The Seven Rules of Great Storytelling

Humans are forever telling stories. For instance, effective advertising is essentially a story that convinces us that a) we have an unmet need, and b) the product in question meets that need. We also tell stories as ways to develop and sustain relationships. Stories help us to find common ground with strangers. If I tell you the story of how my nana’s dog used to try to herd jumbo jets and your nana’s dog used to do the same (highly unlikely, but still!) we’ll smile at one another and feel a kinship. Stories are bridges between who we are and who the person next to us might be. They connect us. Over the dinner table we tell our families the stories from our day so that they know how we’re travelling, what we’re struggling with, and to celebrate our small successes. And we listen to their stories to keep that bond between us tight. People change. Stories help us to change with each other and to understand some of the reasons for the changes.

Stories reveal us to each other. They’re also how we make sense of the world. People are rightly worried about fake news on the internet, but one of the important points to remember is that this fake news is composed of stories. Their facts are wrong. They may even be specifically designed to manipulate us. But they’re also fascinating for showing us issues that we as a society are grappling with. We want to understand our problems and our neighbours’ problems, and find a way to move forward, making a better life for everyone.

I’m particularly focused on storytelling because as a novelist it’s what I do. I write stories about who people are, what we strive for, and how we find joy. I tend to add magic to my books (since I write paranormal romance), but so do fairytales, and their magical trappings don’t change the essential truths revealed in those stories.

So, here’s my take on the seven rules of great storytelling:

  1. You must evoke emotion in your audience. A story works when people feel something on hearing/reading/seeing it. There are various strategies put forward on how to achieve this, from character development, to emotional topics, to high stakes.
  2. Tension has to build.
  3. The resolution must be credible. It can involve green flying monsters, but those monsters must tie back to something mentioned earlier in the story. A story makes certain promises to a reader, and those promises must be met.
  4. Know what promises you’re making with your story. If you’re a stand-up comedian telling a joke, your promise is that your story will amuse. Sometimes, as with stories over the dinner table, your promise is simply that your story won’t take long! Everyone wants their turn. Be attentive to your audience.
  5. Stories have a hero. This is the person who is changed by the story. In our personal stories, that’s generally us. Sometimes we’re our own catalyst for change, but more often, that catalyst is external.
  6. The most memorable, powerful stories change the people who hear them. It’s okay to tell a story with the purpose of changing someone’s mind. Doing so doesn’t make you an evil marketing genius. We do this unthinkingly when we try to improve someone’s mood with a story. In daily life, we select our stories for how they support the relationships we’re in, and for how they make us appear. All those selfies shared online are visual storytelling, affirmations that each of us is present.
  7. But never forget that a good storyteller is an even better listener – and by “listener” I mean someone who experiences other people’s stories. We spend more time as audience than as entertainer, and being an attentive audience alerts us to effective storytelling techniques. Listen for the gaps in the range of stories told, and you’ll also hear what people are searching for, but not finding. Tell those stories.

What have I missed? What does great storytelling demand?



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The Seven Tropes of Paranormal Romance

I read a LOT of paranormal romance. I also write it. So I’m sitting here at the keyboard trying to boil it down into seven tropes: the seven things that aren’t so much over-used as instantly recognisable and definitive of the subgenre. Or to put it another way: what do I like to see in a paranormal romance novel?

Kick Ass Heroine

Right from the start, even if she’s in a Cinderella role, I want to see strength in the heroine. What does she believe in? What will she fight for?

Magic Won’t Solve the Problem

The fun of paranormal romance is, in a large part, the imaginative worlds authors create. How does some form of magic or “otherness” make the world of the book different to our everyday lives? However, as mind-boggling as the magical world is, magic can’t solve all problems. Human resourcefulness and the heroine’s emotional journey must contribute to saving the day.

A Man of Mystery

Part of the heroine’s (and reader’s) journey of discovery must include the hero. Who is he really? What secret is he hiding? Why can’t we guess what he’ll do next?

Who Has the Map?

We’re all going on a quest. It might be to solve a murder or to save the day, but there’s a quest underway. There’ll be setbacks and, hopefully, unforeseen twists. The stakes get progressively higher.

Don’t Die Laughing

Humour lurks in paranormal romance. Sometimes it’s subtle and rueful. Other times it is loud and snarky. As the tension ratchets up, someone crack a joke!

Find the Touchstone

The worlds of paranormal romance are many and varied, but as we quest here and there, we have to stumble over a touchstone or two. Somewhere in the thickets of magic is the truth. As readers, we recognise some soul truth. So does our heroine, and it changes her. It goes back to the first kick ass question: what (or who) is worth fighting for?

And We All Live Happily Ever After

Whatever happens in a paranormal romance novel, it is a ROMANCE. There has to be a happy ending, or a happy for now ending. Better make it believable, too. The world may be magical, but human hearts remain the same, and we want our hero and heroine to have a solid chance at happiness.

You see, at their core, paranormal romance novels are about fighting impossible odds in incredible settings with unusual sidekicks out of the hope that somehow we (like the heroine) can make a difference in life.

What do you expect to see in a paranormal romance novel?


phoenix blood, jenny schwartz, pnr, paranormal romance, kindle unlimited,

Phoenix Blood is 99c or free in Kindle Unlimited. Magic condemned him, but before he dies, he’ll save the woman whose heart he broke. Magic, mystery, a fledgling phoenix and a once-in-a-lifetime road trip.

Buy link: 

I’m Not Good Enough

Something’s been bothering me for years. It is my reluctance, and the reluctance of so many authors I talk with, to commit to promoting our books (and ourselves). We’re told to by publishers, agents, fellow authors, even readers, but we resist. Oh, how we resist!

It started (for me) with Carina Press back in 2010. They said their authors needed websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and to be engaged online with readers. I struggled. Basically, I wasted opportunities to get involved on Facebook (which still isn’t an intuitive social medium for me, i.e. I get lost on Facebook), although I do love Twitter – but that’s because I have a short attention span and a magpie’s curiosity. It’s not because I use Twitter effectively to promote my books.

I’ve also tried and abandoned Tumblr (I felt old over there), Pinterest (too much), Tsu (remember it?), Google+ (loved the functionality but never fell into a community that let me nest there), and on and on, all the while avoiding what I ought to have been doing.

And what ought I have been doing?

Plague Cult, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, kindle unlimited, plague dystopia, cult romance, cult thriller, cult mystery,I ought to have been listening to great advice from successful authors; advice like “start a mailing list”. I have now, belatedly. (The VIP New Release newsletter, subscribe today!) Advice like joining other authors in my genre to cross-promote our books. Advice like getting professional covers for my self-published books. On that, it’s under way! See Plague Cult, it’s the first, but Lou Harper is redesigning all of the covers for the Collegium series.

Basically, I can’t say that I didn’t know what I should be doing to promote my books and myself as an author. I received excellent advice from people I respect – and I ignored it. And the reason I ignored it suddenly struck me last night, and I thought on it overnight, and now I’m writing this post.

It’s about thinking I’m not good enough. Take the newsletter issue. I resisted starting one because I struggled to believe that a) I had anything worth saying, and b) that I (via my newsletter) was truly welcome in readers’ homes (i.e. their email inboxes).

What a lot of ****!

I listened to the demon of self-denigration and doubt, instead of giving it a kick in the rear.

A newsletter will have worth if I start it with a clear value proposition – a promise to readers – and keep that promise. So the promise I made was that my newsletter would be an alert to my new releases (which is information of value since my books are great! ha! take that demon!) and would often include links to other free books or … but I won’t give away the goodies I’m thinking of providing to add extra value while I deliver on the core promise of a new release alert. They’re a surprise! People love surprises.

My fundamental approach to book promotion has been fear that I’ll get it wrong, and so drive readers away from my books (and me). So I’ve played on the fringes, paddled in the shallows, tried not to dive in for fear of making a splash! By keeping the deep pool of promotional possibilities free of the contamination that is me and my less than perfect efforts, some superstitious, self-doubting corner of my psyche evidently believed (and believed powerfully) that I was keeping this space open for magic to happen.

Now, I write paranormal romance, so I write about magic all the time. But here’s the thing, when it comes to selling your books, waiting for magic to happen is a strategy on par with preparing for your retirement by buying a lottery ticket. It’s possible you’ll win, but the odds are against you.

Everyone’s marketing strategy is different, as it should be. It needs to take into account different genres, audiences, real life demands on authors (yes, we have lives), etc. So my tip is to analyse the authors you admire. What do they do to promote their books? Analyse three. Then balance it by analysing three authors whose books consistently top the best-seller list in the genre you write in. Note everything they do: the titles they choose, their cover design, keywords, categories (metadata), their blurbs, website, social media, how they work with their publishers’ publicity departments, their street teams’ activities, sign up to their newsletters. Note down everything they do – I’m repeating that advice because often we kind of don’t. We filter our analysis through the “that’s too hard for me to replicate” thinking and resist possibilities. Only once you have a complete list of activities from six people can you sit down and see what ALL of them are doing, the things that you judge most effective, and then, how you will replicate the important bits (yes, you too can be an awesome author).

Have I done this myself? No. But remember, I only had this revelation last night!

Whatever the strategy you use, please be honest with yourself. If you’re saying “I can’t…I won’t…it’s not sensible for me to…” then at least question your resistance.

You’ve written a book. That’s a damn fine effort. Now, back it up with confidence in yourself. The world is waiting for you.

***If you’ve found this post helpful, could you please do one of three things for me (or all three, that would be beyond cool)?

  1. Share this post with a friend, or on Facebook or Twitter.
  2. Like my official Facebook author page, and in particular, the post sharing my beautiful new cover for Plague Cult so that Facebook will share it with more people (because the social proof of likes and reshares = viral reach).
  3. Check out my latest release, Plague Cult, on Amazon and if it intrigues you, preorder it for the bargain price of 99c.

Thank you! Now, go forth and rock the publishing world!

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Writing Paranormal Romance

free pnrIn 2016 I’m concentrating on my paranormal romance series, The Collegium, and have an ambitious publishing schedule up for all the world to see on the front page of this site. Focussing on one project, if multiple different stand-alone novels, builds its own momentum. I live and breathe paranormal romance, and this post falls out of that obsession.

What does a paranormal romance novel need?

In writing, there’s probably no rule that shouldn’t be broken, if you know why you’re breaking it. That’s definitely true for paranormal romance, but…you really do need to honour readers’ expectations. But what are they? As a long-time paranormal romance reader, this is what I look for and what makes a book a re-read:

  1. fundamentally hopeful
  2. some banter/engaging dialogue
  3. curious world that somehow critiques real world
  4. alpha male hero
  5. strong heroine
  6. charm

Every reader’s list will be different. And how do you measure (or write) charm?

Writing a paranormal romance novel

There are four key things to concentrate on when writing your paranormal romance: characters, conflict, plot and world building. Your writing style is also crucial, but you’ll develop your voice your own way. I think dialogue is vital, and working on crafting it so that the hero and heroine’s style are distinct is important to me.

Characters – The hero and the heroine are the focus of the novel and must have bold developmental arcs. Paranormal romances are fantasies, and most fantasies are quests. Quest tales set characters on an external journey, and an inner, personal one–and sometimes the two mirror each other. Readers have to be committed to the quest, and part of this is forging an emotional connection with the characters. Make the characters’ motivation for their quests irresistible, give them quirks (flaws as well as strengths) and remember that fictional characters are larger than life. Draw them slightly oversize and they’ll ring true for readers.

Conflict – Paranormal romance, being part of the romance genre, has to have an emotional plot as well as an adventure one. The characters have to fight to change, to grow and to achieve their quests. The tension really ramps up if the hero and heroine have opposing goals where one will have to sacrifice their absolutely essential goal for the other to achieve theirs. Force the stakes as high as you can go, then double them!

Plot – I tend to think of paranormal romance novels as quest stories, but sometimes they’re quests for truth, as with mysteries, or quests for identity, as with trying to get home, find a family member, or attain knowledge. The important point is to put your characters on a journey. There should be successes and failures that hit hard. Each unresolved issue should ramp up the tension till it’s excruciating at the disaster point that hits just before everything is happy ever after. Be aware of any dangling plot threads. Paranormal romance readers demand a satisfying happy ever after (or at a minimum, happy for now). Anything that doesn’t drive towards that memorable ending–well, why is it in the book?

World Building – Work on your world building. Be imaginative! Readers crave new ways of seeing the world–or escaping it. But make sure it’s coherent. What is the theme of the world you’re building? Dystopian? Arcadian? Industrial? The world should support and intensify your characters’ quests. Add in small details–remember the charm I was talking about earlier? You want to make your world special, and one that readers want to invite other readers to enter, and to return to themselves. It can–and arguably, should–challenge readers. After all, in re-imagining the world we are implicitly critiquing it. Think about adding a touch of humour to lighten things, even dark irony. Humour builds a relationship with the reader. It draws us together, bound by our shared recognition of life’s absurdity.

No matter how unique the constructed world of paranormal romance is, the emotions keep it real.

Enjoy the fairytale

Paranormal romance novels are modern fairytales, stories we tell and retell about surviving the tough times and risking everything for love.



2016 Publishing Predictions

2016 publishing predictions

I do this every year. I try to look into the future and guess which way the publishing industry is going to jump. Will the hot books be cosy mysteries or science fiction thrillers? So far, I’ve never been right. Gothic romances in space? So many possibilities.

Dragon Knight, paranormal romance, Kindle Unlimited,This year, I’ve promised myself to focus on my paranormal romance series, The Collegium. Until I have three new books complete for it (I’m including Dragon Knight‘s scheduled February release), I can’t entertain any new book ideas. Basically, I’m betting that paranormal romance series will maintain a solid readership in 2016.

But after that, what should I tackle?

Cosy mysteries as a genre tend to sell steadily, and if you hit a popular vein (like Amanda M Lee did with her snarky witch series) then your books fly out the door.

I suspect themes of surviving against all the odds will continue to resonate with readers. Thrillers tap this. I wasn’t joking when I opened this post with a reference to science fiction thrillers. Science fiction is mainstream (look at the Star Wars franchise).

Will there be another break-out book like Fifty Shades of Grey (which I still haven’t read)? Yes. But I predict it won’t be present-day. I’m going out on a limb, but I think the big break-out book will be a recent historical. By which I mean something set within people’s living memory. We might stretch to the post-war world of the 1950s. But any decade after that is rich with possibilities. Vietnam Vet and a flower child heroine? Wall St banker and a dancer in the 1980s? It’ll be a romance.

But it’s not just the type of books that will rise and fall in popularity in 2016. So, too, will different ways of getting books into readers’ hands. Amazon remains the dominant player in the digital book market, and for the moment, I’m exclusive with Amazon for my self-published books. That may change though if Amazon’s policies and possibilities outside it shift. I’ll be keeping an eye out, but I’m frankly baffled as to how that path-to-publication for digital books will play out. There’s undoubtedly a game changer being developed out there.

One thing I have noticed is that readers who read a lot (that used to be me, but 2015 kicked my butt) are being presented with new ways to save their dollars, even while being coaxed to spend regularly. Amazon’s $10 a month lending library, Kindle Unlimited, is one example of that (and one which includes all my self-published books). Other book subscription services like Scribd and Oyster took a hit this year, so Amazon reigns supreme.

The other new-to-me dollar saving/spending strategy is BookBub‘s new feature where subscribers can bookmark books they’re interested in, and BookBub will alert them when that book is advertised at a discount price at BookBub. Or, to quote BookBub in their recent email to me:

Dear BookBub Reader,

We’ve picked you to be one of our first readers to try Bookmarks, a new feature that enables you to track books you want to read and get notified when they have a BookBub deal.

Thus, readers willing to commit some time to picking up new books, will probably restructure their book-buying habits to take advantage of similar possibilities elsewhere. BookBub is arguably the biggest and best place for advertising book promotions (from the self-published author’s perspective), so the fact that they’re introducing this feature is significant.

As a consequence, in 2016 it remains vital for authors to have a consistent pricing policy that establishes and respects readers’ expectations.

It’s early Tuesday morning as I write this. I need more coffee! If I think of any other predictions, I’ll add them, but for now, this is it. Do you have any publishing/book predictions for 2016? What are your writing/reading plans for the year?