Archive for writing


Reworking Priorities

I reworked my project priority plan last week. I’d let myself play with that fantasy project because I thought it would be quick and easy. After all, I’d already plotted it and the characters had been in my head for thirty years. I could just dash that book off.

Ha! I ended up totally replotting it, and that made it harder to write because I had to detach myself from what was already there and find the new direction. But then as I diverged more from the original book, the characters started shifting, so they were no longer the people I started with. The writing was a lot slower than I go on any other projects. That “quick and easy” book was taking me twice as long as the other things I could be working on.

So I decided to backburner it. I had something come up that I need to work on pretty quickly (a short piece), and I need to get to work on the fourth mystery book. I’ll let the fantasy book rest a bit while I get other things out of the way. That might help me solidify the new version in my head so it’s easier to write.

And as soon as I made that decision, I really made progress on the other things I need to work on. I got a shorter piece outlined and have written a thousand words on it, and I finally came up with the story for the fourth mystery. I need to flesh out some things, but I have the crime, the victim, the killer, the motive, and the red herrings. I’d felt like I was dragging for so long, and now I’ve made a good burst of progress.

I need to go back and do some new character development and worldbuilding on the fantasy to flesh it out for the new direction, but I can play with that in my off hours after I get my other work done. I’m aiming to have the fourth Lexie book out around July 4, so I need to get moving on that. Mostly, I have an idea for Halloween that I can’t wait to play with, but I don’t want to skip ahead so much in the characters’ lives, so I’m going to fit in a July 4 book and a late summer/early fall (start of the school year) book. If I can get them written. I have the main plots for both of them sort of planned, though I need to dig into specifics.


Branching Off

In my reworking of an old story idea, I’ve reached the point where this version diverges greatly from the way I wrote it twenty years ago. Up to now, I’ve mostly added backstory and context, and the scenes themselves have played out differently, but the key events have been more or less the same.

Now, though, is where the differences really kick in, when the major events will be different, as will the settings, and it’s kind of strange. I feel like I’m in one of those stories where the characters go back in time, alter the timeline, and return to a changed world where they see the consequences of the changes they made. Or maybe a story in which the characters are subtly aware of the way things could have been if they’d made a different choice. I can still see the ghost of the original version. In a way, it’s more clear than the new one because that’s the movie I’ve had in my head for decades. I’ve actually written it. This new one is still very new, not entirely written, and the mental movie is just starting to take shape, so it’s a lot less concrete to me. It’s really weird to write something when the other version is still so vivid.

I imagine as I get further and further from the original story, this will bother me less because it’ll be so different from the original and this version will have become more solid. Right now, though, I seem to be flipping back and forth in the mental images in my head, so it’s slow going as I have to make an effort to go in a different direction, even though the new direction is so much better. It’s hard to let go of the old way.

I think there’s a metaphor about life and growth in there somewhere.


writing, fantasy

Names that Fit

I’ve discovered another issue with writing “secondary world” fantasy that’s becoming a challenge, and it’s even more of a challenge when reworking a story I came up with when I was about 21, and that’s naming both characters and places.

About the only name I picked then that’s sticking is the name for one of the main characters. The name of the other main character was the most obvious generic fantasy name, so I’d already changed it in the previous iteration of this book. Now as I revisit this story and do more specific worldbuilding, I’m finding that the names I’ve been using no longer fit and I need a lot of new names, but I haven’t found anything I like yet. There are a lot of placeholders because it’s silly to stop a story dead in its tracks to go look for names.

It’s a lot easier to come up with names in stories that are set more or less in our world. In a fantasy world, the names need to sound like they belong in a different world. It would be a bit disappointing to read a fantasy story about George and Ralph. You can sometimes do hearty, salt-of-the-earth type names like Sam that still fit in a quasi-medieval setting. But then you also need to have some kind of internal consistency, with names that sound like they come from a similar culture or language for the people who come from the same place. In a place where different cultures mix, you can have a mix of names, but names generally mean something.

If you’re Tolkien, you invent a language, then come up with names that mean something in that language. If you’re not that hardcore, you pick names from the culture you’re roughly basing your culture on, and then tinker with them a bit to make them more “fantasy.” Or you can just find names that sound “fantasy” to you and throw them together. That tends to be Celtic or Norse names in most American-written fantasy, and that’s a lot of what I seem to have done in my earlier pass at this story. But I find myself cringing at some of the names I used before, so I want different names.

I did do a name brainstorming session and assigned names to things, but decided that I didn’t like them. When I can’t remember what name goes with which person or place, that’s a sign they don’t fit. I’m hoping that as I write and get a better sense of the world and its people, I’ll have a better idea of names that fit and I can fill those in during the next draft.

Meanwhile, I’ve reached the part that used to be the beginning of this book, some scenes I’ve written so many times that I could probably write them out from memory, but now they’ve changed drastically based on different backstories and story concepts, so I have the new version overlapping the old version in my head, and I’m seeing things very differently than I did when I was in my early 20s. In a sense, I’m mourning the loss of the old version because there was a lot I liked about it — obviously, if this story has haunted me all this time — but then I’m also seeing it come to much more vivid life in a way that makes a lot more sense. The new version will eventually take over the old one in my head, but I’ll still remember that first one fondly because it’s been with me so long.

writing, fantasy

Making New Worlds

Since the book I’m currently working on started from a very old idea, I’ve been having to flesh out what was actually an underdeveloped world, and trying to figure out what that world looks like has made me really think about worldbuilding.

Since the only world we know is the one we live in, we naturally tend to base our imaginary worlds on aspects of our world. How close the imaginary world is to our world depends on the author. Even a really different world is probably going to be at least partially based on or inspired by something in our world.

Traditional “secondary world” fantasy (in other words, an imaginary world rather than an alternate history of our world) is generally set in a quasi-medieval European society. I’m not sure where that convention got started. Maybe it comes from fairy tales, which are always in the “long ago.” Or maybe Arthurian legends had something to do with it, especially during the Gothic Revival trend of the Victorian era, with the idealized depiction of the Middle Ages that was popular in art of that time. There was the sense that this was a better, purer time, with chivalry, and all that.

The Lord of the Rings, which is sometimes considered the start of the modern fantasy genre, is actually all over the map, timewise. The hobbits are essentially Edwardian English country gentry. They have that idealized pastoral life and even that attire. That waistcoat and suit coat look wasn’t just an invention of the movies. There are references in the books to waistcoats and buttons — things you wouldn’t have found in a medieval setting. But then the human and elf societies come across as closer to fairy tale medieval.

Anyway, medieval-ish Europe has been the basic traditional fantasy setting, though the genre is now expanding a lot, incorporating elements from other cultures and time periods. How closely these fantasy settings adhere to any actual history or culture is up to the author. Purists may try to stick as closely as possible to the clothing, culture, and technology of the specific place and time they’re basing their world on. You’re not going to find potatoes — something brought back from the New World — in this kind of world if that world is based on Europe before the 1600s. These authors may be meticulous about accurately representing the cultures they’re using as the basis for their worlds, even if it’s not actually presented as that culture. Sometimes it’s really obvious which culture an author is basing their world on, even if the author isn’t being that meticulous. I’ve read several secondary world fantasies that involve a fierce, warlike culture of mostly redhaired people who wear plaid, talk like “I dinna ken, ye wee lassie,” and probably live on the northern border. Or as I call it, Not!Scotland. There are a lot of Not!Lands in fantasy. It may not be overt, but you can figure out what the various cultures are supposed to be.

Others may figure that if it’s another world, anything goes. They can pick the clothing they like, change it up, throw in different kinds of technology that’s advanced at different rates, mix and match cultures, and move things around to create something fairly new. There may be whiffs of Not!Lands that give you a hint of what might have been the inspiration, but there’s probably a lot that doesn’t come from those places.

The really tricky thing for writers is that a lot of readers assume that your cultures are Not!Lands, whether or not they are, and they’ll expect you to have represented the way that land is in our world accurately in your imaginary world. Writers get angry e-mails from readers about what they got wrong in their totally imaginary world. Frequently, they’ve guessed wrong about what the writer based that culture on. I will confess that it does kind of throw me out of a story when potatoes show up in a quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and I have to remind myself that this is another world. Potatoes may grow naturally on that continent. The potato-growing continent might be a lot closer. The Not!Vikings might have made it farther south in their New World and brought potatoes back to their continent a lot sooner.

I’m having to deal with all of this in writing now because I’m doing my first true secondary world (unless you count the portal world of Spindled). Last year, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding to create a setting for a series of books I’m still developing, and I think I went a bit overboard in trying to make it fit rigidly in the time period I chose to base it on. I’d picked a period when I liked the women’s clothing and some aspects of the men’s clothing, but there were also things I didn’t want to use about men’s styles in that era, and I had to remind myself that I was making it all up. It’s my world. I can make it go however I want to.

The book I’m working on now keeps trying to turn into a western. It’s that kind of terrain in part of the story, and there’s a small town that the loner hero arrives in. My mental imagery of how they’re dressed is closer to western than medieval, and yet there’s a lot of medieval in the structure of the society. I was struggling with the back and forth, then realized I didn’t have to pick one or the other. This doesn’t have to be an alternate history of the Old West in the United States. It can be a European quasi-medieval world with a western flavor. Heavy boots and twill trousers are a lot more practical in that setting than doublet and hose. The guy dressed kind of like a cowboy can have a sword belt instead of a gun belt. I’m not sure how much of this will actually make it into the book. It’s mostly an aesthetic, my mental images, and I don’t know if the way I describe it will give the same mental image to readers, but I think having this in mind might make my world a little different from the generic quasi-medieval European fantasy world. The important thing is that there be an internal consistency to the world that makes sense.


Starting Again (Again)

I finally started work on the newest version of the book I’m revisiting yesterday. I’d planned to do that last week, but I didn’t have power for a couple of days, and then I was pretty frazzled after that. So then I decided I’d get back to work Monday, but I couldn’t seem to make myself focus. It was beautiful and warm after a week of snow, so I spent a few days sitting on the patio, working out some details of the world, coming up with a map, etc. You’d think I’d have figured all that stuff out before, but apparently not.

Today it was cool (normal cool, not deep freeze) and gray, which I consider perfect writing weather. I got more than three thousand words written, the whole new first chapter. And I think that flipping which character was the protagonist with the story goal really worked. The story feels like it has a sharper focus.

One thing I discovered as I started writing was that the main character is a bit different than I’d envisioned him. Once I was writing from his perspective, I saw him very differently. I’m afraid he’s turning out to be yet another one of my adorkable wizards. I seem to like that character type. This one is different from Owen or Henry, but he’s still got a nerdy streak underneath a bit of bluster.

Now that I have a good start, I find myself actually eager to work on this book because I want to see how it comes out. I’m doing the “write the thing you want to read but can’t find” thing, which makes it fun to write but sometimes a bit challenging to market.

In today’s writing session I should catch up to the former protagonist, who is now a sidekick. She actually will probably have the same amount of “screentime” she had before. The only change is that the other character has the goal that drives the story. I’m not sure that’s even a change. He always had the goal that was driving the story, but I wasn’t acknowledging that, and that made the story a bit of a muddle.

So, I seem to have finally found the story. Maybe this time will be the time I actually get something done with this 30-year-old idea.


Turning a Story Around

I mentioned that I was revisiting an old story idea that I came up with a long time ago and even wrote and submitted, with no success. I started writing it again last week and then felt like I’d hit a wall. I had scenes outlined, so I knew what happened next. And yet I couldn’t make myself write.

At first, I blamed it on what I was reading. I reread Stardust, and then I was reading a book by Michael Chabon. Both Chabon and Gaiman are strong stylists with poetic language. I figured that reading writers with such strong voices while I was finding a book’s voice was tripping me up, so I dug up an old fantasy book I read in college that’s the sort of thing with a fun story but without a particularly remarkable style. It was one of the books I had in mind when thinking of that romantic journey type book, so I was doing more analysis of the structure.

I knew that I was still pretty vague on some of the elements of this plot, and I suspected that had something to do with why I felt blocked, so I sat down to do some brainstorming and get the specifics worked out. The main thing I was missing was a concrete external goal. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve seen is to give characters a goal so concrete that you know what it looks like when they get it (or don’t). That’s what I was missing. The good guys wanted to stop the bad guy, but there wasn’t anything more specific, so I made a list of things for both of the main characters, and I realized that the only really concrete thing I could come up with was for the other main character, not the protagonist.

I let myself consider flipping the two characters, making the protagonist the sidekick and making the sidekick the protagonist, and I felt the entire book spin around on its axis. I got physically dizzy for a moment. I’d been looking at this story in one way for so long, so I was suddenly seeing it in a different way, like one of those optical illusion pictures, where you see one thing, and then you blink and suddenly see an entirely different thing. And then the whole story clicked into place.

I resisted for a little, saying I was just exploring a possibility, because from the start I’ve seen this as the woman’s story. She was the spark of the idea in the first place. She’s the one who has her life totally changed and who goes through a huge character arc. But the thing is, the guy is the one who has a goal, and in part it’s his goal that upends her life. She’s just trying to get through this without having anything beyond that she wants. I can’t think of a way to give her a more concrete goal within this story structure. Switching these roles doesn’t change events all that much or who gets the bigger role. It just changes where the drive’s coming from. I feel a bit better now that scenes have started playing out in my head because making her the ally/sidekick has made her voice sharper, like she’s been freed of a burden and gets to cut loose.

After going back through my plotting outline with this change in mind, I think I’m going to take it this way because it all fell together so well instead of me being vague and hoping I’d figure it out later when I got there. I think the woman will take over and be the protagonist in book 2 because she’s got a concrete goal by the end of this book.

I mean, if I decide it warrants a book 2. I haven’t really started writing book 1 yet, so planning the sequel is a bit premature. I’m spending the rest of the week doing more outlining and planning, and I hope to dig into writing on Monday — unless it’s a snow day (which it might be). I know I don’t have to commute, but I also know I won’t get much done if it’s snowing because it happens so rarely here that I turn into a four-year-old when it snows. I think they said it’s been something like five years since we’ve had more than two inches of snow. We had about 15 minutes of flurries last year, and that was it.


Rebooting an Old Idea

Earlier this year (so, not that long ago), I made a plan for the year, outlining the projects I was going to work on and when I’d work on them. I’ve already gone off the plan, and it’s all the fault of that cheesy fantasy movie I watched last month. That got me started thinking about how much I love those fantasy stories in which two people team up on a quest or a journey, bicker for a while, save each other’s lives, and fall in love.

And then I realized that I’ve written a book along those lines. Sort of. It had the raw material for that sort of thing, but I forgot to put in any conflict, and then I separated the characters for some strange reason. I first came up with this idea the summer after I graduated from college, and what I originally came up with was a later story about one of the main characters, but then I decided that the story of what led up to that needed to be told first, and this was that book. I played with the idea for a couple of years, and then I needed something to enter in a manuscript contest at a conference I was going to, so I wrote a synopsis and the first chapter — and I won the contest.

But it took me nearly ten years to really write that book. There were a lot of stops and starts and many drafts. Finally, I got something I was willing to submit. It was rejected. A couple of years later I took another stab at it, and it was rejected. I wasn’t even too disappointed because I knew that it didn’t quite work. I just couldn’t say why. Still, I never forgot the story or the characters, and if an idea sticks with you for thirty years, then there may be something to it. It wasn’t until now that I realized what was wrong with it.

I’ve spent the past few weeks reworking the idea, doing some more detailed worldbuilding, digging deeper into what’s going on with the villain so that I can figure out what he’s doing and why, and reworking the plot. Not only did I entirely miss the story I was really telling, but I’d been way too vague about what was going on, and being specific made a huge difference in making a plot take shape.

I started another draft of the book this week. Well, not really a new draft, as it’s almost entirely different. I’m not even looking at previous drafts, so it’s like writing a new book. It just happens to have the same title, two main characters, situation, magical system, and big-picture plot. All the words will be different, unless there’s something in my subconscious that pulls up bits and pieces from before. I guess you could call it a remake or a reboot. I’ve been thinking of it as revisiting.

So far, the scenes I’ve written weren’t in the original version. I’ve gone in the opposite direction of most rewrites and added scenes before the beginning instead of cutting away scenes (usually the beginner’s mistake is to start the book before the story really starts). I needed to establish the conflict and the situation better, now that I know what it actually is. We need to see the characters apart and figure out what they need before I throw them together.

I don’t know if this will go anywhere or what I’ll do with it if it does. Right now, I’m just playing with it, figuring it out, and I’m learning a lot about what makes a story work by doing this analysis. At the very least, giving this story another try may finally make those characters shut up and leave me alone. One thing I find amusing is that in the new first chapter, one of the characters finds a body. I guess writing mysteries has really affected my writing style.


The Editing Phase

I’ve done my last shopping run, and now I’m going into pre-Christmas isolation. That should mean I’ll get some editing done on Lucky Lexie book 3. I’m in the phase in which I read it out loud to myself. That’s a great way to spot awkward phrasing, wrong words, or words that I’ve repeated too many times.

It’s been a few weeks since I last looked at this book, which means it’s been long enough that I can also test it for bad jokes. If I don’t get a joke or a witty remark and I was the one who wrote it, then I can’t expect readers to get it. I either have to cut it or rewrite it so that it makes sense.

Needless to say, this is a slow process, and I have to take a lot of breaks because it’s rough on the voice to do that much talking in a day, especially when I’m used to being mostly silent. When I’m not editing, I have to be quiet.

It always seems to be that just as I’m thinking that maybe this is overkill and I can just read silently, I come across an error I wouldn’t have spotted if I hadn’t been reading out loud. I would have skimmed past it instead of tripping over it.

Then after I get this phase done, I’m taking a break. Next week, I’ll do research reading and brainstorming on a project, but I’m mostly going to try to relax and enjoy the season. I’ve spent more time on writing this year than in any year since I’ve been tracking my work time. Once I reach my goal, which should happen this week, I think I get to take some time to recharge. It’ll be time for reading, taking walks, and watching Christmas movies.



I’m getting close to the end of the first draft of the third book in my mystery series, and I’m a little scared about how well it seems to be going—that tends to mean there’s something I haven’t noticed, and it will all fall apart as I get to the end. But maybe I shouldn’t be scared because I tried something new with this book: detailed planning.

When it comes to being a plotter—a writer who outlines how the book will go—or a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of the pants, making it up as they go—I’m afraid I’ve generally fallen into the worst of both worlds. I can’t start writing without some sort of outline, usually a pretty big-picture, rough list of the major story points. But then I have no idea how those things will actually happen, and that means I’m generally wrong about a lot of them. I end up making it up as I go, and then I have to do a lot of rewrites to find the story I really want to tell in all that mess. I can write a rough draft in a month or so, and then I’ll spend six months rewriting it.

About the only book I’ve ever written that went totally as planned was Enchanted, Inc. I still did a fair amount of rewriting, but it was to beef up the humor and expand some scenes. The basic plot stayed the same. I didn’t even have editorial revisions on that book.

With everything else, it’s been more of a struggle. I may know the setup in detail, but the resolution is so vague I might as well not have planned anything.

On this book, I tried doing more detailed outlining. My big-picture outline followed a structure with more beats in it, and it forced me to do a lot more thinking about why everything was happening, which gave me some additional ideas. Then I did a more detailed scene-by-scene outline, getting into the scene/sequel structure, which forced me to really get into action and reaction that drives to the next action. I didn’t do the more detailed outline for the whole book at once, though. I did about four scenes (and in this sense, I’m not really talking about the usual sense of “scene” but rather the action that follows a particular objective until the character needs to come up with a new objective, so it might span multiple chapters) before I started writing, and then after writing I’d outline the next scene or so. Doing the outline allowed me to spot and solve plot problems before I invested the time in writing. Sometimes outlining the next scene made me go back and adjust an earlier scene to set something up properly or go in a different direction at the end, but it wasn’t major rewriting. This seems to be saving me a lot of time. It’s a lot quicker to rewrite an outline that isn’t working than to rewrite a book that isn’t working. The writing goes smoothly because I know what needs to happen. There’s still stuff I make up on the fly because my outline doesn’t necessarily tell me what the scene needs to look like. I don’t feel stifled by the outline. If anything, it actually frees me up to be more creative. I’ve made the structural decisions, which gives me room to relax and play with how things actually happen.

I’ll have written this draft in about three weeks, and unless I realize some major flaw later, I don’t think it will require major surgery. I may want to expand on description and emotion, and there are some minor things I need to tweak for continuity, but I don’t anticipate it being one of those things that takes six drafts and half a year.

I’ll have to keep trying this. Getting more books out would be good. Spending less time tearing my hair out is lovely.

writing, My Books

The Birth of Ideas

When I was looking for blog topics, one reader suggestion was to talk about where my ideas come from. That’s a pretty complicated discussion because I feel like my best ideas are cumulative. There’s no one flash of light that results in a book.

The closest I’ve come to that lightning bolt feeling was when I came up with the idea for Enchanted, Inc., but really, the lightning bolt was just that I wanted to write something that felt like a contemporary “chick lit” kind of book that had magic in it, a book about a woman getting a job offer from a magical company out of the blue (a fantasy that struck me because I was really hating my job). The rest gradually built from there. I figured that my heroine would have to turn out to have magical powers, but the hero/heroine finding out they have powers has been done to death, so I flipped it and had her finding out she has no magic at all, but that’s useful. I’d wanted to write a small-town Texan in New York story ever since my first trip to New York, and I decided this would be the one. Those were the big ideas, but there are thousands of little ideas that built up along the way as I planned and then wrote the book.

For the Rebels books, it started with the general idea of wanting to write something steampunky. I love the aesthetic, and I love the sense of adventure. I just had zero idea of a plot. My initial lightning bolt that set it off came when I was finishing up writing the first Fairy Tale book but was distracted and procrastinating by studying the bookshelf nearby. I noticed my copy of Jane Eyre next to a Madeleine Brent Victorian Gothic adventure novel, and I felt a “click” in my head. I could write a book about a governess in a house full of secrets who ended up having adventures. The original idea was that Henry would be a mysterious, shadowy Gothic hero type figure, but he refused to cooperate, aside from having secrets. The revolution plot came from me thinking about how bizarre the British class system is, the idea that some people are better than other people because of who they’re descended from. I started thinking about what if there really was something different about the nobility. They’d certainly want to guard that, which would explain a lot of the rules of Victorian morality, though it would apply equally to boys and girls. It would ruin their hold on power if suddenly “common” girls started having babies with magical powers. The nobility wouldn’t be different anymore. Then I started thinking about how that would affect history, and I ended up with the idea that maybe the American Revolution would have failed, but in the Victorian era there would be more technology, so maybe they’d stand a chance. That was definitely a gradual build kind of story because I did tons of research, and each bit of research added an idea I wanted to explore.

The origin of the Fairy Tale books was a lot more nebulous. I had a dream-like mental image of a very dainty woman walking a bulldog and disappearing into the mist, and I tried to come up with the story behind that image.

There’s no one “aha” moment behind the mystery book that’s about to come out. Nearly ten years ago, I first started thinking of writing a mystery, and I came up with a reason for an outsider to come to a small town with secrets, her boss dying, and her being the suspect, so she had to solve the case herself. I revived that idea, but I changed the heroine’s profession and finally figured out what the secrets were. I really have no idea what sparked the decisions I made. It was like things started popping into my head, and I went with them.

Generally the process is that I get a burst of inspiration that sets me off on a voyage of discovery, and it takes a lot more thinking and work before it turns into an actual story idea.