, preferably a few weeks. Go do something else. Write something else, read, take a cruise. Whatever. But STAY AWAY FROM YOUR MANUSCRIPT. Now… take a deep breath and let’s get started editing!

Step 1. Read through your book as fast as possible. Don’t take notes. Don’t edit. Just read. This step is searching for the intuitive feel a reader gets from your overall story. The goal of this step is to figure out how well you’ve captured what you set out to do.

Step 2. Now read it again, but this time focus on how well each component works in your story. This is a broad, sweeping edit that looks at style, tone, structure, pacing, and characters. As you do this second read through, ask questions and take notes.

  • Does your story draw the reader in within the first ten pages? Does it have a hook?
  • Does your main character have an opponent or antagonist that is captivating on their own?
  • Is there sustained conflict from your protagonist or antagonist? (If it’s a mystery, you may not know who the antagonist is, but then you should have multiple possible opponents – each should be developed enough to be interesting.)
  • Are the characters motivated enough to propel the plot forward?
  • Does the “middle bit” (the second act of a 3-act-play plot structure) grow steadily in complexity?
  • Are your time, place and situation clearly laid out so the reader is grounded in a “venue”?
  • Does Act 3 build to a climax?
  • Is your climax the top of your conflict arc and does it change everything for the protagonist?
  • Does your main character prevail because of their own actions?
  • Has your protagonist had a life-changing experience?
  • Does the ending satisfy all the questions brought up in the story?
  • Is your prose all in the same verb tense?
  • Is your point of view consistent?

Step 3. Go in for the nitty gritty now. Read again, but this time you are paying attention to elements such as scenes, pacing, conflict levels, characterization, narrative, dialog, and setting. As you do this third read through, ask questions and make notes in the story.

  • Are additional scenes needed in places to fill out the story arc?
  • Do you need more conflict in certain places? Is there enough tension?
  • Can weak scenes be deleted?
    • Does every scene reveal crucial information?
    • Does the scene propel the plot forward?
    • Does the scene have consequences that decide what happens next?
    • Is something meaningful happening?
  • Is your dialogue sharp and focused? Cut out useless chit chat and boring greetings. Cut to the meat of the story in each line of dialogue.
  • Does each character have their own unique voice? Dialogue should be realistic, but don’t overdo dialect or shortened words.
  • Does your writing use action words? Action verbs create vivid mental images.
  • Does your writing use enough sensory words? Use all five senses – not just what something looked or sounded like. Introduce sensory actions like hunger, thirst, itches, heat, cold, pain, and soft touches.

Go forth and edit, edit, edit now!

Being an Effective Beta Reader: Fact, Fiction and How-To’s

Beta ReaderFact: Authors need readers who will give honest, helpful suggestions on their writing before submitting a completed manuscript to an editor, publisher or self-publishing their works.

Fact: Friends and family are helpful, and often well-meaning, but authors need unaffiliated readers more.

Fiction: The average reader can’t beta-read because they aren’t professional proofreaders. WRONG!

When I ask someone to beta-read my manuscript, I want them to give me their detailed impression and thoughts as they read the story. I don’t want proofreading! I want to know what they are thinking and feeling at each point. I literally want to read their minds. This lets me know if I’m connecting, communicating and having the impact I intended.

So how do you do that? Simple: As you read, think about these questions and jot down notes. If you are working from a paper copy, make notes in the margins. If you are reading a Word file, use the comments feature.

* Was the opening compelling?
* Did you get oriented quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place (with the exception of mysteries where you’re not supposed to know just yet)?
* What scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?
* What parts did you dislike or not like as much?
* Where did you get bored?
* What parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
* What parts should be compressed?
* What parts should be elaborated on?
* What parts are confusing?
* Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, etc.?
* Did you relate to the main character? Did you feel their pain or excitement?
* Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
* Did the setting pull you in, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
* Did the dialogue sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial?
* Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
* Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors?

Make your notes, and send them back to the author in a “reasonable timeframe.” You should discuss that with the author in advance. Authors at the beta stage are itching to submit their work… they don’t want to wait a year for your thoughts.

Most important advice for beta-readers: be honest… but don’t be mean.

For more helpful hints, read “Ten Rules for Beta Reader Etiquette:”

Happy beta-reading!

Plot it Out or Fly By the Seat of Your Pants?

Writing TipsThere are two different approaches to novel writing. Figure out the plot in advance or just start writing and see where your journey takes you. Actually – there is a third approach, a combination of the two. Each has its merits, each its pitfalls, and every author makes their own choice.

Plotters have it all figured out beforehand. They have an outline (even if only in their head) of the whole story before they start writing. While this approach will keep you from pulling out your hair, binge drinking, and sleepless nights of wide-awake terror, it could also make for a story that feels mechanical, rendering scenes lifeless and flat.

The “flying by the seat of your pants” method opens up the writer to sudden moments of inspiration when their subconscious dumps creative surprises onto their keyboard. Stories written using this method can follow a brisk pace, filling the writer’s journey with creative answers to plot questions that may even surprise the author. Of course, moments of true creative genius can be few and far between, and the author may suffer from writers block when those brilliant creative moments don’t come. And then there is the problem with a creative flash of genius that takes the story down a road that completely destroys other parts of the plot. These side road trips can cause days/weeks/months (fill in the blank) of arduous rewrites.

Blending the two methods makes for a much more effective strategy. Start with an outline – a road map from start to finish. Follow your instincts at first, but also follow the map you created. Inspiration will still hit but those moments of brilliance will become more thoughtful and purposeful now that they have a structure to fit into. Don’t overplot – listing every single event that will happen isn’t necessary. Leave room for flying by the seat of your pants.

Combining the two strategies is all about being flexible. Keep all your writers tools and strategies handy, and pull them out as you go along, whether it’s in the plotting phase or the genius phase. Using all your intermingled strategies slants the odds in your favor that in the end you will have a vivid, complex and readable novel, rather than a near-miss manuscript.

Short is the new long

I thought short stories stopped being relevant for professional writers decades ago, when mainstream magazines (ie Saturday Evening Post) stopped publishing fiction. Wrong.

Short stories are having a revival in the digital age! Thanks to consumers who want quick bites of info and things like Kindle Singles, consumers love short.

Working on a SciFi Short called Time’s Anchor. It’s getting some beta reading right now, but I intend to publish it by end of April. Will keep you posted.

KindleUnlimited: Is Amazon taking over the entire eBook market?

I suppose that we are late to the game as far as KindleUnlimited is concerned, but alas, “Into the Outside” is now available for KU subscribers.

We love the KU concept for readers; pay one price for the monthly subscription and then download and read unlimited number of titles (hence it’s rather ‘uncreative’ name, lol). However, as an author, to put your book into the program, you have to exclusively distribute your eBook on Amazon. When “Into the Outside” was released back in July, we happily put it up on Nook, Kobo, and iBooks. Being forced to remove them from those platforms seemed detrimental to distribution, so we shied away from KU. But after initial sales figures came in, it seemed that the vast majority of books are getting into our readers hands through Kindle.

So we apologize to Nook users and invite you to come over to the Dark Side and enjoy the Kindle platform. You don’t have to buy a device … it works great on your smartphone!

We would love to hear from some Nook/Kobo/iBook users about this subject as well. Are you loosing out on titles because of KindleUnlimited? Is Amazon taking over the entire eBook market?

Into the Outside now free for KINDLE UNLIMITED subscribers!

Fifty years ago the Earth died. In its place emerges a dangerous jungle world with oddly altered wildlife and a handful of short-lived mutated humans. Below ground, survivors wait…

But you don’t need to now that you can read for free!

We hope you enjoy spending time with Isabella, Malcolm and all the others in the book. If you do, please visit Amazon and leave an honest review. Reviews have an enormous impact on an author’s success and the few minutes it takes you really helps us authors out.

And if you are looking for more great reads, Isabella, Malcolm and Luke will be back in the sequel, Into the Yellow Zone.