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writing

Stupid Characters

One of my pet peeves in books (and other media) is dumb characters. I like smart people. I know that writing smart people is a challenge because it’s harder to get them in trouble or to keep their plans from working the first time. Unless you’re really good at finding motivations for smart people to do dumb things or unless you create really difficult circumstances, if your characters are smart, you get the world’s shortest story. If the characters in your horror story don’t go alone into the dark basement, the story never goes anywhere.

But it’s incredibly painful to read a story that relies upon the characters being too stupid to live to have a plot. I recently read one that shall remain nameless in which the heroine piled stupid thing on top of stupid thing. There was one toward the end that was a gray area, an action I’d put in the category of “stupid good,” where it might have been considered the right thing to do, but it also put a lot of other people in danger and could have ruined things for a lot of people, all to help people who wanted to harm the main characters. I might have been more forgiving of that one if the heroine hadn’t already betrayed all the people who had helped her. She thought she was doing the right thing then, too (though it was mostly to benefit herself), but the person she betrayed them to was practically twirling his mustache, he was so obviously evil, and he even expressed opinions that made it clear he meant harm, and meanwhile she had made zero effort to find out what was really going on with the people who were helping her before she spilled it all to Snidely Whiplash — only to find out about thirty seconds later that she was entirely wrong about everything. And this was after she’d been foolishly naive and careless near the beginning of the story in a way that led to her being in a predicament. This chick was just careening through life, causing chaos every step of the way, but the author wrote her as though she was super intelligent and careful, and the character who criticized her rashness was later said to be wrong and made to apologize.

And then the next book I picked up had another idiot character. It’s got a romantic triangle, where the heroine is horribly torn between the guy who just ditched his long-term girlfriend, has confessed that he cheated on her, has admitted he’s just looking to fool around now rather than get into a real relationship, and is flirting heavily with the heroine’s friend, who has a boyfriend, and the guy who has helped her out of a number of predicaments, actually listens to her and pays attention to what she wants, and lives in the place she wants to open a business. Not that she’s obligated to be into a guy who’s nice to her, but she is into him. She’s just torn because she got a crush on guy #1 years ago and decided then that she wanted him when he was free, and now he is, so she feels obligated to go for him, even though she knows he’s bad news and she really likes guy #2 better. That’s definitely Too Stupid To Live territory. You’re allowed to change your mind, especially when it’s just a promise you made to yourself (that’s another pet peeve of mine: the plot that revolves around a character doing something they know is a bad idea that they don’t even really want to do because they promised themselves years ago that they’d do it).

There’s a really fine line between letting your characters make mistakes and making them be stupid. Smart people can do dumb things, but you’ve got to motivate it. I tend to write stubborn characters (gee, I have no idea what I might be drawing upon there), since smart people often have a tendency to feel like they can figure things out for themselves and go it alone, and that can get them in trouble when they overestimate their abilities and hate to admit when they don’t know something. There’s also perfectionism, which might lead to waiting too long to act if they’re waiting until everything is perfect. You can also come up with emotional blind spots, where they’re bright about everything except that one thing that’s their weakness.

In the book I’m working on, I’m trying to make the heroine fallible, and it helps that she may be smart, but she’s entirely lacking in information because she’s essentially a foreigner in an unfamiliar culture she knows nothing about, and based on that lack of knowledge she misjudges a lot of people and situations. She rushed into something based on ideals and assumptions and realized she was in way over her head. There are things she misses because that sort of thing isn’t at all important to her, and she doesn’t realize that those things are very important where she is. Since the whole book is from her point of view, the reader is seeing her perspective but may get the sense that she’s misjudging things. I hope that works to build a little dread while still making it clear why she sees things the way she does.

writing

My Problem with Villains

I think I’ve figured out what I need to do to fix the ending of the book I’ve been working on. At least, I have a general sense of the problem and a few ideas of what I can do about it that I need to think about more. And it comes down to something that’s a regular problem for me: offstage villains. This is something that’s begging for a direct confrontation with the villain, and yet the heroes are just doing something on their own that’s a struggle but that has no direct opposition or confrontation.

I even figured out early on that the real villain isn’t someone this heroine could directly oppose. He represents a system/society that the heroine opposes, but he’s not someone the heroine can come face-to-face with and defeat, and in doing so show that she’s truly learned all the lessons she had to learn throughout the book. So, I created a secondary/subordinate villain who is someone she can oppose directly. He’s a representative of the big villain who is in the heroine’s direct orbit, someone who’s more or less a peer, so she can say the things to him that she’d want to say to the big villain.

And what did I do? I kept him mostly offstage, and then he disappears entirely at the midpoint of the book.

I have a real problem with villains. The thing is, I don’t find them interesting at all. I don’t care about their sad backstories, their motivations, or their goals. If they’re hurting people, I want them stopped, and if they can be stopped by the heroes being clever and subverting them rather than confronting them directly, so much the better. The less time we spend with villains, the happier I am. I want them out of my life (and the characters’ lives). I’m up for a redemption story, in which the villain realizes the error of his ways, regrets the evil he’s done, and works to atone, and I might be somewhat interested in a villain who’s being set up for a redemption, where during the pre-redemption phase he has a somewhat sympathetic motivation that isn’t entirely selfish, shows signs of potential for good, and shows conflict about doing bad things, and I’m horribly disappointed when villains are doing that but don’t have a redemption arc. But a villain who’s a villain? Snooze.

I may have been the only kid in my neighborhood who wasn’t at all interested in Darth Vader after the first Star Wars movie. As far as I was concerned, there was no “there” there. He looked cool and he was powerful, but that’s all there was to him. He was basically just a thug. Even the later revelations didn’t make him much more interesting, and I found his last-minute redemption to be weak and unsatisfying. Fleshing him out in the prequels made me even less interested because his turn to darkness wasn’t at all sympathetic to me.

But a good villain can make for a good story, and this story needs an antagonist, so I guess I have to find a way to make this guy interesting to me so I can keep him onstage and let my heroine thoroughly defeat him.

writing

Rewrite Woes

I was rather social this weekend, going out both Friday and Saturday nights. Shocking, I know. Now it’s back to work, and I’ve got to rewrite a scene that I don’t think is working, but I’ve got to figure out what goes in that place.

This may be a case when it’s easier to write something entirely new than to “fix” what’s already there. I think it needs to be almost entirely new, and trying to rework what I’ve done keeps me from getting it to where it needs to be. A great deal of brainstorming may be required. But once I get past this hurdle, I think it will be fairly smooth sailing until the end, where the rewrites will have a big impact.

I was hoping to get these rewrites done this week, since I have music and art camp next week, and I know nothing much will get done then. But I spent more time than I planned working out the changes I wanted to make, since I ended up changing more than I expected. It makes the book so much better, though.

This book seems to have really taken over my brain, since I find myself drifting off to think about it when I try to read anything else. That’s a good sign (and possibly a bad sign about what I’m reading right now).

Now to figure out what needs to happen in this scene and what it should look like …

writing

Making Things Tough

I’m back to rewriting the book I’ve been working on, off and on, for much of the year, and I think the break to revise another book was good for me because I had a nice breakthrough. The other night, something I was reading gave me an idea that might apply to my book. It would certainly add conflict to the story and make things more difficult for my character. But as I thought about it, I decided that it would really just add conflict to a part of the book that didn’t need it, that’s only a transition point, and it would mess up a lot of other things in the story.

Yesterday morning when I was trying to figure out the heroine’s character arc, I found myself thinking about it again. It occurred to me that it would actually add conflict to the ending, too. Maybe I needed to consider this idea. So I made a pro/con list about making this change, and I came up with about a page of pros and only a few cons, and the cons were superficial and easily addressed. While it did add conflict to that transition part, that part could still be quick and moved past to get to the real story, and it raised the stakes for the whole story, so that the heroine has a genuine reason to fear failure throughout the book, and she has reason to worry about whether what she does at the end will work.

Basically, I’m yanking away her support system, which always makes things tougher. I guess I’m too nice as an author. I don’t want to hurt my characters. I tend to play it safe as a person, and that usually makes its way into my stories. This is a case of a character not playing it safe, putting everything on the line for something she’s not sure she can even do, but she feels like she has to try.

I’m kind of excited about it now that I’ve overcome my initial resistance.

The funny thing is, it won’t require that much rewriting. There are a couple of scenes that have to go, and I’ll need to write a couple of new ones. Everything else will just require a subtle overlay, and then it makes what happens at the end work better. It’s almost as though I’ve been writing it this way all along and just needed to add the setup.

I love it when the brain works in mysterious ways.

writing

Music for Inspiration

As I try to inject a little more romance into this book, I’ve relied on music to help set the mood. Although I live my life mostly in silence, I do love music, and I use music as a creative tool for my writing. I have playlists for different moods and emotions, and I usually create some sort of soundtrack for each book, with a playlist of songs that remind me of characters, the setting, scenes, themes, or moods. It’s basically an audio collage. These are what I listen to when I’m walking in the morning, when I work around the house, or when I’m brainstorming.

But I don’t usually listen to these playlists while writing. Music with lyrics is a distraction because I stop to listen to the lyrics, or even sing along. I might listen to a particular song to set a mood right before writing, but I can’t listen to it while I’m writing.

While I’m writing a draft, I often listen to classical music, but I can’t listen to anything too familiar because I’ll stop to listen instead of writing. I use the “classical music for focus” station on Amazon Prime Music or one of their playlists. Then I only notice when they play something I know.

Unfortunately, when I’m editing or rewriting, I need silence. Any music is distracting then. But that makes it hard to set a mood when the revision is about adding emotion. I have to listen to it before I write, while I’m doing other things, or I can sometimes dig up the emotion a piece of music makes me feel by thinking about that music. I may assign songs to key scenes and keep those songs in mind when writing the scenes.

One thing I have to work on is remembering that I need to put it all on the page. I’m bad about having my own vivid mental images and feelings relating to what I’m writing and forgetting that my readers don’t have that. I need to transcribe what I’m seeing and feeling in order to convey that to readers. Since my imagination is overactive, I’ve always mentally fleshed out what I read. I’m sure a lot of other readers do that, but it is good for the author to give them clues to make the experience more vivid.

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.

writing

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.

writing

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.

writing

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.

writing

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!