Testing Your Ideas

pencilOver the years I’ve learned that ideas need to be tested–you save yourself a lot of wasted writing time, dead ends, and massive frustration if you run a few simple tests over what seems like a brilliant idea. Here are ten easy tests/checks to help you:

Test 1 – The plausibility check. This test requires a partner. A plotting partner is a great help for any writer. I recommend having only a couple of these–too many writers really do spoil the story. You end up with a mess. Run your idea past your plot partner–ask flat out if it works. Is it plausible–meaning does it work as a basic idea.

Test 2 – The motivations checks? This is where a lot of stories fail. The writer figures out the hero’s motivations, and maybe the heroine’s–but the antagonist is neglected and the story fails because the bad guy is just stock character who does things because the plot demands it. Do yourself a favor and write out all motivations–check EVERY character. Why are your characters wanting what they want and doing what they do? Be very certain to check and double-check your antagonist. The rule that your protagonist is only as strong as your antagonist is a good one. If you want a strong protagonist, create a great antagonist to challenge that character.

Test 3 – The cliche check. This is where you must look for any cliches. Does your bad guy kidnap the heroine? Why–and why can’t he do something different and which makes more sense? Does the hero’s mistress or ex-lover make trouble? Look for every cliche–and look to cut these or put a fresh twist on them.

Test 5 – The locked room test. This is a test specifically for romance novels. Put your hero and heroine in a locked room, where they must sit down and talk. Does this talk make all the conflict between them worse? If so, you’ve got great conflict. If a forced talk would resolve everything, you’ve got misunderstandings instead of conflict and so your characters need work.

Test 6 – The exception check. This is where you  have to look at your idea and see if you must bend history, physics, or the rules of your own fantasy world to make the idea work. This isn’t so much of a problem if you’re writing alternate history–but this, too, must be worked out logically. Do you have to create exceptions to make your own story work? If so, you’re heading back to test 1 of plausibility.

Test 7 – The idiot test. This is a good one to look at. Must your hero or heroine behave like an idiot at some point to make the story idea work? Does the heroine have to leave the house in a nightgown with not so much as a flashlight to check on a mysterious sound? Does the hero have to believe in a man who has been lying to everyone during the entire book? Does the antagonist have to hire terminally stupid henchmen? This is closely related to cliches, but writers can always invent new ways for characters to be very dumb. Now, if your character is supposed to be dumb this is not an issue, but if the character is only supposed to be dumb to make a key plot point work, you’ve got problems with that idea.

Test 8 – The backstory check. If your idea requires the reader to first have several chapters of set up in order to understand the story, the setting, or this world’s history, you may want to look at how complicated you’re making things. Maybe you–the author–need to write these chapters–but can you cut them or find another way to get the information to the reader that doesn’t mean the story start is delayed or put off? We all fall in love with our backstory stuff–that’s great. But it doesn’t mean a reader really needs this stuff.

Test 9 – The skill test. This is one that many writers ignore. We all want to believe we have the skill to write the stories that come to us, but the truth is that sometimes our ideas are bigger than our abilities. You have to be honest with yourself to apply this test–and you want to err on the side of caution. It’s much better to have a simple story idea very well done than it is to have an amazing story idea that’s poorly realized. Opt for simple every time.

Test 10 – The butt test. This one is simple–but again it needs honesty. Can you keep your butt in a chair long enough to write this idea? Maybe you have an idea for an epic space fantasy–can you really write 300,000 words?  Or will you actually get a 25,000 word novella done? You want to look at your skills–and your ability to keep yourself focused. Nothing is more depressing than unfinished story after unfinished story. Give yourself a break and go hunting for doable ideas.

There you have it. Ten tests that could save you from wasting your time with ideas that are going to lead you down the garden path and into the brambles. Just remember–there are always more ideas. So go cherry pick the best ones!




Break it Down–to Put it Together

BellyDanceDarMaghreb 045I’m about to start my Show & Tell Workshop for the FF&P chapter of RWA, and as always I’ve started thinking about the workshop. Inevitably, questions come up that aren’t related to the workshop, and I really do try to keep folks focused just on the workshop. There’s a reason for this.

When I first got serious about writing one of the most frustrating things about it is that there are so many moving parts. There’s dialogue, pacing, getting your characters on the page, narrative, description, punctuation, grammar, action, active voice, viewpoint, plotting, theme, and the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. Most of this stuff you learn because any writer starts out as an avid reader—and by reading you learn a lot about this stuff. But sometimes you have to break it down.

Breaking it down is something I learned from dance (belly dance specifically). In dance, you break down the moves so you can learn them not just one step at a time, but one body part at a time. Breaking it down with the writing lets you focus on not just trouble areas, but on getting a firm grip on some of the technical stuff. Why do this?

Getting the technical stuff out of the way:

1- Lets the characters and story shine—you really want the story and the characters to be front and center, not all the other stuff. To keep that other stuff invisible, you have to master it, so you can forget it.

2-Means less revision. You’re not constantly having to fix the typos—a little of that is not a lot of work, but many, many typos mean much, much work.

3-Lets you focus on bigger issues. Let’s face it, if you’re struggling with viewpoint control, or showing vs. telling, you’re probably going to be neglecting the bigger stuff—like did you really motivate your main character’s key choices, or did you really nail that dark moment, or do you have a strong grasp of what the book is really about. I’ve seen a lot of writers dig technical holes for themselves, and everything else suffers.

4-Can speed up your production. The stronger my technical skills have become, the smoother the writing, meaning fewer drafts, and faster production. This isn’t always true—other things (such as life) can step in to interfere with a project, but strong technical skills means you aren’t stuck trying to solve technical problems with the work.

5-Lets you have some more fun. Technical stuff is often a drag—it’s a lot of detail, so if you’re not a detail person this can seem like stuff you really don’t want to deal with. It’s actually the stuff you want to get so good at that it stops mattering. Then you can really fly.

6-Puts you on the path to art. We all go through stages of learning—and sometimes we’re blessed with stories that are gifts. But art really comes from a marriage of craft and passion. You may be born with the passion, but if the craft is lacking—the technique—expressing your passion can be held in check. So this is where you want to be so solid with your technical skills than you can actually forget them—and let something more take over.

7-Means that your technique is always there for you. Stuff happens. Passion can fade. And deadlines can bring stress that makes your muse hide. But your technical skills will be there no matter what. And it’s great to be able to fall back on that sometimes when you need to get work produced because that is your job.

So…don’t be afraid to break it down—to focus on one skill at a time. Pick an area where you know your skills are weak and just make that the thing you want to improve. Then you can figure out how to put it back together to get your story on track.

Giving Critiques

sleepyrideIt’s sometimes as hard to give another writer the truth about the work as it is to take it. Let’s face it, we all love our own babies. Even if they are ugly squalling brats, we want to see the good side. The trouble is, if you don’t go looking for the faults you can’t fix ‘em. Or to mix up the metaphor–if someone’s on a mule but asks you what do you think of their horse, it’s time to tell them that’s a fine mule but he’s never going to grow up into a horse. The truth has to come out then.

But I still struggle with it.

On one hand, I want to encourage other writers–it’s great to just be getting the words on the paper and who knows what kind of cool story could result. You may love taht mule you have! On the other, I can’t really encourage someone to head on down a rocky path without at least a warning–if someone really, really wants a horse, they should find out the differences between the two animals.

The warnings I give usually goes along the lines of you can do whatever you want, however…

It’s that ‘however’ that’s the kicker. The most common issue is that the story is going to disappoint readers or leave them utterly cold. I write for readers–I want folks to have fun with my stories. Yes, I’m the first reader I need to please, but I also figure if someone’s giving my work a few hours from their life, I owe them a good story. That means likeable characters, an entertaining tale well told, and a satisfying ending. I also figure other writers feel the same, but maybe they don’t. I do not think story telling is about me being really clever–it’s about me being true to my characters. I figure that’s enough to juggle without taking on major technical challenges, or trying to tackle epic themes with major point of view changes and a vast array of characters. I’ll leave that to the more ambitious and the more talented. But don’t all try to bite off too much at some point?

I’ve got several manuscripts locked away and a few more started and abandoned–stuff that I followed down that path to heartache because I was starting out and struggling and no one warned me. I thought I was riding horses every time, but turned out some of them were even donkeys. But I have to ask–would I have kept at it if someone had shot those ideas down? I think I would have–particularly if someone pointed out an easier or better way to get to a good story. Or had taught me how to look for the flaws. But I know we all have different levels of tolerance. What one person views as a challenge, another takes as a slapdown. We all have different skin thicknesses. But, ultimately, we also all have to find our own paths–a teacher can only point out different paths.

Which leaves me having to trust that truth is truth. Yes, it may be my truth–but you really have to be honest about the work. If I’m seeing a mule, and someone asks, I have to point out that’s a mule. If something is great, it’s time to give a thumbs up. But if that baby–or that mule–is going to give someone a world of misery, you have to point out the problems and hope to heck the writer has a thick enough hide to take the input and make something even more amazing.

After all, if you start telling lies to others, soon you may start telling them to yourself, too. And no writer can afford to do that.

Are you a writer or a storyteller?

When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.

erbTake Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.

With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”

So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.

A good storyteller juggles:

Characters And Hooks: Act 1

•   Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with

•   Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)

Basic Structure: Act 2

•   Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!

•   Pacing — sequence of events

•   Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story

Craft And Voice: Act 3

•   Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)

•   Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest

•   Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others

Emotion and Innovation: Endings

•   Unique or Creative Use Of language

•   Presenting The Sequence Of Events

•   The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)

All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.


Character Motivations

writingblindOne of the biggest thing that readers need is to related to and understand your characters. If a character does something–particularly something out of character–the reader needs to understand why the character takes this action.

Why does the reader need to understand your characters?

1-Understaning means a stronger ability to relate to that character. Think about a character such as Dexter who is a serial killer. He is also the hero of his own TV series. How can he be a hero? He can be because a) the viewer understands him by getting insights to him (that’s why he narrates the episodes) and b) he kill only people worse than him. The understanding of WHY he does what he does is vital to making that character work because the viewer can relate to this killer. He’d be a harder sell to anyone if he acted without clear motivations.

2-Understand means a stronger ability to find the actions plausible. Yes, smart people do dumb things. But when smart fictional character do dumb things a reader tends to think that character is dumb. Fictional characters have to be more consistent that real people. This means if a smart character does something dumb the reasons for that dumb action have to be understood by the reader so the action seems plausible. At the very least think about making your characters self-aware enough that they know they’re doing something stupid–but they’re going to do it anyway because they’re desperate or angry or frustrated.

3-Understanding means a stronger chance of making that character likeable. We tend to cut our close friends and close family members more slack. If a reader doesn’t understand a character, the reader is distanced from that character. This means the reader has a harder time liking that character. Understanding is not all it takes to like a character–going back to Dexter as an example, if he killed just anyone you might still understand him but you’d have a harder time liking him. But understanding is a good start.

How do you provide the reader with an understanding of a character’s actions?

Some motivations are obvious to most people. The woman who will take on a tiger to save her baby. The firefighter whose job it is and who is trained to go into a burning building. Or the gentleman who opens the door for a pretty lady. Cultural norms, training for specific jobs, and core human nature behavior are things most readers get without needing the motivations really detailed. But when you get out of these you need more.

If it’s not obvious, make it obvious.

With first person, it’s pretty easy to fit in the character’s thoughts. You can also fit in character thoughts in third person with internal dialogue.

You don’t have to make this too obvious–in other words, you don’t really hit the reader over the head with, “I decided to let the air out of my ex-boyfriend’s tires to let him know I hated him.” That may be a little too direct. Or it may be that you really do need this because it’s the opening of the book and the reader doesn’t know anything about this character. You have to look at where is the scene in the book and do you need to weave in thoughts to let a reader know HOW a character gets to a decision. This is really important if you have something such as a housewife who suddenly picks up a gun and shoots someone–maybe she has a good reason for this, maybe not. If you want the reader to sympathize with the character you need to make sure the reader understands why she picks up a gun and why she’s suddenly able to use it on a person.

Another useful tool is dialogue. You don’t want the dialogue to be too “on the nose” — in other words, dialogue that is only about the plot tends to be stiff and awkward. It won’t sound like the illusion of real people talking. So you want to make sure you have interruption, and emotion, and layers to your dialogue.

With dialogue, you need someone who can talk to your main character. This is often why you include best friends in any story–they’re a great sounding board for your protagonist. Dialogue helps get motivation and understanding on the page. A friend can question the hero or heroine. “A gun? Why did you buy a gun?” the best friend says. And now the heroine can explain–or duck the question, or partially explain how she learned to use a gun from her ex who is an Army Ranger. So best friends can be very useful. They’re great to give the reader insight and an understanding of your main characters.

What about the character who has to act out of character? The person afraid of heights who suddenly climbs up the side of a building? Or the person who is non-violent who hits another person? Or the person who hates water who now dives into  a swimming pool?

A great guideline is that the more extreme the action is in terms of taking that character away from their core set of actions, the more you have to motivate that action.

So a woman who has to shoot a man who is threatening her baby, that motivation is clear and strong. Protection of a child is something every reader will understand. A reader may have a harder time believing a woman who shoots a man because  he touched her front door. The reader is going to wonder if she’s crazy. Or does she know something the reader doesn’t? As in she recognizes him as the man who killed her sister. This is where the reader NEEDS that critical information in order to understand the character.

It’s fine to have a little bit of mystery with characters–maybe you reveal after the action that this woman did know this man killed her sister. However, if you do too much of this remember you may not have a chance to let the reader know this fact. Hide or withhold too much and the reader may just abandon the story before the reader gets to that fact.

One of the eight rules of creating writing from Kurt Vonnegut is:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve read more manuscripts by writers who haven’t mastered their craft where you can tell the writers is holding back on information about the character and either hinting at it or just not saying anything. The usual result is I stop reading. As a reader I lose interest and find the characters unlikeable and I don’t understand them. Why would I want to waste my time with such people?

Lack of understanding–not enough information–is a way to lose readers out of your story. Yes, you can also overdo the information. You’re have to be the middle bear and have not too much and not too little and just the right amount of information. This may means another draft, another set of edits, a read through from another writer or a reader, and some more edits.

But do listen to Kurt. Get your characters onto the page, doing things and going them for reasons that the reader understands. And this brings us to the last point.

Remember there is the story in your head, there is the story on the page, and there is the story in the reader’s head. Those three stories don’t always match.

You may understand your characters’ motivations, but did they get onto the page? Did they make it onto the page in a way the reader understands? Or have tangled sentences warped the meaning? Is the writing getting in the way of clarity?This can be a problem for a lot of writers who love words–you opt for those fancy pretty words. Go for clarity instead.

Think about aligning the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. Go for clear motivations in clear sentences that help your reader understand your characters.

Understanding of your protagonist is important–but apply this reasoning to all your characters. And even to your settings.





Regency Triva

mealI’m going to be teaching a workshop in June on Regency Food and Seasons because when you write historical romances you tend to end up knowing a lot of odd things. And I love this kind of trivia.

For example, sugar used to come in cones–you’d scrape off what you needed. And recipes usually did not have measures–a goodly handful is often give as amount to use.

Or did you know tea used to be locked up in lovely tea boxes for the tea leaves were far too valuable to leave lying about.Enameled tea box

Or that in the early 1800’s Nicholas Appert won 12,000 francs when he invented a method to preserve food in glass–Napoleon had wanted this for as a means to better preserve food for the French Army. However, this method was not widely used, and canning would not come about until well after the Regency.

Food preservation, however, is ancient, with the more common techniques being salting and smoking, or the use of vinegar to pickle food.

It amazes me, too, how modern folks often don’t think about an era when food was not always available. I garden so I’m always looking forward to my seasonal produce–but what you can grow in England during its seasons is a different world from California or New Mexico where I now live.

Food tastes, too, are quite different.

Captain Gronow remarked on how London Inns always served “‘the eternal joints, or beef-steaks, the boiled fowl with oyster sauce, and an apple tart.'” Hmmm…maybe that’s not too different from modern London pub grub. The English at one point used to eat a lot of lamb (and mutton), too.

For Leg of Mutton, Mrs. Rundell’s recommendation is, “If roasted, serve with onion or currant-jelly sauce; if boiled, with caper-sauce and vegetables.” Personally, I would swap in lamb for the mutton and opt for roasting it. My grandmother who came from Yorkshire insisted on boiling all meat, and nearly made vegetarians out of all of her sons.

hannahGBut I also love digging out bits and pieces such as a “recipt against the plague” given by Hanna Glasse in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy. She also offers not one, but two certain cures for the “bite of a mad dog, one of which is both given to the “man or beast” bitten as well as recommending to be bound into the wound. Makes you wonder how big of a problem were mad dogs? Perhaps a large one given that there were no rabies shots.

Back in the 1800’s the day had a different pace to it–lunch was not a common meal, and you have servants for almost all classes except the poor. This makes for a lot of advice coming out in the mid 1800’s for how to deal with servants–one of those lovely problems we all wish we had. Oh, to have to supervise the house maid and oversee the cook instead of having to do for oneself.

All of this makes for a lovely bit of trivia to share.