Finding Voice

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Books want to be born: I never make them. They come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such. :Samuel Butler


Finding Voice

Finding your voice is perhaps one of the most difficult things a writer must do. It’s not as if you’ve lost it and it’s hiding under the bed, waiting to be rediscovered. And you can’t copy someone else’s. Your voice is the single most important element in your writing because it makes your work distinctly yours. It’s a combination of your style, your phrasing, your unique vernacular, and how you create tension and build plot. Put it in a blender, mix it up, and voila!, you have voice.

Everyone’s process of writing and finding their voice is different. This is how I developed Lola Cruz, and in the process developed my voice.

Know what kind of book you want to write. I wanted to write a book for women, and more importantly, a book with a strong female protagonist. I thought about what I like to read. Mysteries, romance, and romantic suspense top the list. The obvious decision for me was to blend mystery with romance. But I didn’t necessarily want to keep the hero and the heroine apart the way they must be in a strictly romance book. Knowing exactly what you want to write and what you are writing helps keep you on track–and minimizes major revisions and changes later.

Develop an interesting and likable character. My parents taught me to be an individual, to be self-sufficient and independent, to value myself. This is what I wanted from my character.

  • Knowing that I wanted a strong female protagonist was the first step in developing Dolores Cruz, aka Lola PI. I didn’t want to write her as an amateur detective because in my mind she needed to be driven, determined, and on the path to achieving her goal. So her passion became her desire to become a private investigator. The first book in the series, Living the Vida Lola, begins with Lola finishing her many required hours of internship with a licensed private investigator as required by the state of California. But she’s still a novice and nervous about solving her first big case as a lead investigator. I didn’t want Lola to live in a vacuum. She needed to be a well-rounded character and have other things going on in her life. Lola has to balance her career with her part-time job at her family’s restaurant, the demands of her family, and her love life. No easy feat.
  • Making Lola Mexican-American was a spontaneous, but natural decision. It’s a culture that is rich with family, language, and religion. Those values are not exclusive to the Hispanic culture, but ever since I married into a dynamic Mexican family, I’ve loved the distinct things that the culture has to offer. I wanted to portray what I love about the culture in a book, through Lola.

Develop a theme. Good must triumph over evil–that is the major theme in the mysteries I write. A recurring sub-theme of the Lola PI series became my heroine’s struggle to balance the responsibilities of her job as a private investigator and solving cases with her dynamic and demanding family and her love life. Never easy, but she has a lot of fun trying.

  • Other themes are bound to develop in the writing of a book, but knowing what message you want to convey is always the main theme. My upbringing consisted of family, books, conversation, and a lot of unconditional love. It’s no wonder then that the books I write center around the strength of family and love, no matter what else is going on. Family is the core of my life and will always be an underlying them in my books.

Figure out what your inspiration is. My husband is a first generation Mexican American whose native language was Spanish. He and his siblings (three brothers and three sisters) learned to speak English in the California school system. Their family is strong and successful, due to their upbringing, their parents, the values that were instilled in them, and the individual drive of each person. When my husband and his brothers and sisters were growing up family was valued, education was valued, and Church was valued, not necessarily in that order.

  • When I married into my husband’s family, their culture became part of me. I embraced it, as much for myself as for my children. I never wanted to be an outsider looking in on something I wasn’t a part of.
  • The characters from my book are inspired by my observations and experiences living as part of a large Mexican family. My sisters-in-law are Dolores Cruz to a certain extent. They are intelligent, fun, unique women and are the role models for my female characters just as my brothers-in-law are perfect examples of smart, diverse, thoughtful Mexican-American men.
  • I’m inspired to write about real people that are part of this wonderfully rich culture–people who belong to it, as well as people like me, who have embraced it in their lives.

Develop a tone. Once I had my character, the theme, and the inspiration, the tone naturally came. Lola is feisty and strong. She is self-deprecating. She is sexual, but her sexuality doesn’t define her. She is smart and not afraid to show it. And she can kick ass. She is independent and unique. All of these elements lend themselves to the tone of the book.

  • Lola’s view on life, experiences, and struggles give the books a Chick Lit bent. It’s a book geared toward women, about women.

Let the Solar System Strengthen Your Writing

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If only authors could sprinkle magic fairy dust over their manuscripts to
guarantee a tightly spun plot that draws the reader in and captivates them for the duration of the book. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I’d head down to the nearest Magic Shop and stock up.

Unfortunately, that particular magic fairy dust doesn’t exist. Sad, but true. Writing is plain hard work. And building a cohesive story requires mind-numbing thought, blood, sweat, and tears, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

What’s the difference between a book that works and one that doesn’t? The answer isn’t always easy to identify. A lot of things can make a book fall apart. Weak character development, plot elements that don’t make sense, subplots that don’t tie into anything, no subplots at all, an antagonist that’s one dimensional, lackluster secondary characters, a scattered theme, an unsympathetic protagonist… The list goes on and on.

So, without a handy incantation to help you along the way, what tricks can a writer use to shape up their manuscript? My answer to that question is, “Look to the night sky.” If you think of your book as a solar system, you just may see all your frustration melt away.

“A solar system?” you ask. “What does Astronomy have to do with Writing?”

Let’s look at how the solar system works. The eight planets (yes, eight–Pluto’s status was recently changed to that of a dwarf planet) in our solar system orbit the sun. Imagine then that the central plot of your book is the sun. Just as the planets orbit the sun, so must the elements in your book relate back to that central plot.

Read on to see how you can create a solar system within your masterpiece.

The Sun = The Plot

All the planets orbit the sun, just as all the plot elements in your book orbit your plot. Before you begin writing, you probably start with an idea. Whether it’s a nugget or a fully fleshed out concept, you eventually develop a plot which becomes the central focus of your story. It encompasses the actual events that everything else in your book will revolve around.

In Allison Brennan’s bestselling book, The Prey, the plot is easily identified. Someone is using ex-FBI agent turned writer Rowan Smith’s books as a guide for murder. The plot of Kate Perry’s book, Project Daddy, centers around the protagonist, Kat, and her assignment to find a suitable sperm donor for her crazy yet demanding boss. In both of these debut novels, every element that comes into play relates back to the central plot.

Read these books with a critical eye and you’ll see what I mean.

Mercury = Your Fictional World’s People

Just as Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, the people in the world you’ve created are most closely tied to your plot. Without compelling characters, you have no story. Fiction is all about people, according to Robert Newton Peck, author of Fiction is Folks. He states, “it is not plot, but character, that makes your story glisten.” The strength of your book comes down to the characters you pepper your pages with and the motivations you instill in them.

Author, Stephenie Meyer, whose debut young adult book Twilight, exemplifies the power of character development, puts it this way: “…create situations of impossible fantasy, and then add characters that are so deeply human that their perspectives make the situation believable.” All the key characters in Twilight want and struggle for something they can’t have. It’s a fantasy world, framed in reality, but the needs of the characters are universal and complex and extremely human. Weaving each character’s needs, and the potential consequences if those needs are met, back to the plot of “star-crossed” lovers is what makes Twilight a book to remember. The need then is to create real characters who come into your story legitimately.

Legitimacy means without contrivance. So how do you achieve legitimate characters? Each person needs to be introduced naturally, as essential to the plot, and–this is key—they must serve a purpose. You achieve legitimacy through back story and layering. Avoid one dimensional characters by getting to know them down to their depths.

Venus = The Protagonist

Just as Venus stands out among the planets as the brightest, in the realm of characters, the protagonist stands out as the brightest and most important.

Just as all the characters do, the protagonist must come into the story legitimately. In Twilight, Bella, the protagonist, comes to live in Forks, Washington as the result of an altruistic act (particularly telling for a teenage girl). Her mother’s guilt at staying home for her teenage daughter keeps her from traveling with her baseball player husband. Bella responds by going to live with her father in Forks, a place she’s grown up visiting, but despises. But her actions are legitimate. They are based on her love for her mother, which comes into play later in the book, and her real affection for her father. She’s willing to suffer so her mother can have a chance at happiness and, in the process, she’ll give her father a chance to know his daughter better.

The reader understands Bella’s decision and feels her anxiety at moving so far from home. After all, who hasn’t been a “stranger in a strange land”? We respect her instantly because she’s shown us that she’s willing to sacrifice for what she sees as the greater good. Her actions remain consistent throughout the book, and they always relate back to the main plot–her dangerous love for Edward and how that love will affect her own life, as well as those around her.

In Brennan’s book, The Prey, Rowan is an ex-FBI agent with a troubled past. When a case hits too close to home, she quits her job and begins writing fiction, unable to confront her demons. The reader has sympathy for her based on her experiences and roots for her when she’s brought in to help track the killer. The fact that she works closely with the FBI, a critical plot element, is a legitimate act because of her experience in law enforcement. The plot boils down to stopping a killer, something she’s trained to do.

Earth = Secondary Characters

Earth is comprised of land and water, mountains and valleys, rocks and sand. It supports life, a rarity in the solar system. Its environment is unique and allows humanity to thrive. In the same way, secondary characters in your story support your fictional world and allow the plot to thrive.

You don’t live in a vacuum, and neither does your protagonist. But take care. These characters, friends or foes to your protagonist, must add something to the plot. Otherwise, there is no reason for their existence between the pages of your book and they and your story will fall flat. When asked how important secondary characters are to the plot of a book, Romance writer Lori Wilde, author of November’s Harlequin Special Release, Some Like it Hot, says, “The more complex the book, the more important it is for secondary characters to be fully developed. The more you motivate (and connect to the main plot) the subplot, the richer the story.”

There are, of course, degrees of importance to secondary characters, but they must enrich the story in some meaningful way. Let’s look at the essential characters in Meyer’s Twilight. Charlie, Bella’s father and a police officer, gives the reader the opportunity to see Bella as a mature seventeen year old. She shops and cooks and does the laundry for Charlie. She is a caretaker who takes her responsibilities seriously. Her need to care for her father is innate. But the fact that she has this role, allows us to believe in Edward’s attraction to her as an “old soul”. Charlie, then, is a tool who allows Bella’s character to develop.

Now let’s delve into an even less significant secondary character–less significant, at least upon first glance. Billy Black appears only in two scenes, and is referenced in several conversations. Despite his elusive presence in the book, however, he’s an essential character. He’s the only person who can reveal Edward’s secret to Charlie, thereby stopping Bella’s relationship with Edward. His presence in the book is directly related to the Sun–or the main plot–which is Bella’s need to have a relationship with Edward.

Mars = The Antagonist

Just as the red planet stands out in the solar system, elicits an immediate impression, yet is completely uninhabitable, your antagonist must make a lasting impression that causes a the reader to respond. Next to the protagonist, the he or she is the most important character for the reader to understand. The antagonist’s actions cannot exist legitimately without sound motivations that relate to the plot. That is to say, he’s not bad just for the sake of being bad. The reader isn’t going to condone the antagonist’s actions, but must be able to understand them. Remember, the villain is the hero of his own story. Everything he does makes perfect sense to him.

In a sense, Edward, from Twilight, is a villain, though not in the traditional sense. He must constantly fight his natural impulses in order to be with Bella, and that, in itself, creates an almost insurmountable barrier between the two. Their relationship is fraught with danger, just by what Edward is. (If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you!)

A book can have multiple antagonists. In Twilight, Bella’s goal is to be with Edward. James comes to stand firmly in her way. He is determined to have Bella, and if he succeeds, Bella will never be with Edward again. James’s motivation is in direct opposition to Bella’s. That opposition is essential in an antagonist.

The protagonist and the antagonist have opposing goals, with their motivations stemming from the main plot. This interwoven opposition is what fuels the conflict in your story. And remember…conflict is key.

Jupiter = Conflict

Big, fast, and full of poisonous gasses–that’s Jupiter. Jupiter could be the bully of the sky, if only it could escape from the sun’s pull. Likewise, the conflicts in your book can take over and spin out of control if you’re not careful. Conflicts must stem from the plot and be legitimate. Your goal as a writer is to have readers turning the pages, right? Identify what your main conflicts are, make sure that they relate back to your core plot, and you’ll stay on the orbital path.

Saturn = Theme

Like the rings of Saturn, the theme encircles every other aspect of your book. Theme exists as part of the plot, is built into character’s motivations, tickles the subplots, and even feeds into details. The underlying message(s) you weave into your writing frames the context in which you’ve built your fictional world. Is your point that love conquers all? Or that justice will prevail? Or maybe your theme revolves around family being a person’s greatest support. Whatever your theme is, it isn’t stated directly; rather, it is woven into the plot.

One of Twilight’s themes is that of star-crossed lovers. The story centers around the battle between compulsion (or in Edward’s case, instinct) and desire. Let’s go back to the planets orbiting the sun. The theme of star-crossed lovers is interwoven into Twilight’s plot by the very nature of Edward’s character. That theme is part of every action, every thought, every decision that affects Bella and Edward. It surrounds the story and the characters just as Saturn’s rings encircle the planet.

Uranus = Plot Twists and Turns

The orbital path of Uranus wasn’t predictable back when it was discovered. Neither should the plot twist and turns in your book. Keeping the reader guessing, but using fair play, as they say in mystery writing, is crucial. Even if you’re throwing the reader off the trail, those events in your novel must be explained so that the reader can look back and say, “Ah ha! I see it now.” No matter what genre you write in, tying plot points to the main plot is essential.

If you remember that every turn of event in your book must propel the story forward and be necessary, you should make out okay. Allison Brennan has this to say about writing her romantic suspense books: “Every scene should advance the suspense or the romance. If it doesn’t advance the suspense or the romance–or be key to characterization–it should be dumped.” It really is as simple as that. If a plot point doesn’t move the story forward, either externally or internally, it has no place in your book.

In Twilight, each scene, each event, helps build the world in Forks, Washington. Each look between Bella and Edward, each conversation with Mike, each email from Bella’s mother relate back to the Sun–to Bella’s goal of staying in Forks and being with Edward.

Lori Devoti, writer of romantic comedy and dark paranormal, says that having the hero and heroine meet or connect in a way that is tied directly to the plot makes the author’s job that much easier. I can’t agree more. In the first book in my Lola PI Latina Mystery Series, Living the Vida Lola, part of the storyline centers on my heroine reconnecting with her old high school crush. I wanted the meeting to be legitimate, meaning the meeting with Jack had to stem from Lola’s job as a private investigator. I wrote the scene several times until I was sure I had it right. Now the scene advances both the mystery and the romance and fits perfectly.

Sometimes the decision to cut a scene can be tough. If you’re not sure, go back to the solar system and you should be able to identify whether or not the scene works. Does it orbit the sun or is it flying off into the unknown universe, not connected to anything? Lori Wilde has this advice: “Everything in your book should be connected on some level. Through theme or symbolism, through plot or character. Through the emotional components, through the subplots…Don’t be guilty of self-indulgent writing. Make the elements connect or toss it out.”

Neptune = The First Few Pages, Also Known as the Hook

Look closely at Neptune and you see a big, green planet made of gas. Quite a first impression. Likewise, the opening of your book provides the hook and must make a whopper of an impact. The first few pages provide the author her first chance to connect with the reader.

“The opening needs to be as grabby as possible,” says Lori Wilde. And while she says it’s doesn’t have to tie directly to the plot, “it makes a far superior story if it does.” And a far superior story is what you, the author, are after, isn’t it?

Ask yourself these crucial questions to gauge how the beginning of your book works:

Have you posed an important question that makes the reader want to keep turning the pages?
Have you created a life-altering situation for your character, one the reader is compelled to learn the outcome of?
Do the events in the opening set up or lead into the central plot of the book?

While answering yes to the first two questions is important, answering yes to the third question keeps your solar system in sync. First impressions don’t last if they aren’t followed by something else equally riveting. So start strong, relate it back to your central plot, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping Neptune drawn to the sun.

The Dwarf Planet, Pluto = Those Pesky Details

Pluto’s planetary status was recently changed. It’s more like a moon now, rather than a full fledged planet. But it still orbits the sun and is part of the solar system. Pay attention to those small details in your book; they still need to orbit your plot.

Sometimes the little details lend themselves to being ambiguous, having been thrown in as an afterthought. Don’t be fooled. Why does Charlie give Bella a vehicle? Couldn’t he have driven her to school? Couldn’t she have walked? It’s mentioned that school is not that far away from Charlie’s house. But the truck’s important. The fact that she drives it allows Edward to watch her in the parking lot when she needs it most. It allows Charlie a modicum of control over Bella’s comings and goings (at least in his mind). Every detail counts, no matter how small.

Kat, from Project Daddy, spouts quirky, obtuse factoids when she’s nervous, a small plot element that comes into play during her emotional moment of reckoning with Luc, and then later with her father. “The facts that Kat recites are funny,” says Perry. “But they aren’t there just for the entertainment factor. They still pertain to what’s happening in that moment.” Don’t demote the small details to junior status. They’re still important.

You Don’t Need a Magic Shop

So, what’s the lesson here? You don’t need magic fairy dust or a rhyming incantation to make the elements of your book tie together well. Use the planets in the solar system to guide you. Make your characters, plot points, details, and opening orbit your book’s sun and you’re sure to have a cohesive, connected story that makes sense and is rich with depth. Your book will be the better for it.

First Published in RWR, October 2006

Marketing and Promotion

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The Differences between Marketing and Promotion & Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone (This was first released in the RWA PROspects Newsletter as part of a larger joint article with Nikki Duncan.)

It’s never too early to begin marketing yourself and promoting your stories, but knowing how and where to begin can be tough. In this series of articles over the next few months, Misa and I will discuss the differences between marketing and promotion and share tips that we’ve learned along our paths to publication and things we’ve picked up since our first sales.

What’s the difference between marketing and promotion?

ND: Marketing is when you spread your name far and wide. Promotion is spreading the message of your product, your book, far and wide.

MR: Marketing and promotion work hand in hand. I see marketing as keeping me, the auhor, in the minds of readers. This is where branding comes into play and is a valuable tool. You can brand yourself, brand your book series, brand a character… and then use specific activities to promote that brand in every way possible. Building the brand–or marketing your name, your book, or your series–helps stimulate demand.

Marketing means committing to some sort of advertising (which can be free or paid) and publicity (meaning being mentioned in the press, having articles written, etc).

Promotion, on the other hand, focuses on one specific thing…like your first release. It focuses on immediate sales and means doing things to ensure that you’re continuing to give your readers what they want. How you market this first release, or a book in one series, will likely be very different from how you market book 2, or a book in another series. Some promotional tools that work within a solid marketing plan (and you should have a plan!) include bookmarks, postcards, book signings, speaking engagements, informative web sites and paid advertisements found in publications like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, etc. You have to be proactive in marketing yourself and promoting your book. Instead of bookmarks, I created recipe cards for Living the Vida Lola. This was a promotional tool. I then sent these recipe cards out to independent booksellers as part of my marketing plan. I also handed them out at book signings as a way to promote my presence at the bookstores.

To successfully market, you have to first identify your potential audience, and how to reach them. You then go back to promotion by using the ‘brand’ you already have in place (continued advertising, promotions, public relations, etc) to reach that audience.

I’m not outgoing. What can I do that will fit within my comfort zone?

ND: Judi McCoy said in a workshop recently, “You’re a writer. You aren’t allowed to be introverted.” Marketing and promotion may be uncomfortable for you, but at some point if you hope to be a huge success you have to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to promo your books and talk to people. The internet can lessen the burden for you. People always think that I’m an extroverted person rather than introverted. “It’s easy for you to join a group and get to know people,” or “You leave a crowd feeling energized whereas an introverted person is exhausted afterwards,” they say to me. Based on my natural tendencies, both statements about me are false. You’ve heard the phrase “Fake it till you make it.” That’s what you have to do.

It’s my choice to succeed as a writer. To do that, I have to step out of my comfort zone, because no one is responsible for my success except me. In crowds of people I don’t know, that means putting on a brave face. It means telling myself every day that I am not afraid of rejection and that I can handle it if someone doesn’t want to be my friend, agent, or editor. Some groups are easier for me to meld into than others, but if I don’t put the effort forth to let people get to know me then it’s my fault. It’s exhausting and draining and I crash into bed at night like a brainwashed zombie (is that an oxymoron), but with the crash is a satisfaction that I’ve done what I can for the day to ensure my success.

MR: There are things you can do to look confident, even if you aren’t feeling confident. If you’re at a book signing, for example, try to stand. Don’t sit behind a table! Have something to hand out (like the recipe cards I mentioned above). If you’re handing something to someone, chances are they’ll take it. They may not buy your book, but they’re walking away with something concrete, something that has your name on it, your book title/cover, and it will act as a continual form of marketing.

With e-publishing, book signings don’t happen, so you’re off the hook! However, like Nikki said, creating an online presence is so important no matter what path you take to publishing. Maintain a professional attitude, find your voice and use it, and market yourself! It’s not always easy, but it is part of the job. If you want to be successful, you have to devote a certain amount of time to the marketing of your books/brand. Eventually, it’ll become more comfortable.

ND: To piggy back on what Misa said about e-publishing and book signings, keep in mind that in many cases there will not be book signings as an e-published author. However, there are e-publishers that release books in print as well as electronically, so you may still have the option of book signings if they’re important to you. Regardless of the publishing medium, if you’re nervous about a book signing, invite your friends and family to help create buzz during the event to people in and out of the store. Ask the CRM to make announcements throughout the event to encourage people to come see you. One author I know sends out eVites to everyone she knows when she has a book signing. Another holds only one book signing after each release and invites everyone she knows to that signing. Both authors have huge turn outs. The people they know help put them at ease and draw in new readers by watching for people who are looking on to see what’s happening. Caveat: It is important to not use these people as a crutch to keep you from talking to new people. Stay aware for people looking curious. Say hi, offer candy or a bookmark or something. You’ll be amazed how many people will stop and chat with you, and even buy your book.

Next month we’ll dive into types of marketing and how to approach it.

Nikki Duncan recently sold Sounds to Die By to Samhain Publishing. It will release in October 2009. She’s a Golden Pen contest finalist, has done promo work, website design, and book videos for several authors for e-publishing and NY print books. More can be found out about Nikki and her writing at her website www.nikkiduncan.com.

Misa Ramirez released Living the Vida Lola, a Lola Cruz Mystery, in January 2009. The second book in the series, Hasta la Vista, Lola!, will be released winter 2010. Misa is the co-founder of www.chasingheroes.com, and was a middle school/high school Language Arts/English teacher until recently.

The Hero’s Journey

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The Hero’s Journey


This page summrarizes the brief explanations from every step of the Hero’s Journey.

A. Departure

1. The Call to Adventure
The call to adventure is the point in a person’s life when they are first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.

2. Refusal of the Call
Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.

3. Supernatural Aid
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known.

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

5. The Belly of the Whale
The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. It is sometimes described as the person’s lowest point, but it is actually the point when the person is between or transitioning between worlds and selves. The separation has been made, or is being made, or being fully recognized between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. The experiences that will shape the new world and self will begin shortly, or may be beginning with this experience which is often symbolized by something dark, unknown and frightening. By entering this stage, the person shows their willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, to die to him or herself.

B. Inititation

1. The Road of Trials
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.

2. The Meeting with the Goddess
The meeting with the goddess represents the point in the adventure when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the “hieros gamos”, or sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. Although Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love and /or self unification does not have to be represented by a woman.

3. Woman as the Temptress
At one level, this step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which as with the Meeting with the Goddess does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. For Campbell, however, this step is about the revulsion that the usually male hero may feel about his own fleshy/earthy nature, and the subsequent attachment or projection of that revulsion to women. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.

4. Atonement with the Father
In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power. For the transformation to take place, the person as he or she has been must be “killed” so that the new self can come into being. Sometime this killing is literal, and the earthly journey for that character is either over or moves into a different realm.

5. Apotheosis
To apotheosize is to deify. When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. This is a god-like state; the person is in heaven and beyond all strife. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

6. The Ultimate Boon
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.

C. Return

1. Refusal of the Return
So why, when all has been achieved, the ambrosia has been drunk, and we have conversed with the gods, why come back to normal life with all its cares and woes?

2. The Magic Flight
Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.

3. Rescue from Without
Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience. Or perhaps the person doesn’t realize that it is time to return, that they can return, or that others need their boon.

4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.

5. Master of the Two Worlds
In myth, this step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.

6. Freedom to Live
Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.

Standing Out From the Pack: Making High Concept Work for You

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High Concept is a buzz phrase that’s both abstract and difficult to wrap your brain around. What does it mean exactly? In a nutshell, a high concept idea is the hook and a high concept story is a great hook written with unique details that give flight to the idea and make it original.

High-concept ideas are what agents and editors are looking for, the one line pitch that sparks interest and defines a book. If you can sum up your book in a tantalizing way, you’re on your way. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of a high concept book.

It will have mass commercial appeal.

It can be summarized succinctly (preferably in one sentence) so that it is immediately clear what the book is about. This is the hook and is important to the publicity and marketing team. Give them a concrete idea that they can run with. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer grows up to be suburban soccer mom. Easy to grasp, and therefore easy to market.

It has exceptional details that turn a good idea into a unique story that can take any tone, be it scary, thrilling, funny, chicky, sexy, dark, light, or anything in between.

It takes something relatable and familiar and gives it a interesting, creative, original twist that can lead the reader on an exciting, escapist journey.

Easy to do? Heck no. But it is possible. Who’s done it lately?

Cinderella Lopez, by Berta Platas. A fairy tale that’s been changed up and done with Latin flavor. Platas takes the tried and true Cinderella story and mixes it up in the glamorous world of television and powerful businessmen, with a Latina as the heroine. It’s a high concept idea that she’s worked into a fabulous high concept story.

Meggin Cabot’s The Boy Next Door.. Cabot wrote the entire book using emails as the format, a very unique story-telling twist, and certainly not easy to do. Every Boy’s Got One and Boy Meets Girl have equally unique hooks, with letters, to do lists, and instant messaging.

Carpe Demon, Julie Kenner’s Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom~ Kate has to reconcile the job of her youth (demon hunter with her late husband) with the responsibilities of her new life (married to a politician and mom to two children). Same outcome–she succeeds–but the adventures she has? Demon-hunting is little more inventive than, say, rejoining the workforce and going back to a state job. Throw a dead demon in the pantry, make the fate of the world rest squarely on your heroine’s shoulders, and now you have a part-ee

Allison Brennan’s The Prey. Allison’s book goes high concept from the get-go with a killer copying the murders from the heroine’s fictional books. It goes further by offering such deep characterization and layering of characters. A high concept idea is great, but it’s the details and the way the idea is executed that sustains the high concept idea and takes it into a high concept novel. Brennan’s killer combination of a great idea and deep characterization took the book all the way to the New York Times Extended Best Seller list and the USA Today Bestseller list.

Gregory Maguire’s series of books, beginning with Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Wicked-The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. They take fairy tales and put a different spin on them by telling them from an alternate point of view. (Note: this was also done with the children’s picture book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as told by the Big Bad Wolf. High concept crosses genres and reading levels.)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares–Magical pants and how the lives of four girls are forever changed because of them? Clever. It’s a good hook–so much so it’s been made into a movie.

My first book, Living la Vida Lola, the first in the Lola Cruz mystery series, started with the premise of a typical mystery book. Nothing original there. But I wanted to have a Latina heroine, I wanted it to be written in first person with a light-hearted, witty, somewhat self-deprecating tone, and I wanted there to be a central romance that would arch over the series. So here’s the hook:

Lola Cruz juggles the responsibilities of her close-knit Mexican family, her attraction for hunky Jack Callaghan (her brother’s old high school friend who’s suddenly demanding her attention) , and her commitment and passion for her career as a PI–and she’ll do whatever it takes to keep all the balls in the air.

What makes Living the Vida Lola different is the blend of the mystery and chicklit sub-genres. Add to that a feisty Latina heroine and my book just might have the propensity to take off on it’s own, without a big name like Janet Evanovich, Jennifer Crusie, or Sue Grafton having written it. The book has familiar themes, but it’s unique enough to stand out from the pack.

There aren’t hard and fast rules surrounding a high concept book. It’s up to you to take something that interests you, turn it upside down with creativity and uniqueness, give it a zippy title that the public and publisher will glom onto, and you’re on your way.

The Lola Cruz Query

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Writing a query is harder than it looks. By a long shot. You’ve got to hook the agent–or editor–and entice them into requesting more of your manuscript. The query I wrote for Livin’ la Vida Lola garnered a ton of requests for my manuscript and the end result was signing with my dream agent, Holly Root. It takes time to write a winning query, but the effort is well worth the end result. Here is my query for the first in the Lola Cruz mystery series.


Dolores Cruz is willing to risk all in order to become a detective.

After a year and a half as an underling at Camacho and Associates, Lola is finally assigned her first big case: solving the mysterious disappearance of Emily Diggs. But will she be able to handle it with all the distractions facing her? As if the shifts at her family’s Mexican restaurant and her cousin’s quinceañera aren’t enough, her brother’s old high school friend Jack Callaghan is back in town—demanding her attention.

When Emily turns up dead in the Sacramento River, the pressure’s on to find the killer. Lola’s search for answers turns deadly when she becomes the killer’s next target.

Living the Vida Lola, A Lola PI Novel is the first book in a Latina Chick Lit Mystery series. The second installment, Dead Girl Walking, is also complete. The third book in the series, Bare Naked Ladies, is in process.

I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English at the University of California, Davis and am a former middle school Language Arts teacher. I am a member of RWA and have published a children’s book entitled The Flight of the Sunflower. I was previously represented by Agent X of the Agent X Literary Agency, however she has gone into semi-retirement thus I am seeking new representation.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.