Writing Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRRM and the Three Bears…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

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

Why?

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

*ahem*

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

Writing Under a Pen Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I did.

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

Hamilton: Three Lines That Grab Me as a Writer

I want this poster!

Earlier this month, my mom took me to see Hamilton in Chicago as an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is in August, but we were up there for a conference). I knew it was going to be good, but I was not prepared for how much it blew me away! I could go on and on about how great the choreography and lighting were, and how much of a genius Lin Manuel Miranda is, but this is about an aspect I never anticipated…how much Hamilton touched me as a writer.

I cry at musicals. A lot. It’s because I love theater and it makes me very emotional. But there were several moments that touched me deep down as a writer and made me sob all the more, but this time, they were happy tears because I knew someone else–and Lin Manuel nonetheless–felt the same way.

First, from a song called Non-Stop, which is the last song in the first act: “Write like you’re running out of time. Write like you need it to survive.”

HOLY CRAP! THIS IS ME! I have never felt so seen as I did during this number. I constantly feel the pressure (self-induced and otherwise) to write more and faster. I’m scared I will die before I get write all of the stories in my head. Writing is literally all I do outside of my day job because a) I LOVE it and b) I feel like if I do anything else it will just get in the way of realizing my dreams.

There is a certain obsession that can overcome a writer that I am feeling very keenly as I’m researching my first biography. I don’t know that I can explain it. It is an extra drive, a stronger sense of need, of owing the characters your all, of being put on this planet to write…so you have to do it ALL THE TIME.

Secondly, from My Shot, perhaps one of the most iconic lines:
“I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Yes, yes, everyone and their brother loves this song. But as an indie author, it has special meaning to me. People ask me all the time how I win so many awards, etc. I don’t want to sound flippant, but honestly, I win because I enter contests. Of course, you have to have a great product, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Being an indie author is all about taking chances. Sometimes you win big, like I did with taking a chance on a new company called Taleflick and ending up with a movie option for Madame Presidentess. Sometimes you lose so much money you want to cry. *cough* print ad in a magazine *cough* But the key is you have to try. Pay attention to the opportunities in the industry, investigate them and if they sound good to you, inquire. That’s all it takes. If you see a shot, take it. If you don’t win, you’ve lost nothing (or as in my case with the ad, you’ve only lost money). But if you do, it could be your ticket to success.

Last, but certainly not least, from the closing number of the show: “And when my time is up, Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?…Who tells your story?”

First of all, “when my time is up, have I done enough?” OMG, the question every artist asks. And chances are good the answer will be no, because there is always something new to create. It’s both the blessing and the curse of being a creative.

As for the other half of the quote: I write biographical historical fiction and now biography because the idea of someone’s life being forgotten rips my guts out. That’s how strongly I feel about it. That’s why I choose the unknown/little-known characters. Everyone has done something worthy of being remembered and if someone doesn’t tell our story, it feels like we never lived. I want to save as many historical women from that fate as possible.

Will my story be worth telling someday? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll be over here “writing day and night like I need it to survive, not throwing away my shot” and eventually, winning a Pulitzer. Just you wait.

The Benefit of Critiques and Betas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I’ve Been Refilling the Well

My forthcoming novel DIAMOND & DAWN (AMBER & DUSK book two) was not only the first sequel I ever wrote, but it was also the first book I wrote under contract–meaning the manuscript wasn’t written at the time my publisher decided to acquire the novel. I’d written five complete, full length novels at the time I signed the contract, so I wasn’t really worried about the fast turn-around and bracing revision schedule my editors requested.

I maybe should have been.

I wrote D&D from scratch to relatively polished in the space of 4 months, over the holidays no less (and I am NOT a fast drafter). I completed the first revision in three weeks, which included cutting over 20k words and restructuring the entire manuscript. The final revision had to be finished in one week, earlier this month. And that’s when I realized I’d been on deadline for the better part of 6 months!

Part of me wanted to jump right in with a new plot bunny I had simmering on the brain. Another part of me wanted to sit on the couch and do literally nothing for the foreseeable future. I confess, I opted for option number 2! For the past week or so, I’ve tried my best to refill the well, with good books, interesting TV, and a few high-profile movies. Here’s what I’ve been doing to refresh my creativity!

The Magicians, FX (available to stream on Netflix)

Okay, I am officially this show’s new #1 mega fan, and I can’t stop talking about it to anyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t). I watched Season 1 when it came out a few years ago, but wasn’t blown away. I more or less forgot about it until I stumbled across Season 2 on Netflix, and then…I couldn’t stop watching. People, this show is weird AF, and I love it so much it’s hard to put into words. It’s like Harry Potter had an R-rated baby with Narnia, and then that baby got stuck in a time loop and maybe did some drugs. No, I’m not making any sense. Yes, you should watch it anyway.

Enchantée, by Gita Trelease

I heard of this novel sometime around the release of A&D, and automatically had an attitude towards it based on some superficial similarities to my own book. But I’m truly glad I wound up picking it up! Ms. Trelease has crafted a vibrant, romantic, brutal vision of peri-revolutionary France, complete with magic, love, idealism, glamor, and even hot-air balloonists! I devoured this book like candy, and would absolutely recommend it to fans of YA, history, and fantasy.

The Umbrella Academy, Netflix

Everyone on Twitter was talking about this show, so I decided to give it a whirl. I finished the season, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. I enjoyed the premise, some of the off-beat elements of the world, and a few of the characters (I’LL DIE FOR YOU KLAUS). But I anticipated nearly every twist in the plot, and had a hard time connecting with several of the character beats. I’d download the soundtrack, but I probably won’t watch Season 2.

Vanity Fair, Amazon Prime TV

I’m only a few episodes into this one, so I can’t speak to its entirety. Now, I love the 2004 Reese Witherspoon version of Vanity Fair as a guilty pleasure–it’s ridiculous and over the top, but the costumes are fantastic and Witherspoon is a delight as a truly wicked Becky Sharp. This adaptation takes a different tone. This Becky Sharp is still smart, ambitious, and cunning, but the creators of this show give us a much better sense of Becky’s milieu–the social stratification of her world that forces her to go to such lengths to take what she believes she deserves from people who loathes everything she represents. It paints her as, dare I say, a slightly sympathetic anti-heroine. I look forward to seeing how her character sharpens over the course of the series!

I think I’ve nearly reached the end of my self-enforced writing hiatus–today I had to fight the urge to open up a new document and start on that project (I stopped myself because I need to at least pretend to outline first). But I’m glad I took the time to refill the creative well–consuming new stories in every medium helps my brain look at my own work with fresh eyes!

What have you been watching, reading, or otherwise enjoying lately?

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!