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Speaking About Writing…

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I’m delighted to announce that The Beau Monde, the Regency chapter of the Romance Writers of America has asked me to be their keynote speaker at this year’s conference in July. This is not just a lovely honor–it feels to me like a continuity of writers. It’s been 25 years since The Beau Monde was started–that’s a generation. And my how the world has changed, particularly for writers. I think that’s actually one of the attractions to Regency England–it’s a world that is safely in the past, with all the changes done and over with, and a much easier world to navigate in many ways. (Of course, you still have wars, and you have a lack of penicillin, other bad medical care, and not much in the way of rights for women or anyone else other than a rich, white male, oh, and let’s not forget the desperately poor along with some other problems–but let’s not dwell on the negative.)

One of the advantages of writing about the good stuff in the Regency is that it is possible to provide an escape back to a world that’s a little less complicated, a whole lot slower, and a lot of style. But I’m jumping  ahead of myself–it’s off to New York (not my favorite place it the world, but I am looking forward to a cross-country drive to see a bit more of the US) for The Beau Monde conference.

In the meantime, I have a Regency romance novella to finish up!

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Kitchen Sinking

sink.jpgIt took me a long time to learn that less is more–seven books, of time, in fact. They’re still with me, hidden away in boxes. Learning curves, all of them, and for that they have a special place in my heart, but they’re also books only a mother could love. They’re more than ugly ducklings, because they never grew up into anything else. My problem was that I kept coming up with what I thought were cool ideas–lots of them. And all those ideas would get smashed into one story. It was a lot like cooking and deciding that if a little spice was good, why not throw in some of every spice in the cupboard. No wonder those stories couldn’t be rescued.

These days I advocate–and try to practice–that less is more. One good idea is great in a story–it’s a good hook and I really don’t need to complicate it into a ball of tangled yarn. That includes not overdoing it with the characters–it’s often better to trim down the number of characters. Some of the best advice I ever was given was to look to where I could put two (or three) characters together to make one far more interesting character. This keeps the technical challenges down so I can focus on making the characters and story that is there the best possible.

The main thing that taught me how to trim down–and it wasn’t just those seven manuscripts–was to learn to write a good short story. Short means you have to focus, and there isn’t room to do anything but a tight structure. With just two main characters characters, the focus became my characters–and a really good story with great description. It was lovely to write that story. I had time to breathe, to develop, to enjoy the world. And I had a huge ‘ah ha’ moment. And that is simple is much more challenging than complex.

To go back to that cooking metaphor, when you have a lovely simple dish with only three or four ingredients, those ingredients have to be of very good quality. In fiction, that means only a few well developed characters, one great idea, one strong theme, one central conflict. And the ability to throw out what’s not working–or what doesn’t fit. It’s about paring down to the core so I know what the core is in the story. And it’s about delivering really good prose. I can do that when I’m not trying to juggle too many technical challenges.

So these days I leave the too many viewpoints alone. I look to make the cast small enough to manage. I like the focus of a good story well-told, and it’s not necessary to do more.

And I’m not alone–others see these same issues of sinking a good story (or kitchen sinking it) with too much going on:

TOO MUCH PLOT–https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/too-much-of-a-good-thing-dont-sink-a-story-with-too-much-plot

COMMON MISTAKES–http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/mistakes_beginners.html

DO’s AND DON’Ts of MIXING GENRES–https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/the-dos-and-donts-of-combining-genres

GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS–https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/03/22/get-to-know-your-characters/

 

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.

Show More, Tell Better

“Writing well is the best revenge.” — Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.

Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author.  This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:

– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.

– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.

– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.

– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.”

As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.

Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.

But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?

– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are TELLING the reader an emotion. You want to get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.

Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.

– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.

– Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.

– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?

You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”

Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.

What’s Not to Like?

HHRW-slider11I’m doing a workshop this June on Creating Likeable Characters for Hearts Through History.

The workshop came about because I kept seeing a classic mistakes that is often made. The writer gets caught up in creating a character with problems—with challenges. Yes, you want there to be some conflict and you want a flawed character. But go too far with that and the character comes across on the page as someone that’s not likeable. End result is that the reader bails on the story because the reader doesn’t want to identify with that character.

Why does this happen?

Look, if you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former unless you are being forced to be there by blood ties or a job. This holds true in a book, too. Readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

The Cardros RubyThis is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. In an early draft, the heroine came off as too cranky and hard-edged. She was not likeable. Now, she had her reasons for being how she was, but she wasn’t someone you wanted to root for. That meant she needed major work to bring in some things to make her likeable. I had learned about this when I wrote the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise.  She’s a spoilt girl who eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t warm to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. If your characters aren’t likeable, you’re not going to sell that book. That’s the voice of experience talking.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. I want to spend time with folks I like.

Which brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people, or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire. We like people who are good at what they do. This is why we like sports figures at the top of their game. We like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child. She may do bad things, but if she’s got really good reasons (as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator) we’re going to be on her side. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog is likeable. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford is likeable. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him and that helps put the reader on her side.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this). However, the important thing is we want to see a strong underdog. That means someone being strong against overwhelming odds. Make your underdog whiny or weak and you’ll lose the reader’s sympathy—most folks just don’t like weaklings.

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times). This is a trait most admire. Again, don’t take it too far. If this turns into someone being stupid, you can lose the reader.

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. A wry wit has turned many a bad guy into someone we love (as in Loki in the Avenger movies).

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws. No one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective. Again, if you go too far, the character may come across as just crazy, and most folks shy away from that. Even Monk has mad skills to balance out his oddities.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation. They need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks. This means you do not want a character who is all about me…me…me.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits. That would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. This means you do not tell the reader others like this person, you SHOW the character DOING things that make the reader think this character is likeable.

Keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. Even Hannibal Lecter has the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader. (If you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Use viewpoint to your advantage—not to your character’s disadvantage. If a character thinks about her long, raven hair, she comes across as vain. If a guy is eyeing another guy and thinking about that other guy’s muscles, the character comes across as gay. Now all of that is fine if you want the reader to believe one character is vain and another is gay, but KNOW what you are conveying to the reader with those internal thoughts. Don’t just stuff description into thoughts because it’s easy—you may be sending the wrong signals to the reader.

Above all, remember you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things.

Really Good Narrative

There’s a time to show…but there’s also a time to TELL. A really good narrative is invaluable in many stories.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

There is no exact formula for what is enough telling.  However, readers always need to know:

– Where are we? (Place and world – the reader needs to be placed into the scene, otherwise it’s confusing to the reader. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help.)

– When are we? (What’s the era, the time of the year, the month, the day, the hour? We need everything that helps the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.)

– Who is here? (An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene, and for the story.)

– Why are we were? (This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough details to make a reader care. Think of it this way—too little and you starve the reader’s imagination; too much and the reader quickly fills up and drops the book down.)

All this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads, not dumped on the reader in big clumps. Or, to put it another way, feed the reader your telling—your narrative—with a teaspoon, not a soup bowl.

Good narrative does a lot of things for you:

– It condenses information, which helps keep the pace of the story moving forward.

– It weaves in backstory and plot exposition, so you don’t have to have huge info dumps.

– It allows touches of your author voice to add atmosphere and mood to a story.

– It allows you, the author, to set the scene for the reader, thereby setting expectations about the story—you’re basically setting up the reader to enjoy the story (and not have to work too hard).

Bad narrative also does a lot of things for you, but worst of all, poor narrative is awkward, verbose and  tends to make a reader put down the book.

So how do you know if your narrative—your story telling—is working?

– Have someone else read the story—and just have them make an X on the page every time their attention starts to wander. That’s a place where the telling is probably getting to overload.

– Look at the balance of action (showing) to telling—go through with a colored marker and make sure you’re not telling too much.

– Use the story telling to move into and out of scenes (for transitions). Within a scene, cut the telling and only show your characters in action. Only tell if you must to clarify action, intent, or motivations (and even then look for better ways to show this instead of tell).

Most of all, if it works, don’t fix it. But if it doesn’t work, time to get back to edits to make the story work for the reader.

 

Point of View and Voice

I’m starting my Point of View workshop tomorrow and as always before a workshop, I’ve been thinking about the topic. A workshop is always a challenge–how do you better communicate ideas? Do the students understand basic concepts? Are folks trying to run before they can walk? Is anyone even listening?

POV is tough in that I think most folks brush it off as not really that important, when it is in fact one of the most important decision to make. Whose POV best tells the story? What POV gives the most conflict? And, more to the point, what POV calls to you?

Point of view and a writer’s voice cannot be separated. It is what makes writer’s voice authentic. A writer who attempts third person when their skills, preference and characters call out for first person will fail. Just as a writer who attempts first person who really leans heart and soul to third person will end up with clunky writing. Or even worse–writing that just sounds like showing off. And heaven help the story when craft is put first. The poor reader ends up with stories that are just terrible because the writer is spending too much time saying “look at what I can do.” It is death for a story when the reader notices the writing first.

So what’s a writer to do? Learn by reading, of course.

A great fist step I always advise is look at your bookshelf. Are most of the novels in first person? Or third person? Or a mix? Can you even get through a book written in first person (or, heaven help us, first person present tense). My own style leans toward third person–I love that it disappears. But I’ve read and loved some excellent work in first person, and mixed–but it takes talent to pull this off. It also takes passion–and it needs to fit the writer’s voice.

Trying something on is fine for a writer just starting out. Sometimes the only way you know if a pair of jeans fits is to put them on. But it’s also important to figure out what works best for you. And for the story. It’s also important to have your techniques down solid–if your technical skills are weak, the whole story is going to fall apart for the reader. Mastery of technical skills is what allows you to forget them. They’re in your DNA and you do them without thought. But you want to know your intent, too. You want to know just what it is you want to have the story do.

And that thought came up in a recent discussion on a forum about mixing up points of view had me wanting to respond with a question. What’s best for the story? That is the question a writer needs to ask. We’re back to intent here. And then the writer must answer with authority. That is what provides the reader and the story an authentic voice.