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!

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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!

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