What Van Gogh Can Teach Us About Writing

During my recent visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a crowd gathered around one painting. We were drawn to it, as if in a dream. It was Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Most people recognize it as a famous painting, worth millions. Perhaps they know that this painting inspired the song by Don McLean that immortalized Van Gogh’s troubled but brilliant perspective on life.

But what compels us to spend time before The Starry Night?

The Starry Night is more than a painting. It tells a story that opens our eyes and minds to what may exist beyond life on Earth.

Van Gogh told his story using the medium of paint, but he teaches a valuable lesson to writers. Our stories need to reach beyond the sleepy, peaceful villages of our everyday life. We know, at our core, that something more exists out there, something wonderful, something magical, something spiritual.

We want to believe.

During his time, Van Gogh was little known, but his work endures and compels because he expressed what he believed in. He honed his craft, followed his passion and put down on paper a story that compels us to look at the starry sky of our soul and wonder.

This is what we should strive for as writers.

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Five Mistakes Writers Make in the First Fifty Pages

The first reaction to this post’s headlines may be: What? Only five? No, I’ve made many more than five mistakes when writing my first fifty pages of my thriller novels. We’ve all heard not to begin a novel with description, dialog or a dream, but here are my most frustrating mistakes:

1. Endlessly rewriting the first fifty pages before soldiering on and finishing the novel. It’s almost an addiction. I can’t stop myself from rewriting. Of course, I have valid reasons, like trapping my hero at the top of a volcano, only to realize that he has no reason to be there in the first place. I try to monkey wrench in the setting. Maybe he needs to stop explosives from blowing up the volcano, or he needs to steal the remote transmitter that will signal in the villain’s strike force. I feel that it’s too good a scene to simply abandon, but it’s just not working. The good news is I think I’ve found a cure. More on that at the end of this post.

2. Making a walk-on character too intriguing. In the opening scene of my current work, my beta readers, the men anyway, all love the wisecracking, edgy pilot. I love him, too. But he is just a device to land my heroine on the mysterious island and into the middle of the action. Still, I just may bring that pilot back in the end. A character who was going to be a walk-on in my thriller, The Seventh Stone, made himself so valuable that he is now in my work in progress.

3. Writing a prologue. The debate rages on this one. But with Ebooks, I think more than ever you have to start right off with your hero in the action. When potential readers “Look Inside” your Ebook on Amazon, you have very few pages to involve them in the story. The easy solution to this “mistake:” Replace the word “Prologue,” with two words, “Chapter One,” and tie it to my cure for endlessly rewriting the opening scenes, which I reveal below.

4. I’m not entirely convinced on this one, but more and more I’m seeing that the traditional “front matter,” including the copyright page, should come at the end of your Ebook. Many readers do not want to scroll through pages before reaching Page One. Wherever you decide to place the copyright page, include a link to your website.

5. Trying to weave in too much backstory too soon, while neglecting the main focus of the story. Often, writers do a great job with a hook in the first paragraph, only to backpeddle and try to justify it with backstory in the paragraphs that follow. Keep the story moving forward. Once the reader is strapped into the rollercoaster, let it rip, and don’t stop until the end of the ride.

Now for the cure for endlessly rewriting those first fifty pages. I stumbled upon this while reading a Writer’s Digest article by Jeff Gerke, who wrote Plot Versus Character. He writes: Make no mistake: Your book is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive her to that penultimate moment. (Writer’s Digest, February 2012 issue)

I now know just what to include in my opening pages and why. Every line has to tie in with this main focus of my story. If you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t feel like it’s working, ask yourself if it is focused on propelling your main character, and your reader, to that moment of truth.

Thrillers That Make You Think

I posted this Listmania List on Amazon. I’d love to hear what YOU think and if you have any recommendations to add to this list. I’m always looking for thrillers for thinkers!

Thrillers That Make You Think

A Listmania! list by Pamela Hegarty “pamelahegarty” (New Jersey)
The list author says: “If you’re looking for more than a murder to solve or political crisis to resolve, try these page turners that take thrillers to a new level.”
The Seventh Stone
1.  The Seventh Stone by Pamela P. Hegarty
The list author says:
“I love to read these types of thrillers so much that I wrote this one. It has the action of Indiana Jones and the history of Dan Brown, but mostly I wanted to leave readers with a question: What do you believe?”
$15.99
4.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
Blasphemy
2.  Blasphemy by Douglas Preston
The list author says:
“I am an enthusiastic fan of all of Douglas Preston’s books. This is a page-turner that toes the line between technology and religion.”
$10.38   Used & New from: $1.01 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (223 customer reviews) | 5 customer discussions
The Da Vinci Code
3.  The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The list author says:
“By the sheer number of this book sold, you’ve probably already read it. The writing may be simple, but the concept still sparks controversy and discussion. I like to think that this doesn’t challenge religion as much as challenges us to know our religion. Plus it’s just plain fun to read.”
$9.99   Used & New from: $0.01 3.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4,017 customer reviews) | 28 customer discussions
The Book of the Dead (Pendergast, Book 7)
4.  The Book of the Dead (Pendergast, Book 7) by Douglas Preston
The list author says:
“This is just one of the Preston/Child books to feature a favorite and fascinating character, FBI Agent Pendergast, a sort of modern Sherlock Holmes. But the other characters are equally vivid and the story is engaging. I recommend all the Pendergast novels. This is the third in a trilogy. Read the others first.”
$7.99   Used & New from: $0.01 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (220 customer reviews) | 4 customer discussions
Pentecost. A Thriller.
5.  Pentecost. A Thriller. by Joanna Penn
The list author says:
“I read this to support the author who has a tremendously helpful website for other authors. I’m glad I did. It is a quick read, with a smart heroine, plenty of action and great history woven in.”
$8.59   Used & New from: $7.36 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
The Last Oracle: A Novel (Sigma Force)
6.  The Last Oracle: A Novel (Sigma Force) by James Rollins
The list author says:
“I enjoy all of James Rollins’ books. I chose this one for this list because I went to Greece last summer. I always enjoy the way he weaves history and science into his page-turning stories.”
$10.78   Used & New from: $1.70 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (123 customer reviews) | 5 customer discussions
The Amber Room: A Novel
7.  The Amber Room: A Novel by Steve Berry
The list author says:
“I like Steve Berry books because of his research. I always enjoy reading fiction that teaches me something interesting about history.”
$9.99   Used & New from: $0.01 3.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (130 customer reviews)

Review of God’s Lions: The Secret Chapel

Or Why I’m Thankful for the Amazon Publishing Revolution

I bought God’s Lions: The Secret Chapel because it was one of the titles listed under The Seventh Stone’s  listing on Amazon as “people also bought.” Usually, I’d be skeptical of a story with a priest as its action hero. Not that I would have had the choice. In the traditional publishing world, this book may never have been published. This is why I’m so thankful of the publishing revolution that opens a new gateway between writers and readers. God’s Lions kept me “turning pages.” I found myself finding time to read what happens next. I wanted to join the hero priest and other characters for lunch,preferably the lavish buffet by the pool. The writing style was easy to read. The story moved along at a good clip. The history was deftly woven into the plot. I would have given it five stars, but I wanted the author to flesh out several extremely dramatic situations. I won’t put in any spoilers, but some of the events that happen both on and off-screen are terrifying to ponder, and I would have liked them to have more impact on the characters. Overall, a great read.

Should Indie Publishers Offer a Goodreads Giveaway?

If you are wondering if a goodreads.com giveaway is worth a try, the short answer is Yes!

I love the idea of reaching readers directly. I offered one signed copy of The Seventh Stone as a giveaway on goodreads.com for a time span of two weeks to give it a try. I tweeted to spread the word about the giveaway four times. In total, 548 people requested to join the giveaway. Now, 94 people have added The Seventh Stone to their “To Read” lists. And the lucky winner is someone who is an avid reader and enthusiast of thrillers. I was thrilled to send her my signed copy, and if I’m lucky, she might want to write a positive review on goodreads.

To sum up the Goodreads Giveaway:

My Cost of Giveaway: Price of one print paperback plus shipping

Time of Giveaway: Two weeks

Tweets about Giveaway: Four

Readers clicking on The Seventh Stone to enter giveaway: 548

Readers who added The Seventh Stone to their To Read shelf: 94

Lucky Winner: 1

Sales generated: This is the big question mark. I don’t know if this will translate into more sales, but I am extremely pleased with the exposure of The Seventh Stone to readers. It is definitely worth a try if you’re promoting your book.

The Advantages of a Series Character in Thriller Fiction

Lee Child, bestselling author of the Jack Reacher thrillers, offered these insights in a workshop which I attended:

A series character makes it easier for a reader to buy a book, and sometimes encourages them to buy previous books in the series.

You can’t design a series character to be succesful. Let the character be himself and hope for the best. Don’t worry whether the character will be liked or disliked.

Allow the main character to be a little rugged, a tad dastardly. Many writers use a sidekick to be the tough one so the main character can remain pure. The main character should have those “dark” elements. This can work well with female characters, too.

On character development, Child believes his readers are looking for the same character in different situations. Series characters don’t even have to age. Readers can always count on Jack Reacher. This works well for Jack Reacher, but not for all series characters, like Harry Potter, or Christa Devlin, the main character in The Seventh Stone, who are altered dramatically by the experiences.

But the most important tip Child offered: Be yourself. Close your eyes and jump. Don’t be intimidated.

Prince William and Kate Middleton’s Sapphire Ring – History remembered

By Pamela Hegarty

Prince William honored his late mother, Princess Diana, by passing on to his fiancée, Kate Middleton, the stunning sapphire ring that Prince Charles had given Diana.  To me, it is a reminder of another sapphire ring in Britain’s history, belonging to Saint Edward, and the undeniable attraction of gemstones.

In researching my thriller, The Seventh Stone, I was intrigued by the fascinating and storied histories of some of the world’s most famous gemstones.   Edward, King of England from 1042 to 1066, also wore a now famous sapphire ring.  According to legend, the generous and kind Edward, upon meeting a beggar while travelling, had no money to give the man.  Instead, Edward gave the beggar his sapphire ring.

Years later, in Syria, two British pilgrims got lost in a storm.  A man guided them to safety.  He gave them a sapphire ring to return to King Edward.  The man explained that he was Saint John the Evangelist, and he had disguised himself as a beggar when he met King Edward.  He asked the pilgrims to return the ring to Edward, and tell him that the King would be rewarded for his generosity and piety in the kingdom of Heaven in six months time.

Six months after the pilgrims returned the ring, King Edward died of natural causes.  Edward became a saint.

The sapphire from his ring is now in the Maltese Cross topping the Imperial State Crown of Great Britain.

Of course, that’s the short version of the story.  Edward’s Sapphire also shares a legendary history with a powerful Biblical artifact.  But to learn that chapter in the story of Edward’s Sapphire, you’ll have to read The Seventh Stone.

The Da Vinci Code – Decoding Plot-driven vs Character-driven novels

Robert Langdon, literature’s most famous symbologist, is called in to solve a bizarre murder at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. The murder sets the plot in motion, driving the hero into a race to solve the puzzle before the villains. Certainly, The Da Vinci Code must be a plot-driven novel.

BUT Robert Langdon uses his specialized knowledge to advance to the next step in solving the puzzle, so The Da Vinci Code must be a character-driven novel.

Writers have been arguing the advantages and disadvantages of plot-driven versus character-driven novels since the birth of genre fiction. At a recent workshop, best-selling thriller writer, William Bernhardt, had a different take.

Plot and character must be interwoven for a story to be successful. The character is chosen for the plot. The plot is chosen for the character.

Every scene should have something happening that changes the protagonist’s life. That change, in turn, affects the next plot twist. The character is revealed by how she reacts under pressure. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation.

So don’t try to define your novel as plot-driven or character-driven. To be successful, it has to be both.

Science, Mythology, and Christianity meet in New York City

This headline might sound like an oxymoron followed by a non sequitur, but this photograph is proof that it’s true.

The spires in the background belong to New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, one of America’s, and Christianity’s, most inspiring places of worship.

The statue in the foreground is an art deco rendering of Atlas, the mighty, mythological Titan who carried the heavens.

In this statue, Atlas is carrying an armillary sphere, a model of the heavens popular with Renaissance scientists to teach and learn about the movement of celestial objects.

Only in New York? No, but it certainly was fun to include this setting for a shoot-out scene in The Seventh Stone.

Is There Anybody Out There?

No, I’m not talking about readers. I do have faith that you are out there, no matter what my Amazon ranking implies! When I see these amazing NASA images of the vast universe, I am both humbled and inspired. And I’m reminded that the best fiction is those stories that leave us with questions, not answers.