Archive for writing

writing

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.

writing

Planning

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.

writing

Writing on Command

One thing I’ve been working on this summer is leveling up in my writing. I’ve identified some of my weaknesses, and I’m doing targeted work to strengthen those areas. One thing I’m doing is going through the books on writing I have, re-reading them, and actually doing the exercises.

That hasn’t gone all that well. The exercises tend to be something like “write a scene in which the viewpoint character feels this, using interior monologue to show it.” I generally hate writing exercises, those on-the-spot “write a paragraph about …” things. When I go to workshops and they do that sort of thing, I may pretend I’m writing, but I don’t actually do it. That makes me twitchy because I’m usually the sort of person who follows directions, and in classes I’ve generally been the person who’s eager to read my work for the class. I can’t do it for writing workshops, though. I may do some of the exercises at home, but the moment someone says, “take five minutes and write a paragraph about …” my mind goes blank and refuses to do it.

It’s not that I can’t write on the spot. I used to compete in journalism contests in high school, where they give you a topic and a list of facts, and you write a news article or feature story in half an hour (I went to regionals once for feature writing). When I was working in TV news, I was known for being able to write a story on the back of a news release in the car on the way back to the station, so that all I had to do was type up a script and give the video to the editor, and the story could go on the air within half an hour of me getting back to the station. So I don’t know why I can’t just spin something out when I have to do that sort of thing for fiction.

But then I realized the other night while I was doing one of those writing exercises and getting frustrated because my results were like something from a middle schooler’s creative writing essay that these sudden “write a scene about …” things don’t work in fiction. I can do it with journalism because I have the facts and the context I need for the story to be meaningful. Story comes from character, and you need to know who your characters are to be able to write about them, especially if you’re writing their emotions or their interior monologue. If you just write a scene about a random person feeling something, it’s meaningless unless you know who that person is. Fiction needs some kind of context. Who are these people? What kind of society are they in? I don’t have time to develop that well enough to be able to write about it in the time given for your typical writing exercise in a workshop, and it’s not a great use of my time at home. I could be writing something real.

I think those exercises get harder the more you know about writing and the deeper you want to go because you’re aware that you can’t do that without having a character. You get “exercise” writing instead of something that actually makes your writing better.

What I may do is work through the exercises as though I’m writing about one of the characters in a book I’m working on. That might give me some insight into them even while getting me to dig deeper into a particular area than I might normally do in the books these characters are in.

writing

So Many Books …

The writing revelations keep coming. After I realized that I had the wrong emotional arc for the heroine for this story and figured out what was going on with her, I realized that the opening scene of the book was totally wrong for the book. That then meant figuring out what the opening scene should be. I think I finally got that nailed down and wrote it this morning.

In a way, it’s annoying to be this many drafts into a book before I figured out it was wrong and I needed to re-do it, but it also feels really good to have figured it out and to see how much better the book is becoming, thanks to these changes.

I’d originally hoped to start publishing this series this summer, but then lots of things happened. Now I’m glad I held off because the books will be a lot better when I do get them out there. I’ve nailed down a lot of stuff that was uncertain and I have a better sense of the main selling points.

Meanwhile, another idea I’ve been developing has started really taking shape in my head, and that’s exciting. I actually dreamed about that story last night, and the dream gave me exactly the thing I needed to flesh out something about a character’s situation.

I’m getting into a “so many books, so little time” phase, but for writing, not reading. There are so many things I want to write that they sometimes collide in my head and create a logjam. Normally, that’s when I need to take a break and play with each of them to see which develops enough to move forward, but I know what my priorities are right now, so I’m shoving the other stuff aside to allow the one I’m focusing on to get through first. Then over the weekend I’ll play with the others enough to keep them from annoying me.

writing

Another Epiphany

I’ve had yet another writing epiphany that builds on the last one I had, and it means still more work, but it’s work that will make things better.

Previously, I realized I hadn’t given my heroine an underlying desire that wasn’t driven by the main plot. I rewrote the first book to weave that in, and it really took the book up a notch.

Yesterday, I finished going through another draft of the second book in the series and figured it was just about done. Then I drafted some potential back-cover copy, and I realized that there was a plot element I highlighted in the cover copy that wasn’t actually in the book all that much. There’s a scene in which they talk about this being a potential danger, but nothing comes of it.

That means I need to fix the book. Yeah, it would be easier to rewrite the cover copy, but without this element, the book sounds less interesting. There are no stakes (there are some stakes in the book, but they only become clear when you know who the culprit is, so explaining what’s at stake would spoil the mystery). This morning, as I was brainstorming about how I should deal with all this, I realized that I had the wrong underlying emotional story for the heroine. It was the opposite of what it should have been, based on what I added to the previous book based on my last epiphany, and when I shifted the perspective with that in mind, it gave emotional stakes to the big-picture stakes. It was like all the light bulbs went off at once.

This means yet another rewrite, but if I don’t get the first couple of books in a series right, readers won’t keep up with the rest of the books. This is when I need to make the readers fall in love with the characters and want to read more about them, so I need to get the characterization and emotional stories right.

I really should have written the back-cover copy up front. That’s what I usually do because it’s a good way to test the plot and see what the selling points are. If you can’t make your story idea sound interesting in a few paragraphs, you have work to do, and the things you highlight in your sales copy should be things that play a prominent role in the book.

I guess it’s good that I keep learning and figuring out new things this far into my writing career.

writing

Read Recent Books

One of the best pieces of advice for those who are writing with the goal of publication — and this applies whether you’re hoping to get published by one of the major houses or you’re planning to self publish — is to read recent works in your field. It’s good to have a grounding in the classics, but to know where you stand in the market, you need to know what’s being published and what’s succeeding now.

The wisdom of this has become quite clear to me as I try to read my way through the to-be-read bookcase. I think of the 90s as “recent,” but for books, that seems to be ancient history. The pacing is so different then from what you’d find now. You can’t go for the old-school fantasy opening of the hero exploring the castle, then having a long conversation with the wizard about the history of the land.

Or there was the book I just read that’s about a journey. The goal of the journey is in the title of the book. The blurb on the back cover is all about how fantastic this journey will be. But we spend the first quarter of the book wondering if the hero is ever actually going to go anywhere. There are several chapters devoted to setting up why he would want to go on this journey, then once he decides to go, there are more chapters about whether or not he’ll be allowed to go. It’s not as though there’s much suspense to it. It’s there in the title that he’s going to go, so this feels like wasted space.

It would be like if in Raiders of the Lost Ark — a movie whose title tells us is going to be about going after the lost Ark — once Indy decided he needed to take on the quest, instead of him heading straight to Marian, we had to sit through a bunch of faculty meetings to decide if the university was going to let him go. We know he’s going to go. It’s there in the title. You’re just delaying getting to the good part.

The only reason to have that kind of delay and a question as to whether the main character is going to get to do the thing that’s in the title of the story is if you’re raising the stakes and forcing the character to really commit by having the authorities say he can’t go so that he then has to buck authority and go on his own — if Indy has to be so committed to the quest that when the university refuses to grant him leave, he quits, which means he has to succeed because he has nothing to come back to. But having that kind of delay only for him to be told yes instead of just letting him go really slows down the story. I suspect today’s editors would have cut several scenes.

I think there are also different standards today regarding racism and sexism. You can’t get away with having every female character be a courtesan who’s naked most of the time and who exists as a reward for a hero, and you can’t have all the characters with darker skin be some kind of savage or primitive people (and, for a bonus, they all have the kind of hospitality that’s “here, as our guests, enjoy our women).

That doesn’t mean you can’t read older books, but to get a sense for what you need to do with your book in order to succeed, you need to read recent works by people who are around the same publishing level as you. If this would be your first published work, read the first publications by new authors. Reading recent books by bestselling authors won’t tell you much because they’ve earned a lot of leeway. See what it takes to break in now. If you’re planning to self-publish, read the more successful self-published books in your category.

writing, TV

Flawed Characters

I had yet another writing epiphany while watching TV this weekend.

One of the things I struggle with is writing flawed characters. Readers tend to like my characters, but I don’t usually have big character growth arcs of the sort that are necessary to sell books to publishers these days, especially for younger readers. The last couple of projects I’ve sent to my agent, that was one of her biggest complaints, that my characters pretty much have it together at the beginning and don’t have much room to grow. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. When I look at most of my books, my character arcs are mostly about gaining confidence and learning to step out and take action, which works, but I seem to have gone to that well too many times, and it’s not very dramatic.

The other night, I was watching Beecham House on PBS. It’s a frustrating series because it’s beautifully filmed and full of potentially interesting stories, but it’s pretty dull. The series centers around an Englishman in India in the late 1700s who’s trying to build trade relationships outside the East India Company, and he’s competing with the French. He’s a widower with an infant son who’s the heir to a maharaja, and he has to protect the baby from the evil uncle who wants to kill him. His mother has shown up in India with a young woman as her traveling companion who she wants to marry her son (who is so not interested), and his younger brother is a soldier for the East India Company who’s embraced the local culture (in more ways than one), but who is kind of a wastrel. The older brother makes for a pretty dull hero because he’s practically perfect (just a bit dense in trusting the wrong person, but then he doesn’t have the advantage of having watched enough British television to know that guy is always the villain).

But then in the latest episode, the older brother has been framed and arrested, and the younger brother has to step up and deal with everything. I found myself thinking that the series would have worked better if the younger brother had been the main character, the slacker party boy who suddenly has to deal with everything when his practically perfect brother gets in trouble.

And that was when I had my “duh!” realization. The guy who has lessons to learn makes for a more interesting hero. He’s still smart and capable, and he actually figures out that the untrustworthy guy can’t be trusted, but he also has to make some big moral choices and go way out of his comfort zone. And I still like him, even though he isn’t perfect.

It is a bit easier to do this sort of thing on a TV show because the actor can make a big difference. I was prone to like the younger brother because he’s played by an actor I liked in something else, where he played the nice, smart guy, but he’s also got a lot of personal charisma. In print, you have to create that for readers without being able to rely on an attractive actor who may bring positive baggage to the role. Still, the hero who has to step up and go outside his comfort zone and overcome his own flaws to succeed makes for a better story. When I’m struggling with this in the future, I can remember this vivid example.

I keep having these breakthroughs while watching TV, so maybe I should go back to doing more of that. I’ve just about stopped lately, but everything I have watched has given me a big writing realization.

writing

Short Stuff

Earlier this year, I mentioned the Kickstarter for the short story collection I have a story in. The book is now available, for those who didn’t participate in the Kickstarter. There’s more info here.

It’s a collection of stories involving the fae, from various traditions. I’d done a ton of reading about that in preparation for writing my Fairy Tale books, mostly about the traditions and folklore of the British Isles. But when it came time to write this story after I was invited to participate in the anthology, I went in a different direction. I’d been reading some Scandinavian folklore, and I ended up using a bit from Iceland. They have such strong traditions about the fae that, even now, they’ll reroute planned road construction if it might interfere with an area believed to be a fairy habitat.

But the actual seed of the story was something non-magical that happened to me. I’ll tell that story in my next newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up here. I only send about one e-mail a month, plus I’ll send out reminders when there’s a new book.

I don’t write a lot of short stories. I tend to get novel-sized ideas, so all my attempts at short stories either fizzle out, grow out of control, or they get to a certain point and then frantically wrap up before they get too long. But I’m thinking that I may try to write them more often. I recently read a book about the history of Pixar, and one of the things mentioned was why they keep doing the short films even though they don’t really bring in much revenue. They’re mostly something to show ahead of the main feature as a bonus, and they win a lot of awards, but if they didn’t make those shorts, it wouldn’t cut any income from the bottom line. But they use the shorts as a relatively low-cost (in both time and money) way to experiment and learn. It’s a way for new writers and directors to practice making a film without being thrown in head-first in a full-length feature, so it creates a pipeline of talent. It’s also a way to play with technology or concepts.

I might be able to use short pieces in a similar way — to try out new ideas, techniques, or approaches, maybe touch on some of my literary “bucket list” items. Before I started writing Enchanted, Inc., I’d never written a novel in first-person narration, but I had written some fan fiction that way, just to try it. I could use short stories for that sort of thing. Then, as a bonus, if any of them sell, then that’s money, and their publication serves as promotion. Or I could create a collection of my own, use them in the newsletter, etc.

I’ll have to keep that in mind for something to do between books.

But first, I have to wrap up the books I’m working on.

writing

I Want

I thought I was just about done with this book, aside from one final proofread before sending it to a copyeditor, but I had an epiphany this weekend spurred by a Disney movie.

I’d recorded Moana when ABC showed it a couple of months ago, and this weekend I finally got around to watching it. When the movie got to the big “I want” musical number, I realized what was missing from my book.

Just about every Disney musical has a big musical number near the beginning in which the main character sings about what they want out of life. I don’t know if they did this deliberately in the early days, but modern Disney is well aware of this and has codified the “I Want” song into their process. This isn’t about the story goal — in fact, the character usually sings this song before the story kicks in. It’s about what the character wants out of life, what her deepest desires are. The story provides a way of getting this.

Going back to the beginning, Snow White sings “I’m Wishing,” which is about wanting to find someone who’ll love her. Cinderella sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” but it’s not too specific about what she wants, just that she wants something she can’t allow herself to express. Sleeping Beauty has the “I Wonder” song, which is about wanting to find someone to love her.

During the Classic era, we get our first hint of the kind of song that became popular during the revival, with Alice singing “In a World of My Own,” about the place she’d create if she could make a world that would get her away from where she was.

That expanding of horizons became the main theme of the “I Want” songs in the modern era. Ariel sings about wanting to be part of the human world. Belle sings of wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” Rapunzel wants her life to begin. Anna gets the “I Want” song in Frozen, wanting to get outside the palace.

Note that these all take place before they’re caught up in the story. Ariel doesn’t yet know about Ursula’s spell to give her legs (and I don’t think she’s even rescued Eric yet before she sings). Belle doesn’t know anything about the Beast when she sings about what she wants.

And that’s what my book was missing. I didn’t know what my heroine wanted deep down inside, the need that was within her before she stumbled across a mystery she had to solve. I think it was there, to some extent, but making it more explicit and weaving that into the story really adds to the book. There’s more going on with her emotionally. I may have to add that to my process, figuring out what my characters would sing about in their “I Want” song if they were in a Disney musical.

I think the “I Want” bit is also in the Pixar movies, but it’s less obvious because they don’t stop to sing about it. I’m pondering rewatching a couple today for research. I saw the doctor yesterday and got the first shingles shot, so now I’m feeling the aftereffects and I’m not sure I’m up to doing much today. It feels kind of like a mild case of flu (without the respiratory symptoms), but I understand this is far preferable to actually having shingles. I never had chicken pox — that I know of — so this will protect me from that, and if I had a subclinical infection (a case so mild it went unnoticed, but that would explain why I was generally the only kid in the neighborhood who didn’t get chicken pox) then it will protect me from shingles. I guess it’s one benefit of all the medical craziness going on right now that the shingles shots are available when they used to have a waiting list.