Books

Another Look at Beauty and the Beast

Thanks to a recommendation after I discussed The Beast’s Heart, I read Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen, and I highly recommend it as a very different spin on the Beauty and the Beast tale.

This one is told from the perspective of a servant girl in the palace of the spoiled young nobleman. After he rapes her, she vows revenge, and the wise woman of the forest curses him to be the beast he is on the inside. The servant girl wants to watch his suffering and is transformed into a candlestick so she can stay in the palace (basically, Lumiere, but no dancing. She’s aware of what’s going on but can’t move other than to raise or lower her flames, but can communicate telepathically). But the Beast seems like an entirely different person than the nobleman, not even remembering his life as a human, and they strike up a friendship. And then a merchant shows up, looking for shelter, which changes everything.

This is definitely a book for those who like the Beast and are disappointed when he’s transformed at the end of the tale. There are a lot of twists, and although the story follows the plot of the fairy tale pretty closely, getting the story from a different perspective allows the author to throw in information that we don’t get in the tale. That allows it to take some unusual turns while still sticking with the story. You can imagine that this is what’s really going on in the fairy tale and we just don’t know because we don’t see these events.

This version is disturbing, romantic, and incredibly satisfying. It was published by a YA publisher, and my library had it in the YA section, but I don’t know that I’d consider it YA. It felt rather adult to me. The rape is fairly graphic (more emotionally than physically, but you know exactly what’s happening), so that might be triggering for some (it’s a couple of paragraphs, so easy to skip, but it resonates throughout the story in the impact on the character). It’s not really a coming of age story, even if the heroine is in her late teens. This seems like a weird publication choice. I think adults will enjoy it, and parents of younger teens might want to read it themselves before letting their kids read it, both to make sure it’s suitable for their child’s sensibilities and to be able to discuss it. The book mostly covers emotional healing and the question of what a “beast” really is.

Add this one to your list if you like exploring all the angles of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and it will make you look at the other versions in a different way from now on.

writing life

Business vs. Writing

Because I love optimizing things, I’ve been thinking more about ways to get better work-life balance, and one thing I realized is that what tires my brain and burns me out isn’t the writing part. It’s the business side of things and more analytical stuff, things like editing, marketing, bookkeeping, publishing, etc. That also includes non-fiction writing, where there’s interviewing, chasing down interview subjects, writing, editing, invoicing, etc. Making stuff up is the fun part of my work.

But the business side of things has to be done if I want to make a living at the fun stuff. I have to do all the things it takes to get a book published in order for it to be able to make any money, and I need to do marketing if I want to sell books. The non-fiction writing is helping supplement my income. I’d love to be able to stop it entirely, but right now the book sales aren’t there and I’m grateful to have this opportunity.

The problem for me lately has been that I’ve been in pure business mode for the past month or so. I’ve been editing, proofreading, dealing with covers, doing a lot of little marketing tasks and doing a lot of freelance non-fiction writing. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to just make things up. No wonder I’m tired!

I think I may start a routine of Fiction Fridays. All the business stuff will happen early in the week, and Fridays will be devoted to making stuff up. This will be less of an issue when I’m actually writing a book, but will be a good thing to do when I’m in the middle of Business Mode. That’ll remind me of why I’m doing all the business stuff. I can’t do it today because I have an article due, but I should be able to wrap that up quickly (it’s written, so I just need to polish it up a bit and edit it) and then go to some more fun work.

A few years ago, I had Getting Stuff Done Wednesdays, so that I spent two days doing intense writing and nothing else, then did all the other stuff on Wednesdays, including errands. It was also choir night, so it was a short day, anyway. Then two more days of intense writing without anything else to worry about. That fell by the wayside when I had too much stuff to get done in one day, and I found that I dreaded Wednesdays and didn’t get any writing momentum when I broke off midway during the week. What I may do is designate a Getting Stuff Done hour daily for all the little tasks. Bigger tasks like proofreading and editing will have to be scheduled separately.

I probably won’t be able to get back to actual writing of fiction until next month, so I’ll have a few weeks to play with this concept and see how it works. Meanwhile, I’m doing better about shutting off the work-related activity earlier in the evening and doing something else for fun, and I think it’s giving me a bit more mental energy. July’s going to be a challenge because I’m doing an online conference that runs on weekends. A lot of the sessions are recorded, so I can watch them whenever, but there will be roundtable discussions and Q&A sessions on the weekends. I may have to work more relaxation into weekdays so I don’t overdo it.

And lest anyone worry, I’m not in any kind of real burnout or other emotional trouble. This is mostly me noticing that I’m starting to run out of steam, recognizing some patterns, and doing preventative maintenance to avoid trouble. It’s like putting on a coat when you notice it’s getting cold, long before you’re in danger of hypothermia.

writing life

Work-Life Balance

I hit a wall late last week when I was trying to read information I was given to turn into an article and the words just blurred together. I decided that what I needed was some rest, so I gave myself an extra long weekend to not do any work. And it was amazing the difference it made. I slept better and ended up feeling refreshed.

That reminded me of how important work-life balance is. It gets tricky when your work is something you once did for fun, as a hobby. Everything turns into work. You’re always thinking in terms of what would work in a book. When you read or watch something, you find yourself analyzing the story. I tend to spend my evenings doing research reading or reading how-to books.

But the brain needs a break from work, even when your work is fun, and taking a few evenings to not read books about writing did me a lot of good. I don’t know that I’m going to stop spending my evenings on work-related stuff all the time because I actually enjoy that. There’s a classical music radio show on in the early evenings that I like to listen to, and it’s nice to have that show on while I read reference books for a book I’m planning or read information about writing or publishing. Then they play symphony concerts after that, and if the program is something I like, I keep working. I think I need to shut off the work earlier so that I don’t go to bed with my brain spinning about books and plots. I need some transitional leisure activities to allow me to relax a bit more. “Leisure” isn’t the same as goofing off during the workday. That’s usually just procrastination, doing things I don’t really enjoy and feeling guilty about it. Real leisure is choosing to do something for fun, with no sense that I should be doing something else. Oddly, not watching as much TV meant I stopped doing much leisure. When I’m listening to the radio, I end up doing writing-related work, like the reference reading and brainstorming. Not that I should go back to watching a lot of TV, but I need to find more things I can do in the evening that aren’t work or TV. I’ve been trying this week to shut off the work earlier and then read for fun, but even reading may feel like work because it’s still story, which hits the same parts of the brain as my work. I guess I need to find new hobbies.

I also think I’ll make more of an effort to take defined breaks every so often. One nice thing about working for myself at home is that I can weave life around work, and vice versa, but that often means that I never entirely stop working. I may take a break during the day to go grocery shopping or do chores, but that also means I may spend evenings and weekends at least thinking about books. Taking time to “refill the well” and recharge is also important. I need to be better about cultivating activities that aren’t about work, which has been harder while stuck at home this past year. Generally, when I go out, that’s a clean break from work. No going out means fewer breaks in routine.

I was able to get back to one of my activities last weekend. My church had an outdoor service at an amphitheater on the shore of a nearby lake Sunday morning, and since we were outdoors, the choir actually got to sing. We had a rehearsal Saturday, then the service and a short concert Sunday morning, after which I did some walking around the lake. We had unusually cool weather for this time of year, so being outdoors was nice.

I’m going to aim for another long weekend next month, with no thinking about work or work-related activity and some time spent doing other activities that get me out of my head.

writing life, My Books

Finding my Niche

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m trying to deal with the business aspects of publishing so I can keep actually making a living at this. As part of that, I’ve been trying to level up on the business side of things, doing a lot of reading, attending workshops, etc. I went to a webinar this week that offered some good advice, but that also made me worry that I may not be suited to independent publishing.

One of the main pieces of advice was to find your niche and stick with it. Being consistent and delivering something tried and true is the best way to build, sustain, and grow a readership. A niche is a specific kind of book within a subgenre, such as, say, romantic comedy set in small towns with heroes who are ex-military. When you do this, you can build a steady readership who knows what they’re going to get when they read one of your books, and when they’re in the mood for the sort of thing you write, you’re the author they’ll turn to. Each book you write will have a built-in customer base.

I know this works because I know people who’ve been wildly successful doing this. But just thinking about everything I write being in the same niche gives me a panic attack. I don’t even know what my niche would be. If we go with what I’ve been most successful with, it would be light humorous contemporary fantasy with a hint of romance set in New York with adorkable wizards. You could fit most of what I’ve published so far into that niche. Take away the “New York” part and you could maybe even squeeze the mysteries in there. The YA books would be the outliers, though Rebel Mechanics fits if you remove “contemporary,” since it’s got New York and an adorkable wizard.

But I don’t really have any new ideas in that contemporary fantasy niche now. I’ve got plots for two more mysteries beyond what I’ve written. I sort of have an idea for another Fairy Tale book outlined, but am not really driven yet to write it. Right now, I’m not even reading contemporary-set books, fantasy or otherwise. I’ve tried to pick up a couple but have put them aside after a chapter because I just can’t get into that mindset. I don’t know if it’s everything going on in the world and wanting to escape right now or if it’s something else. I just don’t want to read about the “real” world in anything that looks like today, even if one of the characters is an adorkable wizard.

If I went by what I’m reading now and where my story ideas are, it would be “traditional” fantasy — secondary world, quasi-European (I’ve read some outside those lines, but I don’t know that I could write it), and set in a somewhat medieval-like past. That’s what I’m gravitating toward as a reader right now. I want castles and sailing ships and horses and forests, quests and swashbuckling. I have ideas for a couple of different series along those lines. Just about any new idea I come up with is in that realm. But I’ve never published anything like that. It would be entirely new, and the only thing in common with my previous books would be the adorkable wizards (they keep finding their way into my books), the snarky heroines, and probably the overall vibe. The settings would be entirely different from my other books, but I suspect it will still feel like me.

I may fall in love with something else a year from now, though, and want to write that. The thought of writing the same kind of book over and over again makes me queasy.

And not just the same kind of book, but the same series. That’s the other advice. And, again, I know it works. But I could only manage nine books in a series I loved before I started getting tired of it, and I even wrote a couple of other series in the meantime. The thought of writing 20 or more books in the same series, as some authors have, makes me twitchy. Now, most of these aren’t the kind of series where you have the same main characters and follow the same story arc. They’re more along the lines of the best friend from book 1 being the heroine of book 2, where heroine 1 is still a secondary character and heroine 3 is introduced. Or it’s a family, where each of the brothers gets his own book. There’s some variety there when you aren’t having to mine the same people for drama over and over again.

One of the fantasy ideas I have works kind of like that. I’m setting up a world where a lot of things can happen. There’s a throughline, but the main characters in each book will be different and there may be subseries within the series about different places in that world. I think I could have fun with that, though I don’t know if I could get to 20 books.

Really, I think I’m best suited for traditional publishing, where I don’t have to make the business decisions and where just being more or less within the same genre is good. They don’t want really massive series (unless they’re hugely successful, and then they’ll want to milk it as long as possible). Unfortunately, the kind of thing I like to write isn’t what publishers want. I keep coming up with ideas, and my agent tells me she can’t sell that. They’re backlogged thanks to the pandemic and the way that messed with publishing schedules and releases. My experiences there haven’t been all that great. I’ve never really felt like I’ve been in a situation where the people I was dealing with believed in me and backed me. I’ve never had a publisher let a series finish before they dropped me. Maybe I haven’t found the right editor with the right idea at the right time. Which means I want to keep doing this instead of getting a real job, I’ll need to suck it up and figure out a way to make it work. I think that fantasy series idea might work for me. At the very least, I could use it to establish myself in that field, and then if it does well, a traditional publisher might be interested in me. So far, what I’ve heard from publishers is that they want something like Enchanted, Inc. They don’t want to buy the Enchanted, Inc. series, but they don’t want anything that’s too different. That means I need to make my own name in something different for them to consider it.

My Books

FAQ Update

I figure it’s time for another Frequently Asked Questions post (and I probably need up update that page on my website) because I’ve been getting some similar questions lately.

When is the next Rebels book coming?
That’s a complicated situation. I do have plans to write another one and I’ve even done some of the research. I’ve got a general idea of what the plot will be (the second and third books went far from my original series outline, so my original plans for this book were blown up and I’m having to figure out something new). The problem with this series is that the original publisher still controls the first book. They’re doing nothing at all to promote it and have it priced outside the range that might make people try it, and since they don’t get anything out of the other books in the series, they have no reason to want to promote this book to encourage people to get into the series. Although that book was loved by teachers and librarians and made it onto several states’ lists of recommended reading, it didn’t sell well enough for the publisher to continue the series (there was also the weird thing that the editor apparently bought it with the idea that it was a standalone book, even though I submitted a series outline with it). I published the next two books myself, but they haven’t sold all that well, and since I don’t control the first book, there’s little I can do to promote the series and get new people hooked on it. Foreign markets aren’t interested in steampunk, so I haven’t managed to sell it elsewhere, and in audio, I’ve got that same problem of the original audio publisher not wanting more books, and no one else will take on the rest. That means I’m not making any additional money from these books. I calculated the time it takes me to write them, the cost of publishing them, and how much money I’ve made, and it came to less than minimum wage. So, I can’t really afford to write another book right now when there are other things that earn more for me.

However, sales of the first book are getting close to the threshold where the rights will revert to me. Then I could publish my own edition and do things to promote it to hook new readers, and then it would be worthwhile to write more books. This is yet another reason I’m not doing another book right now. If I put out a new book in the series, that would raise awareness of the series and it tends to raise the sales of all the books, which would then delay me getting the rights back.

So, the short answer is that I’ll do another book either when the sales of that series get to a point where doing more books would be worth my time or when I get the rights to the first book back.

Will there be a sequel to Make Mine Magic?
This is yet another case of a publisher buying a book from me and then not wanting to continue the series. This book was an Audible Original, so it came out exclusively in audio. But they’re discontinuing that program, not doing new novels anymore (mostly they’re doing novellas that are in conjunction with other major series, from bestselling authors, which I am not). I’m getting ready to put out a “print” (e-book and paperback) version, and we’ll see how that sells. If it sells really well, then it may be worthwhile for me to write another book and then see if Audible will buy the audio rights to it while I also put out the e-book and paperback. I wouldn’t be writing the second book under a contract where I know I’ll be paid, so I’d need to feel confident that I’ll earn something from writing it.

Will there be another Fairy Tale book?
I do want to do more books in this series because I love it, but I’m going to have to repackage it. I absolutely love the art I commissioned for this series, but that artist became a big deal in the meantime, so I can’t get her to do more covers, and that means to keep them consistent, I’d need to rebrand the series with all new covers. It would be expensive to do all new covers, and I haven’t been making a lot of money lately, so that’s a lower priority right now. I need to earn more before I have the money to spend.

What about the Enchanted, Inc. books?
I think that series is concluded. I haven’t come up with more ideas. But I have been playing with some shorter side stories, either focusing on backstory or secondary characters. We’ll see what happens with those.

I know, I sound terribly mercenary here, but I’m running a business, and I need to make a living. I don’t want to spend the hundred or so hours it takes to write and publish a book (at least), only to realize I could have made more money by spending that time working at McDonald’s. I have a bit more flexibility as a publisher than one of the major publishers might, since I don’t have full-time staff (other than myself) to pay and am not maintaining office space in New York. On the other hand, I just have the one author and can only do a few books a year, at most, so I can’t count on other authors or books to pick up the slack if one book or series fails to perform. I may not be as quick as a publisher to pull the plug on a series that isn’t selling well, but I can’t afford to devote a lot of time to a series that isn’t picking up readers. When I decide what to write, it’s a mix of how much fun it is, how much work it is/how much time that kind of book takes, how well it sells, and how likely it is to get subsidiary deals, like foreign sales or audio rights. If I could get a series to take off so that I was making decent money on it, that would give me a little freedom to work on some of these other projects that are fun, though maybe a little less profitable, but right now, I don’t have that luxury.

I’m working on the fourth Lucky Lexie book and have the fifth one planned. So far, that series is selling so-so. With more books, I can afford to maybe do a bit of promotion to try to get new readers. I’ll re-evaluate the future of that series after book 5 and some promo.

writing life

Multitasking

I’m working on at least three fiction projects right now, all in different phases, and while I might have thought that would leave me scattered, it’s actually working pretty well. When I get tired of one, I can take a little time to play with another, and I’m even finding synergies between them.

I’m revising one project, which takes a lot of concentration. It’s nice to have something useful to do when I need to take a break because I’ve realized my eyes are sliding over words rather than really taking them in.

I’m developing another project, doing some in-depth character work and worldbuilding. This is that book that I thought would be quick and easy earlier this year when I decided to do something with a thirty-year-old story idea. It wasn’t so quick and easy, and now that I’m doing a deep dive into developing the characters and world, I’m seeing why it didn’t work so well. Just because the characters and world had been in my head for a long time, it didn’t mean they were actually developed. The world was a rather generic fantasy world, and it’s fun seeing it flesh out as I do the development work, like it’s going from a black-and-white outline to a full painting. I think the next time I take a stab at this story, it will go very differently, and I’m getting excited about the potential for this book. Some of the characterization exercises are giving me ideas for things I can do to deepen the book I’m revising.

Then there’s another project I’m researching. I only have the vaguest big-picture idea of what this series is going to end up being and am doing a lot of reading to help me figure out that world and how it works. Some of the things I’m reading are giving me ideas for building the world in that other project.

Meanwhile, I have two different non-fiction freelance projects in the works. And I should be doing more business and marketing work. Keeping busy is good during the summer because it makes the time pass more quickly. I may survive until late September, when it gets bearable again.

Life

Summer Woes

It’s officially summer, and my least favorite time of the year. I was a nerd who actually liked school, so summer wasn’t ever something I was excited about. It just meant more free time and possibly going to the swimming pool. But I didn’t actively dislike it the way I do now. I don’t know if that’s a function of my age, the current climate, or where I live now. Maybe a little of everything.

I spent part of my early childhood in west Texas, where it had to be about as hot as it is where I am now, though possibly less humid, but I don’t remember much about seasons from that age. Then we moved to Oklahoma. There, I remember spending summers mostly outdoors. I don’t know if it was less hot there and then, but I don’t remember it being quite as oppressive. I do recall spending a lot of time lying on my bed and reading fantasy novels while listening to classical music, which is pretty much what I do now (though I also spend time at my desk writing fantasy novels while listening to classical music). That may have been during the hottest part of the afternoon before I went outside again. During the summer, we played outside until the streetlights came on, and that was the universal signal to go inside. On Friday nights, as a special treat, we sometimes got to stay out later so we could play spotlight, which was basically tag, but with flashlights. If the beam of a flashlight hit you, you were tagged. Our neighborhood was small and remote. You didn’t drive through our neighborhood unless you were going to a house in that neighborhood. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere, and it was on a military base, so people couldn’t just wander through. That meant there was almost no traffic and we were able to play in the street. We spent most of the day riding bicycles or skateboards or roller skating, or just running around. My family went camping during the summer, something I think it would be too hot to do now. I can’t imagine trying to sleep without air conditioning around here, and we went camping in east Texas a lot.

Then just before I turned ten, we moved to Germany, where it was a lot cooler and it rained a lot more. When it wasn’t raining, it was pretty pleasant to be outside. Our houses there didn’t have air conditioning, and I don’t remember it being uncomfortable. At one place we lived, I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood and was outside a lot with them. We also took a lot of walks. On weekends, we’d pack lunches and go out to one of the public walking paths. The main thing I remember about summers there was the sun staying up really late. I think during the summer, sunset was close to 11 p.m., and it was difficult going to bed when the sun was still up.

I think I started actively disliking summer when I was in high school. We lived in the country, so when I wasn’t in school, I didn’t really see people and there wasn’t much to do. There was a lot of lying on my bed and reading fantasy novels. Between my sophomore and junior years, I worked at a summer camp, and that was fun. I lived at the camp, and when I wasn’t working I got to use the camp facilities. I worked in the kitchen, which meant I had a different schedule from a lot of the other staff, so the kitchen staff grew pretty tight. We usually spent the afternoons between the lunch shift and the dinner shift canoeing or swimming. Or napping, since we had to get up early to get breakfast ready.

These days, summer doesn’t mean much to me, schedule-wise. I tend to work more in the summer because I have a little less going on and there’s not much else to do. If I get a lot done in the summer, I can ease up and enjoy the fall and winter. I can’t deal with the heat at all. Just stepping outdoors most days drains my strength. I try to run my errands early in the day when it’s not so bad, but I’m still exhausted afterward. I think a lot of the issue is my perception of heat. I have a thyroid condition that lowers my body temperature and am also on medication that lowers my body temperature, so I’m around a degree lower than “normal.” That means there’s a bigger difference between my body temperature and the environment, which makes it feel even hotter. It’s the reverse of what happens when you have a fever and get chills — the relationship between your body temperature and the environment has shifted, making you feel colder than usual. So, when your body temperature drops, you feel hotter.

I see people talking about fun things to do in the summer, like picnics, hiking, and camping, and to me, those are fall activities. Our fall is basically what other people get as a summer. Summer activities here mostly involve staying inside in the air conditioning. I occasionally fantasize about moving to a place where I can be outdoors during the summer without bursting into flames. Then fall might actually be weather for sweaters and bonfires.

Break Time

I finished a draft of a book last weekend, and I’ve spent most of this week trying to catch up on the stuff I was supposed to have been doing while I was working on the book, so I’ve decided I need some recovery time. I’m not taking a real vacation, but I’m going to try to be deliberate about taking actual downtime for a long weekend.

Change of pace is rather important for keeping the brain sharp and for being creative, and that’s been hard to come by in the past year or so, which means I’m making an effort to create that effect at home—not always successfully. Mostly it means shaking up my schedule. I may let myself sleep a little later (if I can. My body wakes up early in the summer, like it’s in touch with my inner ancestral farmer and thinks I need to be in the fields by six). I’m going to try to stay away from the computer as much as I can (I have a couple of freelance projects in the works that will require me to check e-mail). I’ve done a library run to stock up on books, and now I’m going to allow myself some time to just sit and think and sit and read. There may be some yoga to work out all the knots that come from sitting over a computer. I’m working on getting my singing voice back after getting really out of shape from more than a year without choir rehearsals and with barely even speaking, so I may do some singing.

Yeah, I really know how to relax.

And then I’ll be ready to dive in to the next draft of the book.

Books

Fixing a Fairy Tale

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d recently read a Beauty and the Beast retelling. That book was The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross, and it’s the Beauty and the Beast story from the Beast’s perspective. While there are a few elements from the Disney version that showed up (the curse is his punishment for being shallow, the library!), it mostly draws upon the fairy tale — the version with the down-on-his-luck formerly wealthy merchant with three daughters — and is a really nice fleshing out of the story.

One thing I loved was that this telling fixed the Stockholm Syndrome issue that can make this story uncomfortable. Isabeau, our “Beauty,” isn’t the Beast’s prisoner. He does initially demand that the merchant send his youngest daughter or he’ll kill him, but he never planned to follow through and is surprised when she actually shows up. He immediately feels terrible about it, apologizes to her, and explains that he was hoping to have someone who could remind him how to be human again (he’d gone feral for a while and had recently found his castle again and started living more like a human before her father showed up). He’s been all alone and is afraid that if he doesn’t interact with someone, he’ll lose whatever humanity he has left. He asks her to stay with him for a year, but she can leave at any time. She stays in part because she feels bad for him, but also because since her father lost his money, she’s been the one acting essentially as the servant for her father and sisters, and she could use the break. Let her sisters figure out how to cook and clean for a while. Meanwhile, he doesn’t learn until later how the curse can be broken, so he isn’t setting all this up to use her, either.

That idea that she’s on vacation and can leave any time she wants makes a difference in how the relationship feels. They’re much closer to being equals, and in novel form, we get to spend a lot more time on the development of their friendship instead of compressing it into a musical number. It’s also interesting getting his perspective, with the story told entirely from his viewpoint (in first person), so he has to guess at what she’s thinking, and he’s very much out of practice of reading other people.

One little detail I loved was that his grounds while the castle is enchanted contain gardens that stay in each of the seasons. So, say, if it’s a hot summer day, you can go to the winter garden and play in the snow. I’m not sure how the spring and autumn gardens would work, since those are transition seasons. Does the spring garden shrink back to the end of winter every so often, as soon as the trees are fully leafed out and the spring flowers have died back? Does the autumn garden re-grow the leaves after they fall? Or maybe the seasons rotate among the four gardens, so that it’s always one of the seasons in one of the gardens, but each garden goes through all the phases. They’re just out of sync with normal time so that there’s always a garden where it’s winter, fall, etc. I would pretty much live in the fall garden, I suspect, though I do also like spring.

The plot sticks fairly closely to the fairy tale, so there’s no real villain or external conflict. It’s mostly about the Beast getting his act together, and then there are some issues between the Beauty and her family. If you’re looking for a nice relaxing read that makes you feel good, this is an excellent choice. It’s going on my keeper shelf because I think it will make a good “comfort food” sort of book.

writing

Defending the Hero’s Journey

One other thing that came out of the panel on structure last weekend was a big hate for the Hero’s Journey format. I feel like I need to speak up to defend it because it’s made a huge difference in my writing. It was what taught me how to plot.

I’ve always been good at coming up with characters and situations that would lend themselves to stories. I sometimes even came up with the inciting incidents, the things that lurched the characters into the situations that would make for stories. I wrote a lot of first chapters of novels, but I couldn’t seem to get past that point. After I’d launched the story, I wasn’t sure what would happen next, what the story would actually be about.

Somehow, I managed to write and sell some books in spite of this. They were category romances, which have their own fairly rigid structure. I knew the beats I needed to hit, and I managed to write stories that hit them well enough to have them published, but I still didn’t know how to plot a book. I was trying to learn. I read a lot of how-to-write books about plotting. I tried making outlines. But it just didn’t click for me. It became more dire when the category line I was writing for folded and my editor suggested I expand the book I was working on into a single-title book, which would require me to double the length and actually have a plot.

Fortunately, around that time, someone spoke to my writing group about the Hero’s Journey, using the book written about it for writers, The Writer’s Journey, and the lightbulb went off. Everything clicked into place. The heavens opened and the angels sang. I finally understood how to plot a book.

The thing is, this structure isn’t drastically different from any other in Western storytelling (non-European-based cultures have their own story structures). They’re all just different language for describing the same thing, and this was a language that spoke to me. It really boils down to a character in a comfort zone (but not living up to their full potential), getting called to leave their comfort zone, learning things along the way, being tested on this and not fully succeeding because there’s something they’re not ready to let go of, then regrouping and trying again, and passing the final test because they can finally let go and undergo a symbolic death and resurrection.

I think a lot of the criticism comes because Hollywood glommed onto this so hard following the success of Star Wars, since George Lucas cited the influence of Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces. That made this a very rigid structure that film studios follow slavishly, which can result in cookie-cutter movies. One of my issues with all those Marvel movies was that with most of them, I could predict each major event based on the Hero’s Journey by watching the clock. But if you’re looser with following the structure and don’t take it so literally, I think it’s a more useful tool. Another criticism I’ve heard is that it’s male-oriented and about separating from society, and that is what Campbell’s analysis is about, but the first book I applied it to was a small-town romance about fitting in to a community, so it doesn’t have to be about solo journeys and separations. If you look at the Jungian work that Campbell based his analysis on (yes, I’m a nerd), all the journey stuff is metaphorical, anyway, and is a representation of an interior journey. You can use the Hero’s Journey for plotting a story about someone who never goes anywhere, whose journey is strictly internal.

These days, I think I’ve internalized enough about plotting that I may not consciously use this structure to plot, and it is only one of the tools I use. It’s a good way to test a story idea to find if you’ve got enough material for a story in that idea. I use it for the big-picture plotting before I dig deeper, and I layer it with other things. Once I had that plotting epiphany because of the Hero’s Journey, all the other plot stuff I’d read made a lot more sense to me.

So, use it or don’t use it. Just find what speaks to you, what makes sense for your brain, but don’t be rigid about following anything. Unless you’re working in Hollywood, where they have their own issues, you can do whatever works for your story. If people notice your structure, you’re probably doing it wrong. The structure should exist to provide a framework for the story, with the focus on the story.