SIWC Countdown: 10+ Agents to pitch to at the Surrey International Writers Conference!


The countdown is on! 10 days from now, I’ll be at SIWC—the Surrey International Writers Conference—along with about 800 other writers. That means I’ll be going crazy with anticipation until then. One way for me to cope is to do a top ten for you, starting with…

10+ AGENTS who are listening to pitches at SIWC


Laura Bradford…looking for Romance (historical, romantic suspense, paranormal, category, contemporary, erotic), urban fantasy, women’s fiction, mystery, thrillers and young adult as well as some select non-fiction.

Susan Brower… specifically looking for well-written contemporary romance, suspense and thrillers, cozy mysteries, and women’s relationship fiction.

Carolyn Forde… wide-ranging tastes – from literary to commercial fiction, from serious narrative non-fiction to pop-culture and humour.

Mandy Hubbard… joined D4EO Literary Agency in February 2010 as a Young Adult and Middle Grade specialist, and has since expanded to include romance, new adult, and women’s fiction.

Rachel Letofsky … looking for young adult and new adult fiction, literary fiction and non-fiction that reminds us about the joys and oddities of life.

Don Maass… A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass and his agency sell more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas.

Taylor Martindale… looking for young adult fiction, literary middle grade fiction, women’s fiction, and children’s non-fiction projects. She is interested in finding unique and unforgettable voices in contemporary, fantasy, historical and/or multicultural novels.

Lisa Rodgers…fantasy, sci-fi, romance, YA, and middle grade.

Kris Rothstein… actively seeking middle grade and YA fiction. She looks for quirky and funny stories and for complex and memorable characters. She is also looking for literary fiction for adults but not commercial/genre fiction and is actively looking for narrative non-fiction in areas like history and pop culture.

Peter Rubie… In non-fiction he specializes in narrative non-fiction, popular science, spirituality, history, biography, pop culture, business and technology, parenting, health, self help, music, and food. He is a “sucker” for outstanding writing. In fiction he represents literate thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, military fiction and literary fiction, middle grade and some boy oriented young adult fiction.

Nephele Tempest… literary/commercial fiction, women’s fiction, fantasy, science fiction, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, historical romance, contemporary romance, historical fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction.

Pam van Hylckama Vlieg… a passion for genre fiction as well as MG, YA, and New adult fiction.

Gordon Warnock… nonfiction, high concept commercial fiction, literary fiction, new adult, contemporary YA, graphic novels.

Michelle Wolfson… mainstream, mysteries, thrillers, suspense, chick-lit, romance, women’s fiction, and young adult.

Here is a link to FULL AGENT BIOS, and please remember to come back tomorrow to see what our list will be all about on day NINE of the countdown!

Step 5 of Nanowrimo Planning: Step Two, Pumped Up!





Now that you know your characters better, and you know your plot a bit better, it’s time to look back for a moment and build on step two. You know more now, so this shouldn’t be tough, but here’s what step five involves:

In step two, you wrote a five-sentence paragraph. Now, we’re going to add meat on those bones. Basically, you’re going to take each sentence and make it a paragraph by itself. That means you’ll have five paragraphs (I have one more below because I wanted to mention the future direction of the series also). Look back at the sample paragraph I ended part two with, and then return here to read how I added to each of those sections:


Blake Mack has a signature style all his own…pick a small community, start a huge fire on one side of town to draw the local authorities, then rob something on the other side of town. It’s worked like a charm, with a few small scrapes here and there, but so far, no one has gotten hurt…until today. Today, he slammed into an innocent bystander while making an escape. Now, instead of facing arrest for arson and theft, the ante has been upped to manslaughter. It’s something he never wanted; it’s something he never planned for. His only hope is to assume the identity of the man he killed and hope for the best.

The first hitch comes from a hotshot cop with something to prove. While delving into a case involving organized crime, Roxanne comes across the name of Paul Ryerson, the man whose identity Blake has assumed. Apparently, he’s a powerful leader of a racist gang involved in organized crime. With only the slightest lead to go on, she takes a chance, and winds up on the trail of Blake Mack, aka Paul Ryerson.

Things heat up when the gang discovers what Blake has done. Now he’s on the run from two organizations with connections and resources—the police, and “The Company,” only he doesn’t know it yet. The gang thinks Blake assassinated their leader; the police still think he’s Paul Ryerson, a leader of a more than questionable group. Blake’s thankful that he now has one person in his life he can rely on—his newly “acquired” girlfriend…

And then that goes sour. She discovers the secret he’s been hiding, and believing him to be Paul Ryerson, leader of a racist organization, she turns him in to the police. An insider on the force informs “The Company” of how Blake can be found, and the police, Blake, and the gang converge in a violent, action-packed ending. Blake could be responsible for another death if he doesn’t turn himself in; can he live with that? Could he live knowing he cost a woman her life…on purpose this time?

In the end, Blake sets up a meeting of his own—with Roxanne posing as his girlfriend, and a team of ERT ready and on alert. Blake strikes a deal to turn in as many members of “The Company” as he can in return for his freedom. It all goes horribly wrong as gang members discover the hideout of his girlfriend and hold her at gunpoint, forcing Blake to make a decision—flee, and live freely, or give himself up, and die knowing he hasn’t taken another innocent life. The end result is a mix of the two. His girlfriend does indeed get killed in the process, but Blake and Roxanne, who find they have much in common, decide to try something new out. They testify against “The Company” together and then go into witness protection…as husband and wife.

They soon tire of the ho-hum identities and jobs they’ve been given, and so begins a new chapter in their lives. For now, in Texas, they become “employees” of a new detective agency—Max and Kat Starr, Private Investigators. This book is a prequel to a detective series starring Max and Katerina “Kat” Starr, P.I.s. Being in witness protection, they can be moved around the globe every once in a while…leading to interesting locales and possibilities…sort of like a chapter book series for adults!

 Try this:

See how simple that is? It’s just building on a frame you already have. A word workout! Now flesh out those sentences into paragraphs, because in a few days, we’ll get step six, and that’s when the excitement builds. The writing you do that day might actually find its way into your novel, as is!  For now, complete this step in the snowflake fractal…and remember, there are only two steps left…

Step 4 of Nanowrimo Planning: The Handshake



In steps one and two, you thought about story. In step three, you thought about characters. It’s now time for step four, and that means. . .

Character, story. Story, character. Now say “Hello.”


            That’s right—it’s time for your story and character to meet. It’s time to do character summary sheets.

Character summary sheets connect the character to the story. Here’s what they involve:


1. Character snapshot. Overall, if you were telling your best friend about this person, what would you say?

2. Motivation—what drives the character? Why are they acting this way?

3. Goal—related to motivation, but more. Think big picture. Think future.

4. Conflicts this character is facing.

5. Epiphany—what will be that AHA! moment when the person realizes something he or she (or it) did not know previously?

6. Direction—where the character is generally headed.


Will there be overlap? Yes, there will be overlap; that’s perfectly normal here, since the various parts are intertwined. To give you a better idea of what this might look like, let me show you an example for one of my characters, Roxy Lee. . .



Roxanne (Roxy) Lee

Female, new on the force, and facing male harassment, Roxy needs to crack a big case to gain the respect of the men, and she just may have found it. If she can solve the case she’s stumbled upon and bring the perp in, she just might not have to find a new place to work.


To gain respect as a police officer.


To lead these creeps one day—show them what a leader does! Also, to be the best single parent she can be to her daughter.


Her co-workers, her family, the community at large—attitude in an Asian cop? A female Asian cop? Who will stand for it?


She learns that if you play the system, instead of having it play you, the results are more positive. In fact, she’ll have to go against her own beliefs at the end in order to have a chance at the happy ending she’s seeking. On the other hand, it could cost her everything.


Roxanne alienates many in her attempt to make a name for herself on the force. Her support network just doesn’t seem to be there for her when she needs it. In the end, she may have to turn to someone she despises for that support, and it may cost her. Then again, if she cracks this case, maybe she’ll get what she finally deserves . . . maybe.


That’s all there is to it. This step starts to weave the strands together, bringing a bit more story out of the characters you’ve fleshed out. Again, do this step for your major characters, not the minor ones.

Try this:

Try to knock out two character summary sheets before tomorrow. Really, if you have two characters with opposite goals who get in each other’s way, that creates conflict–and conflict is what will drive your story. Tomorrow, we continue to build on the firm foundation you’ve created. Join us!


Step 3 of Nanowrimo Novel Planning: The Staff Meeting


            As a teacher, I’m often FORCED to attend staff meetings where a wide variety of characters come together and accomplish very little. You need to have a staff meeting for your novel, too, but the difference is, you need to accomplish a great deal in yours. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.


            First, it’s important to understand that YOU must know much more about your characters than your readers do. You’re going to create histories and backstories for them, and the better they are, the more they will help you know exactly what your characters will do in any situation.

Now if you go to the internet and type in “character profile” you’ll find MANY examples of things to think about when you’re fleshing out your characters. What I have found, through practice, is that you need to do character profiles for AT LEAST your protagonist and antagonist—your main character and that character’s main opposition. You DON’T need to do these profiles for every character, especially minor ones, or you may actually find them competing for attention with your main characters…not a good thing.

That said, I’m going to give you MORE than enough to think about. Don’t feel compelled to fill out every section if you don’t want to. Use what’s most appropriate for your particular character, qualities you feel are important.

Remember that this work can be done point form—it’s for you to see and nobody else. It is particularly helpful if you’re planning a book that may become a series!






  • Name, age, nationality
  • Is there a difference between how old the person IS, and how old he or she appears to be?
  • Hair colour, eye colour (glasses or contacts?), height, weight, type of build
  • Skin type, tone, distinguishing marks (moles, tattoos, scars . . .)
  • Shape of face (round, oval, squared, almond, heart-shaped…)
  • Usual hairstyle? Usual style of dress?
  • Predominant features?
  • Any physical habits or disabilities? (Constantly pacing, stuttering, …)
  • Favourite sayings?
  • Birth order?
  • Siblings? Spouse? Children? Parents? Grandparents? Best friend? Significant other?
  • Relationship skills?
  • Socioeconomic level as a child / as an adult
  • Hometown / current residence


  • Level of education, overall intelligence
  • Mental illnesses?
  • Major learning experiences in life
  • Short-term and long-term goals?
  • How the character feels others view her. How she views herself.
  • Is the character ruled more by left-brain logic, or right-brain emotions and creativity?
  • What would most embarrass this character?
  • What is this character proudest of?




  • Strengths and weaknesses?
  • Introvert or extrovert?
  • Judgmental or generous?
  • Polite or rude?
  • How does the character deal with anger? Sadness? Conflict? Change? Loss?
  • What would the character most like to change? Why?





  • Religious beliefs? Religious? Agnostic? Atheistic?
  • Personal philosophy, beliefs?
  • Attitude towards nature, animals, environment, others?




  • Colors? Music? Literature? Food? Swear words?
  • Means of transportation?
  • Activities to do alone? With others?
  • Bad habits: brand of cigarettes, alcoholic drink, non-alcoholic drink?
  • Hobbies? Sports? TV shows? Web sites?




OK, enough of that. You get the idea. Feel free to delete groupings, add groupings, change groupings to make them fit your particular characters. The main idea is that you know your characters THOROUGHLY before you begin to tell their tales.

Try this:

Now go flesh out a few of your characters and get ready for step four, which I’ll post on Saturday, three days from now. That’s when we’ll connect your characters to your story a bit more directly.




Step 2 of Nanowrimo Novel Planning: Back Cover Blurb


            Congratulations! You have your one-sentence summary complete, and you’re ready to build on it. Your agent pitch is ready, so it’s time for your back cover blurb.

People who pick up a novel at a bookstore almost immediately flip it over to “see what it’s all about.” It’s not a single sentence; it’s usually a paragraph or more to give a decent idea of what’s inside.


            In order to complete this step, you’re going to have to think of dividing your novel into different sections. A “classical” story structure (since the days of Aristotle) has three main parts:

1. An introduction, including the initial conflict.

2. A middle, where complications occur.

3. A satisfying ending.

For our purposes, we’re going to break this up into even smaller pieces at first:

Sentence #1: Story setup / backdrop.

Sentence #2: Conflict / disaster #1.

Sentence #3: Complication / disaster #2.

Sentence #4: Complication / disaster #3.

Sentence #5: A hint of the ending / resolution.

Now again, the first time I tried this with my novel, JUST MAKE IT HAPPEN, it looked like this:

Blake Mack is a thief who, while fleeing police, veers off onto a logging road and slams into a cyclist, whose identity he assumes. He enjoys his new start at first, but then a young hotshot police officer with something to prove starts making his life more difficult. To make matters worse, he discovers a shocking secret about the true identity of the man he has become. When a new love interest betrays him, he has no one to turn to. He’s on the run—from the law, from “The Company,” and from a broken relationship; his only way out may be to start all over again…but will he get the chance?

 Try this:

            Got it? Good! Now go write your own novel’s back cover copy! Five sentences, please. Also, we’re going to get more time to do step three tomorrow, so really push yourself to get these five sentences finished today if you can. We’re building…please stay with us, and join tomorrow for step three!

STEP 1 of Nanowrimo Novel Planning: A simple (?) sentence!

color weapon

          Remember that for Nanowrimo, our weapon of choice is … a snowflake. See yesterday’s post if you don’t know what I’m talking about. In any case, today, I’m posting the first of seven steps that will help you plan a novel for Nanowrimo. Even if you’ve never planned before, I guarantee this method will help you pump out those words (and have enough story!) in November.

          We’re going to start simply. We’re going to start by writing a single sentence.

Now that seems easy, but this step may literally be THE most important one, because it will affect all future decisions that you make about the novel you’re writing.

This step, then, is to write a one-sentence summary of your story.

It’s important BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER writing your novel. Here’s why:



Before writing your novel, this step will ensure that you have a solid story in mind. The plot, characters, and settings may change, but the heart of your story should not.


While penning the novel, it’s common for writers to find themselves blocked at some point or other. Returning to this single sentence will keep you focused on your initial vision for the book—it will keep you on track.


After you have finished your novel, this single sentence is EXTREMELY important. First, it’s like an elevator speech, a quick pitch you could use to tell an agent or editor about your book.

elevator pitch

          Second, once it IS published, the publisher needs a phrase to describe it on the New York Times bestseller lists. Here are a few examples:

THE QUEST, by Nelson DeMille:

Two journalists join an elderly priest who has recently escaped from an Ethiopian jail in a search for a holy relic.

WHO ASKED YOU? by Terry McMillan:

A Los Angeles matriarch already has her hands full when her drug-addicted daughter abandons her two sons.

THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, by Liane Moriarty

A woman’s life is upended when she discovers a letter she was not meant to read.

The first time I tried this, when I wrote my first novel, here’s what I came up with:


A thief turns murderer during an escape, and finds trouble and love in assuming a dead man’s identity.


That’s it and that’s all for step one. Now BEFORE you try, remember the rule: it’s a single sentence. If someone asks you what you’re book is about, this is the quick response to give them an idea of the KIND of tale you’re telling.

Try this:

Don’t delay. Write that single-sentence summary; you can always tweak it if you want to later. For now, go by gut instinct and bang out what you think your novel will be about.

Then return tomorrow, when our planning will start to grow. Tomorrow, be prepared to write…are you ready for it?…five sentences! Oh, and one more request…

Once you have your sentence, please hit the “comment” link below, and write your first name (at least), your novel genre, and your single sentence. This is the only step I’ll ask you to do that for. I’m just interested in seeing the variety of tales that might be told. I’ll add my own to begin…

Planning for NANOWRIMO: A modified snowflake?

color touch gloves

We’re in this one together…


(based on Randy Ingermanson’s method)



Whenever possible, simplify.

When I first saw Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method in action, it was intriguing, but somewhat complicated. Ten steps and plenty of diversions this way and that to discuss side issues. The text was confusing, but I loved the concept: Start simply and build.

What I did was take his ten steps, think about them, think about how they relate to the finished product, the novel, and explain as directly as possible, how and why to complete each step. Oh, and I made his ten steps into seven, since there was great overlap and sections that, in practice, confused writers instead of helping them.

That said, let me finish the introduction so we can get to the meat of it, those seven steps! Ingermanson’s method is named after the Koch Snowflake, a math fractal. If you remember those old screensavers, the ones that morphed into geometrical shapes, THOSE are fractals. At first, it starts with a simple shape, in this case, a triangle:


            For the next step, what happens is a triangle is added to each side of the triangle:


            Now it’s a Star of David, a somewhat more complex shape. Add triangles to the sides of THOSE triangles, and you get this:

Keep going, and you’ll get something that looks like this:


            Something beautiful from something that starts quite simply. That’s your novel!




NANOWRIMO: Planner or Pantser? It doesn’t matter…

You know who you are as a writer–either you love to plan out every detail, or you love the thrill of writing by the seat of your pants, not knowing where it might take you…

pantsher_badge planner_badge

but it doesn’t matter. One area even the Pantser needs to think about is WHAT KIND OF NOVEL WILL I WRITE? In my mind, the first choice is the easiest:

Will I write a LITERARY novel or a GENRE novel?

What exactly IS “literary” anyway? To help me explain, I’m going to direct you to Jane Friedman’s blog where she covers four key components: intellect, depth, character, and style: What is a literary novel?(Just remember to come back, okay?)

Now, you might think “genre” is easier to think about. I mean, when you mention genre, several pop to mind almost immediately:

  • Crime
  • Mystery
  • Thriller
  • Romance
  • Sci-Fi
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Action / Adventure
  • YA
  • NA
  • Historical
  • Humor

 BUT remember that there are cross-genres and sub-genres out there, and it might just complicate the decision a bit. For example, the Pantser will be happy knowing he’s writing a fantasy novel, but the Planner will need to know much, much more…

Comic fantasy? Dark fantasy? Contemporary fantasy? Heroic fantasy? Magic realism? Mythic? Paranormal? Shenmo? Superhero? Sword and Sorcery? Prehistoric? Medieval? Urban? Wuxia? Urban? Dystopian?

It’s enough to make the Pantser get up out of his seat and run for cover…but the Planner likes…choice.

And just to make it clear as an oil spill, think about this…The Sisters Brothers , a western, won a Governor General’s award, a prize that is typically given to “literary” novels. Is it even POSSIBLE to have a literary western???

In any case, the first job you have is to think about what kind of book you might like to write. It sounds complicated, until you consider the most common type of advice given:

Write what you READ.

Planning step #1 will be on the blog tomorrow. If you’re a Planner (or a Pantser who wants to try something different), come join us. I have a group of nearly 20 so far who are going to join us in October as we plan out novels for November.

Tomorrow: Step One…the smallest step, but one of the most important!

Pulp Literature (and Ace Baker) at VCon!


Last night, I finished work at 6:30, flew across the Port Mann bridge, and made it to the VCon book signing event by 7:00. VCon looked like a bar scene from Star Wars–many interesting characters, and these ones weren’t in between pages of a book!

Wandering the halls were fantasy and sci-fi characters, steampunkers, and …two of the editors from Pulp Literature, Jen Landels and Sue Pieters! They were launching issue #4 of their amazing lit journal, the one that has my story “Victory Girl” and my poem “Big Red Schoolhouse” in it!


          The journal is amazing, a very professional publication, and their comments about my works were more than generous:

These contests were judged blind, so our judges had no idea Ace Baker’s story ‘Victory Girl’ was scheduled for this issue. The fact his poem landed in first place is not just a stroke of synchronicity, but a testament to his talent for both prose and poetry. You can read his full bio in the page preceding ‘Victory Girl.’

          And here’s part of that bio I wrote:

 Imagine that an English / Ukrainian writer originally from a Saskatchewan town with a French name (Bienfait–population 800) would one day pen a story about a Japanese girl in British Columbia and impress a Scottish Canadian writer and a Mexican / English American writer (Jack Whyte and Diana Gabaldon) who judge the annual Storyteller contest. THAT’S what it means to be a Canadian writer!

          In addition to making my work look beautiful (Melanie Anastasiou even created an illustration for “Victory Girl”), they also printed the final poetry judge’s comments. George McWhirter, a past Poet Laureate of Vancouver, said, of “Big Red Schoolhouse,”

The poem in 1st place, ‘Big Red Schoolhouse,’ keeps us up to our elbows in the muck of the moment and the situation with the calving. I felt I was physically at the other end of the rope in my new jeans, and my uncle was a world away from where I was at and right beside me at the same time, handing me that rope to tie around the calf’s hocks to haul it out. The poem is dynamic and dramatic in its details, as elegiac as it is realistic and beautifully sequenced through stanza and line. I might even say choreographed, a choreographed chaos of feelings and action, dominated by a double dimension of obligation to the birthing and to the uncle. Wonderful poem.

          Considering the fact that I have a few contest wins but no books under my belt (yet), I found it amazing how the staff of Pulp Literature treated me and my work–careful edits, a beautiful illustration, and kind comments from the poetry judge and the editors themselves.

         If you are looking for a home for your “darlings,” I can think of no better place to send them than Pulp Literature. (They’re accepting submissions until November 1st…hint, hint. Oh, and while you’re there, on their site, you might want to pick up copies of AT LEAST issue #4…ahem, ahem.)

Hummingbird Flash Fiction Contest: “WFF” is an editor’s pick!


Well, the results are in for Pulp Literature’s flash fiction Hummingbird contest.

First, I was contacted that I was one of twelve finalists.

ace baker

Then, the results came out today. My story, “WFF,” wasn’t the winner or runner-up; those accolades go to Rob Taylor’s “Here I Lay Down My Heart,” and Daniela Elza’s “Waiting for Twilight,” respectively.


My story was one of three editors’ picks that will be published in a future edition of Pulp Literature, so I’m excited about that. It’s a creepy story with a surprising ending, and that’s not easy to accomplish when you’re keeping the word count under 1000. I’ll be thrilled to see it published, and here’s something else I’m proud of–I’ll have works in three different genres in the pages of their journal eventually!

First, they purchased second rights to an award-winning (SIWC Storyteller Award) 5000-word short story of mine, “Victory Girl,” that will appear in their autumn issue (coming soon, in October). In the meantime, past Vancouver Poet Laureate George McWhirter chose my poem, “Big Red Schoolhouse,” as the winner of Pulp Lit’s Magpie Poetry Award (Daniela Elza was the runner-up in that one too–multi-talented writer!), and that poem will appear in the autumn issue as well . And now, “WFF,” a piece of flash fiction, has earned an editor’s pick and will appear in a future issue.

I’m thankful to have work appearing in such a fantastic lit journal, and am waiting excitedly for those books to be published. Onwards and upwards!

Quotation Inspiration #010: Seeing is believing!

I think this minimalist quotations poster sums up how I’m feeling as I’m about to do the September Writing Challenge and the 3-day novel contest…two activities I’ve never done before:


Try this:

Enter a contest you’ve never entered before, or write something in a genre you’ve never tried, or write something longer or shorter than your current works, or write from a photograph, sculpture, song title, painting or anything else you’ve not tried before….Go for a new experience and shake it up!

Two writing challenges that are HERE!

Starting this Saturday, August 30th, and this Monday, September 1st, are two writing challenges I’ll be taking on, ones I want you to keep in mind for the future…


First up is one I’ve MEANT to do for years but always found a way to back out of–okay, it goes the entire Labour Day weekend, and the next day is USUALLY school, and I’m right back to teaching. This year, teachers are on strike still, as far as I know, so I have nothing holding me back. It’s the 3-day Novel Writing Contest. 3 days…and more like a novella than a novel (100-150 pages roughly), but still…quite a challenge!


I’m still feeling the sting from making first the longlist (one of 9), then the shortlist (one of 3), and then ultimately losing the Grasmere Publishing novel contest. So I have 25 note cards with my plan for a “short” novel sitting on my desk, and they’re staring at me and I remember “the most notorious writing contest” that even comes with its own survival guide. (I’d include a picture of me getting back up on my horse here . . . but I don’t have a horse.) The prize is publication, but all I’m looking for from this contest is to get banging out words again and move back into my writing groove…

The other “contest” I’m entering is also aimed at production–500 words a day, every day, for the month of September. The home of the Monthly Twitter Writing Challenge is . Its brilliance is in its simplicity. You aim for 500 words each day, and then you send out a tweet to #Septwritingchallenge and #amwriting. Connect with other writers who are also experiencing the torture, and watch those words add up. Although there IS recognition for “perfect attendance,” the real benefit is something many writers struggle with–putting that butt in the chair regularly and knocking out words every day!

Join in the middle of the month if you like, or wait for the next monthly challenge–there’s a new one each month. They have a full FAQ here:


In any case, my message this post should be clear by now:


STELLA NOVELLA? Mel Anastasiou can certainly TELLA tale!

color fancy footwork

Memorable characters–they’re the lifeblood of strong storytelling. Artist, writer, and editor Mel Anastasiou understands that all too well…


Anastasiou is the author of several Stella Novellas, mysteries featuring an unlikely heroine: Stella, the octogenarian star of her Fairmount Manor Mysteries.

Yes, I said octogenarian. Imagine if Janet Evanovich’s Grandma Mazur got smarter and actually did some investigating of her own (instead of merely attending funerals as a hobby), and you’d have a bit of a glimpse of Anastasiou’s protagonist. Here are a few thoughts about how I think the writer makes her such a memorable character:

1. Create an unlikely heroine in an unexpected setting.

Stella is 82 years old and in a nursing home–the Fairmount Manor Care Home. This is not the sleuth you’re expected to find in the next mystery you read, and certainly not where you’d expect to find one. It’s a pleasant surprise and a shock to the system all at once.

2. Develop pathos.

We’re instantly on the side of a senior citizen; we’re going to cheer her efforts whatever the case. She can be tough and stubborn as she does her sleuth work, so having pathos firmly in place before the conflict serves the author well. It helps make a connection between writer and reader. Besides the age and the setting, what also adds to the pathos is the fact that, as the narrator ages, she struggles with issues of memory as well, creating somewhat of an unreliable narrator. We want her to figure out the case despite all the obstacles she faces.

3. Reveal a bit at a time.

New writers are tempted to tell everything up front. Anastasiou gives us a flash of backstory in a single line early in Stella Ryman and the Case of the Third Option:

…not only was Stella eighty-two years old, but she had lately sold her home and a lifetime of gathered possessions and washed up at Fairmount Manor Care Home in such a state that she would have bet her remaining seven pairs of socks that she’d be dead in half a year.

We KNOW this woman and some of the issues she struggles with, all in a single line of writing.

4. Pay attention to objects the character interacts with.

In every mystery, there are objects stolen or dead bodies or both. In The Third Option, that’s also the case–there is a missing coin of great value and missing thousand-dollar bills. However, other objects are important in showing the mindset of Stella herself. Anastasiou includes details of a black suitcase Stella doesn’t recognize as her own (hers from years ago was brown), and of a desk Stella is convinced at one point is hers (but is really the Nursing Home Director’s). It shows the tendency of the narrator to blur the past and present, slipping from one to the other easily.

5. Bring in other characters to act as foils.

Early on, Anastasiou introduces another character, an eighty-eight-year-old woman “with grubby bare feet and a single streak of white in her mad Medusa hair.” Notice the artist Anastasiou at work here–in a single stroke, she paints a portrait of a new character, and she uses Stella’s thoughts and interactions with her to draw out more of the protagonist’s traits. Later, Stella even enlists the help of another blind resident in helping her solve her mystery. More pathos, more laughter, and more to love about a woman who will enlist the help of anyone she thinks might help her in her cause.

6. Make sure you know what a hero is.

Many people think of Hollywood “heroes” like Rambo or Rocky who are 100% tough and go into any situation completely without fear. That’s not being heroic. Bravery involves taking action despite fear, despite the odds being stacked against you. A good story has a reluctant hero, like Stella:

I don’t belong here. I’m not ready to be here.

I’ve gotten myself into the wrong lineup entirely.

Before tackling the problems of her nursing home world, Stella is forced to confront herself and her own attitude. Internal conflict before external conflict. It brings readers inside, and then all the action that follows feels like it’s happening to us as Stella learns more and more.

7. Use dialogue wisely.

Without spoiling the mysteries involved, by the end of The Third Option, it’s another character, the blind one, Thelma, who in a challenging tone, says it like it is:

I guess you think you’re some kind of hero now.

Guess what, though? The character is talking about something entirely different, separate from the mystery Stella has solved. But in using this language to describe a fairly innocent situation, the writer uses direct presentation effectively. Stella is the hero, but not because of the incident Thelma’s thinking of–it’s because of her desire to set things right, to fight for the underdog, to bother to take the effort when others don’t or won’t.

Overall, it adds up to a character we love to be with–and for a mystery series in particular, that’s important. After all, we’re going to want to read the next tale asap. Luckily for Anastasiou’s readers, that’s all too easy–two Stella Novellas, Stella Ryman and the Case of the Third Option, and Stella Ryman and The Poison Pen Affair: A Stella Novella are available in issues #1 and #3 of PULP LITERATURE !

Enjoy the read, and then…

Try this:

Think of a setting you know well and a person one might find there…but then have them doing something readers wouldn’t expect. See where it takes you…