The Benefit of the Exploratory Trip

One of the most important things a writer can do when writing a book, is to make the reader feel fully immersed in the world of the story. The reader should see the world as if they’ve been there; they should smell the city streets with its cars and restaurants, or country road with the sun-baked dirt and drying leaves, or the crisp, cool, lung-burning cold of snowy mountains; they should hear the languages, the voices, the animals, the hum of the world.

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If you’re writing a fantasy world, obviously, you just gotta make this all up and try to remember these precious little details and hope the reader can see what you’re trying to paint with your words. So often when books are made into TV and film you hear people say, “It’s exactly as I imagined it!” If so, then that means the writer did a great job conveying to multiple people to see the same thing in their heads.

But what if you’re writing about a real place?

If you’re writing about a place that people are familiar with, you gotta hit those notes and those notes tend to be different for everyone. Take Paris for example. For me, I have a scent memory of roasting chicken that evokes a neighborhood in Paris where I spent my honeymoon because one of the grocers from the neighborhood market always had roasting chickens in the windows. That’s pretty specific and might not work for everyone, but talk about warm rain in the summer, where the sun refuses to set until after dinner and almost late enough for bed? That’s more universal. But if you haven’t been there in the summer, you might not know that the sun doesn’t set until well into the night. If you don’t know a place well enough to describe it accurately, your world won’t be believable.

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Which is why a lot of writers will make sure they’ll set their books in places they’re familiar with. Like me, again, for example. I have one fantasy series set in the town I live in and one apocalyptic series mostly set in the county I live in. I know this area inside and out. So I can imagine it in an apocalyptic setting and what that might mean. I know what it’s like in summer and winter and I know what our beaches smell like and how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. I can immerse a reader even if they’ve never heard of my town.

So what do you do if you want to set a book in a real place that you’ve never been?

I highly recommend an exploratory trip. Obviously, I’m talking about something that takes time and money and not everyone can do that, so if you can’t, try to reach out to locals, read travel blogs, check Insta posts, do whatever you can to familiarize yourself. But! If you can, then go.

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As writers we’re not always sure what we can and cannot claim as write-offs on our taxes, but an exploratory trip can be. Just make sure you’re actually going to do research and can back that up should you need to. (Also, do not take tax advice from me, go get a CPA or an accountant to help you make sure everything is on the up and up.)

Last year I was lucky enough to take an exploratory trip to Ireland. I’d studied many, many things about Ireland through my life, but nothing could give me the education that I got by actually being there. For example, I had no idea how many wild blackberry bushes grow all around. What a detail!

In a week I’m taking a road trip to Las Vegas. I know, Vegas, right, sure, it’s for work, wink-wink. But it is. I have a trilogy set in Vegas and I am on the verge of starting to write the last book (FINALLY) and I need some inspiration. I’ve been struggling all year to get back into writing after taking a much needed break, and I think immersing myself in the desert, reminding myself what that world feels, smells, sounds, and looks like will help me spark that inspiration. You behave differently when you’re some place different than home, you have new experiences even if you’ve been there before. You eat strange things and you meet new people. All fodder for a book and the world building of that book.

If you can do an exploratory trip, make sure you research ahead of time so you don’t forget things you wanted to see or do once you’re there. And take pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Notes are good and can help some people, but taking photos to remind yourself what something was like can be invaluable. Especially if you want to remember the details of something you might not write down.

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Ready for NaNo? Ten Great Writing Resources

A quick note: Yes, you’re getting a Spellbound Scribes email on Monday instead of  last Thursday. Life intervened. Sorry for the delay!

Recently a friend of mine tweeted a request for “favorite craft books”, which had me pawing through my kindle, looking for good books on writing. I came up with a couple, but her request made me realize I get as much writing-craft-related information from blogs and classes as I do from books.

*so many sources, so little time*

Since this is coming to you on 10/1/18, exactly one month before NaNoWriMo starts, I thought it might be helpful to make a post listing my favorite resources. Half of them are books, and the rest – with the exception of Margie Lawson’s classes – are blogs, so they’re free!

  1. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – This is sort of my bible, a concise strategy for building a plot. The author is a screenwriter, and the book focuses on developing a 110-page screenplay, but the principals absolutely apply to writing fiction. I love how he pulls from familiar books and movies to illustrate his points.
  2. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon – I need to re-read this one. And then maybe read it again. On the most basic level, Debra teaches how keep from writing scenes where nothing happens. She also – and this is where I still have trouble – gets into how to ground action in a character’s motivations. (True confessions: I’m forever solving plot problems with the equivalent of “let’s throw in a unicorn!” Yeah, that technique works about as well as you’d think.)
  3. Terrible Minds/ Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative – Here’s a one-two punch from Chuck Wendig. Terrible Minds is his blog where he addresses the issues of the day, along with occasional writing craft posts, all with a heavy helping of eff-bombs. His new book on writing craft, Damn Fine Story, does a great job of teaching how to create characters that readers will care about, along with useful thoughts about how to use story structure to draw the readers in. And without the eff-bombs.
  4. Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes – Gwen is an experienced editor, and in this book she gives an overview of how to put together a romance novel. Now, the idea might make you bristle, because romance gets bashed for being “cookbook”, but I think there can be a lot of freedom in a set structure – jump here for my post on tropes. If you want to write romance, this book is a great starting point.
  5. Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – This is a timely, thought-provoking set of essays and exercises drawn from a workshop by the same name. (Here’s a link to their website, where you can find a list of current classes.) If your work reflects the real world, either contemporary or historic, you’ll write characters who are “other”, and it’s worthwhile to do some homework before you do.
  6. Marge Lawson Academy – Margie’s a great teacher who focuses on the “micro” end of writing – how to use words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep readers engaged and entertained. Her instructors are all experienced, accomplished writers – I especially love classes by Rhay Christou – and I’ve learned a lot from them. Margie’s Immersion retreats are well worth the money, and a whole lot of fun!
  7. Fiction University –  This blog by Janice Hardy is my go-to for writing craft questions. Seriously, you can search her site for just about any keyword – query, plot, editing, whatever – and you’ll find a bunch of posts on the subject. The posts are meaty, so you don’t waste time with stuff you don’t necessarily need.
  8. Real + Good Writing – This website and blog is a new discovery for me. Created by literary fiction writer Rachel Giesel, the site is full of good information. I especially liked her blog post Three Big Things to Know About Your Characters. I’ve signed up for her mailing list, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to offer.
  9. Writers in the Storm – This blog is run by an accomplished group of authors and it frequently turns up on lists of the top websites for writers. They post daily, sometimes have guests, and they address a range of topics, from craft to promotion to writing life.
  10. The Fussy Librarian – I mostly Fussy Librarian mostly as a site for book promotion, but they also have a weekly email for authors and boy howdy are they awesome. Whoever’s putting the newsletter together scans the web for writing-related posts and groups them by subject: writing, law, grammer, career, marketing, and industry. This has been a fairly recent change – I think – but now they’re near the top of my “most anticipated” lists of weekly emails.

So there you have it! Are you ready for NaNo now? If you don’t see *your* favorite writing resource on the list, feel free to post it in the comments. I’m always up for learning something new…

Changing Gears

For a year and some change, I’ve been in steady-state revision mode.

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Oh, not on the same project, and in different stages of different edits and revisions on those different projects, but in revision mode all the same. There were copy edits for my forthcoming novel AMBER & DUSK…and then more copyedits to those copy edits. Near the beginning of this year, I did put about 50K new words on my Swan Lake WIP, but it was more like a rewrite of an already existing project that I’d worked on the year before. Early this summer I revisited a trunked book to see if it could be given new life. August, I returned to my Swan Lake WIP for yet another round of edits.

You catch my drift. Or should I say draft? (Sorry! I’m so sorry.)

But last week, the shiny book idea that’s been patiently simmering in the back of my head tapped me on the shoulder. “Girl,” it whispered seductively. “You’ve already outlined me, named all my characters, and done enough world building to make my head spin. Let’s do this thing!”

So I gathered up all my notebooks, grabbed my favorite pen, opened up a blank document, and…nothing. Which was especially weird considering I’d more or less already written the opening scene in my head. Or so I’d thought.

“Type!” I hissed at my fingers, poised over the keyboard.

“We don’t remember how!” they wailed in unison.

And that’s when I considered quitting writing for the one-millionth time this year.

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Listen–writing is hard. All of it. Every stage. It is a pure and exquisite expression of individual creativity, but it’s also messy. And hard. Did I mention hard? Revising and editing is hard, and rarely fun. It’s a lot of tweaking and moving around and deleting and adding and rephrasing. But here’s the thing–you’re working with something that already exists. It may be a jumbled, half-incoherent first draft full of cliches, dropped characters, and bad dialogue, but it’s words on a page. It’s something. And even with a first draft, there are probably glimmers of voice, murmurs of character development, a vague inkling of plot.

But facing the tyranny of the blank page–of staring down the barrel at 80 to 100 thousand words of unwritten story–is probably one of the hardest aspects of writing. Especially because if you don’t write the story living inside you…no one else ever will. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

So I’m shifting gears. I’m downshifting–back to first gear, where I’m building a world from scratch and filling it with complicated, obtuse characters who aren’t interested in cooperating with the plan I’ve made for them. To second gear, where motivations are finally clear and I’m consistently hitting my daily word counts. And–gods willing–third gear, where I’m up writing far past my bedtime, because I’m not longer a creator but a participant in the story hurtling toward its inevitable climax.

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And then, of course…it will be time for revisions.

Do you have a favorite trope?

One of the fundamental truths of any creative endeavor is that no matter how clever the idea, someone has been there before. From Romeo & Juliet to West Side Story (forbidden love), and from Twilight to Fifty Shades (love triangle), it’s not hard to come up with a classic story trope that’s been reworked and given a fresh twist.

Most fiction, especially genre fiction, relies on tropes – those familiar plots or premises that we all recognize. In fact, one of the frequent complaints leveled at the romance genre is that it’s too dependent on standard tropes, that romances are cook-book or boilerplate stories.

I don’t agree with that criticism, and in this fantastic essay from the LA Review of Books The Consolation of Genre: On reading romance novels, Cailey Hall explains why. Ms. Hall is a PhD candidate at UCLA, and I’m going to quote her because I love the example she uses…

I like to think of romance novels as not dissimilar from sonnets. Both are constrained by certain expectations: 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a handful of possible rhyme schemes, on the one hand, and necessary plot points — the protagonists meet, their relationship develops, problems arise and are mostly resolved — on the other. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these constraints, it is still possible to produce new, exciting, and even brilliant work within them.

The idea that there’s freedom in discipline has always intrigued me, which may be one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing romance. The genre does have certain explicit expectations, so much so that if the story doesn’t have both a central love story and a happy ending, it isn’t a romance, at least according to the RWA (Romance Writers of America).

And to be honest, there are so many tropes in romance that I haven’t yet run out of stuff to play with.

One of the reasons I’ve been pondering the idea of tropes is that my current project is apparently built around one of my least favorite. I say “apparently”, because I had no idea the story was going in that particular direction until I was about 1/3 – maybe 1/2 – of the way through the rough draft. I’m typing along and suddenly realize…

Well shit. This is one of those Sneaky Hero Who’s Operating Under False Pretenses stories.

You know the kind I mean? The kind where the hero goes to a small town to shut down the hospital because it’s been bought by a Giant Evil Conglomerate, and then falls in love with the hospital’s medical director. Or thereabouts.

I hate those. The duplicity drives me nuts.

In my current project, the basic premise involves a missing magical object, one that our hero has been tasked with finding. Our other hero knows nothing about magic, let alone that his father came from a family of witches. Sneaky Hero spells his way into Naive Hero’s house, and shenanigans ensue.

I have no idea how I’m going to handle the big reveal, because I’m already mad at Sneaky, but I’m not ready to change the story, either. Maybe tropes are like kids….you like them better when they’re your own.

The other thing about tropes that makes them fun is that you can combine them endlessly. I’ve written an older woman/younger man story which is also a vacation romance (King Stud), and Irene and I took a spin through Beauty and the Beast as the basic template for Vespers, then added a splash of opposites-attract.

Between the Sheets is a fake-romance-becomes-real and a vacation romance story, and Aqua Follies is a vacation romance with a healthy dose of the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. I actually took a class on how to use tropes to build stories, and it resulted in The Secret of Obedience (twins, college angst).

In case you’re wondering, here’s a list of romance tropes assembled by bestselling author Mindy Klasky. This isn’t a comprehensive list, by any means. If you want more ideas, check out the one put together by Jill Williamson on the GoTeenWriters blog.

So many tropes! Too many ideas!!

Do you have a favorite set of tropes, either as a reader or a writer? Is there a story trope you’d like to see more of? Leave me some inspiration…

 

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The teaser for my current WIP, featuring Sneaky Hero and Naive Hero. There’s also a vampire. Because every book is better if there’s a vampire.

 

 

How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.

Resources:

Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

Research for Writers

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One of the first things on my to-do list today – well, after opening up WordPress so I could start this post – was to check my account on the Seattle Public Library website. A couple weeks ago I checked out a stack of ponderously thick books that have to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.

New project, y’all!

Actually, I described this project – Havanain last month’s Spellbound Scribes post so you may already know a little bit about it. I’m finally ready to dig in, and since I’m all about the research, I figured today would be a good opportunity to revisit another post I wrote about a year ago. (Check out Pen to Pen: Liv Rancourt on researching historical romances if you’re curious.)

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My twitter pitch for Havana…

In the Pen to Pen post, I outlined a template for my research process. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:

Step one: Locate the story on the calendar. Pick specific dates, and then study up to get a feel for what was happening at that time.  The key to this is specificity. Whether your story is set in 1955 or 1455, there was more to life than the events on the page. Use what’s already there to add depth.

Step two: In broad strokes, find out what life was like during the time period. This is the bulk of the work, tbh. I look at fashion and attitudes and food and technology and population statistics and whatever I can find to ground the story in reality.

(For some excellent ideas about how to do that, check out my friend Jules Dixon’s post over on the Rainbow Romance Writers blog.)

Step three: Fill in the fine details with first-person accounts. This one gets trickier, the further back in time you go, especially if you’re writing about marginalized groups – like women, or queer people, or pretty much anyone who’s not a white male.  Finding first-person accounts is hard, but not impossible, and absolutely essential to bring your story to life.

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Go HERE to read about M. de St. George. Go HERE to  become a Patreon supporter of the MedievalPOC org, a group that focuses on POC in art history.

 

Since I wrote Aqua Follies (1950s m/m rom), I’ve come across a couple more resources for first-person accounts of LGBT experience in the 20th Century. The University of Washington had a collection of oral histories, biographies and video excerpts from interviews with members of Seattle’s LGBT community – HERE – that I’m really excited to dig into.

I’ve also started reading Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men 1885 – 1967. This is an important book for me, because I don’t want to sugar-coat anyone’s experience, nor do I want to overlook the ways ordinary men and women found to cope with lifestyles that fell outside the majority.

So…yeah. If you need me, I’ll be holed up somewhere with a book in my hands. I just sent L’Ami Mysterieux off to beta readers (m/m rom set in 1920 Paris) and have about a month to do research for Havana.

Color me excited!!

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I made myself a faux-cover for inspiration!

 

 

Critique Partners in Crime

If you’ve been in the publishing industry for any length of time, you’ll probably recognize the phrase critique partner. For those of you who haven’t, a critique partner (commonly abbreviate to CP) is an invaluable asset to any writer at any and every stage in their career. Usually another author or publishing professional, a CP offers up their time and expertise to critique your manuscript/story/poem/etc in exchange for your time and expertise in doing the same for them. While a CP can sometimes play the role of beta reader (an avid reader who reads your MS and tells you whether it is any good), ideally the relationship is deeper and broader.

giphy1I feel like I’m not explaining this well. Okay, how’s this? A CP is like an unholy (or maybe holy) alliance between a friend, a colleague, a work wife/husband, a therapist, a critic, and a cheerleader. Having and being a CP is messy. It’s complicated. And it is wildly, wildly important to a writer’s growth and success in this often isolating business of being an author.

This week, I experienced both ends of the CP relationship with two different CPs. First, I had the great pleasure of reading our very own Shauna’s forthcoming novel Blackbird (which will incidentally knock y’all’s socks off) and offering feedback. And second, I shared my very recently finished and terribly rough first draft of my Swan Lake retelling with a different CP. They were two very different experiences, but they both reminded me of just how important it is to not only have CPs, but to actually share work with them.

Not all CPs are created equal, but here are a few things I’d look out for when finding someone to share work with!

  1. Someone who isn’t afraid to be honest. It’s literally right there in the name: critique partner. Not white-lie-to-guard-your-ego partner. Not even pull-their-punches partner. You know that one friend who you always take shopping because she’ll actually tell you if those pants make your butt look big? Yeah, that’s what you need from a CP. Because if they can’t be honest in their criticism, it’s not going to push you to be better, or work harder, or be honest with yourself.

    One caveat: do draw the line at nasty. There’s no call to be unnecessarily harsh, that’s not useful to anyone either.

  2. giphy2Someone who will be your cheerleader. Does this seem counter-intuitive? It’s really not. Your CPs also need to love your work kind of unconditionally, regardless off whether it’s a flaming trash pile of a first draft or a polished to near-perfect-sheen soon-to-be published work of art. The ultimate goal of a CP relationship is making each other better–if someone hates your work, what’s the point?
  3. Someone who understands (if not shares) your genre, voice, aesthetic, etc. Similar to the above, it’s a waste of their time and yours if they don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe you write fast-paced action thrillers and they write steamy romance. That can totally work (and might honestly give you a different perspective from a CP who writes in your genre) but if their only criticism is that there aren’t enough love scenes, you might want to reconsider.
  4. giphy3Someone who can brainstorm with you. Now, this is a big ask, and you might not find this in every CP you build a relationship with–and that’s okay! But a great CP isn’t just an editor, or even a beta reader, although it’s certainly useful if they have a decent grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and plot. Ideally, they’re also someone who you can bounce your hair-brained ideas off of, who won’t say “but,” but maybe “ooh, and–!” Someone who spitballs scenarios about your sequel not because they feel like they know better than you but because they’re just so invested in your characters. Someone who sees through the disordered jumble of your nonsense first drafts to the story you didn’t know you were trying to tell.

Now, if you’re read to find your OTCP (One (or several!) True Critique Partner), here are a few resources to set you on your way! (If you’re really at a loss, Twitter is a great place to start, as are writer blogs and genre-specific interest groups! You can never go wrong with NaNoWriMo either!)

Absolute Write

Critique Circle 

Critique.org

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