Archive for writing

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Smart Characters, Stupid Characters

One of my biggest challenges in revising this book is that I seem to be making my characters too smart. They figure things out easily, and when they guess at something, they come to the proper conclusion. This is deadly in a mystery, where the path toward uncovering the culprit can’t be straightforward. You don’t have much of a story if your sleuth comes up with a theory, then finds the clues that verify that theory. I’m having to do a lot of revision to insert some red herrings or to make the sleuth go down the wrong path for a little while.

At the same time, one of my pet peeves as a reader is stupid characters or, worse, what I call Plot Stupidity, where the plot doesn’t work if the characters show an ounce of sense. The plot needs them to go alone into that dark basement when they hear a strange noise there and know a serial killer is on the loose because there’s no story if they’re smart enough to leave the house and get help, but the author doesn’t give the character any reason to go alone into the dark basement that makes their decision at least a little rational.

The old-school fantasy series I’m currently reading (and I’m almost done! Then I’ll be free and will have cleared a big chunk of shelf space because I know I won’t be keeping this one to re-read) is driving me nuts because there’s so much Plot Stupidity. A lot of it is in character, as the characters have been established as headstrong and impulsive, but it’s annoying to read about people who keep bumbling into danger because they refuse to listen to anyone else or practice even a bit of common sense—and then they don’t learn from their mistakes and do the same thing again. I really want to throttle a character who keeps charging off on their own because they think they can resolve everything, in spite of being warned that others have already tried that and it didn’t work, and they’re just heading into danger. And then they get into terrible danger, barely make it out alive, don’t accomplish what they set out to do, end up back where they started—and then do it all over again because they think it will work this time.

Or there’s a character who’s clearly shady. They’ve repeatedly shown that they’re not trustworthy. People who have reason to know have warned that this person can’t be trusted. But the other characters keep trusting them. And then, guess what? It turns out that character has been selling the others out to the villain all along.

It’s incredibly frustrating to read. (I’m using the singular “they” in an attempt to make it harder to identify the series I’m talking about so you don’t know the gender of the characters.)

As a writer, I’m trying to find a middle ground between a character who’s always right and a character who’s an utter idiot. Sometimes a character can make the wrong guess or assumption based on incomplete information. Sometimes the obvious, logical thing turns out to be wrong. There are times when emotions come into play, as even intelligent people have emotional biases. We all tend to side with people we identify with. You don’t want to think that a person who’s a lot like you would commit a crime. I think there’s also a difference between being given information or advice and refusing to listen and taking action based on faulty assumptions or information. I can tolerate someone doing something dumb because they’re misinformed and turn out to be wrong, but it’s more annoying when a character is specifically warned about something and completely disregards the warning.

A lot of my revision in this book has involved sending my sleuth down some wrong paths, sometimes because she jumps to an incorrect conclusion based on incomplete information and sometimes because her emotions get in the way and she doesn’t want to suspect someone she feels sorry for. I hope that’ll be enough to make the story work. And then I need to work to build that into the first draft so I don’t have to spend months rewriting the book.


Grasping Scene and Sequel

I had a grand epiphany about writing on this morning’s walk, and it should make writing so much easier for me.

I’ve always understood and yet still struggled with the “scene and sequel” structure. I think maybe I’ve been doing it unconsciously, but the moment I start thinking about it, it doesn’t work for me, and yet it’s a great way of testing a plot. When a story isn’t working, it’s usually because it fails on scene and sequel.

The idea is that in the scene, the action part of a story sequence, the character has a scene goal related to the story goal (usually a subset of the story goal). She encounters obstacles and conflict in trying to achieve the goal, ending in a “disaster” in which she can’t achieve the scene goal. In the sequel part of the sequence, she reacts to that disaster and then regroups and comes up with a new goal, which drives the action into the next scene.

That always makes sense to me when I read books on writing or go to workshops, and then when I try to apply it, it falls apart, mostly because I feel like it ends up with the character spinning her wheels. At some point, she has to achieve something in order to ever accomplish her story goal. In a mystery, for example, scene goals would be things like getting information from a witness or finding clues at the crime scene. The “disaster” in which she doesn’t achieve her scene goal would be not getting the information or not finding clues. While you don’t have much of a story if the detective gets all the info from the first interview or finds the critical clue early in the book, you also don’t have much of a story if the detective fails in every scene and never gets information or finds clues. She’s going to have to get answers somewhere along the way if she’s going to solve the case at the end, and you don’t have a very good detective if she’s wrong every step of the way.

My realization this morning is that I’ve probably been taking it all too literally. “Disaster” might be too strong a word for the kind of outcome you need. It just needs to be something that requires further work. You don’t want the character to be right all the time, but she can still get useful information. So, that witness may not have the information she expected or wanted to get, but the information she does get sends the investigation off in a new direction. She does find a clue when searching, but that clue is going to require her to track something else down. Or it may implicate someone she doesn’t want to think could be guilty. Not every scene has to end in a “no” for the goal. It’s possible to have a “yes, but” or even a “yes, and.” The main thing is that the end of the scene needs to lead the character to a decision about what to do next, and that should involve escalating levels of difficulty until she achieves the story goal.

That’s probably obvious to a lot of people, but it finally clicked for me this morning when I was thinking about it while walking. And then while writing this post, I realized what’s wrong with the book I’m revising and how to fix it. It’s like the heavens have opened and the angels are singing to me.