Making Smarter Villains

I was pretty down on myself about productivity (or lack thereof) yesterday, but I really was kind of stuck. I didn’t like the scene I was working on, and it affected the things that would happen next. As a result, I fell prey to all kinds of distractions.

But I made myself do another round of brainstorming later in the evening, and that was when I realized that none of what I was trying to write really made sense. It fell into the “who would even do that, and why?” category. Meanwhile, a totally new event popped up, and that sent things into a different direction that will be a lot more fun.

So maybe all my distraction yesterday was my brain getting me out of the way so it could think of new stuff. This new stuff is pretty much going to kill a bunch of stuff I’ve already written, so I’m further from the end than I thought, but it’s a lot better.

Funny, I just couldn’t come up with a reason why the bad guys would meet in public to do their nefarious scheming so they could be overheard, even if they were using magic to create a zone of privacy around themselves (that they didn’t know wouldn’t work on a magical immune). I had the good guys meeting privately and being sure not to talk in public, and then the bad guys sitting in a restaurant to scheme. Ugh. So all that has to go, and the heroes have to figure things out some other way.

Villains can be pretty dumb, but it’s a bad idea to build your plot around that. It’s so much more interesting if they’re smart, but with maybe a blind spot or two.


The Best Writing Advice

One good effect of getting rid of cable while also shifting my schedule to being more of an early bird is that I’ve been reading a lot more. And that has reminded me of just how important reading is to being a writer. If you want to write better, read more.

Read the classics in your genre, the works that established the tropes.

Read the recent award winners and bestsellers, so you’ll know what’s currently setting the standards. Read new releases from debut authors so you’ll know what’s been bought recently from authors without a track record. Read the books that are getting a lot of buzz. Seek out things no one is talking about and try to figure out why.

Read outside your genre, especially in genres that cross over with yours. If there’s going to be a love story in what you’re working on, read romance novels. If there’s an action/adventure element, read action/adventure books and thrillers.

Read biographies and memoirs and books about psychology to get a sense of how different kinds of people think and behave.

Read history to get a sense of the patterns of events, actions, and reactions. Also, more about how people think and behave.

Read books about subjects that may come up in the stories you’re writing, such as science, food, textiles, war, diplomacy, revolution, technology, etc.

Read books about writing. Read books about business, marketing, advertising. An author is essentially an entrepreneur, so you’ll need to know these things.

Really, just read. You’re putting words and sentences and ideas into your brain, and it will all be processed for fodder. If you don’t like to read, if all this sounds like too much work, then it will be hard for you to make it as a writer.

For me, one of the best things about being a writer is getting to count time I spend reading as “work.”

writing, My Books

Origins of A Fairy Tale

When talking about summer being my planning time, I realized that I forgot to tell the origin story of my Fairy Tale series. That poor series is my forgotten stepchild. It sells okay, but makes up for that with being in audio and being published in Japan. I just tend to think of it as less successful because it gets about zero buzz. I seldom see people gushing about it online the way I do my other series. And it’s really, really hard to write, for some reason. I never seem to know what one of those books is going to be about until I’ve written a draft — and that’s after doing a fairly detailed plot outline. Entire characters and storylines appear out of nowhere to mess things up. I do plan/hope to write more books in this series, but they’re lower on my priority list at the moment.

A Fairy Tale

I started planning this series in the summer of 2009, so it fits my summer planning/research pattern. I’d had a proposal for a new fantasy series making the rounds earlier in the year, and the rejections I got were along the lines of “we were hoping for something more like Enchanted, Inc.” I had this vague mental image of a woman walking a bulldog down a city street and disappearing into the mist, and I had a character who’d been living in my head since I was in college who had never been quite right for any story I’d written. I’d also done a lot of research into fairy folklore for another project that hadn’t gone anywhere. All those things came crashing together when I woke up in the middle of the night with what ended up becoming Sophie’s first scene in the book, and I realized this could be my “more like Enchanted, Inc.” project. It had some things in common — the small-town Southern girl heroine thrust into a magical world — but was different enough that it wasn’t like I was just writing the same thing over and over again.

I was a bit discouraged about my career at that time, and I decided to make that summer into a boot camp of sorts, devoting a lot of time to reading books on writing craft, working on my writing, and really digging deep into developing this story. Meanwhile, I was researching various aspects of it — reading memoirs of cops to get into the head of one of the characters, reading books about southern women, reading more stuff about fairies and the psychological underpinnings of fairy tales.

In late August, I took a trip to New York to research the settings, and when I got home, I started writing. It actually took me a few years to finish that book because first I got sidetracked by Rebel Mechanics, and then the Japanese publisher asked me for another Enchanted, Inc. book. Between projects, I’d go back to this book and try to rework the ending until I got it right. Alas, when it finally went on the market, the editors didn’t know what to make of it. I was told it was too “romancey,” which is funny because there isn’t actually any romance in it. Characters have feelings, but don’t act on them. I guess they thought that since there were two cases of women meeting men early in the book, it was going to be a romance. If they rejected it for being too romancey for fantasy, they obviously didn’t actually read the whole book. By that time, I’d started self-publishing the Enchanted, Inc. books, so I decided to publish it myself. I guess maybe the publishers were right that there wasn’t a market for those books, but I still love them, as challenging as they are to write.

Now that the situation has been established, I’ve been thinking of transitioning the series to be more of a paranormal cozy mystery series, where Michael gets cases he needs to bring Sophie in on. It would be less about big stuff going on in the fairy world and more about these characters functioning between two worlds as their relationships slowly develop. But I have a few other things I want to get written first.

writing life

Hiding in the Cave

It’s supposed to be the hottest week of the year this week (at least, I hope there isn’t another worse one coming). Temperatures above 100 all week, and never going below 80, even at night. That means I’m going to have to get up earlier to take a walk before it gets sweltering, which means going to bed earlier. But it also means hiding inside under my ceiling fan, which is good because I need to be writing. I’m so close to the end of this book, and maybe if I buckle down and get to work, I can finish this draft this week and emerge from my darkened cave when temperatures go below 100.

Meanwhile, I’m counting the days to autumn.

Summer is generally when I’m planning books, which may be why it’s harder for me to actually draft right now. I have drafted in the summer, but for the most part, that’s when the ideas are coming at me and I’m creating worlds and characters, doing research, generally playing with the idea without actually putting it into words. Then I settle down to the actual writing in the fall.

But fall tends to be busy with conferences, conventions, and book festivals. Most of my weekends this fall are already spoken for, and there’s usually pre-weekend time devoted to preparation, travel, and recovery. That means fall may become my thinking about it time, since that can happen anywhere and doesn’t necessarily require concentration. In fact, going to different places and being in a variety of settings is good for thinking because it shakes things up. Then winter should be a good time for drafting because there’s not much going on.

I don’t always have that much control over my writing schedule, since a lot of it depends on the publisher’s schedule, but for the books I manage for myself, it might be good to keep this flow in mind.


Problem Scenes

Every book seems to have a problem scene, the one that stalls me out every time. I’ve been struggling with rewriting a scene all week, and it turns out that this was the scene where I put the book on hold previously. It took me three days this week to manage to rewrite it. Now I hope I can move forward.

It’s the big midpoint scene, so that’s part of the issue. And I didn’t get it right the first time, so I had to fix it, and I had to figure out how to fix it.

Of course, it’s just in time for a busy weekend, so whatever momentum I gained may be lost, since I won’t have time to write.

But next week I may be able to finish this draft. Hooray!

Moving More

I took the day off from the blog yesterday because I had a doctor’s appointment, and it was one of those that required fasting, so when I got home, I had to make an early lunch, and the day got away from me from there.

It seems I’m basically healthy, other than needing more vitamin D and needing to lower my LDL cholesterol a bit. It’s not high enough to be a problem or to warrant medication, but lifestyle adjustments are a good idea to keep it from becoming a problem. Which means more exercise and sticking a bit closer to the Mediterranean diet. I’m already pretty close to it. I just don’t eat a lot of fish and probably have more cheese than I should. Mmmm, cheese. And wouldn’t you know, I bought meat and cheese on my way home yesterday, before I got the test results.

More exercise is probably my biggest opportunity for change. I’ve been walking a couple of miles every morning, but the rest of my day is quite sedentary. I need some slightly more intense activity, which is a challenge with bad knees. I guess I need to swim more often in the summer, maybe use my jogging trampoline, possibly invest in an exercise bike. Or just make a point of planning dance breaks throughout the day. I don’t think I’m quite at the point of wanting a treadmill desk, though it could be amusing to see me trying not to fall off the treadmill when I’m really caught up in what I’m writing. I barely manage to sit up without falling over when I’m really getting into it. Being coordinated enough to think, type, and walk just isn’t happening.

It looks like there are foldable exercise bikes, which might work with my space issues. I could set it up in the living room and bike while watching TV, then fold it up and put it away when I have company or just want to have space in the living room.

The real trick would be using it as something other than a clothes rack after the first week or two. I do have a little pedal thing that you put in front of a chair and can pedal like a bike, but it’s a bit flimsy and tends to wander around the floor when I get going, so it’s like pedal a minute, stop to move it back in place, pedal another minute, stop to move it back.

So now I guess I should schedule movement into my day along with writing.


Recent Reading: Spinning Silver

I haven’t done a recent reading/book report post in a while, but I have a cool one today because it’s about a book that’s releasing today. I got an advance copy and managed to actually read it before it was released, which is rather different for me (I didn’t read my advance copy of A Game of Thrones until after the first season of the TV series).

The book is Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. It’s a standalone (at least, so far) fantasy novel with Russian/Eastern European influences, playing off the Rumpelstiltskin story. Only, in this case, the one who turns things into gold is our heroine, the daughter of a moneylender, who notes that the fairy tale is a story about someone who made a deal and carried out his end of it being cheated. Her father’s not a very good moneylender, since he hates to ask for payment, and therefore everyone in town is cheating him and the family is poor. Fed up with going hungry, his daughter pulls together the account ledgers and starts collecting debts. Then she invests the income and makes a profit, turning the silver coins she collects into gold pieces. At one point, she boasts of her ability to turn silver into gold … and the wrong person hears it, and takes it literally.

This story is interwoven with the story of the girl whose father can’t pay his debt to the moneylender, so she’s working it off in service to the moneylender’s family — and finds that this is the best thing to ever happen to her as she finds a family happier than her own. And then there’s the young noblewoman forced to marry the cruel young tsar, who turns out to have something terribly wrong with him that she might be able to do something about.

As you may have noticed, I love fairy tale retellings and new stories that feel like old fairy tales, and this is a bit of both. It’s magical and atmospheric, and you can almost imagine someone telling you this story by the fire on a cold winter night.

Winter is actually a big part of the story, as the magical folk (very fae-like) have created an eternal winter. That’s one of the things our heroines have to deal with. I imagine this book would be nice to read while snuggled under a blanket with a hot cup of tea or cocoa, but it was also nice to read on a hot early summer day, when the descriptions of snow piling high made me feel a little colder.

There’s a touch of romance in a couple of the stories, but very slow build (so just right for me). I wanted to see how it ended but didn’t want it to end.

If you read her earlier Uprooted (one of the books that benefited from my Nebula good-luck charm, as she was sitting next to me when she won), this is along those lines, but is an entirely different story, possibly in a different world.

So, go find it. I really liked this one.


The End is Nigh

I think I’ve figured out the ending to this book, but it’s going to require going back through the whole thing to set it up properly. It seems that part of my problem that an event I was trying to squeeze in during the ending really belonged at the middle. Once that’s in the right place, everything flows much better.

And I didn’t have a good sense of the timeline. Putting the events onto a calendar really helped me see what was going on and figure out the timing and pacing. I should have been doing that all along. Someday, I’ll learn. You’d think I’d have all this figured out by now, but even if I got it all together, there would be something new to learn.

So, this week is my buckle down and get to the end of the book week. Hold all my calls and clear my calendar.

Then another project has jumped up and told me it needs to be dealt with. Silly demanding characters. But I guess it’s a good sign if my characters are real enough to me that they can demand attention.


Figuring out the End

Today will be a day of plotting because I hit the end of what I know for sure in the book I’m writing, and my rough outline for the rest of the book no longer applies. I think part of the problem is that the outline was so rough. The big, climactic scene was essentially “and then they do something to expose and stop the bad guys.” Now I’m heading toward that scene, when I have to set it up, and I need to get more specific, but the specifics I already have don’t work with the vague plan I had to set up the big scene.

So today I will be diving into specifics. There will probably be a lot of whining. Maybe some whimpering. I’m sure I’ll write out at least a couple of scene outlines that are essentially “they meet to make plans.”

I knew I was getting into trouble yesterday when half the scenes I was writing were the characters arguing about what to do next without coming to a conclusion — and then I realized this was because I didn’t know what they were going to do next. I suspect many of these scenes will be cut from the final draft. I call that “plotting on paper,” when the way I figure out what the characters will do is to have the characters discuss what they should do. Once I know what they’ll do, I don’t really need the discussion unless there’s something else going on in the scene.

I love the plotting phase at the beginning of a novel when I’m just starting to explore and discover what it’s about. I’m less fond of the plotting phase at the end of the book when I realize that all the stuff I did at the beginning was actually pretty vague and it didn’t flesh out along the way as much as I’d hoped it would.

So, off to figure out how this book should end …

My Books

Diving into Rebellion

While I’m getting nostalgic about what got me started writing various books, I realized that I started working on Rebel Mechanics around this time eight years ago.

Rebel Mechanics cover

I’d been working on the book that became A Fairy Tale, and I was unhappy with it. I had a vision for it and couldn’t quite make that vision work. Meanwhile, I had this other idea that I thought might be more marketable — a steampunk adventure story. I’d been making myself not work on the Shiny New Idea, but thought that maybe what I needed was a break to help me figure out what I needed to do with A Fairy Tale.

That summer, I was also dealing with some medical stuff. I had a frozen shoulder, which involves tissue encapsulating the joint so that you can’t move it. It’s tricky because it starts with pain in the shoulder, and the natural impulse is to rest that shoulder so it can heal, but resting is what allows it to freeze. I’d reached a point where I could barely lift my left arm when I finally admitted I needed help, and the prescription was physical therapy. It was tough physical therapy that involved not only exercises but also the therapist stretching and manipulating that arm to loosen the tissue. And there was a lot of pain. It’s hard to be really creative when you’re tired and in that much pain, and since I knew I’d have to do a lot of research to write that steampunk book, I decided to devote the time to doing research.

So, that was my summer of heavy-duty reading. I read more than fifty books to research Rebel Mechanics. I read non-fiction books about New York’s history during the Gilded Age, American history, other revolutions, steam power, trains, airships, houses in that era, clothing in that era. I read memoirs of people who lived in that era and biographies of key figures. I also read a lot of related fiction — other steampunk books, science fiction written during that era (H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson), novels written during that era or about that era by people who lived in that era. I re-read Jane Eyre (since I was doing the governess thing), read The Scarlet Pimpernel (since that related to Henry’s story), read a lot of Edith Wharton (about Gilded Age society).

All the while, I was piling up notes and ideas that I shaped into characters and a plot. It was a summer of wallowing in Victoriana, and I now remember it fondly, in spite of the pain.

I did eventually get full use of that shoulder back and regained my strength in that arm. I’m not quite as flexible as I was before, but I’m trying to work on that.

It also took me a few years to sell the book. I originally planned for it to be an adult fantasy novel, but the adult publishers weren’t interested, mostly because a lot of them saw it as a romance and even suggested it be sent to the romance houses (never mind that the romance was quite chaste), or else they said they’d already bought a steampunk book. I tried reading some romances that might be along the same lines (multiple books telling the story of the same couple), but I started thinking it would work better as young adult since my characters were so young, so I read a bunch of YA before deciding to rewrite it as YA. That took me another six months or so, and then it took nearly a year to sell. It was five years from the time I started researching it before it was actually published.