Writing Research

We often hear writers talk about researching something for hours, maybe even days, just so one character can say one, off-hand comment naturally, like an expert. And trust me, that is a true thing. If you’re a writer and haven’t had to do that yet, just wait.

When I was writing the last book in my apocalyptic trilogy, I was lucky enough to be Twitter friendly with a cool scientist chick who I messaged to ask a few science questions and she was kind enough to loop me into a group email with other scientists to were willing to answer my laundry list of Science-For-Dummies questions (and subsequent follow ups because, I was definitely an English major) so I could figure out the cure for the plague in my story.

But that’s what a dedicated writer should do. Whatever it takes to make the non-fiction in the book as correct as possible. Readers who are familiar with subject matters know when a writer screws up and gets something wrong. There’s nothing worse that being absorbed by a book or other media only to have the creators get something obviously wrong to throw you out of the magical fiction trance.

There’s an art to naturally threading references into your narration so the reader becomes familiar with the characters’ vocation, expertise, etc.

For myself, I’m doing something new for a potential character. I have this creature in my head. She’s interesting and intriguing. She has magic and skills. I’m trying to get to know her so I can get her to tell me her story so I can write it down. I see her, walking in her boning and brocade and frock. But I also hear the tap of her cane on the cobbles. And I can see her using that cane for more than support.

I always say the two most impressive things a writer can do well is to write something scary or something funny. But, if I’m honest, another incredibly difficult thing to write well is fight scenes. They can be so boring. Almost like reading a complicated, dry math problem.

Which is why I’ve always, when I could, actually acted out my fight scenes. I’m incredibly lucky that my husband is a weapons expert and self-defense instructor. So I can go to him and ask if something is realistic. If a particular wound would be fatal or not. And for him to let me act out a fight scene on him. That way, when I go to write the scene, I can describe it in more than just fists and blows. I can describe the whirlwind feeling, the false sense of time, the confusion. There’s always more to physicality than you realize.

So I’m going back to that well and I’m going to be taking cane fighting lessons from him. We’ll no doubt add in sword and dagger and some other fun things, but I’m really looking forward to learning this almost-lost art. Even just talking about it unlocked some ideas in my head about this new, possible story.

Writing research, real, dedicated research is so important to creating a rich, detailed world for you and your readers. It’s a another way to refill your well when you think you’ve run out of ideas. I know my well has run dry and I’ve had difficulty thinking of something new and fresh to write, so if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, it may be time to start researching, learning something new–you never know what it may trigger for you.

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Rom-Coms: the Good, the Bad and the Mis-categorized

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

I have a love-hate relationship with rom-coms. On one hand, they are lovely and sweet and much-needed female fantasy. On the other, they drive me crazy when they are overly contrived.

During the Memorial Day weekend I caught a marathon of Gary Marshal films on Lifetime. I started watching with Pretty Woman and then The Princess Diaries 2 came on. I watched until I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open (it was past midnight). These are the movies I love. They focus on the romantic and have (at least a little) themes of female empowerment. This is certainly true in The Princess Diaries, which ends with the proclamation *SPOILER ALEERT* that Princess Mia doesn’t have to marry to rule. And although Edward is the Prince Charming of most of Pretty Woman the nearly final lines of Pretty Woman hint at gender equality in a way that was uncommon when it came out in 1990:

Edward:” What happens after the knight rescues the princess?”

Vivian: “She rescues him right back.”

Last week I was trying to listen to a rom-com on audio (it shall remain nameless) that really had the potential to be cute, but was so OVER THE TOP (yes, so much so as to deserve caps) and ridiculous, I couldn’t finish it. The main character was utterly clueless time and time again. No one is that stupid or naive. And the author completely ignored how the real world works to point of pretending certain laws don’t exist and changing basic human behavior to suit her plot needs. Ugh!

Today, I read a review in USA Today of a much-touted soon-to-be released rom-com. This quote could so easily have been applied to the book I’m referencing above: “It’s a ridiculous plot that would never happen in real life − the perfect ingredient for an inherently idealistic rom-com.” Yet they still gave the book 3.5/4 stars.

I’m trying to figure out when this requirement for the farcical in a rom-com began. I guess I could blame Shakespeare (I mean, Hero pretending to be dead in Much Ado About Nothing is pretty out there.) But the movies of the 1930s and 1940s like and It Happened One Night (1934) were witty and intelligent. Now, I realize rom-coms have always had elements that would never happen IRL, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to What Men Want (2019). That’s what makes them female fantasy. But nowadays its like you have to ignore the laws of life in a major way to be a rom-com, such as doing things that would actually get you arrested or that borderline on psycho.

When I was thinking about it, honestly, as much as I love the movie, I blame Bridget Jones’ Diary. Bridget is the first rom-com heroine (at least that I can recall) who was clutzy (which is fine–I totally am and I like being able to relate–but it has been taken to a terrible extreme). Plus as the movie went on (not to mention in the sequels), the plots became more and more outlandish. Because that was successful, that was the formula that was followed by authors thereafter.

Last night I watched the rom-com satire movie Isn’t It Romantic. It was really, really cute and it brought up some serious issues that I have with rom-coms. The biggest is that I HATE deception, especially when it could be remedied by a simple conversation that most normal people would naturally have–or you know, by not lying in the first place. But this has become a classic defining characteristic of the rom-com. So much so that when I wrote Been Searching for You, I purposefully didn’t include it and people told me I couldn’t call it a rom-com. Even screenwriting guru Micheal Hauge lists it as a must-have for the genre.

A few other pain points for me in rom-coms:

  1. Female colleagues must be mortal enemies; there is no other way. This is so stupid and does nothing for female-kind. In Been Searching for You, I never even considered making almost-entirely female agency have work enemies. We have plenty of other enemies and frienemies in the rest of life. I honestly think this idea came from male writers of early rom-coms who couldn’t conceive of women as good for anything other than bitchy cat-fights. Then again, I work for a non-profit and not a corporation, so maybe it is different there. Regardless, we should be building one another up rather than fighting with each other.
  2. You have to have a gay stereotypical sidekick who has no life outside of the heroine’s. And this is why Annabeth has two best friends, a guy and a girl, and Miles isn’t gay (Mia is bisexual, but that has nothing to do with her role in Annabeth’s life). I can’t suffer the disrespect of an outrageously gay male best friend character. Yes, I love very gay men, but to use them in this way is just wrong. Gay men come in all types, just like straight ones, and not all of them (or even most of them) want to be your fashion consultant/cheerleader/lap dog. And even if they do, they have their own lives. How about exploring their sub-plots a little and maybe even letting us see their happily ever after? The world is ready.
  3. The person you’re supposed to be in love with has been right in front of you all along. Yes, sometimes this happens in real life, but this is certainly not the case for every woman. I don’t currently have any close male friends, but when I did, ew, no! They were like brothers to me. Ick! This also reinforces the idea men and women can’t be just platonic friends, which I think is disingenuous. Just like not everyone marries their high school sweetheart, not everyone marries the guy they work with/live door next to/get their mail from, etc. Some of us actually have to go looking.

And if this isn’t enough, until recently (I’m not sure when it changed, but I just checked and it has) the books that topped Amazon’s romantic comedy category where really erotica. I don’t know how that happened or why, but it was a thing for at least a year. Thank God it seems to have been rectified.

Yes, Amazon, these are indeed rom-coms. (Click to enlarge)

But it looks like their sponsored ads may still need some work. I kid you not, when you look Been Searching for You up on Amazon, you get these “related” sponsored books. These are what used to top the romantic comedy category and could not be further from what a rom-com really is:

And these are related to my sex-off-the-page rom-com how? (Click to enlarge.)

Anyway, all this to say I fail to understand why “it could really happen” or at least only slightly fantastic rom-coms aren’t a thing anymore. Are we that in need of escape that anything that smacks of real-life isn’t acceptable? Do we secretly like watching other women make fools of themselves? (Because let’s be honest, that’s a LOT of what the farce comes down to, even in Bridget Jones.) Or have we lost/changed our definition of romance altogether? (I could get on a 50 Shades soapbox here, but I’m really so clumsy I’d fall off of it.) It would be really interesting to hear a publisher/producer’s perspective on this issue.

I’m going to keep writing what I write (there are two more books in the Chicago Soulmates series that Been Searching for You started), and hope for the best. In the meantime, I can’t wait for The Princess Diaries 3–which might actually happen!

What are your thoughts on rom-coms, both books and movies?

GRRM and the Three Bears…

…or, the virtue of leaving clues that are visible to the average reader but not ham-handed, neon-bright arrows.

I’m going to start with a small qualifier: I have neither read A Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire & Ice, nor have I watched the HBO series. I am, however, a sentient human being with access to the internet, so I know the last episode – in which the Mother of Dragons went postal – created something of a stir. Or a shitstorm. Or therabouts.

I know this in part because Chuck Wendig made a tweet thread in which he argues that character should come before plot – accusing implying that GRRM &/or the series creators may have overlooked this small detail.

You can read his thread HERE, and you should. He knows his stuff. Also, he deconstructs the episode – and the series – HERE. (And if you’re really into it, fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo also have a detailed review you can find HERE.)

The big concern with the Game of Thrones episode seemed to be that Daenerys Targaryen behaved in a way that was inconsistent with her character. Maybe or maybe not – I did see at least one tweet prior to the episode suggesting that the Mother of Dragons might end up being the Big Bad, which tells me there must have been at least a couple hints along the way.

Hints that the vast majority of the television-watching public apparently didn’t notice.

Sunday night, while the rest of humanity was glued to HBO, I started a mystery by a new-to-me author. It was a pretty standard trope: Big City Woman is dragged back to her small-town home for Reasons, where she Learns Things, Figures Out Whodunnit, possibly Falls In Love, and then decides to Stay Forevermore.

Sadly, I bailed on it by about 30 pages in, because:

  • I didn’t connect with the main character. At all.
  • Which turned on my editing brain, so that every time her eyes wandered around the room, I lost a little more patience. (Her gaze wandered. Her eyes stayed in her head. Thanks.)
  • As a result of my lack of connection and super-editor, the clues to the character’s arc were glaringly obvious.

The main character was the only one in the family who had the time to take care of the problem in the Small Town, even though it meant leaving her job in the middle of a project and pissing off her boss. Because apparently a woman’s work is never too important to interrupt.

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

Anywhoodle, her stated goal was to return to her uber-exciting life in the Big City, but from just about the moment she arrived, she had Feelings. Right there in her internal dialogue, she noticed a strange connection to the place, one she could not understand. “Why do I feel this way?” she’d ask herself.

Why?

Because it says in the blurb that you’re going to have a change of heart, sweetie, and you’ll want to stick around.

*ahem*

Leaving aside the (potentially sexist) set-up, to me these “what an odd emotion” moments were clunky, too-obvious road signs to her character’s development. I think it would have worked better if she’d had a chance to earn that sense of connection rather than just stumbling into it like a slap-happy princess in some insta-love romance.

And honestly, maybe she did. I mean, I did quit at only 30 pages. But hey, I’m over 50 and there are too many books left for me to read to waste time getting annoyed.

Although the stories are very different, I think the essential problem is the same. Daenerys’s behavior took a wild left turn from her established character, and the mystery character’s “odd feelings” didn’t relate to anything intrinsic to her personality. In the one case, the clues were too subtle, and the other, too blatant.

Seems like we should be able to split the difference somehow.

I wish I could say I knew how to avoid either mama bear or papa bear details. I’m researching Victorian London with an eye to writing a mystery, so I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to leave baby-bear style clues – hints that give readers just enough to keep going, but don’t beat them over the head.

The best advice I can come up with is that character trumps plot, and to be ready for a shitty first draft and lots of editing. To that end, I’m brainstorming characters’ goals and motivations and secrets and wounds and all the good stuff that will (hopefully) help me construct a story that’s character driven, and not the other way around.

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

Writing Under a Pen Name

Not everyone knows I have a nom de plume, which I do. I started writing under Leila Bryce Sin almost as soon as I started publishing under this name.

My first series was a YA series but I found that I had a little bit of talent at writing racier content and came up with this idea of a race I called Bright Elves. Bright Elves were kind of a take on a succubus who didn’t kill. They raised magic and power through lust and love and all that good stuff.

But, since I was starting out as making my name as a YA author, I was a little worried about the wrong audience picking up something they weren’t expecting from me.

So I decided to publish under Leila Bryce Sin. One of the cool things about writing paranormal erotica was that I didn’t have put out full-length novels every time–a lot of readers of that genre like novellas and short stories. I liked it too because it helped me hone some writing skills. When writing fantasy and world building I tended to get lost in descriptions and narrative, but if your word goal is less than fifty thousand words, you tend to focus on character and plot.

But then I had an idea for a novel. A story set in Las Vegas, one of my favorite places, following an actual succubus who was hiding from the other demons of Hell and working as a bartender at an Irish pub. Billie the Bartender.

I love Billie and her story was pretty well formed in my head when I first set out to write her book. I didn’t realize it was going to be a full-length novel, let alone the trilogy it turned into, but some characters demand more stage time than others.

I got the first novel, Hellfire, and the second novel, Holyfire, written in good time while trying to balance writing under my real name. But the novels I was working on as Shauna Granger definitely took precedence and I realized, as I was starting to hit a creative wall thanks to a massive word count I was building, I didn’t have anything left in the tank to figure out the third and final book.

I’d ended book two with a cliffhanger and the start of a war, I couldn’t not write the ending. But I also couldn’t write it. While I’d given myself a creative outlet for a different audience and type of story, I’d also pushed myself to the limit and couldn’t find it in myself to keep going.

So there was a very long break between publishing Holyfire in April of 2016 and even starting the outline of the final book this past autumn. Honestly, if it wasn’t for NaNo last year, I don’t know if I would have finished writing the book, let alone be ready for it to be live tomorrow. #shamlesspromo

But I did.

So what I can tell you about writing with a pen name is that it gives you a lot of freedom. You can delve into new genres or age categories that you don’t normal wade into. You can try new techniques and voices that don’t lend themselves to your normal milieu. And if those genres are a bit racy and you don’t want friends and family to know it’s your work, they don’t ever have to know! But you need to be careful. As with any creative job, it takes something from you, so if you’re not careful, if you don’t find a balance, you can wear yourself out and burn out before you’re ready.

It’s time.

This time last year – April 5th, 2018 – I published a post that, among other things, reflected on the upheaval surrounding the RITA Award nominations.

You can find that post HERE.

The RITAs are the romance genre’s version of the Oscars. They’re sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and if you write romance, getting a RITA nomination is a Very Big Deal. When the awards were announced last year, there was a huge uproar because the majority – the large majority – of the nominees were white.

In years past, authors of color have been nominated and a couple have won RITAs, but no black author has ever won a RITA award.

I finished last year’s post by encouraging everyone to read outside their comfort zone, to buy books by authors of color, and to listen to what authors of color have to say about how they’ve been treated and how they want to be treated.

And then a weird, but not entirely surprising, thing happened.

Nothing.

I mean, I wrote that post with the best of intentions, and in fact I followed my own recommendations, picking up books I might not otherwise have read. The ‘listening’ part didn’t happen, though. Not because I didn’t care, but because…I don’t know…the opportunity didn’t present itself?

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

See, for the last year and a few months I’ve been treasurer of the Rainbow Romance Writer (RRW), the LGBTQIA chapter of the RWA. Last year when the RITA nominations caused such a stir, it was brought to the attention of the RRW board that authors of color view our chapter as unwelcoming. At the time, we put out a statement vowing to change.

Which makes my inaction that much worse, because I could have worked for an opportunity, and I didn’t.

Did I mention that when the RITA nominations were announced this year, they were just as white as in years past? The biggest difference has been the fall-out: authors of color spoke more forcefully, on twitter and on various RWA forums, calling out the Nice White Ladies whose subtle, unexamined racism perpetuates the system.

I am a Nice White Lady.

I care about the usual range of liberal causes, and I want to live in a world where racism isn’t a thing, where we can all let go of that particular piece of baggage.

It’s a nice idea, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.

In the days since the announcement of this year’s RITA nominations, I’ve kept pretty quiet, preferring to read the twitter threads and Facebook posts and show my support through re-tweets and likes. Which is fine, but it’s also a demonstration of the thing I can’t ever let go of.

My own privilege.

Here’s the thing. Once the social media dust settled last year, I was able to put aside these issues and focus on other things. The authors of color I know – even those I consider friends – don’t have that luxury.

This was brought home to me with particular eloquence in this essay on privilege by NBA player Kyle Korver. (HERE‘s the link to his essay.) More than anything else, this paragraph resonated with me, and prompted me to write this post:

What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.

No matter how important I think the fight against racism is, I have the ability to put it aside in a way some of my friends don’t. Hell, I was able to take a whole year off, even after hearing that a group I help run is part of the problem.

It’s a sobering thought.

I’m left asking myself how I’m going to make things different this year. It’s easy to throw things down in a blog post and then let them slide because there’s no accountability. I will say I’m lucky, because the same authors who pointed out that our RRW chapter has issues are willing to work with us, to share their ideas so that we can create a more diverse chapter.

I’ll be working with the other RRW board members to move forward on that dialogue. (Can it be a dialogue when one side is mostly listening?) In addition, the RWA has put together a number of resources for encouraging diversity, and while I don’t want to make a bunch of empty promises, I’ll be exploring what’s there.

I may not be able to change the world, but I can work on myself. I can put more effort into recognizing all the ways the game is rigged in my favor,
in the hope of finding places I can level the playing field, so that next year’s RITA nominations are a celebration of diversity as well as excellence.

The Benefit of Critiques and Betas

When you first start writing, it is not uncommon to be the only person in your social sphere to be a writer. When you first start out, you often don’t have a writing community yet. Maybe you’ve joined Twitter and started following other writers and maybe you’ve even been brave enough to start joining in on some conversations, but you’re not quite ready to ask people to read your work. Starting out, especially alone, in this world is difficult and scary.

When I wrote my first book, I was the only person I knew writing a book. I wasn’t familiar with the writing community on Twitter–I didn’t even *have* a Twitter account when I started. I went to B&N and bought a copy of Writer’s Market and started following some of my favorite authors’ Facebook pages so I could jump in on Q&A’s and ask them how they got their starts.

But I had no one to read my manuscript–no beta readers or critique partners yet. I asked a couple of friends who liked to read to have a look at it and tell me their thoughts, but totally unsurprisingly they all said they “liked it!” And that was it. One friend was helpful enough to write out a list of typos, which, you know, was helpful but did nothing for the story.

Reader, trust me, that first draft was damn trash. No one should have liked it. And they probably didn’t actually like it, but being my friends and people who’ve never attempted to write a book themselves, they weren’t going to tell me anything was wrong with it.

It took eight drafts to fix that book and sheer luck that my BFF’s new husband’s cousin had a degree in literature and came into my new circle and was willing to try her hand at editing. Which, amazingly, led to her starting Joy Editing and has been my long-time editor ever since.

So, I know what it’s like to need help and not have it. I know what it’s like to try to figure out what is wrong with your masterpiece but not being able or ready to step back from it and look at it with a critical eye. Sure people saying they like your book or think it’s so cool you did that is nice, but you know, deep in you heart that’s not actually helpful.

You need someone else who knows what they’re doing to read your stories before you shop or publish them. You need someone else to say, “yes, I understood the story, it made sense, I followed along, the characters were fully formed, motivations made sense, etc. etc. etc.” Or, “I didn’t really understand the point of the book, the antagonist wasn’t believable as a bad guy, the dialogue felt unrealistic, you mentioned this thing but then never came back to it, that’s not how police procedures work, that one thing you did would actually kill a person but the character didn’t die, how did they just magic their way out of that dangerous situation, why did he fall in love with her she seems terrible, etc. etc. etc.” But we don’t always have the support system we need.

So, I started offering content editing and manuscript critique services. I’ve written my fair share of books and read my fair share of other writers’ WIPs that I have managed to hone my skills enough that I have become pretty good at this, IMHO.

Dropped plot threads, two dimensional characters, lack of motivation, flat dialogue, confusing plot lines, unbelievable magic, you name it and I will hunt it down for you.

And right now, I’m offering a ten percent discount on my services. If you’d like to find out why I’m offering that right now, feel free to bounce on over to my personal blog and have a read.

All you have to do to secure this deal is email me at shaunagranger82 @ gmail . com and mention this blog post. If you’re not ready to have your book read right this minute, you can still get the deal, just reserve your spot and pay a small deposit.

You dream of being a published writer but first, you need to make that manuscript shine…

Rhythm in Writing

The other day, a friend asked me to beta-read her newest story. (Meaning the project was still a draft and she wanted me to make comments on what worked and what didn’t work.) I love her stuff and was happy to give her new one a read.

Here’s the comment I made on the very first line: You might want to cut <redacted> because it’s a cliche and it messes up the rhythm of the sentence.

Now, ranting about cliches certainly deserves it’s own post, but for today, I want to focus on the second half of that comment.

“….it messes up the rhythm of the sentence.”

Do you pay much attention to the way a sentence flows? I do. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing. I love fiddling with words, because sometimes a small change can take a mundane idea and make it pop.

Here’s an example from my story Change of Heart:

My family disproved the term poor as dirt. See, we was poor, but we had plenty of dirt. We just couldn’t get much to grow.

Now, there are a bunch of different ways I could have communicated the same ideas – the character’s family was poor and their farmland was worn out – but for me, the paragraph’s structure emphasizes the beats.

Is that vague enough for you? Let me see if I can break it down a little more. To my ear, the first sentence has four even beats: my FAMily disPROVED the term POOR as DIRT. The commas in the second sentence scramble that steady rhythm: SEE (pause) we was POOR (pause) but we had PLENTy of DIRT. And then the last sentence picks up the steadiness of the first sentence, but with three beats instead of four: we just COULDn’t GET much to GROW.

Now, when I wrote that paragraph, I didn’t set out with an agenda. I didn’t think “I want X beats here and Y beats there.” I just kept fiddling with the lines until they sounded interesting. I only analyzed the rhythm after the fact – like today, writing this post.

Here’s another example where the rhythm of the sentence really works for me. This is from Alexis Hall’s book, Glitterland.

And when he kisses me it feels a bit like fear and tastes a bit like tears, but it’s as bright and sweet as sherbet, and I decide to call it joy. 

The music in this sentence comes from the way he links the phrases together, mostly by repeating the word “and”. Alexis is a master of cadence. He’s one of the writers I turn to when I need some inspiration to break out of a slump.

Another example is from Sarah Perry’s fantastic The Essex Serpent

He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out.

“….and heard the stones cry out.” … sigh …

I’ve only recently discovered Sarah’s work – I read Melmoth last week and OMG spooky and wonderful – and she’s a lovely writer. Her words just flow.

Writing prose isn’t like writing lyrics to a pop song, where there’s a set number of beats to every line. But it is like writing lyrics to a pop song, because when the rhythm is right, your work will sing.

As long as I’ve got your attention, I’ve got a couple books on sale this week. AQUA FOLLIES (gay romance set in 1955 Seattle) is marked down to $0.99 (regular $4.99). Also, HAUNTED (Reluctant psychic meets skeptical historian. Shenanigans ensue) is on sale for $0.99 too!
Jump HERE for AQUA FOLLIES.
Jump HERE for HAUNTED.

Happy reading!!

Margie Lawson has a post over on the Writers on the Storm blog that talks about creating compelling cadence – same idea, different words. Margie’s an excellent teacher, so you should check out her post!