Flip the coin

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Feb 15 2011

Ever struggled to identify the ‘fatal’ flaw in your character? That one personality trait that constantly gets him or her into hot water? The one that just might cause a black moment between the two main characters?

There are lots of flaws to choose from; as humans, we suffer from many.

But one place to look for a flaw, if you’re having trouble defining one, is within the character’s strength. Most writers have no trouble describing the utter awesomeness that is their main character. They instinctively know what unique skills she has, what finer qualities he possesses. But strengths are funny things. They are often two-sided, like a coin. There’s the side that makes your hero or heroine shine, and the side that’s a little tarnished. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say your hero is a police officer, and you decide his strength is that he’s selfless. This is a guy who defends the weak and rescues the innocent. Very heroic, right? What could be flawed about that?

Surprisingly, there are several possibilities:

- If he leaps to the defense of the helpless all the time, is he careful about his own safety? Or is he the type to lay his life on the line every time? I could see that causing problems with his heroine, couldn’t you?

- If he really enjoys saving people, maybe he makes assumptions about their ability to handle danger. Wrong assumptions. I could see that causing problems with his heroine, couldn’t you?

Let’s pick another one. Perhaps you decide your heroine’s strength is that she’s independent and self-reliant. The not-so-wonderful side might look like this:

- If she’s self-reliant, she might have a bee in her bonnet about asking for help. Which means she probably won’t, until it’s too late. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- If she’s independent and strong, she might see attempts to smooth her path as suggestions that she’s incapable of handling things herself. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- Strong, self-assured people can occasionally be abrasive, rubbing people the wrong way, especially when they are under stress. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

One more? What if you give your heroine a strength of intelligence? Is there a negative side to that? Yes.

- If she’s smart, she often knows all the answers. If she regularly shares those answers, she can inadvertently make other people feel stupid. Think Temperance Brennan on Bones. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- If she’s smart, she might think two or three steps ahead of other people she’s working with, leading to her facing the villain without support. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

So, next time you’re stuck trying to identify a character’s flaw, flip the strength coin.

FF&P Blog

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May 6 2010

I’m over at the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter’s blog today. If you ever wanted to try using an outline to help you write, but were concerned it would zap you creativity, check out my helpful hints on Keeping Your Story Fresh When Working with an Outline.

The Humorous Hero

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Jan 17 2009

The hero of my current WIP is cut from a slightly different cloth than the hero of my first book. He’s still dark with a painful history, but he hides his past behind a mask of humor. I enjoy writing snarky characters, but I’m finding my latest hero must walk a fine line between being humorous and outright funny. Funny characters are more secondary, somehow … perhaps because humor is so often self-deprecating. The wise-cracking sidekick comes to mind. Heroes have to juggle too many issues to fall into raw joviality, especially in a dark paranormal story. Balance becomes critical. That’s what I’m discovering, anyway.

Would you agree? Or do you have a favorite hero (in a non-comedy) who was also laugh-out-loud funny?

Popular Fiction

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May 21 2008

The past couple of days, Kristin Nelson has posted about learning lessons from popular fiction. The responses have been very interesting to read. Some folks look at the quality of the writing in some popular novels and sneer that it’s not good fiction. Other people agree with Kristin’s assertion that millions of readers can’t be wrong. I fall into the latter category.

My opinion is that anyone who sneers at popular fiction is missing the point. You could argue that writers write to be masters of the written word. And maybe for some, that’s truly what they’re about. Fine. But most of us are writing to entertain, to tell a story worthy of having someone else read it. We love the idea that a reader will get lost in our tale, empathize with our characters, and feel scared, happy or amused while they’re engrossed in the journey. We write in hopes that readers will love our story enough to stay up all night reading when they should have turned the lights out. The truth is, novels are a form of entertainment, and popular books–whether you think the prose is stellar or not–have succeeeded in entertaining their readers beyond expectation. The writers have done their job.

Although Kristin suggests we should examine the popular novels with the intent of discerning ‘what worked’, I’m not sure that’s really possible. I know the answer is in the storytelling and the characterization, but if it were easy to pick out the success factor(s), everybody would be writing hugely popular books and editors would only be buying bestsellers. Doesn’t work that way. And as far as I know, most of these popular writers didn’t study other popular novels with the intent of finding the silver bullet. They just sat down and pounded out their own.

My daughter bought and promptly devoured the Stephenie Meyer Twilight series. Did I cringe a bit over some of the writing when she read it out loud to me? Sure. But when I sat down to read the book myself, something magical happened–as with any of the books I’ve enjoyed, I stopped analyzing and just lost myself in the story. I got sucked into who and what and why, and before I knew it, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Breaking Dawn, just like my daughter. Now, I’m not as enthralled with the characters as she is–she’s a rabid Edward fan–but I’m still interested in the resolution of the over-arching story question: will Bella and Edward figure out how to be together in a way that doesn’t cost one (or both) of them something invaluable?

And I did spend a few moments wondering why these books worked. Twist on the already popular vampire mythology. Flawed characters, each with their own unique backstory. Internal conflict. Sexual tension. Powerful villains. Seemingly unresolvable story question. Basically, many of the same elements you’re probably working on developing in your own manuscripts. I truly believe it comes down to telling a vastly entertaining story.

Some detractors of popular books say these novels will soon be forgotten, that only the truly great books endure. But people said that about Shakespeare’s plays when he was writing them and look how that ended up. One thing I will say about the surge of popular teen fiction–it’s breeding a new generation of readers. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

Revisions

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Apr 22 2008

I’m doing revisions on a manuscript, which given the fabulous spring weather we’re having (finally!!) should be getting me down. Nope. Many writers hate doing revisions (and term the experience Revision Hell), but I enjoy them.

I like honing my word choices. Polishing the rough edges of my prose. I like seeing things I couldn’t see the first time around and getting the opportunity to stretch the plot tension just a little further, or heighten the emotional impact. This is the part of writing that feels very craftsman-like to me. I picture an old-world carpenter taking the fine grit sandpaper to the intricate curls of the bedpost he’s carved. Smoothing the wood until he can’t sense a single snag with the palm of his hand. That’s what revisions feel like to me.

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to do them under deadline pressure either, but hey. Life is what it is. LOL.

To Plot or Not to Plot

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Apr 12 2008

I know a large number of writers who are self-proclaimed pansters. Meaning that they write their novels without knowing where the book will end up, they just let the characters and the moment carry the story along. They write by the seat of their pants, as it were.

The book is an adventure to them, a journey into the unknown, filled with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. Very exciting, very creative. And writing this way works well for them. Some of the best writers in the world are pansters, and I admire them.

I just wasn’t cut out to be one.

I started off as a panster, but now I’m a plotter–one of those folks who doesn’t start a book without an outline. I really enjoy the prep phase of writing: fleshing out my characters, thinking of situations that will test them, imaging roadblocks, trying to figure out what’s really going to keep these two ‘made for each other’ people apart.

Most of the pansters I know say creating an outline–seeing ahead of time what’s going to happen–takes all the fun out of writing. Makes it boring. Like reading the last few pages of a book before starting at the beginning.

My experience has been completely the opposite. I find by developing an outline, I free myself creatively. I no longer agonize over whether I’ll be able to wrap up all the loose ends, or whether I’ve given my characters a conflict too difficult to overcome (or one that fizzles out two hundred pages in), or whether my plot will make any sense by the end. I no longer worry about writing pages upon pages of stuff that has to be yanked out because I went off on a tangent that doesn’t fit with the fundamental story. For me, the foresight provided by an outline is liberating. An outline keeps me on track, but doesn’t take away the surprises. Words still pop into my characters’ mouths that I didn’t know they would say. They still do unexpected things. And if I haven’t done enough peeking into my characters’ psyches, they can still grind my forward momentum to a halt by balking at what I want them to do.

What’s changed is that now I know how far I can drive off the beaten track before I say to my character: “Enough. Face facts, we’re lost. Time to turn around and go back to the main road.” I’m not wandering around aimlessly, I’m headed to a specific spot. I don’t force myself to stick to the outline–I’m perfectly happy taking a more scenic route when the opportunity comes along–but I do use it to keep me headed in the right direction.

Now, to be fair, I don’t believe writers who are pansters are wandering around aimlessly. Some of them, perhaps, but not the ones who use that method successfully. Most pansters seem to have a built-in compass. They may not be driving toward a tidy little dot on the map, but they know they’re headed north, and they generally stay on course. Even when, as they like to say, they’re flying into the mist.

I wish I had a built-in compass. But I don’t. Call me directionally challenged, but without an outline (or a map), I’m soon lost. So, I’m a plotter. And I still find writing my books a huge adventure.

How about you? Panster or plotter?

Workshops

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Feb 17 2008

I truly believe that no matter how much you know about the craft of writing, there’s still something new you can learn.

I take online courses and attend workshops fairly frequently–at least a half dozen every year, often more. I also buy the CD of workshops offered at the RWA annual conference. Listening to other authors explain their methods, even if what they do won’t work for me, stirs my thinking. I’ve heard other writers say that writing never gets easier, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. I suspect that’s because the author is always trying to outperform the last book, trying to make this one different, more exciting, more emotional, more something. Seems like stirring your thoughts up every once in a while would help with that.

If you’re committed to being a writer–heck, even if you’re not–and you don’t currently take any courses or workshops, I highly recommend it. There’s a wonderful supply of offerings on the internet with some very talented authors and experts as instructors (I’ve taken workshops from the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, the Carolina Romance Writers, and Writers U, and I’ve heard great things about the workshops offered by the Kiss of Death, to name a few). And the prices are usually quite reasonable. Try one.

Articles

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Jul 5 2007

As romance writers, we’re often called upon to write at least a portion of our stories from the male point of view. Since we’re not men, and many of us struggle to understand them, this can sometimes be a challenge. I have my trusty copy of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but I also recently found two articles on the internet that might prove useful:

- 7 Ways to Decode Men by Diana Swift
- Male POV by Keri Arthur

Happy writing!

Jump Or Leap?

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Jun 7 2007

When you write an historical, finding the right word to describe something can be especially challenging. Words that are anachronistic often jump out at the reader, pulling them them from the story and the time period. I’d forgotten about that a bit as I worked on a contemporary and then a futuristic.

Back when I was writing medievals only, one of my favorite tools was the Online Etymology Dictionary, which describes the origin of many words and the approximate year they came into use. Very handy. Now, I’ll confess, I’m not religious about sticking to the date of first use. For starters, if I did it would limit the vocabulary of my manuscript quite severely and might make it difficult to read. Secondly, many words may have been in use earlier than stated, but simply not documented.

My rule of thumb has been to find words that stem from old English or old French, and have a first use date of somewhere at or earlier than the fifteenth century. My preference is thirteenth century, because that’s the timeline for my story, but fourteenth and fifteenth are pretty good, too. In a pinch, I’ll even be satisfied with a dictionary attribution of ‘archaic’. For me, the decision about what word to use is more about making the conversation/description sound realistic and seem appropriate than about being perfect. Sometimes a modification of sentence structure is more useful than nitpicking over every word.

Still, it’s very satisfying to spend time looking up word origins, especially if the result is discovering a word that fits my time period perfectly.

Openings

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May 10 2007

I always find the start of my books to be the hardest. I don’t mean the actual typing of words to get going–I’m excited enough at the beginning of a new project that words pour out on the page. I mean writing a start that I’m happy with. I can get all the way to the end of the book, love the story and the characters and the plot and the emotion…but still hate the first few pages.

I don’t know if this is because I know how important those pages are, or whether a good start is really tough to nail, or whether this is a voice issue. All I know is that I struggle with my openings.

So, I’ve decided to work on this particular area. I’ve taken all the books within easy reach of me (don’t worry, that’s quite a few) and recorded all the first lines. Some I like better than others, and I’ve culled those from the rest. The ones I like tend to be statements, usually from the POV of the protagonist. But they’re not descriptive statements like ‘The sky was grey.’ They’re statements that make you go ‘Hmmm…’

For example, the opening line from Jodi Picoult’s The Pact: There was nothing left to say.

I love this. It drops you right into the middle of what’s happening, and it’s a contradiction of sorts. You know when people say there’s nothing left to say that what they really mean is there’s plenty left to be said, but the characters in the scene have given up trying.

Or how about this one, from Jeri Smith-Ready’s Eyes of Crow: The dog would not die.

I like this one because it leaves you full of questions. What dog? What do you mean he won’t die? Is he refusing to die? Does someone want him to die? Plus, there’s the whole emotional hook of it being a dog. No one wants to see a dog die, right?

Or this one from Sylvia Day’s Bad Boys Ahoy!: He’d stolen a bride.

Again, questions. Who is he? What bride? Why did he steal her? Plus, there’s the conflict inherent in this statement–stealing a bride is going to make someone very angry.

I’ve got pages of opening lines that I like.

My goal is to sort out why these various openings appeal to me, and then to explore how the concepts I enjoy might adapt to my own style and voice. And then I’ll practice. Lots. Until it gets a bit easier to tug an opener I like from my sub-conscious mind. That’s the plan, anyway. Wish me luck.

Queries

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May 1 2007

I’m working on my query letter for my latest manuscript. I spend a fair amount of time developing the short description of my book, the hook if you will. Having never been published, my list of relevant credentials is short, so I dedicate the vast majority of the single-page letter to the story I’m pitching.

I don’t have any secrets to this. I’ve simply read a ton of back covers, and tried to follow a similar methodology. Basically, I try to ensure the uniqueness of the story line is clear, the internal and external conflicts are present, the stakes are obvious, and my voice shows up. All in an intriguing fashion, of course.

I also revise it constantly to see if I get better responses. It’s definitely a tool that writer’s need to have in their toolbox, so I work on it.

And hey, it’s more fun than working on the synopsis.

Researching

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Mar 17 2007

Before I start a new project, I always do some basic research–anything I think I need to know–based on my chosen subject and my very rough outline. Basically, I investigate the major influences on my characters and my plot. I leave a lot of stones unturned. Then, as I’m writing, the plot shifts, or my characters reveal something about themselves I hadn’t previously known, and I briefly sink back into research mode. This has worked well for me to-date.

Notice I say to-date. Having written medieval historicals for a while, I had accumulated a large amount of background information. Yes, there was always something specific about my time period, locale, or surrounding events that I’d need to research, but the foundation I had at my fingertips was solid.

Writing in new sub-genre, however, has been a real eye-opener. Despite my efforts at the beginning of the story, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop, run off, and research something new. This is turning out to be problematic, because the lure of research is very hard to ignore (at least for me). I can easily spend whole days engrossed in an intriguing subject … but that doesn’t lend itself well to completing a writing project.

So, starting today, I’m cracking the whip. In order to keep my WIP flowing, I need to mark the spots requiring research with a little (?), or take a very superficial swipe at the subject matter.

Sigh.

After I complete draft 1, I’ll allow myself the luxury of going to town on the research.

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Homework

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Feb 24 2007

I’m doing homework for one of my courses–watching movies. Yeah, I know, a real chore.

I’ve watched a couple of my favorite movies (e.g. Thomas Crowne Affair), as well as some CD’s of Buffy and Grey’s Anatomy, pausing the DVD player every once in a while to take notes. I’m looking for instances where I can ‘see’ the sexual tension between characters and scenes that bring out some kind of emotion in me, whether it be sadness, anger, or whatever. I’m also paying attention to how the writers have challenged the main characters and created anxiety or tension.

Terrific exercise. I highly recommend it.

Unique Voices

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Feb 18 2007

As a writer, do you spend time developing a unique voice for each of your characters?

I know, some of the personality of each character naturally shines through in their speech … the things that they say, and the way that they say them. But I’m talking about going a little further–spending time thinking about the character’s background and how that might affect his or her word choice and favorite phrases.

For example, a person raised in a religious environment versus someone who rebelled against authority. Someone who grew up in a farming community versus someone who grew up in the city. Someone who studied engineering versus someone who entered the military at a young age. Someone who is naturally inhibited versus someone who loves a good time. Someone who is deliberate and methodical versus someone who is a fly-by-the-seats-of-your-pants person. And so on. There are as many variables as there are people.

I try to do this, even with my secondary characters. Not to the point of riddling their dialog with unusual words, of course–a little goes a long way. Just a dash, just enough to ensure they each have a unique voice.

Proven Wrong

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Feb 3 2007

Well, turns out I was wrong. My problem wasn’t with my hero this time. I did the interview, wrote out all sorts of notes about my hero’s motivations, and nothing new showed up. big surprise

So I stood back from the story and tried to figure out what the heck I’d done wrong. And my cp will chuckle when I say this — turns out I had completely missed the boat on my conflict. I had plenty of external conflict, but the internal conflict was barely written into the first bunch of scenes. Given that I’m a huge proponent of conflict, I had to hit my head against the wall when I spotted the problem.

This morning I went back to the beginning of the story, added in the hints of internal conflict, and presto, my hero followed the plot without a blink. I’m way behind on my page count, but at least the words are spilling out easily again.

On the positive side, I’m happy that my usual hero problem didn’t show up this time — I like to learn something with every new book I write, LOL.