Archive | August 2011

The 99 Cent Lesson

It’s almost a year ago since the last NINC conference, which inspired me to get my books back into print. I’d gotten the rights back, but I’d done nothing with the books, other than to let them sit on the ‘out of print’ shelf. Last November I brought the first out into the digital age. Getting all eight Regency romances into print took longer than I anticipated–I wanted all done by the first of 2011, but it was more like July of 2011 when the last rolled into the digital world. Covers took longer to have done–I paid for professional covers, all of which I love. I also had edits and some revisions to do to update the books. And I move to New Mexico during that time, so that was a distraction.

I also went from just using a clean (very clean) formatted Word document to using MobiCreator to convert a Word document that’s been saved as “Web Filtered” and add my covers and metadata there to produce better formatted ebooks.

And I learned about pricing.

Initially, I priced all my books at 2.99. That seemed reasonable. They’d been priced at 4.95 in print editions, but the electronic copies didn’t have paper, ink, or warehouse costs to defray. Sales were good, but not great, so I started experimenting.

I also noticed my own Kindle-buying habits. With the move and everything, books at .99 on Amazon started catching my eye. They were easy buys–more like the old days when you could pick up a paperback for just a couple of bucks, and so there was no worry about an investment of money (and time). For .99 I could take reading risks. And so I started pricing some of my books at .99.

They sold well. Very well.

A Proper MistressSo I put all of my Regency romances up at .99. And now I have one book (A Proper Mistress) that’s in the Amazon Top 100 (top 50 actually, and #1 Regency). All eight are in the top 50 Regency romance best sellers.

Now, maybe they would have made it to best sellers without the .99 price. On the other hand, I have to figure that in this economy lots of other folks are being careful with money. And why not sell for .99? Publishing houses may have overhead–and maybe they’re worried that if ebooks are so affordable folks will stop buying the print editions, where a publishing house can make a better profit margin. They’re right to worry. Particularly since mid-list authors can now actually make better money with ebooks than with print editions (I haven’t yet out-earned what I made with print editions, but I’m on my way there).

And, finally, the bottom line is that if I’m looking for those .99 bargains, why not participate and offer them up as well. I believe in walking the talk–and the talk is that digital is not just the future, it’s a reasonable one where good books can again find their way into reader’s hands.

I’m going again to the NINC conference this year — what’s not to love about white beaches, blue ocean, other writers, and tons of great ideas.

And NINC has adjusted its membership requirements–if you’re earning money (good money) with a book you’ve brought out online, you can be a NINC member. This not only seems wise to be for the organization, but it’s supportive of authors–it’s about supporting money into the author’s hands so that you can both write and eat (and not have to eat canned soup).

Will book prices ever go up? Maybe. I can see bringing out a new book at 2.99, or 1.99 — or maybe even free. But I love the flexibility–and the ability as the author to have more input into my own books.

It’s funny since I write about the Regency era–an era when authors often participated financially in their own book production costs, an era when an author had a great deal of say about publishing. Technology is taking us back again to those days.

Reading Like a Writer

Another writer posted a question the other day to a loop I follow about chapter lengths.  It got me to thinking about how I’d learned where to break chapters from Elizabeth Daly, a fabulous mystery writer, who wrote back in the 40′s (you really have to love stories where everyone stops for civilized cocktails at five).  And that started me thinking about other writers I’ve learned from.

From Georgette Heyer and Catherine Coulter, they taught me about writing dialogue that has the same sharp sparkle as champagne (we’re talking the good stuff, not Cold Duck).

Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts taught me the importance of likeable main characters. Nora also taught me how to handle viewpoint transitions, and a dozen other things.

Dick Frances gave me great lessons in fast openings with strong hooks that pull you into empathy with the main character and a story that never lets up.

Dan Brown taught me about pacing–and that you really can make all that research into facinating stuff.

Loretta Chase taught me how great narrative can be, that if you work at your writing, you can hold the reader’s attention for anything.

From Susan Elizabeth Phillips I have great lessons on making even unlikeable characters into sympathetic characters–a very hard trick to pull off. And Jane Austen taught me that character flaws can make the entire story.

Connie Brockway taught me that funny is good, a lesson I keep forgetting until I go back to re-read her books.

From CJ Barry I learned about how good SF and Romance are when you mix them with a skilled hand and keep the tension going in both.

There’s lessons from Tate Hallaway and Libby Bray and Melissa Marr and Mary Stewart in how to mix magic and story and make it wonderful and not too complicated (or so crazy it makes no sense). And Jessica Davis Stein taught me in Coyote Dream how all the work to make a good book great is worth it (she wrote and rewrote that book six times from scratch and it shows in all the beautiful craft).

Fantasy writers Ray Bradbury taught me about lyrical prose, and Edgar Rice Burroughs taught how to keep a reader turning the page no matter what–and that writers improve as they write. While western writer Ernest Haycox taught me about strong characters and even stronger, clean, lean prose.

The list goes on and on and on–so does the bookshelves. I’ve learned from the books I don’t like as well–taking them apart has taught me to edit my own work, and it’s shown me mistakes I want to avoid.

Which all goes to show you need to be a reader to be a writer. And it all goes into the pot to influence your work.

All this means, too, that once you start writing, you start reading differently. You stop at great prose and take it apart. You find a passage and you ask, “How did she do that?” and so you study it and figure it out so you can use that trick, too. You become a critical reader, but the very best still make you stop reading and become part of the story so that you have to go back later and figure it out.

So who are you reading today who is giving you new lessons and ideas?

Regency Corinthians, Dandies, Rakes and Young Blades

In Regency romances these days, it seems as if every gentleman back then was a rake. But there were actually several sets to which a gentleman might  belong.

Almost all Regency gentlemen gambled, drank, played hard, hunted, went shooting and generally indulged in excess, carnal and otherwise, following a tone set very much by the Regent.  The Prince turned 49 in 1811 when he became Regent of England, putting him past the age where either “young” or “blade” could be aptly applied to him, but there were other men gentle by birth—though not necessarily by manner—who looked to belong to certain distinct fashionable sets which excelled in specific areas.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron in Turkish Dress

It can be difficult to tell the difference between these different set, and quite often a gentleman had overlapping interests.  There were rakes who were good enough sportsmen to be called “Corinthians,” and Corinthians who also belonged to the dandy set by virtue of the care they took with their dress.

Lord “Beau” Petersham was one such man.  Born in 1780, Charles Stanhope, Viscount Petersham, later became the Earl of Harrington in 1829.  He was said to resemble Henry IV, and he emphasized this by growing a small, pointed beard. He designed his own clothes and made famous the Petersham overcoat and the Harrington hat. He was also noted for his brown coach, clothing, and servant’s livery—a color said to have been chosen for his devotion to a widow named Brown.  However, in 1831 he married a Covent Garden actress named Maria Foote who was seventeen-years his junior. His was also noted for his snuff and tea mixes, and Gronow said of his sitting-room that, “…all round the walls were shelves, upon which were placed tea-canisters, containing Congou, Pekoe, Souchong, Bohea, Gunpowder, Russian, and many other teas, all the best o the kind; on the other side of the room were beautiful jars, with names in gilt letters, o finnumerable kinds of snuff….”

Petersham owned a snuff boxes for each day of the year and according to Priestley in The Prince of Pleasure, took care to “…choose one that suited the weather, not risking a cold by using a light snuffbox in an East wind.”

Lords Alvanley and Sefton were other examples of dandies who also had sporting interests.

William Arderne, Baron Alvanley, was famous for his wit, his dinner parities, his dress and his eccentricities.  He insisted that an apricot tart be on the sideboard, no matter the time of year, after he was served a cold one that he liked. He also put out his candle by throwing it across the room—with his valet wisely remained alert in case it should start a fire and have to be put out. A hard rider to hounds, Alvanley was one of the best liked men of his set.

Lord Sefton, William Philip Molyneux, was a cousin to Petersham. Society wits dubbed him “Lord Dashalong” for his driving style, and his matched bays were quite famous.  He rode in steeplechases and was so fond of coursing greyhounds against each other as a sport that he devoted part of his estate to raising rabbits for the chase.

Even with examples of gentlemen who had diverse interests, there are still distinctions that can be made between these various sets.  Byron is quoted as having said, “I like the Dandies, they were always very civil to me.”  This shows that while the distinctions between these sets were fine, they existed.

George Brummell

George Brummell (1815)

To see this illustrated, one can look at the most famous of dandies, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell who led the dandy set for a number of years.  As Captain Gronow states, “All the world watched Brummell to imitate him, and order their clothes of the tradesman who dressed that sublime dandy.”  He also reports that, “The dandy’s dress consisted of a blue coat with brass buttons, leather breeches, and top boots; and it was the fashion to wear a deep, stiff white cravat, which prevented you from seeing your boots while standing.”

In Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times, Chancellor marks the world of the dandies as “…that portion of St. James’s, bounded by Piccadilly and Pall Mall, St. James’s Street and Waterloo Place, was the ne plus ultra of fashionable life…”  Obviously with a mention of Waterloo Place, this puts this area a touch later than the Regency, but St. James’s did mark the center of the fashionable gentleman’s world.

Brummell was on terms with the Prince Regent, and his closest friends included the Dukes of Rutland, Dorset, and Argyll, Lords Sefton, Alvanley, and Plymouth.  As Gronow states, “In the zenith of his popularity he might be seen at the bay window of White’s Club, surrounded by the lions of the day, laying down the law, and occasionally indulging in those witty remarks for which he was famous.”

Wit was as much a hallmark of the dandy as were his clothes—indeed, everything about the dandy had to bespeak style, including his dress, his manners, and his furniture.  Understated elegance was what Brummell strove for and he is quoted as saying, “If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”

As a gentleman, Brummell rode to hounds, following that sporting fashion.  But it is reported that he never rode past the first field for he did not want to stain his white boot tops with mud, and so retired to the nearest inn.  This is what sets him as a true dandy, caring more for his appearance than anything.  A true Corinthian would have distained such a poor showing, for, in general, Corinthians sought to excel in the sporting world.

Shakespeare has his Prince Hal proclaim in Henry IV, “They take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but prince of Wales, yet I am king of courtesy; and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle…”

A lad of mettle was what the Regency Corinthian sought to prove himself.

Bartleby’s defines a Corinthian as “A gentleman sportsman who rides his own horses on the turf, or sails his own yacht. A member of the pugilistic club, Bond Street, London” which references the Pugilistic Club formed in 1814 as the meeting-place of the aristocratic sporting element, often called “The Fancy.”

The Corinthian was, above all, a sporting man.  He drove his own horses, boxed, ride to hounds, shot and strove to be among the elite of this group would undertook these expensive as well as athletic endeavors.

Military men, too, might aspire to sporting excellence. Wellington was said to have a “bad seat” on a horse, but he certainly loved to hunt.  His officers could keep packs of hounds, and while foxes might be scarce in Spain and Portugal, there were rabbits enough to hunt. Winter was also the time when the army had to wait out the winter before a spring campaign, and as Harry Smith wrote in his autobiography, “At this period of the year (February, March) the coursing in this part of Spain is capital, and by help of my celebrated dog Moro and two other excellent ones, I supplied the officers’ mess of every Company with hares for soup.” Smith kept greyhounds to chase the hares, a sport far older than fox hunting, and his life is superbly fictionalized in Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride.

There were more than a few Corinthians who also excelled at excessive dissipation, and who could be called rake, or “rake-hell,” or “rake shame.” It took more than a little womanizing for a Regency gentleman to earn the status of rake.  Prostitutes were so numerous that guidebooks were put out to describe the women, their specialties, and what they might not do.  Most gentlemen kept a mistress, and even titled married women considered discreet affairs the norm. But a gentleman who went beyond conventions, who preyed upon young women, or even children, or who undertook perversions, was deemed unacceptable. These rakes ignored convention and morality.  Two such examples of this are Lord Barrymore and the Duke of Queensberry.

Born in 1768, Richard Barry became the Earl of Barrymore in 1773.  He took to living to please himself, and earned the nickname “Hellgate.” His brother, Henry Barry, became “Cripplegate” for his crippled foot, and his other brother, the Honorable Reverend Augustus Barry, was called “Newgate” because that was the one gaol he had kept clear of.  His sister, who became Lady Milfort, was called “Billingsgate” for the foul language she used.

Barrymore rode his own horses in races, then went deeply into debt building his racing stables and gambling on his horses. It is said that he was a whip equal in skill to any professional coachman.  He also organized boxing matches, bet on them, and was accounted a good boxer himself.  In 1792 he married Miss Goulding, niece of the notorious Sir John Lady and Letty Lade—a woman who had been the mistress of the highwayman known as “Sixteen String Jack.” Sir John was not a respectable person, but he was a noted whip, and had driven a coach and four round the tiny horse sale yard at Tattersalls—a remarkable feat.  Instead of marrying to settle down, Barrymore had to make a scandal of even this.  He received permission from Sir John to marry Lade’s niece, but Barrymore decided to elope with his bride anyway, setting Society to talking about such disgraceful behavior.

While Lord Barrymore lived up to the image of a dissolute and dashing young blade, the Duke of Queensberry, known as “Old Q” for the initial he had painted on his carriage instead of his crest, was more the classic old rake. He also was a noted race-horse owner, gambler and driver, traits of a true Corinthian.

William Douglas had become the Earl of March in 1731, and then inherited the dukedom of Queensberry in 1786 when his cousin died.  Fabulously wealthy, he never married.  He adored young Italian opera singers, and was said to have been a member of the notorious “Hellfire Club.”  Like a true rake, he neglected his estates of Drumlanrig, Dumfries, and Galloway, and lived for his own pleasure.

While Georgian, the Hellfire Club is worth a brief mention in that gossip made it a standard (abet a low one) for scandalous debauchery.  It was not actually called the Hellfire Club by its members.  Started in 1746 by Sir Francis Dashwood, its name, like its members and its activities, were kept secret.  It was called either The Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, The Monks of Medmenham, The Order of Knights of West Wycombe, or The Order of the Knights of St Francis.  Stories held that members included the Earl of Sandwich, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Hogarth, the Earl of Bute, the Marquis of Granby, and even the Prince of Wales, and that they indulged in everything from orgies to Satan worship.  What they really did is unknown, but it is very likely that they held orgies with prostitutes and probably performed invented Pagan ceremonies that were relatively harmless.

By the Regency, Dashwood and his club had been replaced by other clubs—some every bit as scandalous.

There were numerous gentlemen’s clubs in Regency London, and a gentleman’s clubs also denoted his status within each set.  Some clubs were founded for the purpose of eating, some for drinking, some for wit and society, some for debauchery, some for gambling, some for sports.  Many of them had whimsical rules, such as a club founded by Lord Barrymore which ruled that “if any member has more sense than another he be kicked out of the club.”

Most gentlemen belonged to several clubs. Waiter’s was considered the domain of the dandy, but closed in 1819 after becoming infamous as a place where too many gentlemen were ruined with deep play (which was also suspected of being rigged play).  White’s was considered the most exclusive, and was where Beau Brummell held court in the famous bow-window with Lord Alvanely, the Duke of Argyle, Lord Worcester, Lord Foley and Lord Sefton. Opposite White’s stood Brooks’s, a club that, through its patronage by Whig families, became known as the place for liberals.  Members included the radical and the artistic, such as Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon, Richard Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales.  Finally, a sporting minded gentleman might join Boodle’s with its focus on heavy gambling, or The Marylebone Cricket Club which played at Lord’s, or might aspire to the Bensington Driving Club, founded in 1807, or the more elite Four-Horse Club.

The Four-Horse club met in George Street, Hanover Square, and drove to Salt Hill to dine.  Members had be noted whips, drove four horses attached to a barouche carriage and had the right to wear the yellow-striped blue waistcoat and black spotted neckerchief insignia of the club.  Membership was so exclusive that the club counted only around thirty members or so, and included Lords Barrymore, Sefton, Worcester and Fitzhardinge, Sir John Lade, Sir Henry Peyton, Sir Bellingham Graham as well as other noted whips.

M. Simond, writing about his visit to England in 1810, might well have been writing of the Four-Horse club when he said, “I have just seen the originals of which Matthews gave us a faithful copy a few days ago in Hit or Miss—the very barouche club; the gentlemen-coachmen, with half-a-dozen great coats about them—immense capes—a large nosegay at the button-hole—high mounted on an elevated seat with squared elbows—a prodigious whip—beautiful horses, four in hand, drive in a file to Salthill, a place about twenty miles from London, and return, stopping on the way at the several public houses and gin shops where stage-coachmen are in the habit of stopping for a dram, and for parcels and passengers; the whole in strict imitation of their models and making use, as much as they can, of their energetic professional idiom.”

For boxing, there was Daffy’s Club, which The London Spy reported was held at Tom Belcher’s at the Castle Tavern in Holborn.  Boxing matches were also held at Fives Court in St. Martin’s Street.

Just as each set had its customary haunts and clubs, slang terms also defined a gentleman’s interests.  Some dandies, such as Sir Lumley “Skiffy” Skeffington spoke with a lisp.  (Many in the liberal Devonshire set also copied the Duchess of Devonshire’s lisp to denote their status as Whigs.)  With his lisp and his appearance as “a thin pallid little man with sharp features and rouged cheeks, and the atmosphere of a perfume shop,” Skeffington was almost the archetype of a dandy. He wore colored satin suits, penned plays and was said to spend eight hundred pounds a year on his clothes.  Actually, while Skeffington was a friend of Brummell’s and the Regent, he was actually too fashionable to meet Brummell’s standards for understated taste.

The Corinthian, in turn, adopted boxing terms or the slang of the coachman on the road.  It should be noted that are differences between London “thieves cant” often used by the young bucks about town, and the language of the Fancy.

As examples, Pierce Egan’s Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis shows his heroes—Tom and Jerry—using the slang of the Fancy as Tom shows his country cousin Jerry about town.  Egan calls his hero “one of the fancy, but not a fancy man…”  And said of him that while he was as home waltzing at Almacks, he was not a dandy.

Egan also published Boxiana as a serial put out between 1811 and 1813, and he was a well known figure in the sporting world.  Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue provides a reference to the thieves cant used by the London underworld, and which might be employed by a young gentleman going slumming in brothels or gaming hells.

In addition to imitating the lower classes of London, young gentlemen looked to imitate the professional coach driver who handled the mail and stage coaches.  They might done a “Benjamin” (the greatcoat worn by coachmen) while seeking to “handle the ribbons” (hold the reins), and “spring the team” (put a team into a canter); “feather it” (drive very close to obstacles), managing both the “leaders” and the “wheelers” (the front pair and rear pair of a four horse team) over a “stage” (the distance between one change of teams and the next—usually 10 to 20 miles).

For others, it was not the professional coachman but the professional boxer who became the hero to emulate.

Gentleman Jackson's

Boxing at Gentleman Jackson's

Fist fighting begun to replace sword or cudgel sports during George I’s reign.  Though it was illegal, betting made it enough of an attraction to draw nobility as well as common folks.  The first official champion of England was James Figg, who was also an expert swordsman and who later opened a School of Arms.

Later, Jack Broughton, who was champion of England from 1734 to 1750, invented the “mufflers” or boxing gloves that were used for practice only since all prize-fights were fought with bare fists.  Called “the father of British pugilism” Broughton drafted the rules that were used before and during the Regency.  (It was not until 1866 that the Queensberry Rules were developed by the 8th Marquis of Queensberry and John G. Chambers.)

Broughton’s rules outlawed hitting below the belt, striking an opponent who was down (which included being on his knees). Wrestling holds were allowed only above the waist.  Every fighter had a gentleman to act as umpire, with a third to referee disagreements. When a fighter was knocked down, he had 30 seconds to get up—or have help getting up—and then he had to be placed at the corner of a 3-foot square that was drawn in the center of the ring.

As was common for retiring champion boxers, when John Jackson retired after willing the champion title in 1795, he opened the Bond Street School of Arms at Number 13. Jackson won the championship in a hard-fought match with Daniel Mendoza, but it was his school which brought him fame.

Jackson, known as “The Gentleman,” was friends with fencing instructor Henry Angleo, who had a school next door and who urged his students to alternate with lessons from Jackson—which made sense for Jackson advocated footwork and the science of targeting a hit.

Everyone went to Jackson’s, even Lord Byron, the lame poet.  When tasked with keeping such low company Byron insisted that Jackson’s manners were “infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I meet at the high table.”  That no doubt contributed Jackson’s nickname and his success.

Other boxing champions of the Regency era included: Jack Bartholomew, champion from 1797 to 1800.  Jem Belcher who often wore a blue scarf marked with white spots and blue centers around his neck, which became known as the Belcher neckcloth, and soon sporting mad young bucks were wearing any scarf of garish color with spots.  “Hen” Pearce, “The Game Chicken,” who held the title from 1803 to 1806 when he retired.  John Gully who won the championship in 1807 and retired in 1808 to open a racing stable. And Tom Cribb became the champion in 1808, winning a famous bout against African-American Tom Molineaux on December 18, 1810. Cribb went on to hold the champion title until 1822.

As an interesting footnote, Tom’s less famous brother, George had about five fights, and lost all of them—some men simply were not cut out to be Corinthians, dandies, or rakes.

Fencing at Henry Angelo's

Fencing at Henry Angelo's

Writer’s Reference Shelf

If you do a search on Amazon.com for “writing,” over 50,000 books show up.  That’s a lot and doesn’t even include the other great reference a writer might use, such as books slang, foreign phrases, and grammar.  So I thought I’d share what’s on my writer’s reference shelf, the books I’ve found the most useful and helpful with craft and the inevitable questions that crop up for the odd bits and pieces sometimes necessary to create characters.

Techniques of a Selling Writer, Dwight Swain

This is a book I recommend in almost every workshop.  My paperback copy has Post-it notes stuck onto pages, and a cracked spine, and pages falling out, and it stays right by my computer.  The blub on the back says: “This book provides solid instruction for persons who want to write and sell fiction, not just to talk and study about it.”  Swain is brilliant.  His prose is clear, and he breaks down basic structure–beginnings, middles, ends–in such a way that you can’t help but become a better writer.  For me, this book had so many, ‘ah ha!’ moments.  If you struggle with “plot” and structure this is a great book.  If you struggle with how to break your story down and put it into a synopsis, this is a great book.  However, I know some writers who find that Swain doesn’t speak to them as well as Jack Bickman.  Bickman was a student’s of Swain and so he teaches the same concepts, but with a slightly different approach.  You might try Bickman’s works, but first go out, buy and read Techniques of a Selling Writer.  Trust me, it’s money well spent.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

While you can read this slim book–my copy is 92 pages, including the index–front to back in a short time, it is designed for reference.  Have a question about what words need a hyphen?  There’s an answer on pages 34-35.  Unsure about when to use ‘which’ or ‘that?’  Page 59.  This is a book to help you add the gleam of polish to your writing.  The index makes and table of contents makes it easy to look up topics that may be rattling your brain.  And, let’s face it, we all have bad stylistic habits as writers that we pick up and sometimes really need to clear out.  I use this book a lot during the editing phase just to make sure that every unnecessary work or unclear phrase is cleaned up and out.

What’s What, A Visual Glossary of the Physical World, Fisher Bragonier Jr.

Most libraries will have a copy of What’s What.  My local library was where I first discovered this book, but I soon had to have my own copy.  The book is just what it says; drawings and photos of all sorts of things and places with information of the names of everything.  This is fabulous for a) you know the name of something and can’t quite remember it or b) you need your character to know the name of things because of that character’s profession and you haven’t a clue.  Need to know all the parts of a sailboat?  Or maybe a hot air balloon?  Or what all those medieval arms are called and the parts of a knight’s armor?  This is the kind of book I occasionally get lost in, it’s got so much wonderful trivia.

Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is one of the top names in Science Fiction, and you can see where he gets his reputation for good writing in this book. Card says of it (on the back cover), “This book is a set of tools: literary crowbars, chisels, mallets, pliers, tongs, sieves, and drills.  Use them to pry, chip, beat, yank, shift, or punch good characters out of the place where they already live: your memory, your imagination, your soul.”  I say buy the book and a highlighting pen.  You’ll learn things you didn’t know, you’ll get ideas, and best of all it’ll makes you want to get back to the computer to apply the knowledge.

Write Away, Elizabeth George

This is subtitled “One Novelists Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.”  Elizabeth George is a New York Times Best Selling mystery author, and this book is based on the writing courses she’s taught.  This is not your basic how to plot or writing book.  This is about a writer getting inside her own fiction in a detailed, methodical fashion and telling you how she makes it work.  It’s a fabulous book–but it can also be deep going.  I found myself having to read, stop and process, and then go back and reread passages.  But the purest gold often comes from the deepest mines where you have to sweat to get it out.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict, Debra Dixon

Published by Gryphon Books, the book is a companion to the workshop that Debra Dixon teaches. She also teaches novel writing and has written several romances.  The book is one I end up recommending more than any other because it’s packed with sound, good advice about how to punch up a scene or a story with stronger characters and that means stronger conflict.  Buy it.

What’s My Motivation?

No wonder most folks think they suck at plotting—they do. Lately, I’ve read implausible plots, overly melodramatic plots only missing the villain twirling a mustache, plots so tangled there’s no way you can get the synopsis to five pages and have it make sense, and complex plots where the romance (and the character) are lost in the action. How do you fix this? It all goes back to character.

To quote Robert Mckee “character is story and story is character.” A good story comes from good characters—folks with clear goals and motivations that make sense. The plot then is actually pretty easy—you throw things (events) at those characters that will hit on their weak points (take them off track from their goals) and hit their buttons for their internal issues. The plot tests the characters you’ve created.

If you haven’t done the homework of creating strong characters to start—that means well developed characters—those story people are going to be feel pushed through a contrived plot. This will give you implausible, melodramatic, tangled, and/or too complex plots. This is because you’ll be using action to make up for weak conflict due to weak characterization.

I’m going to be doing my Plotting from Character workshop again soon, and from what I’ve seen in contests lately, a lot of folks could use this. If you start with character, plotting gets a lot easier. And characters need a few things to work well in fiction:

Goals – everybody wants something. Even the character who wants for nothing will still have something that he or she wants and needs – a story is about a character whose life is pushed out of balance. And the goal for that character is to fix this imbalance—to get back to a happy place. Goals work best when they are a specific thing that represents achieving that goal—which is how you end up with things like the Maltese Falcon (it’s something tangible folks can be after—having it in your hands means goal achieved).

Negative goals (to avoid some event), aren’t so great unless you also have a clock running—as in stopping the bomb from blowing up becomes a positive due to that ticker. But something like avoiding marriage is a little harder—since it’s a negative, the reader doesn’t knows when the character has achieved this goal (Is he married now? Married now? How about now?) See—that’s not going to give you a tangible “he made it” goal.

Motivations – to go along with the goals, fictional character needs good reasons for their actions, for their goals. Fictional folks have to make a lot more sense than real people.  And motivations work best if deeply rooted in the characters psyche—the deeper, the better. As in, a motivation that comes from a key, formative event the character’s childhood is much stronger than a motivation that comes from a recent event. For example, a character that needs to find a new job because she’s been fired—that’s motivation, yes. It matters, but it hasn’t been made personal. A deeper motivation comes from that character having been raised poor. So what if she saw her mother crying over a broken down car when she was ten and vowed never to be that person. Now, she’s got strong motivation to get that new job. The motivation has been made personal. And notice how you also want to tie this motivation to a key moment in that character’s life so it will resonate—and you can use that scene then in the story.

Internal Needs – this relates to motivations, and also to goals. Stories work best with lots of conflict, so you want to develop characters with strong internal needs. And hopefully these are going to be in conflict with their goals. So the character who is out of work and needs that job—and has motivations from being poor in childhood—if she’s got the internal need for respect, and she’s offered a menial job with no respect, now her external goals and internal needs are in conflict. She wants the job (external), but she needs respect (and won’t get it from the job). So what does she give up? She’s in conflict, which is always good stuff for fiction. How the character then resolves this conflict becomes part of your plot—and reveals this character’s true colors.

Motivations – just as with goals, internal needs have to be motivated. (Remember, fictional folks have to make sense—much more so than real people.) So this character needs an event in his or her formative years that leaves him or her with deep reasons to have these internal needs. And, again, you want to tie this motivation to deep, core issues—could be the character is compensating for a handicap, and respect isn’t just about being respected.

Characters should have such strong goals and needs that the character (and the reader) should feel as if that character’s “self” will be destroyed by giving up either the goal or need.

And then you throw in the romance (if you’re writing a romance).

Once you create your main character, now you design the love interest, and all the other characters. The love interest is someone with a conflicting goal, conflicting internal needs, and motivations that are just as deep and strong. In other words, this is both the ideal person, and the totally wrong person. This is a soul mate (and I use the definition that soul mates are those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow).

You develop goals and motivations for all characters—in other words, you never have a bad guy who is bad just because he is bad. And you look to develop goals and motivations that go beyond clichés. (Trust me, your first few ideas for goals and motivations will be cliché—that’s why they pop up so readily. As Orson Scott Card advises in Characters & Viewpoint, dig deeper.)

And, very important, you want the story’s antagonist—the person up against the protagonist—to have conflicting goals. Only the protagonist or the antagonist should be able to win the day (and for more on this, study up on Bob Mayer’s talk on Conflict Lock – he’s bestselling author and he knows what he’s talking about).

Theme – this is what helps you with all this goals and motivations stuff, and with all the secondary characters you need. If your theme is about how love heals, you’re going to need hurt characters, and folks who’ve never been hurt by love. You’ll need folks who haven’t been heeled by love—and those who have. You need all sides of the theme. And the main character is going to be at the center of that theme.

Now, with characters and theme shaping up, you can plot. Meaning you look at your main character and you keep asking—What is the worst thing that could happen to this person? You ask this many, many times and jot down the answers. What could prevent this person from getting his or her goal? What would force this person to give up his or her goal? What would push this person to the extreme to get his or her goal or meet his or her needs? Keep pushing, keep making it worse. (Action movies are great to take apart for this sort of stuff—look at Indiana Jones, and how his life just gets harder and harder and harder.)

These ideas for obstacles that the main character must overcome can then be shaped into the main turning point actions—the plot that will test your character. It will also test the main character’s relationship—the romance. You put just as much strain there as you do for any action.

As you do this, you’re coming up with events to throw at your character, but this is not the time to decide yet how your character will act—that come from knowing your character and putting your character into these bad, bad situations. In other words, you set up the obstacle course—your characters decide how to run that course. The story comes out of the characters dealing with worst case scenarios.

Two things about this—first, you need to structure the action so that tension and conflict rises. In a good story, things go from bad to worse—not the other way around. Second, you’ll develop subplots around the main plot, but it’s the main action line—the main character’s driving goal, motivations for this, and obstacles (or turning points)—that should be the main focus. The main story arc must have the main character at its heart—the main character must resolve the story (or fail at this, which makes it a tragedy). And this should be the last set of story points to be resolved. (Subplots can start sooner than the main story, but should be all wrapped up before the main story is in order to create the most satisfying story.)

Notice how all this plotting now comes out of the characters that you set up. Your characters give you your theme, they start to suggest events you’ll need in the story to block them from their goals. For example, you know the woman who need a new job is going to start off applying for new positions—and maybe that’s not so exciting, so you start her where she’s just been turned down for the 100th time. But she starts off trying to do this the easy way—that’s so your story can build and get worse. You know you’re going to make things worse for her—she’s going to be face with choices. Maybe even asked to commit murder in order to make a million dollars. But she’s not going to be asked that right away—that’s going to come after she’s been tested, and tested, and tested more. That’s going to come when she’s more than desperate. That’s going to come when she has so few other choices this extreme one seems a viable option.

Once you get the ideas and characters down in writing, you’re going to check in with a writer friend. You’re going to look at this from all angles to see if it makes sense. If it’s plausible. If every character is well motivated with strong goals. You do this because it’s too easy to think you’ve got it all buttoned up when you don’t. And you’ll find you have stuff worked out in your head that doesn’t make it onto the page—you want to always make sure to get the story on the page as close to what’s in your head.

What this means it that you won’t be coming up with cliché conflict (the heroine is kidnapped and the hero saves her)—conflict will be very specific to the characters you’ve created because it will be deeply rooted in individual pasts. You won’t be stuck with how to escalate conflict and tension, because you’ve got goals and you’re going to take away all the easy ways for that character to reach his or her goals. You won’t be caught with a romance that relies on misunderstandings or mistaken assumptions to create problems in the relationship—problems will be built into your characters.

Just keep in mind—it’s all about the characters.