Archive for writing

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.


Crisis Mode

I’ve figured out what my writing issue is: I’ve gone into crisis mode. I’m one of those people who’s “good in a crisis.” I go very calm and logical. It’s like the world slows down around me and I can come up with to-do lists and contingency plans. There may be a freakout down the line, but not until the crisis is over and I’m sure I’m safe. That’s difficult for writing because you need to be able to dig into emotions and allow the characters to have emotional reactions. The stuff I wrote when the crisis began ramping up seems to reflect not only me in crisis mode, but also me putting all my characters into crisis mode. Instead of them having emotional reactions to events, they calmly come up with contingency plans. Even in the best of times, I struggle with putting emotion into my work because I’m never a particularly emotionally expressive person. I internalize it all and work it out through mental narration. I verbalize my feelings, and I tend to make characters do that, too, which comes across as somewhat distant. Emotions get added in later drafts. Now, even that’s not working.

So I think I’m going to play to my strengths right now. Instead of trying to draft, I’m going to use that analytical ability to analyze my drafts so far and maybe figure out some revisions. Then I’m going to do some extensive outlines. I always do a bit of outlining, but my outlines are vague. I may try to go scene-by-scene and see what happens.

I may also do some other exercises to analyze the market, covers, blurbs, etc. I’m also doing research and worldbuilding, which is the kind of creativity that requires logic and analysis.

Then when I settle down a bit and get out of crisis mode, I may be more prepared to revise and write.

This is pretty much what I’ve been doing, but it helps to understand what’s going on and to be doing it as a plan rather than just falling into that and then feeling bad because it’s not actual writing.


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

I seem to be back in my usual creative pattern, which means I spend the day writing, then just as I start to fall asleep at night, I realize that I did something wrong or went in a wrong direction with what I wrote that day. In the morning, I think about it, figure out that the realization was right, then have to scrap a lot of what I wrote the day before.

Except last night I went back several scenes to work I did more than a week ago (though they were scenes I revised yesterday). I don’t think it will end up killing too much, just shifting some things around a bit, and it definitely makes the story more interesting. I didn’t get that much done yesterday because I kept getting interrupted, then I had to go to the library and went to vote while I was at it (since the polling place is at the library), and then I had a meeting last night. Today I got a late start because I slept a little later after getting home late last night, but I have nothing to do other than write, so I hope I can make some forward progress after I fix the thing I figured out.

And then as I fall asleep tonight, I’ll figure out what I did wrong today. But at least I’m fixing these things before I get too far into the book. It’s easier to scrap one scene now than to have to entirely rewrite the last half because I went in the wrong direction and didn’t fix it then. It’s also a good sign that my brain is engaged enough to be mulling these things over and coming up with new ideas. I was reading something related to an entirely different project when this idea popped into my head.

Someday, maybe I’ll be able to figure out the thing I need to do BEFORE I actually write the wrong thing.


Finding the Process

I think I’ve figured out my way forward in the book, though it requires backtracking a few chapters to make some adjustments to set up what happens later.

This probably needs to be built into any schedule I make going forward. I’m going to need a day midway through the book to review what I’ve done and plan the rest. I can count on that. It’s happened in almost everything I’ve written, no matter how much plotting I’ve done up front.

Figuring out your process is a big part of writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how you “should” work, but it comes down to what works for you, and you need to take that into account when you make plans or set deadlines. You figure it all out by trial and error. Try something, see how it works for you, incorporate it into your process if it works, don’t worry about it if it doesn’t, but maybe keep it in your arsenal for when the time comes when it might work for you.

You might be an edit-as-you-go writer who does one draft, but that means each part is revised and rewritten along the way. You might be a fast draft writer who dashes off a quick draft, then spends a lot of time afterward revising, rewriting, and editing. You might be a plotter who has a scene-by-scene outline written before you write the first word. You might be a pantser who just starts writing and sees where that takes you. You may be somewhere in the middle, having a broad outline and sense of where the story might go, but figuring out each scene as you get there. It’s all good, as long as you end up with a book.

I seem to fall in the middle for everything. I do a lot of planning and plotting and still end up figuring the story out as I go. I write a fast draft, but I usually have to stop in the middle and backtrack before moving forward to the end, and then I do a lot of rewriting.

I do feel like the more time I spend thinking about a book before I start writing it, the better it goes. It’s like I need to write the mental fan fiction before I can write the book. I imagine all kinds of scenes with the characters, most of which will never make it into the book, but that helps me get to know the characters and their world, and that helps me figure out the story. If I skip that step and just start writing, it’s more difficult.

And, of course, as soon as I figure out a process that works for me, something changes and I have to adjust all over again. It’s a constant evolution.


Idea Time

I’ve made the mistake of having multiple projects all in the same phase at the same time. I often work on more than one thing at a time. There may be something I’m editing/proofreading and getting ready for publication, something I’m drafting, and something I’m researching or brainstorming. I’ll do the editing in the morning, writing in the afternoon, and research in the evening.

That how things were working recently. I was doing market research reading for one thing (I’m going to rework something I’ve written to go after a different market, so I’m reading books in that market to get a sense of the style and pacing), revising another thing, and researching another thing. Usually there’s a flow, so that after I finish revising one thing, I start drafting the thing I’ve been researching. But I’m in a unique circumstance, in that the thing I’m researching is a bigger project that’s taking a lot of research, so it’s nowhere near ready to be written, and I’m moving straight to drafting the sequel to the book I just finished revising.

The idea phase for all these things blew up at once yesterday. I got the idea for the sequel and got it decently fleshed out, so I can start doing serious development on it. Meanwhile, although I’ve been doing background research on the world for that other project, that research sparked a bunch of ideas yesterday, including an entire plot, and that world is starting to come into focus. And then I also started to get a sense of how the thing I’m reworking might go in this new structure.

I had three books trying to write themselves in my head last night. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of sleep. I’m surprised that I don’t seem to have dreamed any of them, and I wasn’t getting them muddled. They all remained distinct. It was more like a music player on shuffle, where a song from one album would play, and then it would flip over to a song from another album, then over to a song from a third album, and then at random among all three albums.

I may have to do some massive brain dumping today, writing out everything I know about all three ideas.

Tomorrow is supposed to be the kind of cold, rainy day I’ve been longing for, and I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, so I may treat the day as a kind of retreat, with some brainstorming and some viewing of related movies to help spur more ideas.


Taking My Time

One of the most common bits of writing advice is to set aside a manuscript for at least a couple of weeks (or months) before you go back to work on it so that you can see it more clearly and be less attached to the process of writing it, but I’m not sure how many people actually do it. We end a book with great enthusiasm and can’t wait to get it revised and finished, or else we’re impatient about being able to submit or publish it, or we’re on deadline and don’t have the time to wait.

I will confess to being guilty of all of the above. I seldom have the luxury of being able to let a draft sit, and even when I do, I usually feel like I already have a good sense of the problems and know how to fix them.

Without really planning to, I ended up taking a more than two-week break over the holidays when I was in the middle of a revision round, right at the point where things needed to be fixed, and I have to say, it made a big difference. I’ve been able to see a lot more clearly where the plot problems were, and it’s been relatively easy to see how to fix them. Some of that may be because I’ve had time to mull it over, but I think a lot of it has to do with being hazy on remembering exactly why I wrote things the way I did in the first place. When you know why you wrote something, you’re more resistant to changing it because you can justify it to yourself. Once that memory becomes fuzzy, you’re just reading what’s on the page, as though you’re a reader or editor, and if what’s on the page doesn’t work, you know you need to fix it. There’s no arguing with yourself or rationalizing.

That’s especially valuable with humor, where the joke that might have made sense while you were writing it because you understood where you were going with it no longer works without whatever was going on in your head at the time, and that means readers won’t get it. You know it has to go.

Really, as much as I hate it, giving myself more time and slowing down really does make books better. I trained as a journalist, so I’m very deadline focused. Worse, I worked in TV news, so our deadline was absolute. We had a newscast going on at six, whether or not we were ready, so we had to be ready. In that world, being able to work quickly was valuable. I had a reputation for being able to sketch out a story in the car on the way back to the station, so I could get the script written and get it to the editor to cut together the story right away. They’d send me on the late-afternoon stories because they knew I could get back to the station after five and still have something ready to go on the air at six. When I was working in PR, my boss used to brag about me being able to “turn on a dime and give change” because they could throw an urgent assignment at me and have something written within an hour or so.

That can be helpful when writing novels because it means I hit my deadlines, but that sense of rush, rush, rush isn’t always for the best. I’m so focused on getting it done quickly that I may not be doing it as well as I should. I can still write quickly, but giving it a bit of time between phases would probably improve the finished product.

Since I’m developing a new series, I’m writing the first few books before I publish anything, and that should give me some time. After this draft, I’m going to write the next couple of books before I go back and do another draft on the first book. That way I know I’ll be setting up anything I need for the first few books, but I also will have plenty of time to let the first book rest so I can really revise it and make it shine. After all, I’m hoping this book will suck people so deeply into this world and these characters that it will make them eager to keep reading the series.