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Creating believable characters

LAST CHANCE! Don’t forget to enter my favorite romance writing contest of all time, the Golden Rose. This is the contest that got me published, but even before that I received wonderful feedback from judges who wanted to help me succeed.

Continuing the Janes roundup of the Rose City Romance Writers‘ Spring Fling Writers Conference, I’m sharing the highlights from Amy Liz Talley‘s workshop on Authentic Writing: Creating Characters & Worlds Readers Love.

Because I tend to be a plot-driven writer, I’m especially (even painfully?) conscious of the need to make sure my characters are always working as hard as they must to engage readers. Liz talked about four keys to creating believablity.

1. Flaws, secrets, and vulnerability

No protagonist should be so bad that she’s irredeemable or so good that she’s insufferable.* It’s the flaws and the need to keep secrets that make a character vulnerable and cause conflict as she tries to protect herself. And it’s also her vulnerability that makes her able to ultimately change for the better. (Hey, these are romances. Of course they change for the better!)

2. Past influences and backstory

Threaded through the on-page revelation of the character, old wounds and triumphs going all the way back to childhood — or even further into family history — help explain why a character does what she does and make her more than just a two-dimensional leaf blown anywhichway on the plot wind.

3. Consistent behavior

Faced with the twists and turns of the plot, the character should act in a way that internally consistent with the driving forces of her flaws and backstory. She’ll behave as she always has right up until the plot forces her against the black moment at the end where she must finally change.

4. Research

This is less about the characters and more about the creator. I’m not a huge fan of research — I love Wikipedia! — mostly because of how lost I can get answering an otherwise simple question about what sort of ionized gas is emitted from a black hole. But Liz had a great example: Since she was speaking in Portland, Oregon, in the spring, she noticed all the plants she doesn’t have where she lives in Louisiana near the Texas border. And they don’t have tulips in the spring! Too warm for the bulbs to overwinter. To create a believable world, a writer needs to know what springs from the very dirt of your creation. No pressure!

Spring is a great time for creation. And since Oregon is having one of its wettest rainy seasons on record, I’m getting a lot of indoor computer time. Hope you are finding inspiration from our Spring Fling recaps!

* Obviously, these are guidelines, not “teh rulz”!

A finalist in both RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart award and RITA award, Liz Talley has found a home writing sassy contemporary romance. Her stories are set in the South where the tea is sweet, the summers are hot and the men are hotter. Liz lives in North Louisiana with her childhood sweetheart, two handsome children, three dogs and a mean kitty.

You can visit Liz at to learn more about her upcoming books, including her most recent ALL THAT CHARM, the latest in a series about best friends who are each bequeathed the chance to make the most of their lives and love.




The only way to survive the crazy business of being an author, is to find amazing writer friends who support you, commiserate with you, and celebrate the triumphs with you. Jenna Night and I have been each other’s support system for a long time. We started writing about the same time, started querying about the same time, and sold our first book about the same time. (There was much celebrating! 😉 ) Her amazing debut book LAST STAND RANCH just hit the shelves, and so I invited her to come and spring clean with us here on See Jane Publish this month.

Join the spring cleaning conversation in the comments below for a chance to win a signed copy of LAST STAND RANCH!


by Jenna Night

My first novel, Last Stand Ranch, is on the shelves. Even though I’m still celebrating, I feel a little bit like I normally do around noon on New Year’s Day. I’m trying to make some meaning of what’s just passed while looking to see what’s coming up next. And because my life kind of exploded around the middle of February, I’m looking at quite a mess.

But instead of confetti and streamers and popped balloons, I’m surrounded by overstuffed binders and scraps of paper covered with brilliant ideas I was afraid I would forget. (‘End of the drive.’ I found that one on a scrap under a couch cushion. What does it mean? Where was it supposed to fit into my story? Beats me.) I’ve also got pictures torn from magazines and crumpled calendar pages with varying word-count goals on them. I ‘adjust’ those a lot.

So yeah, some spring cleaning and getting organized is definitely in order. But I’ve learned over the years that being a writer is a messier gig than you’d think, so I’m less concerned with getting everything perfectly organized and more concerned with kicking a path through the junk so I can get to the next book release celebration. In hopes that it might help somebody else, I’d like to share some of the things I want to ditch and some of the things that actually served me pretty well. So, without further ado…


Obsessing over typos in social media. I’m late to the public social media game which makes me nervous enough to begin with. I proofread my tweets or comments, but stuff gets out there with mistakes. It’s going to happen. No more thinking about it all day long.

Believing every other author but me has everything figured out. I know better now. I’ve met lots of authors over the last year, some of them very successful, and it turns out their careers are a work-in-progress, too.

Fretting about sales trends. Enough with the predictions of the next hot genre or the next dead one and worrying about where my book fits in. I pay attention but I don’t obsess.

Short-term thinking, as in ‘this one book is going to make or break my entire career,’ is a recipe for useless stress. Long-term thinking makes more sense. Several books make a career.

Trying to match somebody else’s writing pace doesn’t help. I have to go with the writing pace I can maintain while still being happy with what I’ve written.  Fast or slow, writing takes as long as it takes. Until you have a solid deadline. Then you might have to hurry up!


Timed writing sprints. The first time I saw people doing these I thought they were nuts. But you know, they’re very effective for turning off the inner critic and getting past the feeling of being blocked. Twenty minutes, ready-set-go. Just write something about your story. Anything. It might take a couple of rounds, but the thread of a good idea will come through. Then you can take it and run with it.

Getting used to the idea that there’s always something more to do. I never complete my writing to-do list anymore. I put stars by the things I really have to get done today and then I do what I can.

I’m keeping my basic writing process, but trying something new with each book. This time it’s deeper characterization in the first draft. And maybe I’ll stick to my original word-count goals this time. You never know.

My spiral bound notebooks with the kittens on the cover are staying. Writing with pen on paper sometimes gets the words flowing better. And cats are cool.

And I am most definitely keeping my lunch dates with my writer friends. Even if we have to re-schedule a million times. They help keep it fun and keep me going.


Pic6About Jenna

Jenna Night was a finalist in Harlequin’s Love Inspired Suspense 2014 The Search for a Killer Voice! contest. She lives in the Inland Northwest with a house cat who appears to believe she’s a Bengal tigress. You can find her (Jenna, not the cat) at, on her Facebook Page, and through her Twitter profile.


For a chance to win a signed copy of LAST STAND RANCH, please tell us your thoughts on spring cleaning in the comments below. (Winner will be picked on Sunday 3/27 at 8 pm PST.)

Soul Mates by Betty Booher

Note from Jessa: Betty was my critique partner back in my pre-published days, so she knows all the joys and sorrows of romance writing. Plus she makes music, with an emphasis on the joy side. Now she shares some of that with us today. Thanks for being with us, Betty!

We’ve all read about them, maybe even featured them in our books, but are they real, or just figments of our vivid imaginations, especially when our current spouse/partner/lover has just left their wet towels on the bed for the 14,000th time?

“Oh, if only my Soul Mate would swoop in and carry me away…” we half mutter, half sigh as we drag towels and comforter to the dryer. “If only…”

Not that we don’t love our current partners and have no intention of hunting for a mysterious stranger, but sometimes those wistful words just pop into our brains unbidden. (This might have something to do with reading all those romance novels…just sayin’..)

I thought my husband of 25 years would be my only Soul Mate. We’d met at nineteen, spent our whole adult lives together. After he died, I had no expectation of dating again, let along finding the second love of my life. But through a serendipitous chain of events that included hanging out like a groupie at funky music venues, I’ve found someone who gets parts of me my husband never did. It’s not perfect…but it’s fabulous, even if he doesn’t like the Beatles (I know—I must have left it off the checklist!)

Would it have worked if we’d met at nineteen? Maybe. Probably not. No point in wasting time wondering about it.

Your Soul Mate may be by your side right now, camouflaged by the wet towels, toilet seat left up, and empty milk carton left in the fridge. Trust me, those annoyances mean nothing. Spend your Valentine’s Day remembering all the things you love about each other, the connections that brought you together in the first place and the ones you’ve built since then.

We’ll be celebrating our first Valentine’s Day together in some funky music venue, singing duets and playing old jazz tunes. I can’t think of a more romantic way to spend the holiday with my new Soul Mate.

Now for a bit of shameless self promotion. Stop by our Facebook page, Bellows & Squawk, listen to a few tunes on YouTube, or better yet, stop by the Jade Lounge on Feb. 23rd at 7 pm to see our show live. (It’s way more fun than YouTube!)

B&S #2

September’s Here–Time to Learn Stuff! Guest Post by Meg DesCamp

Dearest Reader, please welcome Meg DesCamp to SJP!!!

l have always loved September. Even though I’ve been out of school for mumble mumble years, September will always be my month of new beginnings and unlimited possibilities. New sweaters, new shoes, new books, classrooms, friends–and romances. All those new men roaming the campus! Potential hotness around every corner, I tell you. At least, that’s what I remember.
So in the spirit of new beginnings, this is a good month for me to review what I want to learn and where I want to go next with this romance writing stuff. In my day job, I’m a freelance writer and editor. I meet my deadlines. I keep working until the project is done. And I take my work seriously. Every so often, however, I get an idea for a really terrific romance, and I write the first three chapters. And then I stop. I hate the characters, their lives are boring, they have no personality, and if I can’t be bothered to care about them, why would an agent or editor?
I’ve decided that what I want –what I NEED — to learn this September is how the hell to keep my butt in the writing chair when there is not a client deadline or a paycheck waiting.
I’ve had one book published — a nonfiction humorous gardening memoir ( —
and it was remarkably easy to write. I decided on a main theme for each chapter. I wrote a one page outline of each chapter. And then I wrote each chapter, weaving in real-life stories and characters and events. It was fun to write. It was even easy to write (and rewrite…). And I’m pretty sure the fun and ease came because I knew where each chapter was headed.
The sensible person would look at my first book experience and conclude, “Outlining is the way to go! Guess I’ll plunk down at the computer and outline a romance.” But even if I take my own advice, I’m still faced with the problem of keeping myself to the task at hand.
Maybe if I buy a new sweater and a new pair of boots and write up a course syllabus titled “Finish Your Romance Novel, You Cretin,” I can trick myself into thinking I’m back in school. The outline might get written. The book might get written. I might finally pass Romance 101.
And then who knows what else I might learn? In September, anything feels possible.

Dreams and Sacrifices

I just returned from the RWA national conference in San Antonio. As a Golden Heart finalist and signer of my very first publishing contract, I felt like Cinderella at the ball.

Literally like Cinderella! Check out the pumpkin carriage I rode home in from my very first publisher author dinner!


RWA 2014 will always have a special place in my heart because I will never, ever, be in this sweet spot again. I have just signed with an agent and completed my first book deal, so I didn’t do any pitching. The  thing that stresses most PRO attendees during the conference. And because it’s going to be a while before my book comes out, I didn’t have to do any outright promotion. The thing that occupies many PAN attendees’ time at the event.

I spent my time enjoying the many amazing workshops, mingling with my favorite authors at the special reception for the Golden Heart and RITA finalists, and meeting my editor for the first time. Oh, and I may have spent some time meeting old friends and making new friends in the bar and at the many evening parties that happen during RWA.

Now, I’m back home and real life is making its usual demands of laundry, cooking, and cleaning. The day job wants me to come back to earth and actually be productive. These are all familiar elements, but now humdrum reality is slightly altered.

I’ve achieved my dream, but this dream comes with demands and sacrifices. In other words, I have serious deadlines.

The only way I can live the dream without screwing up is by sticking to a rigorous writing schedule. The only way I can meet that schedule is by saying no to friends and family. Most of them take this well. They know how much being a published writer means to me. They know how hard I’ve worked to get here.

Some of them want to be supportive, but feel rejected when I say I can’t participate in an event or spend time with them. I understand.

All writers understand rejection. It sucks.

We blogged on that theme all last month and every post included how much rejection hurts and how much it sucks. We also discussed how much it’s part of being a writer. I understand being rejected.

I definitely didn’t understand how stressful it is to be considered a rejector.

There’s been some harsh words. There’s been some crying. Hopefully I, and my family and friends, will figure out a way to navigate this new adventure in my writing career.

Until then, I take comfort in my favorite list 25 Badass Ways to Say No by Justine Musk and her excellent TED Talk on The Art of the Deep Yes.

How do you deal with sacrificing for your dream?

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