Archive for writing


In Search of a Plot

I’ve reached the less fun part of story development, when I have to figure out what actually happens. It’s fun to create/discover characters and their world and to do research, but then comes the time when I actually need a plot. I would be perfectly happy just writing these people going about their daily lives in this setting, and while I know there are some readers who’d be okay with that, too, there’s no chance of it selling. I am contemplating a self-published experiment in “low-conflict fiction” for people who are so stressed-out that they just want to escape and read stories about people having adventures, seeing new things, discovering stuff, and maybe helping other people without being in mortal danger or without being put through the emotional wringer. However, this is not that book. I would like to sell this book to a publisher, so something plot-like needs to happen. I’ve got all the setup figured out — the ordinary world, call to adventure, crossing the threshold, tests, enemies and allies. But I’ve hit the part where things get serious, heading into the inmost cave for an ordeal, and I have no idea what needs to happen next now that the plot is really kicking in.

I’ve done things backwards in that I’ve figured out all the character conflicts, both within the characters and between the characters, and I know the arc the heroine needs to be on. I just can’t seem to figure out what the external plot should be that will drive that arc and force the heroine to make those choices. I have a vague sense of one possibility, but it may be too big for this book because this story has series potential and the plot I have in mind is more of a series climax thing. There’s not really anywhere to go after that story. So I need something that’s the right level of conflict, something that affects the heroine’s immediate world but doesn’t alter their society (the big one I have in mind is society-altering). At the same time, I don’t really want to present this as book one in a trilogy, but rather a standalone story with series potential, so it needs to be big enough to fix an obvious wrong in the first book so that it feels like the heroine has accomplished something.

Actually, I guess it depends on who you talk to whether I’ve really done things backwards. There are those who say you need to figure out what your protagonist needs to learn and then fit that into an external plot, but I tend to come up with the external plot and then figure out how it affects my characters, doing some tweaking to make it fit. Usually, for my easiest books, it all just sort of clicks together.

I think today is going to be a brainstorming day, which means it’s going to be a big housework day. Staring at a screen/page, trying to think of a plot, tends to get me nowhere. The best ideas come when I’m doing something else. We’re having our first sunny day after days of rain, and a house that felt cozy on a dark, rainy day just looks cluttered in bright sunlight. So I’m going to put iTunes on shuffle (because sometimes music sparks ideas) and clean my house, and maybe the answer will come to me while I’m dusting.


Thinking Time

One of the things I really enjoy about not having a day job is my ability to have my “thinking time.” For about an hour after I wake up, I like to lie in bed (especially in the winter) and think, usually about whatever I’m writing. This is when I daydream and brainstorm. I may see the movie of scenes playing out. Some of these scenes may end up in the book, while others are about getting to know the characters. I imagine the world and how it works. I may even dig into the history or backstory, all the stuff that happened before the story starts that won’t make it into the story itself but that shapes the situation. Sometimes I pick at plot details. Usually, by the time I get out of bed, I’ve come up with some good things I can use.

The great thing about thinking time is that I’m not entirely awake yet, so I’m much more creative than I’ll be at any other point in the day. Random ideas come and go, sometimes coming from something that has nothing to do with the current story. The critical side of my brain is still mostly asleep, so I can explore these random things without getting critical and telling myself to stop because that doesn’t belong in this book. If I sat down with pen and paper to work these things out, I’d never be as free-flowing as I am first thing in the morning.

But sometimes this lack of criticism means I go down some odd paths and get stuck there. This morning, I was thinking about my heroine’s background. She’s from a clan that makes woolen textiles — they raise the sheep, spin the wool, and knit or weave it into cloth. Their abilities in this area are somewhat supernaturally enhanced, so the cloth they make is particularly fine and in high demand. There are auctions for this cloth, since the supply is so limited. When the heroine gets the opportunity to go study in an elite institution, they make things for her to send her off. Most of it isn’t the super-fine stuff, since they can’t afford to use that for themselves instead of selling it, but since she’ll have to ride and wear riding breeches, her aunt the super knitter makes her some drawers (basically leggings) out of the super-fine yarn her mother spins. This comes into play in the story when the other girls are treating the heroine like she’s a hick, but then they discover that she has this super nice underwear even they can’t get, made from this incredibly soft and fine wool, and knit as one piece, with no seams to chafe. Then the other girls are torn on how to treat her because on the one hand, she’s working class, with her family actually working and making stuff, but on the other hand, they’re the source for this cloth everyone is dying to have, and maybe sucking up to her will give them an inside track.

But then I spent at least half an hour mentally trying to figure out how you’d knit leggings in one piece. There would have to be some grafting, but that would feel different than a seam. I was figuring how to knit the legs separately from the ankle up knitting in the round, then you’d join the legs on a circular needle, but there would be some increases and keeping the crotch area on stitch holders and knitting that separately before grafting it together. I finally snapped out of it as I woke up further and realized that I didn’t have to provide the knitting pattern and the whole point was that there was a magical level of talent involved, so I shouldn’t be able to figure out how to do this. All I needed was to have some really special underwear for the other girls to envy. But just the existence of the underwear and the role it plays in the way the heroine interacts with other girls was a good result from a brainstorming session.

I wouldn’t be able to do thinking time like this with a regular job because I’d need to get up and get to work. In my current situation, this is part of my work and is valuable time. It just happens to take place snuggled in bed rather than sitting at a desk.


Living in the Past

There’s nothing like researching life in the past to make you appreciate life in the present. I am so glad I’m living in an era (and location) of indoor plumbing, with easily accessible clean water for washing and drinking. And washing machines.

Just reading about laundry day before washing machines makes me want to lie down (on my clean sheets) and take a nap. Hours and hours of fetching water, then boiling it, scrubbing the clothes, rinsing with still more water, and hanging up to dry, then ironing everything. The rich who could hire people to do all that might have been able to stay clean, but for everyone else, it was an ordeal that they didn’t go through too often. They might change the sheets on their beds a few times a year. Some people just wore clothes until they fell apart without ever washing them because they didn’t have access to water or the facilities to do laundry. Yikes!

We won’t even get into the issue of privies, chamber pots, and cess pits. Ew.

As a woman, I’m even more fortunate to be living today because women had so few rights or opportunities a couple of hundred years ago. A “respectable” woman couldn’t do much to earn a living. A woman who did work was paid drastically less than a man (okay, that hasn’t entirely changed). A married woman was considered the property of her husband, as were her children, so even if he was horribly abusive, she really had no recourse. Her only option was to leave her children with him if she left (or, like in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, run away with the kid and hide out, pretending to be a widow).

Transportation was a real issue (something that really comes up in what I’m working on). Before railroads, long-distance travel was slow and uncomfortable. The only options were foot, horseback, or coach, maybe boat, depending on location, but boats didn’t have engines, so even that wasn’t easy. No wonder few people ever went far from where they were born, and you had to be a real adventurer to do much travel at all.

When I’m reading these reference books, I find myself feeling gratitude for so many little things as I go through my day — clean water from a tap, light at the flip of a switch, hot water for tea by turning on an electric kettle, a refrigerator keeping my food fresh, a washing machine and dryer for clean clothes and sheets, a car to allow me to travel easily beyond my neighborhood. We romanticize the past in fiction, but the truth is that life wasn’t easy. I think we enjoy reading about the past or about worlds that resemble our past because it’s so different, but we tend to shy away from the things that were so different because they’re rather disgusting. I’m certainly not going to be delving into how seldom anyone did laundry. On the other hand, things like the transportation and communication issues give us plot opportunities that don’t exist in today’s world. There are so many things that can be solved with a cell phone call but that become real problems if it takes a week to send a letter, and that’s the fastest way to communicate.

And then there are the clothes — so pretty to imagine, but I wouldn’t want to wear them every day. That’s what fiction is for, dipping your toe into another life for a little while.


Dealing with Dialect

As I continue research for a book, I’ve come across something that may require me to deal with something new for a book: dialect. I’ve had Sam the gargoyle’s hint of a Brooklyn accent and the occasional “y’all” for some of my southern characters, but I may have to take it further than that with this story.

In the time period I’m emulating — and in the world I’m building — it’s before there was easy long-distance travel, so most people never went more than a hundred miles from home in their lifetime. That meant that regional dialects were quite pronounced and distinct. The exception might be people whose work required a lot of travel (merchants, sailors, military, etc.) and the upper crust. The elite sent their sons to boarding schools, where they met people from other regions and they visited London and went to each other’s homes for house parties. They ended up having their own dialect that was distinct from the regional dialects where they lived. Otherwise, different parts of the country had different ways of talking that could sometimes almost be other languages. These regional differences have blurred over time as people have become more mobile and as there’s mass media, where there’s a “standard” way to speak.

In the story I’m developing, the heroine comes from a remote region that’s not visited by many outsiders. In a sense, they’re the “hillbillies” of this world, though more sophisticated and educated than that. At the beginning of the story, the heroine has barely interacted with anyone outside her family, let alone from outside her region. It would make sense that she would speak a different dialect than the upper-crust people from the empire’s capital city.

That means I need to figure out what her dialect is and how to depict it. Dialect in text can be really annoying and distracting to read, and it would be even worse if it’s a made-up dialect that doesn’t map directly to anything readers will be familiar with. I, personally, hate it when a book is so heavy on dialect that I have to read it out loud to try to sound out the words and figure out what they’re saying. I think the heroine will adapt pretty quickly once she realizes that the people around her talk a different way, so it will mostly be a factor early in the book to show that she’s different from the other characters and then later maybe when she gets excited and forgets herself. I just need to figure out a few speech patterns and wording changes that will indicate her home “tongue.” I think I’m going to try to avoid anything that will require funny phonetic spellings.

Meanwhile, I’m seeing more and more of the “movie” in my head (and in my sleep). Unfortunately, so far it’s all set-up stuff, so I’m not getting a lot of hint at what the plot will be, just how the characters get into the position for the plot to kick in and affect them.


Building a New World

I finished my proofreading! In the future, I really need to avoid doing two books back-to-back like that. I need to do other kind of work in between, not just for my brain but for my voice. I proofread by reading out loud — the best way to make sure you’re reading what’s there rather than what you think should be there, as well as a great way to spot awkward phrasing, repeated words, etc. Reading entire novels out loud for weeks at a stretch when I’m used to not talking much on a normal day really seems to have strained me because my throat’s a bit sore (though some of that may be due to high mountain cedar levels). I may have to give myself vocal rest this weekend (and remember not to talk to myself out loud).

I let myself sleep late and have a lazy morning today because wrapping up a book should be celebrated, and then this afternoon I have to dive into planning my next projects.

One thing I have to figure out is what my heroine wants. That’s such a basic part of fiction, but I realized once I got started thinking about it that although I have what felt like a fleshed-out character, I have no idea what she might want, aside from the story goal (which I’m also not entirely clear on). The one thing I can think of feels like it’s overused and a bit of a cliche, but being different and doing the opposite thing means the story has no drive. People wanting something bigger or more than where they are is such a standard thing (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) but content people make terrible protagonists, unless something absolutely forces them out of their contentment. I don’t want to blow up her world, and I don’t want to make her hate having to do the thing she has to do, which means I have to make her something less than content. This is going to take some thought.

Meanwhile this is a “secondary world” story, so it’s not based in our world, and that’s rather liberating. I’m somewhat basing it on a particular period of our history (clothing, technology level, society), but I can change things I don’t like. For instance, I can have lovely late 18th century-inspired dresses but skip the powdered wigs on men and women. In my world, they don’t do wigs. I can also have less sexism, so girls can do things they wouldn’t have been allowed to do in our world’s history. I just have to decide how much their world follows ours — we moved into the Directoire style that morphed into Empire, with the kinds of dresses you see in Jane Austen movies, in part because of the French Revolution and looking back at Greece as a model democratic society, so women tried to dress like they were Greek statues. In a world without a Greece or a France, would the same kind of transition have happened? Or would it have happened for a different reason — some fashion leader is seen outside in her nightgown, and soon everyone’s dressing that way? Or maybe there were still statues in flowing robes for another reason, and people start emulating that style. That style change was so drastic that it makes a lovely visual shorthand to separate those who are on the leading edge of fashion from those who are more provincial, like the latest season of Poldark, in which the women who’d been to London dressed very differently from those who’d stayed in Cornwall, and once a Cornwall woman had been to London, she returned home wearing very different clothes. Cornwall was still in Georgian style, with a tight bodice and full skirt, while London was in Regency style, with the column silhouette and high waist.

And, no, thinking of setting a book in a world that emulates this era is not merely an excuse to watch a bunch of Jane Austen movies. Really. (Though it may have been influenced by the fact that my PBS station is rerunning the Pride and Prejudice miniseries.)


Copyedits and School Flashbacks

I’m working on copyedits for Enchanted, Inc. book 9 right now. This is the phase when I look at the manuscript that the copyeditor has marked up and insert the changes into my copy of the manuscript, deciding which ones to accept or reject. The copyeditor is essentially a professional nitpicker, not only spotting things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, missing words, misused words, typos, and the like, but also keeping track of continuity — she was wearing a hat in the previous scene, but now there’s no mention of a hat. Is she still wearing the hat or did she take it off? Where did she put the hat when she took it off? Does she put it back on when she goes outside again?

I have a wonderful copyeditor, but I still struggle with this phase of a project because it takes me right back to my school days. It feels just like when you’ve had a paper or essay graded and the teacher hands it back to you, covered in red marks. It isn’t actually like that at all because a copyeditor isn’t judging you (except maybe inside). You’re not being graded. It’s a partnership to make the book better. The editor is helping you. It’s more like giving your paper to a friend to read over it for you and make suggestions before you hand it in to the teacher to be graded. Your friend’s marks don’t count as part of your score. They just help you improve your work before it is judged or graded. I’ll have to remember that analogy the next time I get copyedits and spend a day procrastinating furiously because I dread looking at my manuscript and seeing marks all over it.

I suspect I’ll still cringe when the copyeditor calls out an obvious mistake. I swear, words go missing between the time I review the manuscript before handing it in and the time the copyeditor sees it. Most of my edits, though, have to do with compound words and keeping straight which are written as two words, which are smashed together to make one word, and which are hyphenated. That all depends on which style guide you’re using. I learned Associated Press style in journalism school, but publishing tends to use the Chicago Manual of Style, and they sometimes do them in different ways. In a lot of cases, there are several “correct” ways to do it, but you go with what’s in the style guide you’re using for the sake of consistency.

And I swear, they change the rules between books because I try to internalize them on each copyedit and do what the editor said the last time, and it still ends up getting changed.

The other thing a copyedit will make glaringly obvious is which are your “pet” words for that book. You’ll think you’ve caught those words you overuse and you’ll be sure you cut them all out, and then you’ll get a note from the editor saying, “You used this word 60 times in the book. You should probably cut most of these uses.”

The really annoying thing is that in spite of this kind of edit and proofreading after making the edits, you’ll still end up with at least one error in the finished book.


The Life Cycle of a Book

I seem to have finally hit the “hey, this is actually pretty good” state on this book. Writing a book is a love/hate relationship. When you first get the idea, it’s the most brilliant thing ever and you’re madly in love with it. Then you start writing, and it loses its luster once it becomes reality. It’s not quite the book that was in your head, but you can’t seem to make it be the book that was in your head.

Then you hit the middle, when you’ve gone past all the initial ideas you’ve had but you’re not yet at the thing you had in mind for the ending, and you really start to hate it. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. What made you think you could write this thing? You don’t like the characters. You want to just scrap it and start over. This is when a lot of people give up, especially on first books. You realize writing isn’t fun all the time. It’s hard, and you’ve run out of enthusiasm. You start to doubt yourself. This is also when the Shiny New Ideas tend to hit, and you’re tempted to give up on the thing you’re working on that obviously isn’t going well to work on that Shiny New Idea that’s even better.

But you power through, and you get an energy surge that gets you to the end. Though, if you’re like me, you get impatient to get to the end and kind of skim through the conclusion, so that’s the first thing you have to go back and rewrite. Now you’re feeling pretty good. You have a whole book, and you think it might be pretty good.

Then you go back to rewrite/revise/edit, and that’s when you notice the plot holes, the repetitions (how many times did I use that word?), the little inconsistencies, the scenes that aren’t working. What were you thinking? Was that line supposed to be a joke? You wrote it, but you don’t get it. Hack, slash, change. It’s a mess. Who would want to read this? Maybe you should just start over.

And then, finally, you do one last read-through. I read it out loud so that I’m forced to really read every word. That does make me spot some things like repeated words or phrases, but on the whole, I find that I really like the story. I remember what I liked about the idea, and while it’s still not quite the perfect book that lived in my head before I started writing, it’s a good book. I love the characters and feel a little sad to leave them behind.

That’s where I am now. I’m starting to remember that I liked this idea, and I’m enjoying reading the book.

I’ve wondered if authors are ever tempted to go back to an old idea and try writing it again — the execution the first time was okay, but it wasn’t quite the book they really envisioned, and now that they’ve grown as a writer they could try again to get to what they initially thought that book would be, and it might come closer to that perfect vision this time. There have been authors who had similar books at different times in their career, but they came out very different. For instance, David Copperfield and Great Expectations have a very similar pattern and a lot of things in common, but are very different books at different points in Dickens’ career. Was that a case of him going back to an idea he’d already written and executing it differently? I think today people might accuse an author of being a hack with just one good idea, but it would be an interesting experiment.


Mulling Over Mysteries

A number of years ago, I noticed that many of the “people who bought this also bought” books on the listings for my Enchanted, Inc. books were cozy paranormal mysteries. That made me curious, so since I love mysteries, I tried reading a bunch of these.

I could definitely see the comparison. Like my books, these had a sassy first-person narrator who had to deal with some kind of crisis, and there was a slow-burn romantic relationship over the course of the series. The only real difference was that in my books the crisis involved magical mayhem while in the mysteries it was usually a dead body, and in the mysteries it seemed that the romance was usually with some law enforcement officer.

This made me think that I should look into writing this sort of thing. It really seems to be right up my alley, a mix of fantasy, mystery, and romance. I even came up with a setting/scenario for who my sleuth would be and why she was there. Oddly enough, the hard part was coming up with the paranormal element. The main difference between the paranormal mysteries and urban fantasy seems to be in the world. In the mysteries, the world is more “normal” and the sleuth is the paranormal part, so there’s some conflict between her and the world. She has some kind of ability that’s what gets her involved in the mystery — she can talk to ghosts who complain to her about their murder, she can touch an object and learn something about its owner, she can enter a space and tell what happened there — but because it’s paranormal and she’s in a world where that’s not commonly accepted, she can’t exactly tell the cops how she knows who was murdered and how, and her evidence isn’t the sort of thing they can use to get an arrest warrant or even a search warrant. Sometimes, knowing what she does can even make her a suspect. In fantasy, on the other hand, usually more of the world is magical. There’s some kind of magical subculture, so if the heroine has powers, she’s not the only one. She still might clash with the normal cops, but there’s a network of magical beings around her.

I’m more used to doing the fantasy kind of thing, so my first stab involved inverting the usual setup and having my heroine be the normal one who’s trying to use evidence while the rest of the town is all going, “Yep, a wizard did it,” but then I realized that would be difficult to sustain for long. It was hard coming up with some sort of ability that only the heroine might have and that would be considered odd in the world and that hasn’t been done to death. I also love the “strange little town” story, so I wanted the heroine to be a semi-normal outsider trying to fit into the strange little town, but then how is she going to solve mysteries?

I think I may finally have an idea that could work, so I guess I’ll be adding that to my list of things to try to write. It just shows you how long it can take to go from “I should write this” to having something even remotely viable. It was 2012 when I did all that mystery reading and first started thinking of this. It hasn’t usually been front-burner, but still, that’s a long time to gestate an idea before even getting to the point of developing it.


Revising Forward and Backward

I’m considering last week a kind of trial run at the new year. I tried to treat the week after New Year’s Day like regular working days, but the epic ordeal of waiting for a plumber for days on end disrupted my schedule. But now the last holiday party is over, all the Christmas stuff is down and out of the way, and I’m back to what passes for “normal” around here, so the new year is beginning in earnest, for real this time. It’s time to get out of holiday mode and back onto my usual schedule (well, until the next plumbing appointment for the serious work required to do the repairs the plumber assessed when he finally came).

That means I really have to get to work on this book that’s due in a couple of weeks. I’m in the phase of revision in which fixing one thing means going back and tinkering with something else. I’m also having the “hey, wait a second” moments in which I question things I’ve written. For instance, I’ll know why my viewpoint character is in a scene, but then I stop to wonder why the other characters are there and realize either they shouldn’t be there or I need to come up with a reason for them to be there. But then when I come up with a reason for them to be there, that changes something else.

I seem to be working both forward and backward. As I move forward fixing things, it brings up fixes I have to do in the past, which bring up other fixes I need to track back and do.

But I can feel the book getting better, and that’s a good feeling.


A New Beginning

I started writing a new book yesterday afternoon. I don’t know where it will go, but more and more of it kept coming to life in my head until I had to get it out, and I got close to 2,000 words written. So I guess I’m doing National Novel Writing Month with a bit of a late start. We’ll see what happens with it, but I did the usual “shiny new idea” thing by writing down what I knew about it, and it kept building and developing instead of fizzling out. Now I have fleshed-out characters and a world with history.

So, I guess I have a new story in the works. We’ll see where it goes from here, but so far, writing has been fun and I’ve looked forward to working on it. I got up this morning and wrote more than a thousand words. When work feels like play, it’s a good sign.

Now, about 25,000 words from now I’ll be struggling and another new idea will hit and it won’t be as much fun, but I’ll enjoy this while it lasts. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s good to be reminded that I started doing this for fun and only later made any money at it. This is reminding me of when I used to scribble in spiral notebooks in my bedroom when I was a teenager, making up stories. I just hope I finish this, unlike those things I wrote as a kid. I was really bad about getting an idea, starting to write it, then getting another idea that was even better, and starting to write it, and so forth.

Now I really want to get back to the story because something good is about to happen and I can’t wait to see it.