Archive for writing

writing, TV

Sympathy for the Villain

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that I’m not a fan of villains. I don’t pull for the bad guys until/unless they truly turn themselves around in a way that shows they know where they went wrong and sincerely feel bad about what they’ve done. I don’t care how sad their backstory is or how sexy and misunderstood they are. I’ll still be on Team Good Guys. And I resent stories that try to make me feel bad for the villains because they grew up poor and were mistreated, or anything like that. In the real world, the real villains on a big scale tend to be those who grew up with privilege and feel entitled.

But the series Andor is doing some interesting things about building (and removing) sympathy for villain characters, and not by doing the usual “sad childhood” things. I’m going to try to keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but I recommend watching this series. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this isn’t really “Star Warsy.” It’s more of a spy thriller in a science fiction setting. There are no Jedi, there’s no mention of the Force. It’s a look at life under the rule of the Empire for people at all levels of society.

One thing they do to make you look at the villain characters in a different way is to put the various storylines in silos. There’s a storyline about the Imperial Security Bureau that’s tracking down and eliminating threats to the Empire. There’s no doubt that these are the bad guys, but because everyone in the storyline would be considered villains, the protagonist of this storyline is a villain but is sort of the “good guy” for this story, as long as it’s not intersecting with any of the actual good guys. They do all the sorts of things you do to set up a protagonist. This woman is clearly smart and capable, and yet she’s an underdog because she can’t get people to listen to her. She’s figuring out what’s going on with the rebel movement, but she gets in trouble for crossing jurisdictional boundaries instead of praised for spotting a potential threat. I think just about anyone who’s worked in a business setting can relate to feeling like the smartest person in the room but not being able to get anyone to listen because they’re all stuck in petty bureaucratic fiefdoms. When she finally got recognized for her work, I caught myself cheering for her — and then I remembered that this is a bad thing. We don’t want the Empire figuring out what’s going on with the rebels. It was an interesting way to make us sympathize with her and see her as a human being without playing the “poor, sad backstory” card. It won’t make me hate her less when she comes into actual direct conflict with any of the good guy characters, but it does make me see the threat they face. This incredibly competent person who’s had to struggle to be recognized is scarier than your typical mustache-twirling one-dimensional villain.

There’s another character that’s giving me emotional whiplash. In a way, he’s similar to this woman in not being able to get his superiors to listen to him, but what we see first about him is that he’s focused on appearances. The very first thing we learn is that he’s had his uniform tailored and enhanced to have extra decorative piping. It’s such a silly little detail, but it tells us so much about him and sets up what he ends up doing. I hated this guy more than any of the Star Wars villains because he reminded me of people I’ve had to deal with. I referred to him as the Hall Monitor from Hell. When he got consequences I felt bad for him because his consequences were bad, and we also got a glimpse of where he came from, but then when it was clear that he’d learned nothing, I hated him again. Either way, I care, whether it’s wanting to see him get taken down a peg or four or hoping he learns something and gets better.

I’ve struggled with writing villains and tend to keep them offstage, but I’m going to study this and see if I can use any of it in my work. Can I show things from the villain’s perspective and make readers care, even if what they care about is the villain falling into a volcano?


Building Nuanced Worlds

I finished the plot/structure draft of the next mystery book this week, and I think I’m going to do another pass for emotion and description and generally making the words better, but while it’s resting a bit so I can look at it with fresh eyes, I’ve been doing some development work on a fantasy series, and I’ve realized that good worldbuilding is hard.

I’ve been known to mock the science fiction trope of the forest planet, the desert planet, the ocean planet, the ice planet, or else the “Ancient Greece” planet, the “Old West” planet, the “Nazi” planet, etc., but fantasy is prone to similar lazy tropes, only it’s kingdoms instead of whole worlds. You get the desert kingdom, the mountain kingdom, the seafaring kingdom, etc. That’s perhaps a bit more realistic than having an entire planet having a single climate and bioeme, but it’s still a pretty broad brush. Or else you get earth cultures pasted onto the fantasy kingdoms, so you’ve got Not!Scotland, Not!Norway, Not!Ireland, etc.

Even if you get a little more granular than that, it’s still tempting to have the Uptight Religious City, the Party City, the Serious Business city, the Warlike City, etc.

And that’s because it’s a lot of work to drill down and create multiple cities in multiple kingdoms that are distinct from each other and that have their own culture but that also have nuance. The less important a place is to the story, the stronger the temptation is to just go “they’re businesslike and somewhat British-like” and leave it at that.

But failing on building a three-dimensional, coherent world can actually make writing harder. This book I’m developing is the one I worked on briefly last year. I’d come up with the core of the idea more than thirty years earlier, wrote it and had nothing come of it, then pulled it out last year and replotted it. I thought it would be easy to write since I knew the plot and the characters, but the problem I ran into was that I realized I didn’t know the world. The characters were moving through a featureless void. I knew the history of the place, but I didn’t know what it was like on the ground, to live there or travel through there, and that made it difficult (and kind of boring) to write. So now I’m working to create a world for them to exist in. I seem to have made it difficult for myself by having the situation be a cluster of smaller kingdoms that’s unified, so I need to develop each kingdom, at least in broad terms, and then I need to figure out what the actual places the characters will visit are like. It’s a “road trip” story, so I have to fully create more than one place. I have to keep reminding myself that I need specific details.

This is fun work to do, but at the same time I get impatient about wanting to write, especially when I come up with a detail that gives me ideas for the story.


Impatient Projects

This is my catch up and get my life together week in between book drafts, and wouldn’t you know, that’s when an entirely different book pops up in my head and starts giving me details. That makes it really hard to focus on doing stuff like writing cover copy, thinking about metadata, and planning promo campaigns.

I have to tell that project to be patient because it’s next month’s work. I’m jotting down the thoughts that occur to me so I don’t forget them, and I hope I have this same kind of eager enthusiasm when I start writing it that I have now and that my current eager enthusiasm isn’t just because writing this book sounds a lot more fun than proofreading or messing with metadata. Sometimes when I get like this, I designate some trigger for switching gears to play with the thing that’s demanding attention. Like, when it’s raining I can work on the other thing, but otherwise I have to focus on the main work. Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks of frequent rain, there’s little chance for the next week, so that won’t work. Maybe I’ll think of a composer, and when the classical station plays that composer, during that piece I can play with something different.

That other project really isn’t ready to be written. I have a lot of development work to do, which I guess is what my brain is working on. I’m not getting bits of plot. It’s more details about the world. Like figuring whether there would be a bridge to cross this river at this point, or maybe a ferry, and what kind of ferry. I must have crossed that river a dozen times in my head as I was falling asleep last night, changing the details each time. This is not an important scene in the book, but the details do help create the world, and the details might end up influencing other things.

I’m doing some of that brainstorming work in the evenings. But for now, back to the other work that’s essential and sometimes fun but that tends to trigger story ideas for other things I want to write.


Strange Writing Advice

Since I’m somewhat addicted to writing how-to stuff like books, workshops, articles, etc., I occasionally run into some advice that strikes me as a bit odd.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I saw a workshop in which the speaker said it was better to write your first draft in longhand than to type it on a computer. She had some reasons that made sense. For one thing, there are fewer distractions. You can’t check e-mail, Facebook or Instagram (though that depends on where your computer or phone are while you’re writing longhand). You can’t delete stuff you don’t like. You can only scratch through it, so it’s still there, and that means if you change your mind you can retrieve it. There was also something about how the act of writing longhand engages differently with your brain than typing does.

I’m afraid I’d never get a book written if I had to write it longhand. I do my brainstorming and outlining longhand, but when it comes to actual composition, it goes straight from my brain to my fingers. A lot of the time, I’m not even conscious of the words. They just flow as I type, and I type quickly. Writing longhand would seriously slow my productivity. I also have terrible handwriting. I had a teacher once who found it odd that such a good student had such bad handwriting, and he watched me as I was writing in class, then told me he’d thought I was just being lazy and sloppy, but he could see that I really was trying. He figured that I don’t have good fine motor control in my hands. I don’t have a lot of grip strength, and that may have something to do with it. The more tired I get, the less control I have over my writing, so by the time I got to the end of a writing session, I’d be in pain and I’d have absolutely no idea what I’d written.

Which would tie to the next weird bit of writing advice I’ve heard. At a conference I went to about twenty years ago, a speaker said the way to do a second draft was to finish your first draft, put it aside without looking at it, and write the book again. Supposedly, you’d remember the important parts, but since you knew how the book went, there would be less meandering and rambling. You’d remember the stuff you liked, forget the boring parts, and would have a better draft than you’d get just rearranging the words from the first draft.

I know a lot of authors who write longhand drafts, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who did a second draft by just rewriting the book. If I wrote a longhand draft, the second draft when I transcribed it into the computer would essentially be writing from scratch because I wouldn’t be able to read what I wrote in the first place, so maybe combining the two might work, though it would seriously slow me down.

I have started fresh with a difficult scene when I’ve realized that the way I’m doing it isn’t working and I can’t break away from what I’ve written if I just try to edit, but I’m not writing the same scene over again. I’m writing something entirely different. I am working on a project in which I’m rewriting instead of editing, but I’m writing a whole new book using the same basic premise, not writing the same book over again.

I’m considering giving longhand writing a try. After the terrible summer we’ve had, in which I’ve basically been trapped inside the house, I’m planning to spend as much time as possible outdoors once it gets cool enough, so I may take a notebook with me and go sit in the woods or by the lake to write. It won’t be a whole draft by hand, but I may write scenes that way. We’ll see what happens and how it works. I’m willing to give just about any bit of writing advice a try because I never know how it will end up working for me, but it has to be drastically better for me to change my entire process.

writing, movies

Much Ado About Tropes

A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. That’s my favorite adaptation of that play. Branagh does a lovely job of making it so real and vital, and the cast manages to make the Shakespearean language sound perfectly natural. It takes maybe one scene to tune your ear, and then you just get caught up in the story and forget that it’s Shakespeare. Emma Thompson is particularly good, able to spit out all those zingers while still showing humanity and vulnerability.

I realized while watching that this play contains one of my least-favorite romantic comedy tropes and one of my favorites.

The least favorite is the old “see something involving the other member of the couple out of context, leap to the worst possible conclusion, flounce on the relationship without even discussing it with the other person, then realize they’re wrong, but then everything’s okay and the other person doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that someone who supposedly loved them was willing to jump to the worst possible conclusion about them.”

You’d think this would have died out long ago, since it’s more than 400 years old for Shakespeare, and it comes from an even older work that Shakespeare based his play on, but it’s still a staple of rom-coms and Hallmark movies. Shakespeare actually does a somewhat better job with this trope than many of the modern stories do. It’s a deliberate set-up, for one thing, intended to give Claudio the wrong impression. He’s brought to a particular place just in time to see something being staged for his benefit, with Hero’s name being said, and what he sees is unambiguous. Someone he highly respects sees the same thing and comes to the same conclusion. It’s not like the “dark moment” in the Hallmark movies when the heroine sees the hero hugging another woman and decides to flounce back to the city and let the ornament factory close because she thinks he’s involved with another woman.

Then once Claudio learns the truth and realizes he wronged Hero, he does penance even though he’s not the one truly at fault. And in their society, even though she’s been proven blameless, her reputation might have remained damaged if the one who accused her hadn’t taken her back, so of course she’s glad he still wants her. I don’t cut the modern characters as much slack. If she assumed he was cheating on her and didn’t even discuss it with him, then after she realizes that was his sister he was hugging and she goes back to him, I don’t get why he would be so willing to take her back. Why would he want to be with someone who’s that irrationally jealous and who thinks the worst of him?

I have seen one movie in which the woman visited the man’s workplace and saw a wedding photo of him, assumed he was married and she was the “other woman,” so she refused to speak to him again, and after she learned that he was a widower she apologized, but he wasn’t ready to take her back. It took some big gestures on her part, a lot of apologies, and some strings being pulled by his friends for them to move past it and get back together. That worked a bit better, but I’m ready for that misunderstanding trope to be given a rest or at least a twist. Maybe have that happen at the beginning of the story, and that’s why the character is single and maybe a bit bitter when the story’s real love interest comes along. They wouldn’t take back the person who dumped them in a fit of misplaced jealousy, or else they’re the one who screwed up. There could even be a second-chance thing, where this is backstory, and they meet again after this happened.

But the play also contains one of my favorite tropes, which is the people who act like they dislike each other to cover for the fact that they do like each other but are too afraid to let on, for fear that the other one actually does dislike them and would use the knowledge of their feelings as a weapon against them. Benedick and Beatrice bicker and shoot zingers at each other, but they’re ridiculously easy to trick into confessing their feelings. The moment each of them “overhears” (thanks to a scheme by their friends) that the other likes them, they’re delighted and go all-in. There is one speech by Beatrice early in the play that suggests they have a past. It hints that maybe they had a relationship before that ended badly. In the “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode on this play, actors who’ve played these roles said they read it as them having had a romance that went wrong, and both of them see themselves as the wounded party, so they’ve been bickering, but they never got over each other. They’re just both too proud and too wounded to lower the barriers and let their feelings show. It takes other people intervening to make them feel safe to express their feelings.

This isn’t really an “enemies to lovers” thing because they’re basically on the same side. They just pretend not to get along. It’s sort of a second-chance thing. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of fun if it’s done very well, with good dialogue and sizzling subtext. But I suspect it would be very tricky to pull off in a novel that allows you to get inside the characters’ head. It works in the play/movie because they can have fun with the subtext (especially with actors on the level of Branagh and Thompson). It would lose something if you got into their heads and knew how they really felt. I’ve been trying to think of how to make it work in a novel. I’m not sure it could work in third-person narration, where you get to eavesdrop on their thoughts. It might work in first-person narration, with the narrator not being privy to the other character’s thoughts and editing her own thoughts so that she’s not telling the whole story or being entirely honest either with herself or the reader. Or it could be told from some other character’s perspective, say, if the couple were members of a team and the viewpoint character is someone else on the team being amused by how dense those two can be. That was kind of what happened in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Ron and Hermione, which was seen entirely from Harry’s perspective, except he wasn’t even amused by them. He was as dense about what was going on as they were, and the reader had to figure out what was going on from the subtext and realize that although they bickered a lot, their feelings regarding each other were quite strong.

Now, of course, I’m trying to figure out if I could make the mistaken assumption story work in a way that I like, and I’m mentally scanning my story ideas to see if there’s a place for a “Beatrice and Benedick” relationship. Because I need more story ideas. (Not! I don’t have time to write all the ideas I currently have.)

writing, video project

Scene and Sequel

One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.

The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.

When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.

At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.

In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.

So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.

I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.

But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.

So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.

We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.

Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.

In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.

A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.

Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.

Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):

writing, video project

Videos Up Now

Since I added the clips to the videos that went with the last couple of posts after I posted, here are the videos, for those who were quick on the ball to read posts before I added the video links.

The welcome and intro:

Do you really have to “kill your darlings”?

writing, video project

Kill Your Darlings

One of the most often repeated — and most misunderstood — pieces of writing advice is “you have to kill your darlings.” In other words, don’t get too close to anything in your book, and if you love something too much, it may be something you’re writing just for you, so it has to go.

But this is terrible advice if you take it that way. If you have to get rid of anything you love, then you’d be left not liking your work, and it implies that you can’t trust your own judgment.

I think this is actually a misinterpretation of the advice. A better way to think about it would be that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. In other words, you have to get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story, no matter how much you love it.

What are some darlings you may have to kill?

A big one is description. Not that description is bad, but it does tend to make it to “darling” status because description feels like real writing. We hear in writing workshops about using all the senses, and it’s easy to wax poetic and create something that feels award-worthy. In the satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the author puts asterisks by the particularly good passages of description, spoofing this tendency. The problem is when that description doesn’t fit the viewpoint character or the situation. You may have written a beautiful description of the sunset that vividly brings the image to life, but if your viewpoint character is a jaded warrior who’s been fighting or walking all day and you’re not trying to show that he has the heart of a poet or artist, then he’s probably not going to think of the sunset in eloquent, poetic terms. Or if your character is on the run for her life, she’s not going to pause and admire the beautiful sunset. It may be lovely writing and you may be proud of it, but it has to go.

Then there’s “your research is showing.” You’ve spent hours researching exactly the undergarments your character might wear and how she would put them on, so of course you want to write a scene showing your character getting dressed so you can show all your research. But all the story really needs is to mention that she got dressed. Or, really, you can assume she got dressed if no one faints when she shows up for breakfast.

Another darling that may have to go is the germ of the idea. There’s something that sparked the idea for your story or that was in what you first imagined when you started thinking about the story, but as the story develops, you may no longer need that thing in your story. I ran into this with my book Rebel Mechanics. There was a scene I had in my head before I even got the idea for this book, and I realized that this book would be a good place to put that scene. My editor wanted me to cut a big part of this scene. After I stomped around the house, griping to myself about how I couldn’t cut it because that was the whole point of the scene and it was the thing that inspired the whole book, I realized that I didn’t actually need that part of the scene, and the story worked better without it. I was clinging to it as the spark for the story, but it was a darling that had to die. I often find that scenes I dream up before I start writing don’t end up fitting in the story that I write. I may try to cram them in, but they don’t serve the story. I tend to imagine scenes of the characters hanging out and talking, and then I try to put those scenes in the book, but it turns out they don’t need to be there, even if thinking about them was a good way for me to find those characters’ voices and get to know them.

Jokes are often darlings that need to go. Something you find amusing might not work for anyone else, or it might not be truly appropriate for the story. I often find that they don’t even work for me when I’m doing the second draft.

I seldom delete any of the darlings I kill. I have a “cuts” file for each book and copy them into that file. Sometimes I get to use them elsewhere. They may be right for a different character (like the description that doesn’t fit the viewpoint character) or a different book in the series. I sometimes put cut pieces on my website. That’s a great place for those sitting around and talking scenes.

Instead of looking for darlings that you should kill, instead look for things that don’t serve your story, and then overcome your resistance to letting them go.

Here’s the video version of this post:


Cutting Away

I’m continuing to fix the beginning of this book. I’ve now cut about 30,000 words and seven chapters (in some cases, I merged two chapters after cutting a lot from each). Not only did I have the problem I mentioned before of adding unnecessary conflict to things that weren’t important to the plot, but I’ve found that I’ve been writing scenes that don’t make a lot of sense when I really look at them.

There was one nearly 4,000-word scene that I liked but that I had to admit wasn’t that important to the story. It was just two of the characters hanging out and drinking tea and becoming friends. As much as I liked it, I didn’t need 4,000 words of that, especially not at that point in the story. We can see their friendship develop later on. There was just one thing in that scene that was critical to the plot, something those characters reveal to each other, and I decided to add it to the next scene.

Then looking at that scene, I realized that these characters wouldn’t actually reveal that information to each other so soon. They have to build a bit more trust. And then it occurred to me that them not sharing that information will mean that they’re working at cross-purposes for a while, doing things that they each think will help the other, but because they haven’t opened up to each other yet, they don’t know that they’re actually getting in each other’s way. That gives me some conflict, plus there’s opportunity for some fun moments, which then will naturally lead to them opening up to each other, since the choice will be to let the other person continue making things worse while thinking they’re helping or to stay quiet and keep their secrets, and it will finally get bad enough that telling outweighs keeping the secret.

It’s funny how things that seem so obvious in retrospect aren’t so obvious in the first draft.

I’m currently wrestling with another scene, where it’s a group of people having a conversation, and I’m trying to figure out what the critical events in the scene really are. I want to keep the scene, but I need to be honest with myself about whether I really need it, if I’m just repeating old information (it’s new to the characters, but the reader already knows), and if there’s some better way to make this point. I seem to be writing a lot of “the characters sit by a fire, drinking wine/tea and talking about things” scenes — I guess I’m taking the “cozy fantasy” thing to heart. It’s a big part of the vibe of the book, but I need to be sparing about that kind of scene and only use it when I really have to.

And as I wrote this, I figured out that there are two scenes I could combine in a way that would be even more interesting, so I have just one “sitting by the fire, drinking wine and chatting” scene, and there’s some action that happens during it. It would be lovely if I could figure this stuff out before the first draft. I even outlined this book pretty heavily, but I still don’t seem to see it until I’ve gone over it a few times.


Going Pro

I’m continuing the story of how I came to be a writer. It started with telling stories in my head, and then I finally realized I could write these stories down, but it didn’t really go anywhere for a long time. I came up with story ideas and wrote first chapters, but I didn’t truly write anything until I was out of college.

I’m not entirely certain what flipped the switch and made me get serious. I think part of it was that I hated my job so much. I’d compromised about what to study in college, going for something adjacent to what I really wanted but that seemed more practical, and I hated it but wouldn’t admit that, and then I couldn’t get a job in that field and ended up in a field adjacent to that, and I was miserable, so I decided that writing would be my escape. My first real step came when I saw a notice in the newspaper about a meeting of a writing group in my city, and I went to that meeting. The group actually wasn’t much. It was mostly a “little old ladies writing poetry about their gardens” group, but at one meeting they had a novelist speaking, and she mentioned a group she was in that would be meeting the following weekend, and that was what really launched me, while also sending me off down a detour, since her group was a romance writing group.

I’d never really been a fan of romance novels, though I liked love stories in other books, loved romantic comedy movies, and thought that meant I should like romance novels. And then there was that practical thing again. There were so very many romance novels being published, and some of those publishers didn’t require agents to submit, so I thought that might be an easier way to break in, and from there I might be able to get back to my real love, fantasy. At the time, though, I didn’t know the subtle but critical difference between “I like this but I think I could do it better” and “I don’t really like this, so I’ll write something sort of like it that I do like.” (I’ve written before about the issues I have with the romance genre and how it’s different from romantic comedy movies, and that’s a whole other post. Not that the romance genre is bad. It’s just not what I’m looking for.) I thought what was going on was the first, when it was really the second, so I went to the romance group meeting and ended up getting very involved in that organization and the national organization it was part of. That was where I learned all about what it took to write a novel, how plotting actually worked, how structure worked, and other stuff like that, as well as all about the business of publishing.

Probably because of joining that group, I ended up on a mailing list that meant I received a brochure for a writing conference being held at a university in my area. It was a huge investment for me at the time, but I decided to go for it. As part of your entry fee, you got two entries into the conference’s manuscript contest. I wanted to get the most for my money, so I put together an entry for a romance novel, and then dug up one of those fantasy story ideas I’d been playing with and turned that into an entry. At the conference, I met a real editor for a romance publisher, and she invited me to submit something to her. I wasn’t able to stay for the awards banquet because of another commitment, but I went home from the conference all excited to finish that romance book I’d started for the conference. Much to my surprise, I got a call at work the following Monday telling me I’d won the contest — but in the fantasy category. Still, I wrote that romance book, since I had an editor interested, and that was the first book I finished. She rejected it, but I later sold it to another publisher, and then later I did sell a couple of books to that first publisher. The fantasy book got shelved (I dug it out last year and am reworking it). I went to the same conference the following year, and I won the fantasy contest again.

You’d think I’d have gotten the message at that point, but I started selling romance books right after that second contest win. I must have some raw talent to have managed to pull off writing something that would sell when I didn’t actually like that kind of book and I was trying to write what I wanted those books to be, but it eventually became more and more difficult for me because my editors were asking for one thing and I was giving them another, and what they wanted wasn’t at all appealing to me. I spent years banging my head against that brick wall and not selling anything until I came up with the idea for Enchanted, Inc. and got my career back on track.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d been honest with myself a lot earlier. Getting involved in the romance writers organization wasn’t bad for me because I learned so much, and there wasn’t really any other organization offering that kind of training at that time. On the other hand, if I’d figured out that I was trying to succeed at something I didn’t actually like doing and had pivoted sooner to trying to do what I liked, then I might have had a lot less frustration. Oddly enough, that first book I sold was about a writer trying to write romances and realizing that she was a fantasy writer, so I must have known on some level, but I have this weird stubborn streak. Once I set off down a path, I’m bad about clinging to it and seeing it to the end, no matter how unhappy with it I am. Sometimes, that can be good, but it can also mean spending a lot of time on the wrong path. Most of my regrets in life involve things I stuck with for far too long instead of admitting to myself that I was unhappy and letting myself change course. Most of my course corrections have been forced by outside factors. For instance, in spite of having had the plan to leave my job to write all along, and in spite of having met all my milestones for savings to be able to do so, I didn’t leave the day job until I got laid off, and that forced me to get more serious about writing.

So, that’s how I came to be a novelist, going from reader to storyteller to dabbling writer to writer on the wrong path before I finally found my real niche. And who knows where I’ll go from here.