Archive for writing


The Romance Formula

My analysis of Anastasia made me think about my romance “formula,” especially since I’m currently revising a book with a romantic arc, so I’ve been analyzing that story.

By formula, I mean boiling it down to the very basics. To have a romantic story, you need to have a reason for the characters to get together. There has to be some kind of attraction or interest somewhere along the way or there’s not much of a romance. And you need to have something keeping them apart, at least temporarily, or else there’s not much of a story. If the characters just meet, like each other, and get together, that’s great for real life but not a good story. What kind of attraction and conflict you have depends on the kind of story you’re telling.

The conflict can come in a variety of ways:
Internal to the characters — one or both characters have some kind of internal issue that keeps them from being up for any relationship, and they have to get past this in order to get together with anyone, no matter how attracted or interested they are. This is where you get the “I’ve been hurt before and don’t want to risk my heart again” story, as in the guy in Leap Year, or the “chasing the wrong person because of a wonky idea of what love really is” story, as in Stardust, where Tristan (in the movie) is obsessed with the local mean girl, which keeps him from being able to see that Yvaine may be the right person for him. Or it’s the person who’s focused on the wrong goal, such as Flynn/Eugene in Tangled, who has to figure out that his life of crime isn’t going to make him happy if he’s alone. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast has to get his act together and find his inner humanity before he can love and be loved.

Between the characters — there’s something that puts the characters at odds with each other. They may belong to different factions so they see each other as enemies or they may have a personality clash. This one is a big reason why I don’t generally get my love stories from romance novels, since this is a big focus of the romance genre. When I was trying to write romances, I kept hearing “if he’s a firefighter, make her an arsonist” from editors. They wanted CONFLICT. My issue with that is that if the conflict is so big, why would they even bother? If I meet someone I hate, I move on and find someone I don’t hate. This sometimes requires contrivance to keep them in proximity long enough for them to fall in love.

It can work, though. This is what Pride and Prejudice is all about. They have a big personality clash because they make incorrect assumptions about each other. I think the trick to making this kind of thing work is making the conflict something they can move past by growing and changing or getting to know each other better. If it’s just a basic personality clash, it’s harder to believe in the relationship working out in the long run. Why be with someone who just annoys you and sees the world in a totally different way than you do? I find it hard to believe that a firefighter would ever be happy with an arsonist. Even if she realized the error of her ways and changed, would he be able to get past the fact that her actions had put his colleagues in danger by creating fires they had to fight? He’d want her to face justice. For the same reasons, I have a hard time with enemies-to-lovers stories, unless it’s someone who’s been brought up in an enemy culture without knowing better, and once they learn the truth or get to know someone from the other side they choose to change sides — like the princess in Willow.

The outside world/circumstances against the characters — even if they don’t have internal issues they have to get over and even if they don’t have conflicts with each other, there’s something in their circumstances keeping the characters from being able to be together. This would be your Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story type of situation, where they’re from opposing factions but don’t really have any issues with each other. It’s just all the people in their lives who are tearing them apart. Or there’s something like The Terminator, where they don’t really clash, but they can’t be happy together while a killer robot from the future is relentlessly pursuing them. I used this in my Rebels series, where the rules of society mean they can’t be together — so for them to be together, they have to change society. On the lighter side, this is the conflict in While You Were Sleeping. They get along great and seem to be made for each other. The thing keeping them apart is the fact that everyone thinks she’s engaged to his brother. Remove that obstacle, and they’re fine. This is the kind of conflict we often see when there’s a love story in some other kind of story, where they gradually fall in love along the way as they do other stuff, and it’s the other stuff keeping them from just being together. Once the quest is done and they’re out of danger, then they can explore a relationship.

It’s pretty common for there to be a combination of these in a story. They may start at odds with each other, then overcome their differences as they go through stuff, but then they still have external stuff keeping them apart and personal issues they need to deal with. The interpersonal conflict can be caused by the personal issues. Think Tangled — her issue is that she’s being gaslit in an abusive relationship with her captor who’s pretending to be her mother and she needs to find her independence. His issue is that he’s compensating for being a poor orphan by stealing to get enough money to be comfortable and being loyal only to himself. He dislikes her because she’s forcing him to escort her to the celebration, so he’s trying to make things as unpleasant as possible so she’ll give up, which puts them at odds. They get over the interpersonal conflict as they get to know each other and find themselves dealing with the external issue of the guards and his former allies coming after them. Then they both have to get past their personal issues to prevail against her “mother.”

The other side of the equation is the attraction, and I think that’s where a lot of stories fall flat because the writers are so busy building up the conflict that they forget about why they might want to be together other than that they’re both attractive. The stronger the conflict, the deeper the attraction needs to be because they need to have a reason to push past the conflict, and too many romances don’t deal with that well or focus on the physical attraction — the “I hate him, but my traitorous body can’t resist him” thing.

That’s where I think Anastasia didn’t work. There was all that bickering, then he saw her in a nice dress and it was love. Why did he come to love her enough that he was willing to give up everything so she could be happy? We never saw any reason why she loved him, other than her later learning that he didn’t take the reward. That’s nice, but it’s not something to base a relationship on. This was why I liked While You Were Sleeping, on the other hand. We got some nice conversations in which we saw that they had shared values and interests, and they encouraged each other to pursue their dreams.

In the thing I’m working on, I know what brings them together, but I’m not sure I’ve shown it through their actions, so I’m trying to come up with scenes that illustrate their growing bond.


The Potato Problem

I’m getting close to being halfway through with book 2 in the Rydding Village series, and I’m having to make some decisions about how to handle the worldbuilding. There’s a balance between realism and fantasy in any secondary-world fantasy — that is, fantasy that’s not set on our earth. I’ve come to think of this as the Potato Problem.

There’s something about a potato that makes it seem like it should fit in an old-fashioned world. Potatoes roasted in an open fire are so simple and basic and the kind of thing you might eat while on a fantasy quest. Except potatoes didn’t become common in Europe until the late 1500s because they’re originally from South America. Your medieval peasant wouldn’t have been roasting potatoes in the fire or having potatoes in a hearty stew, even if Medieval Times (a sort of dinner theater in which you eat a Ye Olde Meal while watching jousting) serves roasted potatoes.

But can your characters in a fantasy world based on medieval Europe eat potatoes? That’s a tricky question. The really pedantic people who know history (like me) are likely to get thrown out of the story by a mention of potatoes. But your world could be one in which potatoes grow in the continent where your characters live, since it’s not our earth. Or people from the continent where your characters live could have traveled to the place where the potatoes are earlier than they did in our world. The big question is whether this detail will add to your world or detract from it. There’s something cozy and homey about a potato that just seems to fit, but you also don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s an issue that has come up even for Tolkien, who was a medievalist who probably should have known about this, but the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings books eat potatoes. I actually think the hobbits don’t seem all that medieval. Their costuming in the films seems sort of 18th century, when potatoes would have been in England, and that costuming fits the descriptions in the books, which refer to things like waistcoats and buttons. In behavior, the hobbits strike me as Edwardian gentlemen. It’s only the other societies in that world that seem medieval. The hobbits did have to explain “taters” to the others, so maybe they hadn’t spread that far.

I’m going with a roughly 17th-18th century level of technology in my world (aside from gunpowder, which I don’t think they have), so potatoes would be a possibility, even for Europe in our world. I haven’t decided yet whether I’m going to use them. This actually came up when I was thinking about how I would make a particular pastry mentioned in the book, and the dough that would be most suitable for it contains potato flour (or potato flakes). I’d probably not mention the ingredient in the book, but if I provided a recipe it would have potatoes, and would that be a problem?

There are similar issues relating to tomatoes, which come from the same place and came to Europe at about the same time. You might find tomatoes in Italian food starting around the 1600s. Tobacco and corn also came from the Americas.

Then there’s the issue of language. Can you use words based on proper nouns from our world in your fantasy world? Can you put your feet up on an ottoman (named for the empire) or eat a sandwich (named for the earl) when those people and places don’t exist in your world? Or do we assume that the whole book is being translated to modern English, and those words are the nearest approximation in our language to what they’re saying in the language of that world?

And this is probably getting way too nerdy. Most readers only notice if the world seems real and believable to them. Only a few weirdoes are going, “Ha! Potatoes!”


Group Projects

One good bit of writing advice I’ve heard is to pay attention to your own likes and dislikes. What are the story elements that catch your eye if you see them in a movie description or book blurb? Is there something that makes you think, “Ooh, yummy!” when you come across it? Pay attention to that feeling when you get it and try to figure out what it is that makes you feel that way, then try to determine why it gives you that feeling.

These are the elements you should use in your own writing. For one thing, that will make you more interested and invested in your own work. It’s more fun to write your own catnip. But it will also likely resonate more with others, since there are few things that are so specific that you’re the only person who likes them. That’s why you figure out the why, since nailing the reason you like a thing can allow you to use the reason even if you don’t use the specific thing.

This week I noticed a new one for me that I hadn’t realized before. I was watching a British documentary series in which a group of historians and archaeologists were spending a year on a 17th century English farm, trying to go through a year doing the things people would have done then, using the technology and techniques they would have used. They were taking things that they’d found in their studies and putting them to the test. The same people (mostly, the members of the group vary from series to series) have done similar series set in other time periods. There’s one in which they join that project in France where they’re building a medieval castle using period technology, one in which they live on a Tudor-era farm, a Victorian farm, an Edwardian farm, etc.

While I’m mostly interested in the history of it, I found myself getting caught up in the teamwork aspect. These people are having to do some really difficult things, often figuring them out as they go, but they all seem to be getting along, encouraging each other, and helping each other. I was fascinated by the dynamic, and seeing them working together was giving me warm fuzzy feelings. I found myself really hoping that this wasn’t just for the cameras, that they were becoming friends from working together. I’ve learned that when something really catches my interest like I should think about it, and I’m having to add “teamwork” to my list of things I like.

Which is weird because I dreaded group projects in school. But still, I seem to really enjoy team/group stories in which a group works together toward a common goal and becomes friends along the way. I think that’s probably because this is the fantasy of a group project, where everyone’s equally invested in the process and the outcome and really does work together and come to like each other, unlike almost any group project I’ve ever been a part of. In fiction, you can make it work that way (or when you only see the parts that are edited into the finished program — they’re probably not going to show these archaeologists cursing at each other because the way one of them thought something should have worked based on things found in digs turned out to be wrong).

My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is The Fellowship of the Ring — the part before the party splits up, when they’re all working together. In fact, in just about any group/questing party/team fantasy series, I’ll lose interest when the party splits up. I loved the prison arc in season one of Andor because I liked that the prisoners all worked together on an escape plan. It wasn’t like your usual story in which the falsely accused hero is thrown into prison and has to survive against the vicious prisoners. These guys all worked together well and looked after each other. I guess this is connected to the “found family” trope in which a group of random people thrown together come to function like a family.

I haven’t written much of this in my books, mostly because it’s really hard to write a good team/group/ensemble cast in a novel. It’s like juggling, and I’ve never gotten the hang of juggling. I can’t toss and catch two balls at once, let alone keep a bunch of plates in the air and moving without dropping one. It’s a lot easier to focus on one or two characters than to keep a team moving.

This is also connected to that “community” thing I noticed when I was watching Christmas movies, where I was more interested in the characters finding and building communities than I was in romantic plot lines. I think I’m doing that with the Rydding Village books. I may focus on one character at a time, but I’m gradually building a community that will get bigger as I address more of the characters, and they’re all going to have to work together eventually.

I just started writing book 2 yesterday, so I can be conscious of using this element as I write it.

writing, movies

Main Character or Protagonist

One of my movies last weekend was 10 Things I Hate About You, the modern (well, 1999) teen retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I saw it at the theater when it first came out, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. In part, it served as a time capsule for things that were happening around that time. For instance, the fashion. I remember those platform flip-flops one character wore because that kind of shoe caused a minor drama in my office. Some of the women were wearing those for work (they were expensive, designer platform flip-flops), and our boss sent out a memo banning them from the office, saying they weren’t appropriate office attire and the sound they made when people walked up and down the halls in them was distracting. Except the boss was Australian, so he used the word “thongs” instead of “flip-flops,” and thong underwear was a big thing at that time, so a lot of people in the office thought he was banning a certain kind of underwear, and it was none of his business what underwear anyone wore. I thought they could have figured it out from context because if your underwear makes “slap, slap” noises as you walk down the hall, you’ve got problems, and the memo could have served as an intelligence test. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but seeing the way people dressed in the movie took me right back to the job I had at that time.

Anyway, in case you aren’t familiar with the movie … The new kid in school falls for a pretty, popular girl, but she’s not allowed to date until her older sister, a notorious shrew, does, so he and his friend cook up a scheme to con a rich guy who’s also into the popular girl into paying the school bad boy to woo the shrew.

It’s a fun teen rom-com that’s very cleverly written. You don’t have to know Shakespeare to follow the story, but there are a ton of Easter eggs related to Shakespeare. The characters are pretty well-rounded, and the cast is a good collection of people who went on to bigger things as they grew up. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times but also made me cry a bit.

But the thing that struck me on this viewing was a structural thing and the way the character roles were handled. Normally, we use the terms “main character,” “protagonist,” and “hero/heroine” interchangeably because they’re usually the same characters, though there are differences in what each of these terms means. A main character is the character who has the most focus, gets the most screen/page/stage time, and is generally the one we sympathize with. A protagonist is the character with the goal, and their pursuit of this goal is what drives the plot. The term “hero” depends on the context. It can mean the good guy, as opposed to the villain. Or it can be the one who’s on the hero’s journey, the one who is growing and changing and undergoes a transformation. In a romance, the hero and heroine are the main romantic couple (and are often both protagonists).

But this movie is the rare story in which these aren’t the same person. The main character is Kat, our “shrew,” played by Julia Stiles. She gets most of the screen time and is the person most of the other characters are focusing on. In hero’s journey terms, she’s the hero because she’s the one who has the transformation arc and goes on a journey. Her life is upended when Patrick starts pursuing her and she has to learn to let herself be vulnerable instead of pushing everyone away. Her sister grows a bit and has a realization and their father also learns something, but none of the others really change or grow.

But Kat isn’t the protagonist. She’s acted upon by the story, but she doesn’t drive the story. The protagonist is Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He’s the one with the goal — date Bianca — who drives the story with each of his schemes to be able to reach his goal, and it’s a really good example of the structure with the intermediate goal that doesn’t work, requiring a new approach, with each one escalating. His first tactic when he learns Bianca is looking for a French tutor is to cram his way through the French textbook and quickly learn enough to tutor her and get close to her so he can ask her out to a French restaurant so they can practice, but then he learns that she’s not allowed to date unless her sister does (since their father knows Kat’s unlikely to date). His next plan is to find someone to ask Kat out, but none of the guys are brave enough. The next plan is to get Patrick, who seems unafraid of anything, to try, but he doesn’t even dignify that with a response. Then the friend comes up with the idea of conning the rich jerk into paying Patrick. Then they have to help Patrick deal with Kat when she’s unimpressed. And so forth.

As far as I can tell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the big name among the younger cast at that time. He was something of a tween/teen heartthrob on the Third Rock from the Sun TV series, while Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles were relative unknowns (he’d been on a short-lived TV series but had mostly worked in Australia and she’d had bit parts on TV while mostly working on the stage), so he may have been meant as the main character, but he’s mostly a catalyst character. His actions change other people, but he doesn’t really change. His love interest, Bianca, was played by Larisa Oleynik, who at the time was on a popular TV series targeted at tween viewers, but they aren’t the main couple. The main romance is between Kat and Patrick. The Cameron and Bianca relationship is resolved at the midpoint. Their only conflict from that point is helping get Kat and Patrick to go to the prom together so Bianca can go to the prom with Cameron. The romantic conflict is between Kat and Patrick, with her main issue being that she’s afraid to trust and that making the fact that he was hired to ask her out a ticking time bomb (even though he’s come to actually like her and he’s mostly just scamming the jerk for the money).

It all works, though, and I applaud the filmmakers and the actors involved for going with what the story needed. From what I’ve heard about Gordon-Levitt, he’s a nice guy and must not have had a major ego attack about wanting more screentime or focus in spite of being the biggest star. It would have been a less interesting story if it had focused on his character instead of the hot mess that Kat was, and if they’d made him flawed enough that he needed to grow, then his scheming would have looked creepy. It only worked because we could tell that he was a good guy and we wanted Bianca to choose him over the jerk.

Another interesting thing about this odd bit of structure is that I don’t think Kat would be a viewpoint character if you wrote a novel based on this movie. I think there was one scene in which we saw her alone. Otherwise, she’s always with someone else or being watched by someone else, even if she might think she’s alone. It seems like you’d have to write it with her being perceived by other people rather than ever getting into her head — probably because she would be entirely different from the inside than she seems from the outside and the point of the story is that it takes time for that to come out and it takes Patrick, who’s also got a reputation and is different than people think, to see that.

Anyway, it’s a movie that holds up really well, aside from the belly shirts and platform flip-flops, and a lot of fun.


Open Spaces

Watching that Dungeons and Dragons movie last weekend reminded me of something I’ve noticed in fantasy movies that amuses me: the obligatory scene of the heroes riding across a nearly deserted landscape. Fictional fantasy worlds seem to be just about entirely unpopulated. The characters very seldom run across any kind of civilization when they travel long distances.

But given that most of these fantasy worlds are at least somewhat based on medieval Europe, that’s pretty unlikely. The population was lower then, but that meant that each of the settlements was smaller. They weren’t very spread-out, though. When your only transportation is by foot or horse, things tend to be closer together. In a leisurely afternoon stroll in England, I once walked through three villages — and that was on the public footpath instead of on the direct road (which was built on an old Roman road, so it’s a road that would have existed in medieval times). If I’d been on the main road and had walked another half hour or so, I’d have hit two more villages. Apparently, there were even more villages that died off over the years, either literally (a number were depopulated after the Black Death) or just by becoming irrelevant once people no longer needed to live so close together or they relocated to be near railroads.

Germany is similar. You can avoid civilization on the public walking paths through the woods, sort of. You still may run across a farm or a hamlet (smaller than a village), though. Just a casual afternoon stroll can take you through several villages if you’re not on a path designed to be a nature walk.

In some of these fictional cases, they’re avoiding civilization. That’s why Frodo and his friends don’t seem to run into any towns before they reach Bree at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. But if that world was populated like the England that world was based on, they’d have to work to bypass the villages along the way. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining that the thirty seconds we see of the characters in these movies riding in a vast overhead shot is the only thirty seconds they have to run free between villages.

I watched a Fantasy Cheese (low-budget fantasy full of cliches and tropes) movie a while back that was particularly amusing, in that it had the hero walk across the kingdom to the home of the lord who was supposed to give him a position in his court, and he never ran across another soul — no farmhouses, no villages, no towns, not even an inn at a crossroads. I imagine that was to do with the budget. They’d have had to hire more actors or do more set decorating to have something that looked appropriate. They shot the lord’s home at an actual castle, but there must not have been any good villages that weren’t too modern.

This came up for me in a book I’ve been working on that involves a journey, and I had to rework my map because I realized there needed to be more towns, especially as they got closer to the center of civilization. I’d been thinking in Texas scale when I needed to think Europe scale, or at the very least the northeast of the United States. Being used to Texas warps your thinking. You even look at maps differently. I remember a business trip to Connecticut when my coworkers made me navigate, and until I realized that the fold-out gas station map of Connecticut was on a different scale than the map of Texas, we kept missing exits. It would look like the exit we needed was at least fifteen minutes away on the Texas scale when it was actually right ahead. If you’re in a world moving at horse or foot speed, you’re probably going to have some kind of settlement within a day’s walk of any other settlement if the general area is settled.

So, what fantasy needs is more villages unless the characters are actively trying to avoid people. Come to think of it, I guess the D&D characters were avoiding people, since they’d escaped from prison. Still, that soaring overhead shot maybe should have included a village in the distance.

writing, publishing business

When the Machines Take Over

One of the biggest topics in the writing community right now is the growth of artificial intelligence — or, more accurately, language learning models that can simulate writing. These aren’t actually “intelligent.” They’re basically glorified autocomplete. They were “trained” by getting input from written work available on the Internet, and from there they figured out what was most likely to come next based on prompts.

One reason this is an issue is that the people whose works were used to train it weren’t asked if this was okay, so it’s unauthorized use of their work. Another reason is that this is essentially a machine that automates mosaic plagiarism. It’s not writing anything new. It’s just cobbling together bits and pieces of other written work to create what’s essentially a word mosaic. There have been authors who got caught doing this when readers recognized phrases from other books. They take existing books and copy and paste bits and pieces together. It’s not a direct copy, but it’s not original, either. This technology just automates that.

Another reason it’s an issue is that it may make it harder to make a living as a writer because of people who don’t understand what it does and think it offers a shortcut. This is one of the things screenwriters are fighting about in the current writers strike. They’re concerned that studios will use AI to “write” scripts and then hire writers to “edit” or rewrite them into something that can be used. There are different payment scales based on whether someone gets credit for the story, for the script, or just for a rewrite, and studios could try to save money by not crediting an actual writer for the story or the original draft of the script, just for doing a “polish” on an AI-created script, even though it might actually take more effort to turn it into something that could be filmed than it would to write a new script.

For non-fiction writing, like marketing communications (my field when I’m not writing fiction), technical writing, and journalism, there have already been writers fired and replaced with AI. Never mind that it’s extremely dangerous to use it for fact-based writing because it makes stuff up. It doesn’t find information. It just creates something that seems likely based on information that’s already out there. There’s an attorney currently in huge trouble because he turned his legal research over to one of the AI engines to have it write his legal briefs, and it cited entirely fictional cases. It created a legal brief based on other legal briefs, but the cases didn’t exist. I have author friends who’ve played with it, since it’s supposedly a good tool for writing marketing copy, author bios, and the like, but they found that it made up stuff. It didn’t accurately describe the book, made up facts for the bio, and added non-existent books to the list of books in the series.

For fiction writers, there’s already an impact in the short-fiction market as publications have had to close to submissions because they were getting deluged with AI-written drivel. Most publications don’t want to publish anything AI-written because it can’t be copyrighted. It’s an amalgam of other works, so there’s a potential plagiarism issue. Plus, it’s not very good. It can imitate styles of other writers, but it has no real authorial voice, no story logic, no real soul. Apparently, it got out on some “side hustle” advice channel that an easy way to make money is to let AI write short stories for you. Never mind that even at the big publications you’re making a couple of hundred bucks if you manage to sell something. But the swamp of these bogus stories that aren’t good enough for publication, whether or not they’re AI-written, is making more work for editors and making it harder for real writers to get past the noise, especially if they’re newcomers. Editors may start focusing on authors they’ve already worked with or know by reputation because that means it’s more likely that the story is worth publication. A new writer without a reputation may get lost in the shuffle.

Novelists are likely to see the impact in discoverability. The online bookstore algorithms tend to favor new releases, and an author may get an overall boost when they have a new release. If someone can churn out a book with AI in a day, they can flood the marketplace with constant new releases, which crowds out the authors who take weeks or months to write a book the hard way. Even if readers don’t end up buying those books, their listings will stay front-and-center. It will be harder for readers to discover new books and authors.

Publishers already look for new books that are like what’s currently successful, and it’s not hard to imagine some of them seeing this as a shortcut. Get the machine to produce something like the current hot thing, then have an editor clean it up. Then they don’t have to deal with authors and they can get to market faster, jumping on the trend before it passes.

One argument I’ve heard for using AI is that it “democratizes” writing, making it so everyone can do it. Writing is hard, they say, and not everyone wants to put in the time to do it. To which I say, if you don’t enjoy doing it and don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it. You can do something else. If you do enjoy it but are frustrated because your skills don’t match your vision, this may seem to provide a convenient shortcut. Just plug your idea into the computer, and it writes the story for you. But it doesn’t really get you past that frustration gap because if you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning how to write. Plugging your idea into a computer isn’t going to help you grow to be a better writer. You’ll just get better at wording the way you put your ideas into the computer. If you aren’t willing to put in the work to write until you get good at it, then maybe you don’t enjoy the process of writing and should do something else with your time.

I suspect this is another outcome of that side hustle culture, the idea that everything you do should be monetized. If you enjoy writing, you’ve got to be able to make money at it somehow, and now. You’re not making money from it during the time you’re writing just to get better at writing, so you want that shortcut. I also suspect that there’s a lot of overlap between the “writing is hard and this democratizes it” people and the people who believe that everyone can write, so it’s not really a specialized skill people should get paid to do.

I just don’t understand the idea of automating the things that are fun and that are part of human expression, like art and writing. They talk about how even though jobs and opportunities will be lost for writing, there will be new careers in editing AI-written output. But that’s automating the fun part and keeping just the tedious part. You’re not actually doing the thing when you use these tools. You’re getting output as though you’ve done it. I’ve found that I’m sanest when I’m in the creation phase of writing, when I’m coming up with ideas and writing early drafts. When I come close to burnout, it’s when I’m in the proofreading phase. I’d hate to get to where that’s the only part I get to do.

Where I’d love some kind of automation and artificial intelligence is to get a truly good spellchecker, one that looks at context, so if your typo accidentally creates a real word that’s spelled correctly, the spellchecker can tell it’s the wrong word for the context and flags it. Or it would catch when you use the wrong version of a word (like “their” vs. “there”). And it would be able to tell whether or not you need that comma. It would be trained on fiction, so it would work better than the existing grammar checkers. Automate the tedious, boring stuff, not the fun, creative parts.

writing, Books

Jane Austen’s Mary Sue?

I’ve been thinking about that “Mary Sue” concept some more, and to further explore it, I’m turning not to action/adventure, but to Jane Austen.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen identified pretty closely with most of her main characters. She had a lot in common with them and they were in similar circumstances to what she experienced, but with different outcomes (since they all got married and she never did). If you look at Austen’s letters and life story, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice was to a large extent Austen’s self-insert character.

Is Lizzie a Mary Sue, though? She’s sparkling and witty, and everyone loves her. Even Darcy, although he initially claims she’s not as attractive as everyone else seems to think, falls in love with her. She ends up marrying the extremely wealthy man, who goes to great lengths to help her and her family. She gets to give a stinging comeuppance to a snobby older woman. It kind of sounds like Austen was writing out her greatest fantasies.

But I don’t think she’s a Mary Sue. Austen gives Lizzie plenty of flaws. She’s a terrible judge of character, believing everything Wickham tells her and seeing him as trustworthy while she doesn’t see Darcy for what he really is, even after he starts softening somewhat. She’s part of both the “pride” and “prejudice” in the title. She goes through a major growth arc.

Cathy in Northanger Abbey is to some extent another self-insert — a clergyman’s daughter with an active imagination who’s obsessed with gothic novels — but the book is, to a large extent, poking fun at this character and the way her overly active imagination gets her in trouble. She may get the happy ending, but after she learns a lesson from making a huge mistake. (This one does have a Star Wars connection, in that Felicity Jones of Rogue One played Cathy in the most recent TV adaptation, which is now really fun to watch after seeing Rogue One if you imagine Jyn Erso showing up instead of Cathy.)

Anne in Persuasion may also have had some element of autobiography to her. Austen clearly relates to her. She’s practically a saint, the longsuffering only sensible person in her flighty family, tending to her sickly sister and her kids as essentially an unpaid servant and suffering in silence as she has to watch other women make a play for the man she loves. There’s a lot of “Victim Sue” going on here. But Austen is also very clear that Anne has screwed up seriously. She’s in the situation she’s in because she made a bad choice.

Austen may have written self-inserts who get to live out her fantasies, but she remains objective about these characters. She’s well aware of their flaws. She makes them learn and grow in ways that Mary Sues seldom do (if you start out perfect, you don’t have to grow or learn).

The reason I was thinking about Jane Austen in terms of Mary Sues was the recent finale of the series Sanditon, which was very loosely based on a fragment of an unfinished novel by Austen. Really, the only part Austen wrote was the setup, a genteel but naive young woman gets invited to stay in a beach resort town with some people her family recently helped. There’s a hint that there’s a dashing (and possibly scandalous) younger brother of the man she’s visiting, and there’s a wealthy lady in town with impoverished young relations hanging around her, hoping to get into her will, as well as a young heiress from the Indes. And there it leaves off.

But instead of the TV writers letting the Austen heroine be an Austen heroine, they created a Mary Sue. This heroine was practically perfect from the start and doesn’t really grow or change. She’s good at everything — she can set a broken bone, give advice about architecture, plan an event, win at cricket, and just decide to be a governess. She wins the heart of the scandalous brother and the bright young architect (only for both to vanish when the series got cancelled and then renewed and the actors were no longer available), then catches the attention of a military officer and a wealthy widower. Her main problem is resolved not by her growing or learning anything but by others intervening. There’s none of the realization of where she went wrong that we get from the real Austen works. An Austen heroine generally has to eat some crow and admit to her failures, and it’s because she’s able to do this that she gets her happy ending. This chick gets her happy ending without learning anything.

And that, I think, is the difference between putting a lot of yourself into your characters and writing a “Mary Sue.” Really, I think we need a better term for this because the whole point of the Mary Sue is that she’s an author’s self-insert, and many of the examples I can find in original fiction don’t seem to be the writers’ self-inserts. In some cases, it’s a character the writer is enamored with and therefore loses perspective. I think in the Sanditon case it’s just bad writing. This is perhaps the least interesting character in the whole series, so they didn’t bother developing her. They just stuck traits to her as though that would make viewers like her better, then gave her a last-second happy ending without her learning anything.


Dressing the Characters

Reading my manuscript as an e-book is an interesting experience. At times I get caught up in it, but then I find myself reading critically and spotting things I want to fix. I’m getting more into it as I progress, probably because I’m past the spot where I rewrote it over and over again so the words are less familiar.

I got sidetracked yesterday, though, by designing “costumes” for my characters. I realized I have almost no description of what anyone’s wearing. I have a mental image, but I haven’t conveyed that very well. I don’t necessarily feel the need to describe everything everyone wears, but I do think I need to convey the overall sense of what people are wearing in this world.

This is “secondary world” fantasy, so I don’t have to be accurate to any particular time period, but that in a way makes things more difficult because it’s harder to find reference images to help me have a more solid mental image for me to describe. So far, I’d describe the overall look in this place to be medieval meets Old West. Of course, I can’t use those terms in the book because these people wouldn’t know what either of those things are.

When I first started writing down the stories in my head when I was 12, I tended to get sidetracked designing costumes for my characters. My notebooks of story notes have as many (very rough) drawings of dresses as they do real story notes. That meant I didn’t get very far in the writing part. Now, though I seem to have swung the other way and my characters seem to be walking around in generic, bland clothing that doesn’t get described. They’re wearing pants and shirts and dresses, but there’s no hint at what they look like.

And that meant some searching online to find examples of things to help me create an overall look. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. I’m not trying to draw things now, just finding images so I can think “these pants plus this kind of shirt and this kind of jacket, but without that trim.”

I’ve also found a few dresses and blouses I’d love to have, but I wouldn’t have anywhere to wear them. Maybe when I make a profit on this book, I’ll celebrate by buying something.


The Next Round Begins

I must like that last book I was working on because I found myself eager to get back to work on it. I like to let a manuscript rest at least two weeks after I finish a first draft so that I can look at it with fresh eyes and be less tied to the process of writing it. I didn’t quite make it two full weeks before I wanted to jump back in. I figure it’s been months since I wrote the beginning, so it’s been far more than two weeks on that part.

Right now, I’m trying to read it like a reader would and see how it works for me in the big picture. That’s hard to do because my impulse is to start editing. On the last book I wrote before this one, I got the idea to read the manuscript on my tablet, which makes it a lot harder to edit as I go (so I just don’t). But it still looks like a manuscript, so I read it that way. With this book, I got the bright idea to format the manuscript as an e-book so it’s just like reading any other book on my tablet. I still find things I want to fix, which is okay, since that’s the purpose of this exercise. When I find something that doesn’t work for me or that needs to be changed, I write it down in my notebook, but otherwise, I keep reading. I literally can’t make changes in the document I’m reading. It also helps to get away from my desk. I’m mostly reading this while sitting on the patio, exactly the way I’d read for pleasure. It’s interesting how reading this way changes my mindset about how I’m looking at the story.

I need to rework the beginning — I may not need most of the first chapter — and there are some decisions I made late in the book that mean I need to adjust some things early in the book, but I’m enjoying the story and like the characters. This is a good sign. I like being in this world. I don’t think I’m going to have to do major surgery on the next draft, just the beginning. It’ll be mostly about consistency and fine-tuning

After I have all my notes on what needs to be fixed I can get to work on fixing it. After that draft, I think I’m going to brainstorm and draft the second book in the series. I want to have two ready to go before I launch, and it makes sense to draft the second book before finalizing the first book. There may be things I need to change and set up, and there’s no point in finessing the words until the story is locked down.


The Book That Won’t Die

I had grand plans to take today off, since I surely would have finished the book. It’s a cool, gray day, perfect for curling up with a book. But I seem to be writing The Book That Won’t Die, so the book I’m curling up with is the one I’m writing.

I’m at nearly 120,000 words on this draft, which is the longest I’ve written. I think I hit about 110,000 words on the first drafts of a few of the early Enchanted, Inc. books. And I probably have at least 5,000 words to go. I suppose that’s not out of the norm for a fantasy novel. It’s even short by some fantasy standards. But it’s throwing off my mental pacing, both of where the various story elements should fall and of how long it should take me to write. I’d worried because the event that should have been the midpoint was falling at around 60,000 words, and it turns out that’s just about right.

So, I’m not getting my holiday today. I don’t know if I’ll finish today or if I’ll need to do the wrap-up scenes later. If I have stuff to wrap up, I don’t know whether to knock off early today, take the weekend, and then take a fresh look at the last chapter or so before writing the wrap-up scenes. I guess it’ll depend on where I get today and whether I feel like I have momentum or feel like I need a break.

It’s not as gray and rainy as the initial forecast said it would be, so I suppose I might as well be working instead of having a “rain” day. This may be my last day that’s this cool until October, so I do want to take advantage of it. I’m trying to think of a good movie for tonight, something of the sort to watch while snuggled under a blanket with a mug of hot cocoa. I’m not sure what that looks like, though. I kind of want to watch something like Stardust, but I’ve memorized that one and don’t want to wear it out, and there’s not a lot like that, other than The Princess Bride, which I’ve also just about memorized. Any ideas for what movies say “cozy” to you? What do you watch on a cool, possibly rainy, evening when you want to snuggle under a blanket and drink cocoa?