Archive for writing


Trapped in Romance

My current pass on the book I’m revising is the “romance pass,” trying to amp up the main relationship. My editor was apparently drawn to the book by the romantic potential in it, while that was much more of a secondary thing for me. But I suspect that’s what readers will want, too, so I’m working to develop that.

I have this weird issue with romance in books, where I don’t see myself as a particularly romantic writer, while the publishing world has me firmly slotted into the romance category. I did try to make it as a romance writer, within the romance genre, and while getting five romance novels published doesn’t exactly count as failure, it was a constant struggle for me to live up to the expectations of the genre, and it was a huge relief to admit to myself that I didn’t really like writing romance and give up on trying. I owe a lot to romance because that gave me my start and taught me a lot about the business, but it’s not where I fit in.

I sort of fell into romance by accident. As I mentioned in talking about my influences, my real ambition once I decided to write seriously was fantasy. I hadn’t even read more than a few romance novels. I got into reading romance after I graduated from college. It took me a few months to find a job, so I was back to living with my parents. We lived in the country outside a small town that didn’t even have a library at that time, so when I ran out of things to read, I found my mom’s stash of Harlequin romances and started reading them. My mom suggested that I try to write one. After all, they published so many, they had to be looking for writers. But I was still focused on fantasy and working on various fantasy novel ideas. I did try starting one category-style romance, and it fizzled out quickly. After I got a job and moved to the Dallas area, I found a local writing group, and the speaker at one of the first meetings I went to was a romance author. She mentioned a group she was in, so I went to one of their meetings, and in that one meeting I learned more about the publishing business than I’d ever known. That group was a chapter of the Romance Writers of America, so I got involved in the romance world and started trying to write romance novels, always with the idea that once I got established there, I could move into fantasy. That was where I learned all about structuring a novel, plotting, pacing, character development, how to submit a book, dealing with agents and editors, etc. Maybe I should have seen it as a sign that when I entered writing contests, I never went anywhere with my romance attempts while I won the fantasy categories, but then I started selling romance novels, and it’s hard to imagine you’re failing at something and in the wrong field when you’re succeeding at it, and selling anything is a pretty big deal.

There was a romantic thread to the Enchanted, Inc. books once I started writing them, and RWA was acknowledging books that had “romantic elements” then, so I still fit in. But then they dropped that, and I realized that I would probably never write something that really fit the romance genre, so I dropped away from the romance world.

I do like a good love story, but what I like is something that develops along the way rather than being the focus. I think what I really like is essentially what happens in TV series “shipping,” where the relationship isn’t all that overt, so the audience has to read between the lines and interpret for themselves what’s really going on. Once it’s obvious and becomes text instead of subtext, it’s a lot less interesting to me unless the relationship is just taken as a given at that point and is part of the characterization without any worry about making it romantic. One of my favorite bits of “romantic” writing is what’s going on with Henry and Verity in Rebel Mechanics, where I’m trying to show that he’s falling for her while she remains oblivious, and yet the whole story is in her point of view, so I have to have her notice things that the audience can interpret but that she interprets a different way because it hasn’t crossed her mind that someone like him would see someone like her that way.

My problem is that the fantasy world has pigeonholed me as a romance writer, and they seem to overemphasize that aspect of my work, to the point they think there’s more romance than there is. I originally wrote Rebel Mechanics to be an adult fantasy, but the fantasy publishers rejected it as “too romancey” and suggested I send it to romance publishers. Never mind that there’s not so much as a kiss between the romantic couple and the relationship remains subtext until almost the very end. I had the same issue with A Fairy Tale. The fantasy publishers rejected it as too romancey, even though there’s no actual relationship between the two main characters because he’s married and focused on looking for his missing wife. If I have a man and a woman interacting at all in the first chapter, the fantasy publishers will say it’s a romance because that seems to be my reputation. It doesn’t help that the publisher of Enchanted, Inc. keeps classifying it as “paranormal romance,” and when they do a BookBub ad, that’s where they put it. I feel like we’re missing a huge potential audience in contemporary fantasy that still hasn’t heard of these books because they keep marketing it as paranormal romance when, again, nothing much happens in that first book.

I really don’t know what the solution is. I don’t mind that I have a big romance readership because romance readers are voracious and loyal, and as long as they’re okay with the low levels of actual romance and non-existent heat, then we’re good. I just hate being dismissed by the market segment where I actually fit on the basis of something that’s not even true.


The End-of-Book Breakthrough

I got close to the end of the book I’ve been working on, then paused to make a list of things I need to go back and fix in revision in order to set up that ending. I ended up with a two-page list, and I decided that maybe I should wait to write that ending until after I’ve fixed all those things. Fixing those is bound to change things in a ripple effect, so I’d end up having to rewrite the ending. I’d practically be dealing with different characters by then.

I think a lot of this is because as I went into that final couple of scenes, I finally figured out some of the main things this book is about. I’m sticking pretty close to the planned plot, but my mental image of the scenes for that plot is very different now. The underlying emotion is different. The inner workings of the character arcs are different, as are the interrelationships of a lot of the characters. A character who was essentially a walk-on “extra” when I introduced him has ended up playing a pivotal role, which means I have to go back and develop him. Characters I thought were important and spent time on vanished along the way.

Basically, I got to the ending sequence of the book and finally realized what it was all really about and where all the characters are going. There’s a lot of that I didn’t set up. Also, what I thought would be the big, climactic scene that just needed the aftermath resolution afterward to end the book seems to be a whole sequence that should probably be the last quarter of the book, so I need to rework a lot of the middle to get the structure to work.

But I’m excited about this because I’ve felt the book “click” for me. I’ve made a lot of notes. Now I’ll be putting it aside to deal with revisions (I think — I don’t know exactly when I’ll be getting those notes) and to get some other stuff dealt with, and then I can dive back in and really make this story sing.


Analysis Paralysis

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve written as much of this book as I did in the previous several months (though that was off and on, since I had other things to deal with along the way). Something I’ve realized is that while a certain amount of planning is good for me, too much can paralyze me.

I’m generally a plotter. I find it hard to start writing a book when I don’t know the ending and a few landmarks along the way. I thought it would improve my process and speed things up if I planned even more. I started outlining each scene along the way, figuring out the scene goal and conflicts, what was going on with the characters, how the emotional axis would shift, etc.

And that seemed to paralyze me. I wasn’t happy with those scenes once I wrote them. The more I tried to adhere to the outline, the worse it got. Most of the scenes ended up not using any of the stuff I planned, so I tried to re-plan. The whole book was slow going, and I kept having to go back and rework things.

Then I decided I needed to finish the book in a week or so and started just writing. I still did some planning, but instead of the “formal” analysis of stuff like scene goal and conflict, etc., it was more about what could happen in the scene. And the book started flying. I haven’t re-read what I’ve written in the past couple of weeks, but I suspect it has a lot more energy.

I may need to consider all those scene outlines when it comes time to revise, but it may be that this isn’t necessarily the best way for me to work. I’ve never really got the hang of “scenes.” I can’t seem to analyze down to that level. I do better when I just let instinct take over and write what needs to happen.

You’d think with as many books as I’ve written, I’d know what I’m doing by now. I try to keep learning and improving, but sometimes the thing I learn is that I’ve been doing what I need to do all along.


Zooming Along

I made it to a little more than 6,500 words yesterday, so I’m still going strong. Whenever I do this kind of intense writing push, I find myself wondering why I don’t do this more often, and I get grand ideas about how much I could write if I worked at this level all the time. I’m not sure I could sustain this kind of intensity all the time, but even doing it a week or so a month would probably up my production.

I’m not doing a lot more than writing, but it’s not as though I’m letting everything else slide, either. I’ve been managing my morning walks and exercise in the evening. Yesterday I made yogurt and did laundry, and I’ve even been watching a little TV and reading. I don’t know if it’s the exercise or the intense writing, but I’ve been sleeping like the dead this week. I fall asleep pretty quickly and mostly sleep through the night. When I have the 3 a.m. wakeup, I fall back asleep quickly, and I wake up in the morning feeling rested, if a bit groggy.

One thing that the fast pace really helps is the flow of the book. I think I’ve been overanalyzing this story, and going full speed ahead has stopped some of that. There are scenes I’ll probably have to revise (or cut) later, but without stopping to analyze stuff like scene goal and the emotional pivot point, I think I actually get more lively scenes. It’s less “writing” and more “storytelling,” and it’s a lot more fun. It feels like play.

I’ll have to consider how I want to work going forward. Maybe do an intense week to get started, then a couple more “normal” weeks and then a “catch up on everything else” week.


Book in a Week

I found out this morning that I’ll be getting another round of revision notes on the book for Audible at the end of the week, which means I really need to make progress on the book I’ve been working on before then. I’m going to try something wild and crazy called Book in a Week. That’s when you try to write as much of a book as possible in a week. It’s a combination of really digging in and focusing on writing and doing a fairly rough draft rather than a lot of wordsmithing. You’re spending as much time as possible on writing and you’re trying to get as much as possible written.

It’s a good week for doing this, since I have no real obligations this week, no errands that need to be run, not a lot of cooking to do, since I already have leftovers. I can put my head down and really get some writing done. I don’t know if I’ll get to the end of this draft, but I can at least get up to the climactic part of the book.

This will be an interesting challenge for me. We’ll see how much I can manage to get done. Stay tuned for results!


A Hard Day’s Work

I’m trying something new with the book I’m working on: present-tense narration. It’s pretty common in YA, and people were talking about that at the conference I went to last month. I thought I’d at least see how it reads that way, and I was surprised by what a difference it made. It made everything a lot more immediate and forced me to tighten up a lot. So I guess that’s how this book is going to be.

It takes some getting used to writing that way. I’m still working on changing the parts that are already written, so I don’t know what it will be like composing. I’ll need to brainstorm the parts that lie ahead because the story seems to be shifting subtly in another direction than I originally planned.

But that’s a good sign because it means the story has almost become a living entity, taking on a life of its own. I’ve also reached the point when I almost resent having to do something else other than work on it.

I will have some research ahead of me, as I need to invent a sport that’s played using unicorns — something like polo but using the unique features of unicorns. I’ve discovered all sorts of interesting events while researching this. There’s polo, of course, which had its origins as a training exercise for cavalry (which is what this sport will be, too). There’s polocrosse, which is lacrosse played on horseback. There’s horseball, which is kind of like basketball played on horseback. And there’s a whole category of events that fit under the umbrella of “tent pegging.” There’s tent pegging itself, in which riders try to spear a small target with a lance while riding at full gallop (supposedly with origins in trying to damage an enemy’s camp while they’re asleep by pulling up their tent pegs, but apparently this is disputed), and then there are variations that resemble jousting training exercises, like spearing a ring with a lance or hitting a target with a lance. I think my sport will involve rings, with both rider and unicorn having to spear rings with lance/horn, or perhaps trying to get a ring around the opponents’ unicorns’ horns.

Sometimes it astonishes me that this is my job. “Whew, it was a hard day at work. I had to make up a unicorn sport.”


Writing as Juggling Act

I spent most of yesterday re-reading what I’d written on the abandoned book, as well as my notes on the project. I found some notes about what I wanted to do in revision that I must have made before I put this project aside, but the weird thing is, I don’t remember making these notes. They’re in my handwriting, so I must have, and they’re even legible, so it’s not as though I was writing in my sleep, or anything like that.

The nice thing is, they’re good ideas. They somewhat alter the plot of the book, but that’s what I need to do right now. When I eliminate all the stuff that has to go, I’ll need more action and conflict to throw in to replace it.

Meanwhile, there are key character traits I seem to have forgotten about. They’re supposed to be a big issue for the heroine, but they fall away after the first chapter.

Sometimes writing is like juggling. You have a lot of balls to keep in the air — character traits, aspects of the world, interpersonal conflicts, big-picture conflicts, and all of that is for multiple characters. Remembering to use all these things can be difficult because when you focus on one thing, you forget that other thing until you get halfway through the book and realize that your heroine’s key character trait hasn’t made an appearance in the last few chapters because she’s been busy dealing with other things.

And then sometimes you surprise yourself and find things that you didn’t plan but that come together. In this book, I seem to have had an unconscious theme of proving yourself. The heroine’s issue is that she wants to prove that she can do something. One of the secondary characters is worried about proving himself worthy. And the villain is trying to show the world what he can do. His intentions aren’t actually evil. He’s just enough of a narcissist that it doesn’t occur to him that the things he’s doing so he’ll look like a great hero will actually harm a lot of innocent people. Now that I’m aware this is there, I can work with it on purpose.


Getting to the Action

I took the week off from blogging last week because there was the holiday and then I went to visit my parents. Now I’m back to a “normal” work schedule, trying to get back to a regular routine after deadlines and travel.

It’s been more than a month since I even looked at the book I was working on before I had to switch gears and work on revisions. That made it pretty obvious the parts I needed to fix. I already had a feeling what the problem would be when I listened to my playlist/soundtrack for this book as I drove back from my parents’ house and realized that the first half of it was songs relating to the opening of the book. It’s nearly a two-hour drive, and I’d barely reached anything representing the main action by the time I got home.

Sure enough, when I was re-reading it this morning I saw that the story didn’t really kick in until about chapter five or six (aside from the inciting incident at the end of chapter one — there was way too much transition from there to the main action). At first, the scenes that seemed unnecessary didn’t look that long, just a few paragraphs, and those also worked for worldbuilding. Then I did a word count and realized that we were talking about a couple of pages each time (for my first draft, I don’t have it set up to show me pages). And the worldbuilding was for the part of the world the heroine’s leaving, so it was all unnecessary for the reader understanding the story.

So, the first thing to do on this round is cut all that stuff. Then I need to figure out what really needs to be happening to move the story forward. I love the part of the world the heroine’s from and I wouldn’t mind living there, but that’s not what the story’s about. It’s about her leaving that comfort zone and going to a place that’s more challenging to her. I can always write short pieces set in her home area later, but that’s not what this book is about.


Series Structure

One of the sessions I went to at last weekend’s conference was on structuring a series. My main takeaway from that is that it’s important to find a good balance between a series being connected enough that people will want to read all the books and there being enough “on ramps” to allow new readers to jump into the series.

There are a lot of different ways to structure a series.

There’s the “one big book broken up into chunks” approach, like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, in which there’s an epic story published a bit at a time, and each volume doesn’t really have its own narrative arc. In this case, you’d better hope readers discover that first book because there’s no coming in to it late.

There’s probably the most common format, the “episodic” format, in which there may be some big-picture plot arcs and there are character arcs that stretch over the whole series, but each volume is still its own story with its own narrative arc and beginning, middle, and end. That’s what I’ve been doing with my series. There are shadings within that, with one extreme being a bit closer to the one big book style, like I’m doing with Rebels, where each book has its own narrative arc, but those arcs are part of a big picture arc and lead directly from one to the next. There’s no real jumping in to that series. You pretty much have to read the first book. In the middle would be the romantic mystery series, in which each book is its own distinct case, but the character stories arc through the whole series, usually with a romantic relationship gradually developing between two of the characters. You could pick up any book to read first, but you’ll probably get more out of the character stories if you read them in order. The extreme of “episodic” would probably be the mystery series without real character arcs, where each book is entirely separate and the world more or less resets between books, like the Nancy Drew series. Nothing changes in that world, and you can read the books in any order without it making any difference in the narrative.

Then there’s the “spinoff” format, in which each book in the series is about a different character. The best friend of the main character in book one becomes the main character in book 2, etc. You see a lot of this in romance, where it can be difficult to follow the same characters into more books since each book needs a romantic happy ending. So you’ll get a series about a group of friends, with book one establishing the group and the supporting characters from one book becoming the main characters in later books, with the previous main characters becoming supporting characters so you can see how their lives are going. Each main plot is generally distinct, so you can jump in anywhere, but it will probably make more sense and be more meaningful if you read them in order.

And there’s the “world” format, in which the series is mostly about a particular place, with each book being about a different aspect of that place or different people in that place, with some crossover (characters from one story showing up in another story). The big example would be Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There are sub-series within the big series that work best if read in order, but you can generally pick a thread and dive in almost anywhere. The more books of the series you’re read, the richer the world feels, and it rewards re-reading after you’ve read more so that you recognize all the people who show up and understand how their stories fit into the big picture.

I’ve been thinking of different kinds of series I might try writing as a way to build an audience. I’ve thought about doing that mystery format, maybe a “strange small town” situation with a case in each book and the amateur sleuth and the pro detective at first clashing and then gradually falling for each other over the course of the series, though I think I would do it more as contemporary fantasy than as mystery, with a variety of cases rather than just murders (does it have to be murder to be a mystery?). I have a hard time suspending disbelief when a small town has a ridiculously high per capita murder rate, and there are a lot of other kinds of cases to solve.

I’ve also thought about trying a “world” series, where I build a fantasy realm and tell a variety of overlapping stories in that realm. That would take some planning to figure out how it all connects, and I’d have to find a way to make it a truly interesting place. I think this is what I might do with that idea of the low-stress escapist fantasy concept and make it be a world people want to visit and enjoy, with the characters having adventures but not necessarily mortal peril.

But first I have to finish revising the book I’m working on, then finish writing a book, then write another book.


Misidentified Tropes

It has been interesting this week to see the reaction online to a certain big TV event earlier in the week (keeping it vague to avoid spoilers — if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but if you haven’t, this is still about writing). It looks to me like a significant portion of the Internet is unclear on the concept of what a Mary Sue is and skipped class the day they talked about deus ex machina when studying literature.

A Mary Sue is not a female character who’s at all competent. It’s a mocking term for a fan fiction trope. The term was coined in a satirical piece mocking the trope of the author’s self-insert character who takes over the story. “Ensign Mary Sue” in a Star Trek story was the new crew member who could navigate better than Chekov, pilot better than Sulu, outthink Spock, quickly solve engineering problems that baffled Scotty, and had a beautiful singing voice and was a brilliant dancer. Everyone loved her, and Kirk, Spock, or whichever character the author was in love with fell madly in love with her. Since fan fiction is written mostly for fun, I really have no problem with someone writing a Mary Sue. I think that’s how a lot of writers begin, in imagining a role for themselves in their favorite stories. It’s just not a lot of fun for anyone else to read because they’re reading for the characters they love, not for someone else’s self insert. To be totally honest, I’ve mentally “written” tons of Mary Sue stuff. That really was how I started making up stories, creating roles for myself and imagining how an idealized version of myself might fit into that world. I hope mine weren’t quite that egregiously perfect, but there’s a reason I never wrote them down and never shared them with others. They were for my own amusement.

There’s a huge disagreement over whether there can be a Mary Sue in original fiction, since there’s no new non-canon character being inserted into an established cast. I think it does happen when there’s a character an author is incapable of being objective about, either because they identify too closely with that character or because they’re in love with that character. An original Mary Sue tends to be a bland character with little development because the author’s love means she already thinks the character is fascinating, so there’s no need to do the usual work of making the character interesting to the audience. The rules of the universe warp around this character, so she gets everything she wants, is good at everything just because she’s special, and other characters bend over backward to serve her (unless we’re dealing with a Victim Sue, who is unfairly vilified in spite of being perfect, with everyone hating her because they’re just jealous). I happen to think that Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels has more than a tinge of Gary Stu (the male version) to him. It really seems like Lucas overidentified with him, for whatever reason, and that meant he was just automatically good at everything, he was the Chosen One With Magical Specialness, everyone adored him even though he was actually kind of a jerk, and it was so very unfair when they didn’t give him everything he wanted that he turned evil.

A character can be incredibly skilled and competent without being a Mary Sue. We just need to see the work that goes on to gain that skill. Spending years in training and gaining experience in preparation for doing something big means the character probably isn’t a Mary Sue. We’re seeing the work and the struggle behind the skill.

Meanwhile, “deus ex machina” means “god from the machine” and comes from ancient Greek drama, in which situations were often resolved with a god coming down from on high (using rigs, and thus the “machine”) to resolve the mortals’ problems. That was kind of the point of ancient Greek drama, to show that the gods were in control, but in modern fiction, the term has come to mean some random thing that comes out of nowhere to resolve the problem. It’s some object that happens to appear that’s just what they need or some new character who shows up to fix everything.

When a character who’s been there from the beginning and has spent years training to do a thing uses a thing that’s been there almost from the beginning and that’s been part of the story all along, and when it was a plot point that this character was given this thing, and when there was even a prophecy years ago suggesting that this character might do this thing, it’s not a deus ex machina. A deus ex machina would be if the exact magical device they needed to resolve the problem had just happened to show up at the right time, or if the problem was resolved by some new random character just showing up.

I also find it amusing that people who boast about how great something is because it busts tropes get so upset when that thing busts a trope.