Flipping the Script

I love a good trope as much as the next girl. When two rivals forced by circumstance to work together show up at an inn, the room they’re given better have only one bed. Better yet, have them kiss to avoid being discovered by the enemy!

But often while reading, I want to be surprised. Don’t get me wrong–tropes and archetypes can be useful, and certainly play their roles in providing your reader with solid ground. But it can often be even more useful to flip these tropes on their heads. The technical term for this is subversion, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbox. Curious to know more? Keep reading for a few of my favorite techniques to use your audience’s expectations both for and against them in order to create a more compelling read.

Start with dialogue. Witty banter is a must for a snappy and fast-paced read. But it’s easy to let characters fall into a rhythm where your reader might almost be able to predict what they’re going to say next. If you feel your characters keep more or less saying the same thing over and over, try playing with that familiarity to make it unexpected. Oscar Wilde was a master of this–he’d start a line of dialogue with a familiar phrase, then take the second half of the line in a completely different direction for humorous effect. For example: “All the world’s a stage…but the play is badly cast.” He knows the audience expects something, and upends that expectation for a witty surprise.

Try this with your own writing. If a conversation feels stale, try having the characters say the exact opposite of what they mean, take a familiar phrase in an unfamiliar direction, or flip a familiar saying on its head (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”)

Move on to worldbuilding. If you’re writing fantasy, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of building a familiar, wholly expected world that will surprise your reader not one jot (coughGameofThronescough). Even in other genres, world building often has a set of expectations that, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself emulating. The trick here is to be aware of the tropes, where they arise from, and why they’re common. For example, patriarchal societies are so common in fantasy writing because they’re based on Western medieval history, and the first half a century of fantasy writing was dominated by white males. When you use this expectation against your reader and subvert it, by putting women in power or even exploring a society where men are second-class citizens, your story will almost certainly be more compelling than if you follow what others have done before you.

So take a long hard look at the world you’ve built (even if it’s a world that looks very much like our own). How much of that world is knee-jerk fill-in-the-blank? And if it feels like a place you’ve maaaaybe been before, how can you subvert those expectations for a more original, compelling setting?

Next up? Characters. Want to write about the Chosen One? How about nah. Don’t get me wrong–these stories do and will continue to exist, and there’s value in that. But how often have you read a book where the Chosen One’s sidekick is the main character? Or better yet, the Chosen One’s opponent, who views the Chosen One as the villain? Now there’s a compelling story, amiright? Most craft books will tell you that all characters fall into certain archetypes–the Trickster, the Warrior, the Damsel, the King. And sure, that’s partially true. But the value here is knowing these archetypes, understanding their benefits, then learning when and where to turn them upside down. Go through your cast of characters and think about their stereotypes, then consider where you could subvert them.

Maybe your Damsel is really a Trickster, luring Warriors to their doom. Or perhaps your Warrior is actually a Damsel at heart, terrified behind their mask of strength. The harder you examine the archetypes you fall back on in creating characters, the more opportunities you have to explore their inverses!

And finally…plot. This one is arguably the hardest, especially when craft books like Save the Cat argue that all stories follow the same basic structures. Again, the trick here is to identify tropes before they happen…and then put your own twist on it. For example, everyone knows that no matter how hard characters try to avoid a prophecy, it always comes true–in fact, usually the things they do to avoid the prophecy make it come true! What if, instead, your characters want a prophecy to come true, but no matter what they do they can’t seem to trigger it? Instead of your villain trying to prevent your hero from achieving his goal, maybe they actually want the same exact thing?

Again, you want to examine the building blocks of your story and identify where you may be falling into old familiar ruts. Does the good guy win? Is the villain a mustache-twirling madman? When you find these elements, see whether you can upend them in such a way as to use your readers’ expectations against them, a surprise them with something fresh and unexpected.

Which are your favorite literary tropes? Or, better yet, which are your favorite tropes you love to see subverted? Share you thoughts in the comment section!

Adapting As a Writer — Part 2

If you’ve been following along with my posts, you know that I’ve been working on a new book and it’s been kicking my ass a little bit, as books are often want to do. So I started changing how I wrote it–with an outline, without one, adding in new scenes to the early stages of the book–doing whatever I needed to in order to get words done.

I had never written scenes out of order before this book. When I had a new idea for what this book was really about, I knew I couldn’t just keep writing because I was having the characters reference things that hadn’t happened but should have.

So once I had those extra scenes written, I had to re-read the book for the third time to figure out where those scenes fit into the book–often having to rewrite a little bit before and after in order for them to fit seamlessly. It was weird, but it was so satisfying to watch my wordcount jump almost 10k in one day.

Now, because I’m dealing with a whole new animal of a book and I no longer have an outline to work with, I’m writing little by little to get it done. I went back to what worked for me as a new writer: just getting 1,000 words a day, Monday through Friday. It’s helping me gradually figure out what this book is about and where it’s going and what the characters’ motivations are.

That’s a big one: what do the characters want? I’m doing something different with this book than I’ve ever done before: I’m letting the teenagers act like teenagers. So often, YA books have us following the most ethical and morally centered people but really, when you were a teenager were you completely altruistic? Were you the most self-less, self-sacrificing person? Or did you some times fanaticize about what you would do if you had magical powers and maybe those fantasies weren’t for the greater good? Maybe they were petty and self-serving? Yeah, because that’s realistic.

I remember seeing Village of the Dammed with a friend and on our way home, in the backseat of my parents’ car, we talked about who we would use those powers on. Creepy, sure, but you have enemies in school and you think about winning your battles.

So I’m keeping that in mind as I write. And it’s kinda freeing and a little strange. Of course the characters are evolving but it’s nice to let them use their powers how Nancy used hers and not seeing them as the bad guy.

But, because I’m taking it slow, I’m giving myself the time and space I need to think about what’s coming next instead of seeing the whole story arc and that’s been kind of cool. I’ve kept up the practice of writing scenes on new documents and adding them to the book and it’s been a huge help getting my daily word goals.

When you have a document that’s over 80k words, watching your word count slowly creep up can be distracting, but if you have a fresh document open and tell yourself you just need 1,000 words, the word count tracker looks like you’re going much faster. Yesterday I was able to sit and get 1700+ words in one session and that was after a very bad night’s sleep. Which also means that I’m ahead of my weekly goal, so I can either keep going to get extra words, or I can give myself time away from writing to think about what’s coming next.

It’s been really nice taking the pressure off. Minimum word goals sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough but small goals are easier to achieve and eventually a bunch of small goals will add up to the main, major goal: a finished first draft.

So, you all knew me as the prolific writer who could normally do 3-5k words a day once I had a book idea fleshed out, but now I’m back to that 1k words a day, slowly but surely pace. I hope, if you’re like the rest of us comparing your accomplishments and abilities to others, and have felt like you’re not doing enough, knowing that we all have to change and adapt will give you some peace. It certainly has given me some.

Write Something That May Change Your Life

Real Talk: as the mom of a six month old, I haven’t yet found any kind of rhythm when it comes to writing. I promise myself that the second she goes down for a nap, I’m going to jump right on my laptop and pound out a few hundred words. But realistically, there are so many things I feel like I have to do around the house or for basic self-care that writing often falls all the way to the bottom of the priority pile. What I do have time for–between marathon feeding sessions and contact naps–is reading. My Kindle has been getting a real work out lately. But as someone with a back-log of story ideas, it can be frustrating to exclusively read other peoples’ stories when I kind of wish I had time to work on my own.

Then, the idea struck me: what if I peppered some craft books into the mix? Then I would at least feel like I was preparing or honing my skills for when I finally had the time to write. The only question was, which craft books? I’ve already read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, On Writing by Stephen King, and Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. Fortunately, the answer was dropped into my lap when an author I follow on Instagram mentioned the method she uses to outline–Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.

Now, I usually approach these craft books with a hefty grain of salt. First of all, I’ve been writing for long enough to know that every author’s process is different and what works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for me. No point in trying to fit my square peg into someone else’s round hole. Second of all, a lot of the “beat sheet” methods strike me as underwhelming and a bit unspecific–I struggle with the idea that all stories “must” follow these precise structures to be successful. I want a craft book that will guide me, inspire me, and deepen my process, not boil it down to a generic three acts, seven plot points, and three pinch points.

So far, Truby’s book is that and more. I feel like I’ve been highlighting every other passage on my Kindle! But one line in particular shook me to my core, and I want to share it with you all in case it helps you as much as it helps me.

Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life. This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.

Anatomy of Story, by John Truby

Superficially, this isn’t the most novel advice in the world. It’s a variation of “Write the book you want to read.” But for me, that last line gave me chills. Because it shifts all of the focus from the external outcome to the internal outcome, which is something I’ve struggled with since the very first query letter I sent out into the world. From the moment I decided to “become an author,” I’ve grappled with what success could and would look like to me. Getting an agent? Getting a book deal? Hitting a best-seller list? Selling a million copies? I found that I could never define what success would look like, and whenever I did manage to hit a milestone, I found my own goal-posts had already moved.

In the past few years I’ve tried to shift that focus back to the internal, but it’s harder than it sounds. Even when I tell myself that I’m just writing something for me, or just writing the book I want to read, or just writing for fun, the fact of the matter is that writing books will never just be a hobby for me again. I’ve sunk years and tears and too much love into this career to never try to publish another novel. So how do I balance those external expectations with those internal motivations?

I think that’s why this advice from Truby resonated with me so much. He’s not telling you to simply write for fun, or for yourself. He’s not even telling you to write the book you want to read. He’s encouraging you to do so much more than that–he’s encouraging you to write the book that may change your life. He’s asking you to dig so deep, work so hard, and aim so high that the end result will literally transform you.

I find this idea daunting, but so inspiring. No one–not a craft book, not a friend, not a mentor, not even myself–has ever asked so much of me. So I’m going to try to follow his advice. The story I write may not sell a million copies. It may not hit any bestseller lists. It may not even get published.

But what does any of that even matter if I’ve changed my own life?

Music Makes Me Write

We’ve all talked in the past about what kind of writing rituals we have, ones that we just enjoy to give ambiance to the experience and others that we have trained ourselves to use to make writing easier.

For me, I have my preference of when and where to write (mornings, in my office), but if I have to make adjustments to that (my office gets unbearably hot in the summer), I can adapt and write at different locations and times if I need to get my words in.

But my trained ritual is music. For every book, I take time to curate the start of a playlist–a soundtrack–for the book. I do try to get at least forty minutes of a playlist before I start so that it doesn’t start repeating on me too soon. But repeating is part of the magic of the right playlist too. Like the chanting refrain of a spell, hearing the same key songs again and again will help me get the story on the page.

If you get the music just right, it will conjure the characters and/or location of the book in you mind when you hear specific songs even outside of writing. Sometimes I even put one song on repeat for an hour because it has the magical words that are working when no others are.

I like to keep building on a list if a book is a series, so I can hear the different voices of the different characters in the cast. I also like to throw in some instrumental tracks to help when I’m building tension in different parts of the book.

I managed to get my Ash and Ruin Soundtrack up to two hours and forty-five minutes.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4TUKR4rCv8Av2k2rRqhxkd?si=Pj9bw5frSJmOi-s6WPE1aA

I can open that and am instantly transported back to my post-apocalyptic world teeming with black-cloaked monsters.

Surprisingly, my Wytchcraft playlist is shorter than my A&R soundtrack. I say surprising because that series is much longer, but that world is much smaller in a way as it’s not a journey story like A&R. And, while there is a cast of characters even bigger in this series, it really is mostly about my MC, Mattie, so the music is mostly for her and to be in her head.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3epr0YSBEjn7ccUvQgOfTA?si=CUIvy8fZQAq1BSUfNoX5hQ

I have shared that I also have a pen name, Leila Bryce Sin, and under that name I write completely different stories (coughcoughveryadultthemescoughcough). So I definitely make sure that music is different, but one theme you’ll find throughout my playlist is strong female voices. I love a good power ballad sung by a woman that I want to be for five minutes. It’s a special kind of storytelling and I fucking love it.

My Brimstone War Trilogy was set in Las Vegas so it needed music to evoke that special city for me and it featured a war between heaven and hell, so it needed a lot of angry music. It’s quite the hodgepodge, I know, but it worked for me through three intense books.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/142r4gSfvwqPwS0z7jeVGm?si=KxYY45UeSjWnloq64F2oRA

Now, I have two playlists that aren’t tied to any one book; they’re soundtracks I can go to no matter what book I’m writing and it’ll help unlock a door in my mind like no other playlist can. Sometimes you  just need intense emotions and music, pushing you forward as your characters run for their lives or fight to the death. Or the right creeping melody to help you curl your spine and sink into  the cushions, hoping to drag  your reader into the tense, scary darkness  you’re weaving.

Soundtracks: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5F26qJIXsZ87hIx2q62shz?si=ruUaORORRnKMJfjU6VwC2A

Instrumental: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/24uUYnObN6uUBZR4suO8Ig?si=EiL6GDS8Qmy6UX_RnrcoYA

You probably notice there are the same artists on the different lists, even some of the same songs, and that’s because those artists really speak to me. I do tend to write slightly damaged, a little bit angry women as my main characters, so a lot of the same songs work for all of them. Or for me. Whatever. The Pretty Reckless, Kaleo, Ellie Goulding, Halsey, and Florence and the Machine are some of my touchstones no matter what I’m writing. Finding those voices for yourself could really help you if you find yourself stuck in getting through tough scenes.

Personally I love to find new music. It’s something I’ve always loved since I started figuring out what music I like. I can spend whole days getting that playlist started before I put fingers to keys, creating the vibe and ambiance I want to portray in a story. Ritual really is the only word for it. So, I hope sharing some of these lists with you, helps you find new sounds and voices that help you with writing.

(P.S. I did have this all set up super cool where you could see the playlist in the post but for whatever reason, WordPress is being a complete butt. So if you can’t see the playlists, I’ve included links. Not nearly as cool, but what are you gonna do?)

The Perfect First Line

I consider myself something of a first line connoisseur. What do you mean, that’s not a thing?

Seriously, though, I have a pretty intense fascination with opening lines. I like reading them (I actually have a list in my Notes app with all my favorite opening lines), and I’m borderline obsessed with writing them. I love them in poems and novels and short stories. I’ve heard it said that perfect first lines contain the entirety of the work they represent, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely or always true, it certainly highlights how significant a first line can be. To boil it down: great first lines have the power to entice a reader enough that they wouldn’t dream of putting down your book/short story/poem.

So how on earth do you write a compelling first line? Here are a few methods to make your first line sing!

Use vivid imagery

Invite your reader into the world of your story with an image or feeling that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t have to be long or complex–in fact, with this method I tend to think shorter is better. Pick a specific image or sensation and make it as visceral, punchy, and vivid as possible.

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Make the reader ask questions they can only answer by continuing to read

Many great first lines introduce elements of world-building without explanation as a way to entice readers into the meat of the story. This can be incredibly effective as long as it’s not too confusing. Keep the language clear and simple to balance the unknown elements.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

Introduce a theme that begs further explanation

Rather than opening in media res, or in the middle of the action, some great opening lines choose instead to posit a theme or a motif that will continue to be explored throughout the story. This can be risky, as the reader may not immediately identify or connect to the theme, but it can also be done very well.

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story…a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Introduce a character’s unique voice

If your story is very character driven, or told from a unique point of view, this may be the best way to draw your readers in to their particular voice, tone, or cadence.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Play with time

Perhaps you want to hint at an event that takes place further along in your story than you’re starting the narrative. Or perhaps you want to tease something that happened in the past that led up to the moment your story begins. Either way, referring to something that happened in a time other than where your story is happening can be a compelling way to draw your reader in.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Make your reader laugh

If your book is funny…why not make the first line funny as well? This is not my forte, so I don’t have any more salient tips than “be funny,” but who doesn’t love a hilarious opening line?

“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

And that’s all I got! First lines aren’t always easy to write, but when you finally get it right it can be like a path opening up in the woods. Be patient with your craft, listen to how your story wants to be told, and good luck writing your own perfect first line!

How do you go about crafting first lines? Let me know your best tips or drop your favorite literary opening line in the comments section below!

Using current events in fiction.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Pandemic. Lockdown. Quarantine. Protest.
#BlackLivesMatter. #DefundThePolice. #WearAMask.

Think back to the Before Times – you know, like last February. Did any of these terms and hashtags resonate? #BlackLivesMatter is the only one I’d heard of, but now we have this whole new vocabulary.

And it’s….awkward.

I know many authors are struggling to get words on the page, and others who are no longer struggling, because they’ve given up. It’s just too hard to tap into their creativity when it feels like the world is falling in around them. I’ve also seen debates on social media about the appropriateness of writing quickie quarantine romances to try to capitalize on our new reality.

Kinda gives the “forced proximity” trope a whole different spin.

For discussion’s sake, let’s say you do have the spoons to write, but you’re wondering how much of our current quagmire should make it on the page. As a first step, it might be worth considering what people want to read. Maybe they do want that quickie quarantine romance. Or maybe they want Shauna’s fantastic dystopian Ash & Ruin series or any of the books on this Goodreads list of Current Events Fiction.

Or maybe they want something as far from reality as possible. (How ’bout hot&naughty elves? Kasia Bacon‘s Order series – starting with The Mutt – is a whole lot of fun.)

But, some of you might say, if I write about current events, my book might soon feel dated or people will forget what happened. Those are valid points, but I like this rebuttal by Brandi Reissenweber in an article from The Writer Magazine:

Keep them (current events) fresh and meaningful long after they’ve passed in the same way you keep any events in your fiction fresh and meaningful: Lash them with urgency to the experience of one or more characters.

For example, I found one of the best descriptions of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in Royal Street, the first book in Suzanne Johnson‘s Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series. Not only did the author nail the details – she lived in NOLA during Katrina – but her characters had a life or death stake in the events, which made for a real page-turner.

One thing to consider, though, is that Royal Street was published in 2012, about seven years after Katrina. I’ve never asked, but I’d imagine it took Suzanne some time to organize her reactions to the disaster in a way that made sense. In a WaPo article that speculates on what post-pandemic fiction will look like, Chris Bohjalian makes a useful comparison with post-9/11 fiction. He points out that it was 2005 before the serious novels dealing with 9/11 began to be published.

….it took novelists a little more time to shape the nightmare into a story. After all, how do you make something up when the truth is so unspeakable? So wrenching?

Good questions.

The pandemic, with the horrific costs associated with it, is at least as profound an event as 9/11, with arguably greater consequences. The concurrent shifting social paradigms around race and racism are equally significant, though I’d caution all writers who want to explore those issues to make sure the story is theirs to tell. It’s going to take years for creatives to wrap their arms around this phase in our history, and there may be some who’ll never be able to revisit this time, even in fiction.

Is there territory between a quickie something-something that grabs the headlines and runs, and a deep and thoughtful examination of our lived experience? I’d argue that there is. One of the series I’m co-writing with Irene Preston features a character who used to be a cop but quit the force. In part because of that character, I’ve made an effort to read about the whole #DefundThePolice movement and those ideas are definitely influencing his backstory.

Times are hard, and I’ve got it better than most. The stress, the isolation, and the endless conflict have to color what we’re able to create, if not squash our creativity all together. Take care. Be gentle with yourself. Use the grist of these days in any way that makes sense to you.

And wash your hands.

(In his WaPo article, Chris Bohjalian mentions several books on 9/11 that he considered “important”. Here’s another link to the article in case you’re curious.)

What’s In A Name?

Oh, naming. You fickle beast. I want to cuddle you close yet curse you to the ends of time. For you have caused me many a sleepless night.

Naming people, places, and things in my writing is an interesting element of my work, in that it’s really important to me. Now, I happen to know this isn’t the case for all authors. Some writers name their main character Emma, name the love interest Jack, have them go to Ridgeview High, and get on with it. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these names–they’re solid, straightforward names and I respect and envy them.) I know other authors who don’t bother naming their characters or places anything at all in their first drafts, simply using X, Y and Z and filling everything in later. (This is some chaotic evil energy, if you ask me, which no one did.)

Neither of these methods work for me. In my writing, a character’s name is integral to who they are–how they grew up, how they see themselves, how others see them, where they’re from, what they believe in, et cetera. To name them something offhand would be to deprive me of insight into their character, and to name them nothing at all would be chaotic evil. (I’m a true neutral, okay?) And although not quite as important as character names, naming places and things is also really important to me. As a fantasy author, I believe place names should evoke the story’s aesthetic, world-building, and possibly even give hints about the history and purpose of a place. Objects should be named in a similar vein. (For example, Excalibur has a real ring to it. That Sword Over There really doesn’t.)

The problem is, I’m kind of terrible at naming, well, anything. With character names, I usually have a sense of what kind of sound or feeling I’m trying to evoke–for a healer, I’d want something soft and lyrical, while for a warrior, I’d go for something stronger and sharper. But that’s usually all I have to go on. And not just any name will do–I need the right name. A name I’ll only know is right when I hear it. A name I need to know before I can even start writing.

Place and object names are even worse. For some reason, my creative brain leaves me totally in the lurch when it comes to these, and I go wayyyy too literal. If there’s a place where people gather, you know I want to call it the Gathering Place. A sword with a destiny? Sword of Destiny it is.

So, I’ve developed a process. Since character names are most important to me, I usually start with online baby name lists. (Nameberry is my go to, although it’s only one of many.) You can usually sort these lists by gender, style, popularity, and sometimes geography. This helps me narrow down what I’m looking for, and what I’m definitely not looking for. Sometimes I even find a few unicorn names here!

Then, I move on to random name generators. I quite like this Character Name Generator, which allows you to sort by Language, Gods, Archetype, et cetera. As a fantasy author, this really starts to get my gears turning, and even if I don’t find the exact name I’m looking for, it often inspires me.

But my favorite all-time naming tool is Fantasy Name Generators. Seriously, this site has everything! No matter what you’re trying to name–Dwarf, Motel, Motorcycle Gang–this site probably has a generator for that category. My only caveat for using this site, is that sometimes the names generated are quite silly! I’ve had more than a few good laughs while playing around here (no, I’m not going to name my fantasy character’s horse Malibu.) But that said, I’ve found it’s the absolute best at getting my own naming gears turning in the right direction. Even if I don’t use the precise suggestions from the generator, variations and similar names have definitely wound up in both my published and unpublished works!

In my opinion, that which we call a rose by any other name would not smell so sweet. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here naming the leaders of my Barbarian Horde Ulskath and Hirtmaurbes. Or, y’know, something along those lines.

Do you have trouble naming character, places, or things? What tools do you use for inspo? Share your thoughts below!

What the book is really about.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so, so tired of a certain virus that is apparently hell-bent on ending civilization as we know it. In the spirit of Shauna’s last post, I want to focus on writing, because I have a helluva lot more control of my imaginary worlds than I do over the real one.

This is aspirational. My real-life looks nothing like this.

I’m an avid (overly enthusiastic?) fan of author KJ Charles. Her books are funny and sexy and scary and they make you think. Her plots are a master class in how-to-do-it-right. And this week, in the run-up to her newest release Slippery Creatures (Will Darling #1), I noticed something else.

She’s got a knack for describing her books in a way that makes them sound like they’re the most fun ever.

I’m not talking about her book’s blurbs, the back-jacket copy that supposedly sells the book, although her blurbs are very well done – check out the Goodreads link for Slippery Creatures to see what I mean. The thing that really grabs me, though, are the one- or two-line descriptions she uses on social media that summarize what the stories are about.

For example, on her Facebook fan page (KJ Charles Chat) she posted a sign-up for Slippery Creatures ARCs, giving readers the chance to review her book prior to it’s May 13th release, and I promise you, that sign-up post is golden.

She compares her Will Darling series to Golden Age adventure stories with spies and secrets and country houses and social change. (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t want to give too much away.) I don’t even need to see the book’s blurb; she had me at nightclubs and shady conspiracies.

The blurb is awesome, but the one-line description on the ARC sign-up bumped the book to the top of my to-be-read pile.

Having made this observation – that KJ makes her books sound fun! – I wondered if I could do the same with my own books. I turned to my current WIP, the book I started last November for NaNoWriMo, but couldn’t come up with anything coherent. (More about that later.)

Instead, I shifted gears and went digging through my back list. Here are a few examples:

Vespers mixes a 100-year-old vampire monk with a 22 year old college grad and a bunch of demons (both physical and psychological) and gives Liv the chance to work out her ideas about religion.

Here’s another example:

Change of Heart throws a country girl who talks like Dorothy Gale into the Big Easy and gives Liv a chance to explore how trans people might have survived in the days before hormones and surgery and also gives Vespers fans an Easter egg.

Or:

Lost and Found takes a very sad story (the life of the Russian dancer Najinksy) and finds him a happy ending (because romance) and also gives Liv a chance to brush up on her high school French.

Hmm…I’m sensing a theme. In these one-liners, I focus on my intention when writing the books, rather than picking out elements that make the story sound fun!

And that, my friends, might explain why I had trouble coming up with a one-liner for my current WIP. I mean, I know what it’s about – in the days when the city of Seattle was struggling to establish itself as the top dog in the Northwest, a necromancer tried to run all other magic workers out of town but he is challenged by a ne’er do well night patrolman, a pretty piano player, and their friends – but I haven’t yet figured out the why.

Why am I writing this story? What overarching theme grabbed me and made me spend however many hours it took to hit the 85k word mark? (I’m just about there, with a couple scenes left to draft.) I’m pretty sure my motivation went deeper than “well hell, I managed to write 50k words in November, let’s see where this bad boy goes”.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I have a deeper motivation. I hope.

I’d argue that while KJ’s one-liner for Slippery Things hits on a number of elements that focus on fun! (Spies! Nightclubs! Shady conspiracies!) she slips in a note about social change, hinting that she’s worked in a deeper theme or two. That grounds the story, making it even more compelling.

So if you need me, I’ll be pondering the theme(s) for my current WIP, which I’m hoping will be more obvious after I finish the draft and give the story some time to breath. I’ll also be working on a one-liner that includes the kind of fun! elements that make KJs books sound so good.

Because it’s smart to learn from the best.

Vive La Bibliographie!

For years now, nay decades, historians and historical fiction authors have had a tenuous relationship. Well, from my perspective, it’s the historians who have their noses out of joint; most historical fiction authors, myself included, just want to write our books.

You see, some (not all, mind you) historians see us fiction writers as encroaching on their territory and doing it a disservice. I think with the word “fiction” in our genre and “a novel” written on most of our book covers, that is just silliness. I also think the reader has to take some responsibility for understanding the difference, but perhaps I am giving people too much credit. Tudor historian John Guy found that after Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series was published many of his current and prospective students took what they read as fact. His complaint? “The writing was so good that some people think it is true.”*

Because we are writing a (hopefully entertaining) story in addition to providing historical facts, historical novelists sometimes have to or choose to bend those facts or go outside of the historical record. One thing many of us do to make up for this is include an Author’s Note at the end of our books. In this section, which for some is only a few paragraphs, but for others can be quite lengthy and detailed, *cough*me*cough,* we explain what is true and what is not and why we changed things when we did. Other authors provide additional historical information on their websites or in their blogs. Some even include a bibliography or a brief list of sources at the back.

Ironically, it is Hilary Mantel herself, a historical fiction author who is NOT a historian, who rails loudest against this practice. She’s fine with including an Author’s Note (which she does in her own books), but draws the line at a bibliography. At the Oxford Literary Festival in 2017 she accused historical novelists of “try[ing] to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”**

[cue eye roll]

No, Dame Mantel, that is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to show that we’ve done our due diligence in making our books as historically accurate as we can. We’re trying to raise the respectability of our genre, which, not that long ago was conflated with period costume bodice-rippers that were rightfully called mere escapism. (Remind me to write a post on the history of historical fiction sometime.) But since that time, the genre has come a long way in building credibility with readers and critics and today’s authors are much more concerned with portraying time periods and places correctly, as our source lists show.

In addition, we’re providing a list of sources for those who wish to learn more or want to fact-check the book. As a reader, I LOVE the Author’s Note and am sorely disappointed if there isn’t one or little effort was put into it. As a writer, I have looked at the bibliographies of other historical fiction writers in my time period to get a sense if I am going in the right direction in my own research. These pages at the end of books serve very important purposes that cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand.

We are in no way pretending to be what we are not. Most historical novelists will freely admit to not having a PhD if that is the case. And there are a few who do have one (such as Alison Weir and Anne Fortier), so does that give them the right to include a bibliography in their books while the rest of us can’t? If that is the case, that is elitism, pure and simple. Many of us are self-taught researchers or may have been trained through courses of study besides history (English or law, perhaps) but that doesn’t mean our research is automatically of lower quality and undeserving of being documented.

It would be far worse if historical novelists a) didn’t bother to do proper research and/or b) left readers to their own devices to figure out what is true. Then you really would have historical confusion.

I could be completely wrong, but it feels like opinions like this stem from two things: an old-world us vs. them snobbery in which we novelists are seen as on a far lower plane than professors of history, and a feeling of being threatened because the average reader is more likely to read a historical fiction novel than an academic work of history.

As an author who has written both and plans to eventually get her PhD in history, I will say there is no reason for historians to feel threatened. They do what they do and we do what we do. Each has our own audience and when there is crossover, it benefits us both. But we cannot shoulder the responsibility for how our readers interpret our work alone. If they want to believe it is true all we can do is warn them it’s not and direct them to books by historians to find out what really happened–that is exactly what the bibliographies found in our books do!

I think the idea that historians somehow sit on a loftier pedestal than historical authors is a function of the insular nature of academia and will hopefully (eventually) burn itself out. It is this misguided attitude that makes it somehow okay for someone who started out as a historian to later go into historical fiction, but not for a historical novelist who lacks a PhD to ask to be taken seriously. Unless historical novelists start claiming that their books are the truth– rather than influenced by the truth–(as best that historians can interpret it; it can be argued that all of history is fiction as it is written by the victors and is often revised by memory, time and author prejudice) there is no need for us vs. them. We are both working toward the same purpose: educating a public that increasingly doesn’t give a fig about history. We just go about it in different ways.

And as for me, you can pry my bibliography (fiction or non-fiction) out of my cold, dead hands.

*Quoted in McQuin, Kristen “The Truth Is Better Than Fiction: Accuracy In Historical Fiction.“ Bookriot. March 19l 2018. https://bookriot.com/2018/03/19/accuracy-in-historical-fiction/

**Furness, Hannah. “Hilary Mantel: Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/31/hilary-mantel-women-writers-must-stop-falsely-empowering-female/

Writing outside my lane

Image from Unsplash.

So I did something sneaky. In this year’s New Years Resolution post, I only listed ONE action item:

I hereby resolve to use my planner.

When it comes to the planner, so far so good. The “sneaky” part comes from what I didn’t say, the one or two other ideas I didn’t share.

For instance, I vowed to take a writing class, something I’d have to commit to and that I’d learn from. I kept that resolution secret, a little something just between me and my laptop because I didn’t have a firm plan at New Years. In early January, however, I stumbled over something good.

I found Writing the Other: Deep Dive into Diverse Characters, which is a month-long class given by Nisi Shawl, Tempest Bradford, and Piper J. Drake.

The foundation for this course is the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl. (I’ve linked to Amazon but it’s available from B&N and the publisher as well.) The course teaches character development through a framework that strives to avoid stereotypes and offensive characterizations when working with characters of different gender, race, &/or orientation.

Here’s a bit from the course description:

Representation is fundamental to writing great fiction. Creating characters that reflect of the diversity of the world we all live in is important for all writers and creators of fictional narratives. But writers often find it difficult to represent people whose gender, sexual orientation, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity is very different from their own. This can lead to fear of getting it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and, in the face of that, some think it’s better to not even try.

But representation is too important to ignore. And it is possible to write characters who represent the “Other” sensitively and convincingly. This four week course will provide authors  with a solid foundation in how to craft characters from any background, no matter how different they are from you.

I’m sharing all of this both because I’ve learned a lot so far and because growing my skill at writing outside my own experience is a crucial part of my development. I’ve published nine novels/novellas with gay or queer protagonists, so I’m working outside my lane all the damned time. I need to make sure I’m not stepping on people’s toes – or damaging their sense of self – when I do.

We’re only halfway through the class, and so far I have a couple of take-homes. First, I think some – possibly younger – people are a lot more comfortable with labels than I am. In the course introduction, we were asked to share how we fit the dominant paradigm and where we differed from it.

All my intro said was “I am the dominant paradigm.”

I’m a cis-het white woman with no chronic health or emotional issues. I’m neurotypical and I’ve never I experimented with alternative lifestyles or genders. Compared with most of the other intros, mine was SHORT.

Having the language to identify yourself as queer or neurodivergent and the comfort level to share ongoing mental health challenges is a truly beautiful change in our culture. I grew up with a much more limited vocabulary:

You were straight or (whispers) gay, a boy or a girl, and if you felt bad you went to a therapist but you damned well didn’t talk about it.

My theory – based on observation alone – is that it’s a generational thing, but I could be wrong. Either way, I count it as progress.

The other take-home from the course has to do with the how of it. How does an author avoid creating hurtful characters?

Do your homework.
Ask yourself honestly if you’re the best person to write this story.
Diversity is important, but I’d be very careful of writing a PoC character where the story was about their experience as a PoC. You’re not here to save anyone.
Get to know people who belong to the group you’re drawing from.
Read and research, looking specifically for works created by group members, not by others writing “authoritatively” about them.

Hire a sensitivity reader.
Although it’s not one person’s job to speak for the many, a good sensitivity reader can help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Respond to feedback with an apology and a promise to change.
Because you’ll make mistakes. I sure as hell have. In one of her comments, Tempest said their goal is harm reduction, and that’s about all I can hope for.

Taking this course has slowed down my word-count, but it’s time well spent. I choose to write outside my lane for a complex mix of reasons, but since I’ve made this choice, I want to do the very best job I can.

I don’t want people hurt by the stories that come from my heart.

Here’s another link to the Writing the Other website. In addition to the Deep Dive course, they have a number of different offerings that I encourage you to check out.