By Sarka-Jonae Miller
June 18, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) - Author/actress/artist Vanessa A. Ryan joins us today as a guest columnist. Vanessa is the author of the cozy mystery A Palette for Murder (“Good fun” – Kirkus Reviews) as well as the Horror at the Lake series of vampire tales reminiscent of works like Dracula. Join Vanessa on Facebook and Twitter @Vanessa_A_Ryan if you have any more questions for her about her work, or if you just want to ask her what it was like being part of the cast of the original Magic Mike.
Also, get my steamy romance Aching for You free from June 20-24. Romance fans should also pick up the contemporary romance The New Ever After by Julie Farley, which will be free on the same dates. Popular women's fiction novel Is This What I Want? by LA-based author Patricia Mann will be free June 21-25. Patricia will be joining me on June 20 at the Oceanside Barnes & Noble for a panel and book signing with seven other local authors, including Vanessa A. Ryan.
1. How important is it to get honest feedback on your work, and where's the best places to obtain it? – Iain Parke
Vanessa: It's very important to get honest feedback on your work. If all your friends say your work is wonderful, because they don't want to hurt your feelings, you may be in for a big surprise when you try to get it published and you receive unfavorable reviews from critics and publishers. However, even if your book is wonderful by anyone's standards, that doesn't mean you won't get unfavorable comments from people, or get rejections from publishers. Some people just won't like what you write. Others will misinterpret or misunderstand your work. You can't please everyone. But you have to consider the source of the feedback.
Whenever I want someone to critique my work, I ask whether they've read similar books. If you write romances and the people evaluating your work aren't fans of that genre, their advice may not be as helpful as a critique from someone who is. Of course, you may also win over someone who generally doesn't like your genre but enjoyed your book. I also think a good source for honest feedback is the editor of your manuscript. Editors tend to base their evaluations on whether the story and the characters are believable, but also whether the writer's style is consistent and moves the story forward.
Sarka-Jonae: At my Alpine Library talk earlier this month someone asked a similar question. I think it's safe to say you'll never write your best work without feedback. For a new author, it can be helpful and confidence building to first show your work to close friends and family for feedback.
After assuring yourself that your work isn't terrible (the fear of every new author) and making some changes, it's then imperative to have a writer's group or beta readers, preferably people you don't know well, provide criticism. It's scary but it helps. I suggest at least three people who enjoy your genre and, if possible, who are in your target audience. I say three minimum because one person doesn't give you anything to compare to and two people might disagree, and then what do you do?
The World Literacy Cafe has forums for people in need of beta readers you can swap with. Online book groups dedicated to your genre might have eager first readers. Just make sure you read the group's rulings before asking if anyone wants to beta read. Be wary of pirates though. Referrals from friends could be safer.
2. How do I get readers to care about my protagonist if he/she has done something horrible at the beginning of the novel? – Steven Ramirez
Vanessa: Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, was a master at creating a flawed protagonist that you rooted for, even if he had done illegal or immoral things. The protagonist was just one step ahead of getting caught. And you hoped he wouldn't. So I think the trick is to create a protagonist with some likeable characteristics and a plot that puts him in a race against the forces that want to catch him. Or have some rationale for the protagonist's evil doings, such as he didn't know better and then learns from it, or he knows he's bad and has a change of heart.
However, if you watch cable TV you would have to agree that likeability is overrated. Some shows have major characters so unlikeable you love to hate them. It can make for great TV. In general though, I think people demand more likeability for characters in books than they do for those in TV shows.
Sarka-Jonae: My Between Boyfriends protagonist Jan is a bit of a spoiled, boy crazy brat at the beginning of my first novel. She's someone you love to hate, but she grows and that's what makes readers want to give her chance. I make sure early on to let readers know she's willing to change.
If your protagonist does something really awful, I think you have to show their motivation in a way people can relate to and that will garner some sympathy. Walter White of Breaking Bad did some awful things but right in the beginning we felt sorry for him because of his cancer diagnosis, his money problems, and his desire to take care of his family. His character's descent into hardcore criminal activities was easier to digest because the sympathy you felt excused a lot of his behavior and put viewers on his side even though if it were anyone else doing what he did they wouldn't have been. I agree with Vanessa though that TV viewers are more willing to accept unlikeable characters than readers, but the same principles apply.
3. If you had to pick one element of story telling, which is the most important for a successful mystery? – M Joseph Murphy
Vanessa: I think creating engaging characters is the most important element. I don't know that you have to like them, because one or more of them will end up as a villain, but they have to intrigue you. If the characters aren't unique, even the most interesting plot will become boring. And for me, an engaging character is one that has either flaws, personality quirks or a particular way of expressing himself. Each character needs to sound or behave in a different manner from the other characters.
Sarka-Jonae: I don't write mysteries but I read cozies. What matters most to me is that when the mystery is solved I felt like it was fully explained in a believable way. As I'm reading, I want clues but nothing too obvious. If at the end, the killer or whoever was someone who acted completely contrary to their end behavior, like he was essentially a different person throughout the whole book and then suddenly he was a bad guy, I get upset.
A good mystery should be written in a way that you could look back at the story and say, “Ah, I see it now. This makes sense.” I think occasionally an author cheats and gives you no clues, but then expects you to accept an ending that isn't just a surprise but makes no sense. Only Janet Evanovich can get away with that.
What I'm reading now: An oldie but a goodie, 1994 Newbery Medal winner The Giver by Lois Lowry.
– Got questions?
Send them to Sarka-Jonae Miller through Twitter @sarkajonae, Facebook, or via her author website. Alternatively, talk to her and Vanessa A. Ryan in person at a Sizzlin' Summer author panel and book signing at the Oceanside Barnes & Noble on June 20 at 4PM. Also on the panel is previous guest columnist Sherrie Miranda, actress/director/producer/writer Deborah “D.M.” Pratt, Juliette Sobanet, Patricia Mann, and more! Additional events can be found on SJ's events page.
About Sarka-Jonae Miller
SJ is a local author, book marketing manager, publicist, and columnist who writes chick lit and steamy romance based in San Diego and Los Angeles. Her novels include the Between Boyfriends series and the All for You series. SJ also writes health and fitness articles for The Best Years in Life and Natural News.
Check out her Between Boyfriends blog for book reviews, author interviews, TV episode synopses, and giveaways. Follow @sarkajonae and @sjpublicity9 on Twitter for more writing tips, book recommendations, and industry news. Get health and exercise articles from @sjnews9.