Tag Archives: To be Seduced

Exposition: Your Reader’s Need to Know File

I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.

The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.

Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.

For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.

Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!

The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.

As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.

My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!

Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.

What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?

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Cover Me! at My Book Addiction

Today I’m guest blogging at My Book Addiction and More! The subject is book covers and what makes them work — or an Epic Fail. I’m also giving away a signed copy of Her Scottish Groom, so come on by.

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Hitting on Readers: The First Line

In some ways, going to a bookstore reminds me of going to a bar hoping to meet someone. You figure you’ll indulge in something you enjoy, and will hopefully meet somebody you’d like to get to know better. Or you might rediscover an old flame. I scope out all the most attractive guys…um, covers…and approach the one I like best.  Good looks aren’t everything, though. If the pickup line is lame, I’ll find somebody else with more originality.  I want a book to hook me from the first sentence.

The first line of a book is its pickup line.  It has been my experience that authors have little say in what’s on the front or back of their books, so that opening sentence is the first chance our own words have to impress the reader. It has to count, to intrigue the reader enough to keep reading.  It should set the tone of a book, or at least make the reader want to know more about hero or heroine.  Cause as a writer, I am totally hoping some nice person will want to pick me up and take me home.

Even before a book hits the shelves, the first line must catch the attention of an agent or editor.  If that publishing professional got a good night’s sleep, lost a pound the day before and is having a good hair day, and thus feels up to adding yet another manuscript to an already enormous list waiting to be read, a writer has maybe five pages to convince him or her that this book should be printed or digitized. An opening sentence that is just words on a page will not induce a pro to read on.  One that is poorly phrased or grammatically incorrect (unless it’s dialogue that fits a character) raises the fear that other sentences in the manuscript will be just as bad.

It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien simply jotted down the first line of The Hobbit while grading essays:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  While the passive construction might be criticized today, it was acceptable in the 1930s.  And if you read it aloud, there is an irresistible rhythm to those words, compared an active version like “A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground.”  Lucky JRRT.  It takes me several tries to come up with a decent opening line.

There are a lot of common mistakes writers make with opening lines. Weather reports, geography lessons, “Hi, my name is ______”, and cameo scenes are some of the errors we all make.  In my case, it’s because I usually struggle to find exactly were my backstory ends and the book starts.  Or which character should start the story.

In a Weather Report, the opening line is something like “It was a warm spring day in Gopher Gulch, with just enough wind to cool the brow of Bob Manlyman as he trudged along the dirt road.”  This is just me, but I prefer an active opening:  “A spaceship swooped down from the bright April sky and disgorged a furious alien that pointed a disintegration gun straight at Bob’s heart.”  Now there’s something at stake.

The Geography Lesson is similar to the Weather Report, except it describes the surrounding area instead: “Brill Court, the estate of Lord Manlyman, nestled into the rolling  landscape.”  Pretty, but how does this matter to the rest of story? Does Lord M. love his estate? Does he hate it? Has he just gambled it away?  “Lord Manlyman swallowed the lump in his throat as his gaze swept over his home one last time.”  Aha, emotion!  Now the reader wonders why Lord M. has a lump in his throat  and why he’s leaving his home.

And the introductory opening, which one of the writers in my crit group refers to as the Call Me Ahab approach.  I make this error a lot.  “Lady Sophronia Girlygirl lifted her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.”  Aside from the boring approaching footsteps, we don’t (as I have been reminded often) need to know Sophronia’s entire name and title in the first few words.  There’s an entire book after the first line in which I can provide that information.

The original opening scene of my current WIP took place in the dress shop where the heroine works and she interacted with two secondary characters I was never going to use again.  What was I thinking? I replaced it with “Alix fingered her reticule as she inhaled the savory aroma of fresh-baked meat pies.”  The character is now on her way home to her daughter, a location and character that will play a big part in the story.

A good first line presents the hero or heroine’s immediate quandary and their response to it.  It gives a sense of immediacy and action, even if the character is only thinking about a problem.  It must make the reader want to read more. The hook in my first book, To be Seduced, starts with “He had picked a prodigious cold day to abduct someone.”  The opening to my second proved a greater challenge, as I wanted to open it in the heroine’s perspective.  Her Scottish Groom (March 2011) takes place in the late Victorian era, when upper-class females were often kept in a state of submission and ignorance.  I had to keep my heroine true to her time and upbringing even as she acted against them. So I came up with this: “Tonight called for some act of rebellion, no matter how insignificant.”

Here are some of my favorite examples from different genres. I like them because they are brief and vivid:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” — Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth (Prologue)

“Matrimony. The very word was menacing.” — Nicole Jordan, To Pleasure a Lady

“For seven days we had been tempest-tossed.” — Johann Wyss, Swiss Family Robinson

It is possible for a long sentence with involved clauses to start a book, of course. Consider one of the best hooks that ever opened a romance novel:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife”.  — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Is there an opening line from a book that has stayed with you? What are some of your favorite first sentences?

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Free Book Winners Announced

Congratulations! MJ and Kelly have won signed copies of TO BE SEDUCED.  Ladies, you can send me your addresses at AnnStephensRomance@gmail.com and I’ll get them right out.

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Birthdays and Books

I turned another year older in September.  Although I think attaining another year is always worth celebrating, especially when you notice that they’re starting mount up, ahem, this one was pretty quiet.  A number of family members have been hospitalized for various ailments this month, so there wasn’t a lot of motivation to hold a big party.  Besides, last year I pulled out all the stops & spent the day with a girlfriend who treated me to a day in a gorgeous spa.

I did feel guilty about such indulgence, but only a bit.  After spending four years either at or driving home from a figure skating competition with my oldest on my birthday, I felt entitled to some pampering!

My friend and I had a blast.  We got mudwraps, which sounds disgusting but which felt like being brushed with a thick layer of warm chocolate.  We got facials.  We got manicures.  It was just marvelous!  Much as I’d like to, I won’t be celebrating other birthdays in such sybaritic luxury in the foreseeable future, but I will always treasure the memories of this particular one.

In honor of my birthday month, September, and the arrival of the cover for Her Scottish Groom, I’ll give away up to 5 copies of my current release, TO BE SEDUCED, this Friday!  I’ll draw names from among commentators to this post, so tell me how you feel about birthdays and which ones were your most memorable.

And don’t forget to check out Authors by Moonlight tomorrow, when I’m unveiling the cover of HSG!

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An Evening’s Entertainment

Nellie Melba as Ophelie in Thomas' Hamlet

I love dance and theater history, and it’s hard for me to resist references to plays, operas and ballets when I write.  The British public embraced theatrical entertainment well before Shakespeare blazed his way into history during the Elizabethan Era.  After the Restoration, London society, high and low, attended plays and concerts.  Even uber-sourpuss Oliver Cromwell enjoyed music and singing so much that he permitted opera performances during the otherwise theatrically-barren Protectorate.

My first book, To be Seduced, is placed just at the beginning of Charles II‘s reign, when English theater was about to burst into flame again, in no small part because of the introduction of a major innovation from France: the actress.  Women had been on the boards in Paris for decades, but the idea of female performers did not catch on in England until Charles II claimed his father’s throne.

While actresses or ‘opera dancers’ were regarded as fair game for a wealthy man in search of a night’s erotic amusement, attending performances was a respectable past time for their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  In the nineteenth century, even Queen Victoria attended the theater regularly.

In To be Seduced, Richard and Bethany attend a performance that begins in the afternoon, allowing patrons to return home during the relatively safe daytime hours (no streetlamps in 1661 London!) and permitting the use of natural light coming in through windows in the theater to help illuminate the performance.  By the time Kieran and Diantha in Her Scottish Groom attend a performance at the Opera Gautier in Paris over 200 years later, the streets and stages alike used gas lighting, enabling evening performances.

Afternoon or evening, audience members dressed to attend the theater.  It was, after all, an opportunity to display yourself to the world, especially when seated in a box above the main floor!  Even when Restoration playwrights had to to convert tennis courts into theaters, individual audience members knew their place: backless benches on the floor for the lowest classes, open gallery seating for the middle classes and private boxes for the aristocracy.  By the Gilded Age , the most luxurious theaters attached sitting rooms to their most expensive boxes.

The sumptuous appointments reserved for the wealthiest patrons contrasted sharply with backstage conditions for actors, dancers and singers.  Especially in their early careers, chorus girls and beginning actresses had a hard time making ends meet.  (Hence their rececptivity to the above-mentioned propositions.)  Rehearsal attendance was required, but not paid for.  Neither were costumes, wigs or accessories.  Many used the stage as a stepping-stone to a life of upscale prostitution for a few years, but many other women dedicated themselves to becoming skilled artists.  In the theater in particular, many women married fellow actors for their own Happy Ever Afters.

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The Voices in my Head

My background includes theater, and during my studies in that area, I learned that  there are no new plots.  The human condition has a large but finite combination of interactions, and writers have been stealing from each other since the Greeks invented drama.

What makes a book, play or movie stand out isn’t the pacing or how realistic a plot is.  (Seriously, even some of Shakespeare’s plots have more holes than a colander.)  It’s the characters who inhabit them.  (Again, Shakespeare is a prime example.  Even his cameo characters have goal, motivation and conflict, which is why his plays have been produced and loved for the last 400 years.)

I have no clue what the Bard’s process was, but in my case finding a character is more a matter of sifting through people who show up and want to be my imaginary friends.

I think I’ve said that I get a lot of my ideas for characters from reading history.  Bethany came from reading about the ordeals several heiresses suffered through in 17th century England.  I had to make her older, as they were in their early teens when they were married off to fortune hunters, but aging her made it possible to give her the gumption to stand up to her hero, Richard.

Sometimes a character literally pops into my head.  A friend and I were talking about names and she jokingly said, “You’ll never find a romance heroine named Theodosia.”  Next thing I knew, I had a character named Theodosia just waiting for me to write down her background.  I knew what she looked like, who her family members were and who her hero was, all from that one comment.

Another source of engaging characters is my family history.  (Let me make very clear, I don’t do genealogy even as a hobby.  My sister and two aunts do, so I know I don’t have the patience to locate and read through document after document searching for a single name.  I merely admire and praise the fruits of their labor.)  One of my great-great grandmothers managed to obtain a divorce during the 1800s, a nearly impossible feat.  And as if that didn’t scandalize her town enough, she then remarried while her former husband was still alive!  Another great-great grandmother eloped with a civil engineer and was disowned by her wealthy Victorian family.  Even after her husband died, they refused to acknowledge her.  Her sons, my ancestor and his brothers, ended up working in a rich man’s stables.  After playing ‘what if’ with these stories, I’ve created some wonderful characters I hope to use in future books.

The cast of my March 2011 release came from reading biographies of Americans during the Gilded Age.  American heiresses married into the British aristocracy on several occasions over the last quarter of the 19th century.  Again, I played ‘what if’ and came up with a story my editor described in his acceptance email as ‘exceedingly charming’.  Diantha has lived a restricted life even for the Victorian era, while Kieran, her worldly spouse, prefers women with a certain amount of polish.  Their conventional background presented a challenge when bringing in twists to the story, but one of my favorite ideas comes early in the book.  Instead of the sophisticated groom suffering from a hangover after a night of prenuptial carousing, I gave the splitting headache and dry mouth to a very confused bride.

You can read more about her on my newest page, cleverly entitled ‘Excerpts’.

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It’s THE Day

TO BE SEDUCED is scheduled to be released today!  So how am I celebrating?  DH is taking me out to dinner and mentioned a chilled bottle of champagne to enjoy afterward.  My oldest posted a message of love and support on my Facebook wall and I have no doubt my youngest will acknowledge the day when she gets home from school, as she understands the importance of celebrating life’s milestones better than anyone else I know.  Truly, God has blessed me with wonderful family and friends.

But till tonight?  Well….I’m writing.  First this post, and then at least a page of my WIP before I visit area bookstores.  I’m not what one of my mentors calls a ‘gotta-be’ writer yet, but it’s safe to say I am officially past the ‘wanna-be’ stage.  I am a writer.  I was a writer before I was an author, and I will be a writer if I never sell another book.  (Although I do want to sell more books!  Judging from the voices in my head, lots more!)

I had no way of knowing when I entered a contest that it would lead to this day.  I am humbled by the support and kindness of others, not just those around me, but those who I know only through the internet and over the phone.  I am humbled by the opportunity given to me, and hope I can live up to it.

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I Didn’t do this Alone

Following the good example of Cheryl St. John, I’m going to celebrate the arrival of my first copies of TO BE SEDUCED by thanking the people who have encouraged me, advised me, and helped me on the way to holding my own book in my hands.  (A real book! With pages and words and everything!)

Sally J. Walker is a walking cheerleader for anyone who wants to write seriously.  A storyteller from childhood, she has moderated and prepared lessons for our weekly critique group since before I joined.  Her passion for the written word  in books, screenplays and poetry helped me take myself seriously as a writer.  Thank you, m’lady.  Your energy is a constant inspiration.

HRM Johnnye Gephardt’s autocratic slash and burn of unnecessary adjectives, her brutal assessment of passages as ‘boring’ and keen ear for repetition and clichés is painful and yet welcome.  I will delay my assassination attempts long enough to curtsy in gratitude and roll my eyes across the floor to Your Majesty.  May you strike terror into our pens for many years to come.

Kimberly Stokely’s encouragement keeps me going even when I want to give up and never wrestle with another word again.  If a writer as good as she is likes my stuff, I guess I don’t suck completely.  You can get an idea of her ability in the Jan/Feb issue of the Writer’s Journal, where she won the 2009 Romance Contest.  Kim, when you get your first book deal, you will leave the rest of us in the dust.  The cheering behind you will be me.

Cheryl St. John is one of those authors who seems to offer support and good advice as easily as she breathes.  Over the last year, she has dropped so many helpful nuggets into the lap of this new author.  I’ve learned to listen when you speak.

Jim McGowan, Cher Powell, Aaron Loyd, and Patti Lynn are fellow writers whose words inspire me, both in their own writing and their critiques of mine.

Peter Senftleben of Kensington Books has guided me through the publication process with unfailing courtesy and patience.  It has truly been a blessing to work with you.

Post a comment below about anyone who has helped, mentored or encouraged you.  I’ll draw three names to get one free copy each of TO BE SEDUCED and post them Tuesday 1/27/2010.

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