Friday, November 28, 2008

All my poor little brain can manage

There is so much information out there on writing and the best of it is gold. Solid gold. Molly calls it handing us the keys to the kingdom and in many ways it is.
The scene and sequel description Maureen blogged about on Wednesday, Story, by Robert McKee, On Writing by Stephen King and countless other guides to writing fiction out there.
They help us refine, cut, and edit, they guide us where to start the story, how to increase tension and make every word count.
And they are really useful.
But hard to incorporate while writing. I know, having read the above, attended workshops, talked about all of the above with my fellow Drunk Writers, I’m not thinking about them when I’m writing. Sometimes when I’m editing, usually when I run into problems, but otherwise, I hope they’ve seeped into my brain, because most of the time they just aren't top of mind.
There are two things I’ve been thinking in my head when writing this current draft. The first is my new favourite quote from JR Ward. Plots are like sharks, they keep moving forward, or they die.
Friggin’ great, because it does not allow me to repeat myself, or get lazy and rely on a stagnant plot.
The second and it’s a constant drumbeat in my head, is ‘up the drama’.
The up the drama is really important for me, because it doesn’t allow me to make choices that reduce tension, or conflict, and always reminds me to make the choice that creates the most drama. Maybe not the easiest choice and sometimes the choice that paints me into a corner, but 9 times out of 10, it doesn’t lead me astray.
And even with this in my head, as I look over scenes to send to my critique group I find scenarios where I could still up the drama, choices I’ve made that cop out in some way.
For a first and second draft these two mantras are all I can have in my head except for my characters and dialogue and action.
There just isn’t room for more right now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Scene and Sequel

Molly's great post on Monday reminded me of a writing concept/technique I find really useful -- when I remember to think of it, that is. Scene and sequel.

The first few times I heard this concept explained at workshops, I didn't get it. (And frankly, I question whether the people presenting the topic got it, either.) The way they explained it, it sounded like: write a great scene, then write a boring scene.

In fact, I've heard writers use concept of scene and sequel to justify dull, narrative-reflection scenes that go nowhere -- claiming those reflection scenes are the sequels. But I think they're misinterpreting what scene/sequel means. It's usually plain lazy, and/or poor storytelling to write a scene where a character merely thinks about what happened in the previous scene.

But writers often do this. I know I have. In weaker romances -- certainly in many contest entries I've judged -- we often see a scene the hero's POV, followed by one in the heroine's POV, where all she does is think about what just happened (or vice versa). So basically, there's one scene where stuff happens, followed by one where nothing happens -- we just get to see it replayed from the other character's POV. "Wow, I couldn't believe when he did that. It made me feel this."

People. This is not what scene and sequel means. I don't think it's what a resting scene means either. You can vary the pacing and still have sh*t happen.

The (brilliant, I think) idea of scene and sequel was first introduced by Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer. (Which, full disclosure, although I do own a copy, I still haven't read. But I like to rant about the ideas in this book as if I have read it. Deal with it.)

On the other hand, I have read this great article.

Crib notes from the article:

The basic scene and sequel structure:
  • Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
  • Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
The magic part of applying this fast-paced storytelling technique is that the decision, at the end of a sequel, gives the character his or her goal for the next scene, so the entire thing cycles, driving a story forward. Magic, right?

To apply this structure to a crafting a scene, the writer needs to understand first, whether it's a scene or a sequel, and then:

- What does my character want / or what disaster/problem does my character have do deal with;
- What's keeping my character from getting what they want / or what choice (hopefully a lesser of two evils choice) does my character have to make; and then
- What happens to throw my character for a loop / or what does my character decide to do so that he/she can move on from the last disaster (and continue to head toward their overall main story goal.)

The problem in application, I think, is people getting lazy with the reaction, dilemma, decision part. Either they make it all reflective narrative, when it could be action and dialogue showing the character reacting, facing a choice, and making a decision. Or -- and I think this is may be a more common problem -- the "scene" scenes don't end in real disasters. So the we read through a scene that ends anti-climatically, or where a problem was already resolved, or the conflict defused, then we have to read through a scene where the character reacts to this not-dramatic-enough event, while gazing at his/her navel, (or worse, looking at the scenery or what secondary characters are up to), and it all gets very dull, very fast. There's not enough to pull the reader along.

I also think it's a slightly more complicated structure to use in books written with two main characters, as romances are... Sometimes one scene can be a scene for the hero and a sequel for the heroine simultaneously (or vice versa). But that's why romance writers have to work really hard to write great books.

I don't pretend to use this scene/sequel structure (or even think about it) all the time. But when I have thought about it before writing a scene, or when diagnosing problems in my work or that of my critique partners, I've found it to be extremely helpful.

In the end, it all comes down to understanding motivation and conflict... but the scene/sequel structure really helps keep you focused on motivation and conflict and to keep the pace moving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Killing Romance Cliches

I think we all want to kill the romance cliches. The romance cliches give us a bad name. Sinead did a great post on killing cliched characters and while some of the tried and true plots will live on (my December book is a secret baby book and I tell you - it was a blast to write. Go figure.) what really needs to killed and killed dead is the cliched writing. The throbbing and heaving, if you know what I mean. But more than that - bigger than that - we need to look hard at those cliched scenes. And right now I'm looking hard at the NARRATIVE RATIONALIZATION scene. Lovin' all caps.

When Sinead gave us her plan to not write the transition scenes between big scenes it seemed to me to be an EXCELLENT exercise in killing the cliches - in particular that narrative scene where in the hero or heroine reflect on whatever happened in the scene before and make it all okay in thier heads to be attracted to a possible murderer/be attracted to his secretary/to have had crazy monkey sex with an ex/to have lied to a kid/to have lied to a mom/to have stolen the gems/ WHATEVER!

I hate writing those scenes and I think when we are uncomfortable or hate writing a particular scene - we don't write well. In fact, I would guess we start using a whole lot of cliches when we're writing scenes we don't like. To be honest, I think the whole romance genre can live without that narrative scene -- good strong POV and excellent characterization practically kill the need for that scene anyway. Of course, good strong POV and excellent characterization are the hard part and knowing when you've done it right is even harder. So, we write that narrative scene because all the romances we loved reading and the ones that inspired us to write have those scenes.

Obviously, we can't just have one big scene after another (or can we?) but there does need to be some resting scenes. Not boring, not cliched, just a tad slower than say - hero and heroine killing a bad guy, or whatever your big scenes are. And maybe that's the real point of subplots. I think Anne Stuart knows that. JR Ward TOTALLY knows that.

Sinead is clearly on to something.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What comes easiest?

Had a great session of Drunk Writer Talk a few weeks back, and one of the things that came up was which scenes do we find the easiest to write?

For one of the Drunk writers it’s the conversation scenes between the hero and heroine, where they learn about each other and explore their feelings.
At which point, two, or possibly, three ciders into the evening, I grimaced and shouted to the entire bar, I hate writing those scenes.
For me, the easiest scenes, and the ones that in the end, need the least amount of work are the big action scenes, sometimes the big romance scenes between the hero and heroine. The scenes where they quietly explore their conflict and talk are hell for me. They take the most time, require the most editing and even in the end, I’m never happy with them.

Which is why I focus my plotting on big, dramatic events, where the hero and heroine have to learn about each other, while running for their lives, or fighting off villains. It’s why as a writer, I’m attracted to suspense. And knowing this helps me decide which books I want to write, and how I’m going to drive the story forward.

It also helps me move forward in my books. My current WIP has taken me FOREVER to write. I’ve had to re-write every scene pretty much, and I’m still only half way through. And too often I’ve spent a week on a scene, and thinking about which scenes stall me, they are always the quiet, introspective scenes.
So for the purposes of getting this draft finished, I’m not going to write the quiet scenes. I’m going to move forward by writing the big scenes, one after another, finish up and then decide how I’m going to connect the big scenes.

It’s a change in my process, as I’m normally a linear writer, but I’m getting desperate and perhaps a change in process is exactly what I need.

Anything to finish this draft.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Have To Listen To Your Characters...

For the record, I thought the idea of listening to your characters, and doing what they dictate - was total and utter crap. I am the writer, they are my creations, they are not voices in my head - I call the shots. Me. Writer. (How do you like the punctuation in that last sentence? Seriously, I need to get learn some basic rules.)

Anyway - characters not in control. I am. And then I started working on my new WIP.

I wrote a really, really, really detailed synopsis for my next series. Chapter by chapter. Putting my money where my mouth is in terms of trying to do more work up front, rather than editing (which I now believe is just a totally imperfect way to make your book better in a big, substantial way.) Anyway - detailed synopsis in which I had my characters doing the deed in chapter 5. It really really worked for me at that stage. I had the characters roughed out, their motivations were right there. Conflict accounted for. Sex, Chapter 5 was going to be awesome.

And then I started writing. And these characters didn't radically change - they just got better, more human, fully formed. Savannah was more guarded, more cautious about everything because of her past and Matt was less wounded and more conniving in the front half of the book. So, when I had them going at it in Chapter 5 - it did not work. No one believed it. Savannah, as I had written her, would not have gone so far. And Matt as I had written him came off like one big a-hole.

I knew it wasn't working, but the sex was in my synopsis. The synopsis I sweat over. The synopsis was king. So, I tweaked, I edited, I got angry with my critique partners when they suggested perhaps the synopsis was wrong.

But in the end I had to listen to the characters. And I realized, sex in the books I write and most of the books I read isn't about sex, but about being vulnerable in some way. And I had to figure out how to make them vulnerable without the sex. The result, because I listened to the characters (and my critique group) is much more effective.

Which, I think goes to show, all that work up front isn't perfect either. But it's better in terms of getting a head start on characters and plot. But the writing and our process has to be fluid and we have to be ready to adapt what's on the page to better fit what's in our head, even if that means sacrificing a scene we love, or a plot point that works in theory but not on paper.

Or, remarkably, after all these years, finally listening to our characters.

Friday, November 14, 2008

World Building

Lots of talk about this lately, what with the amount of paranormals, and sci fi romances out there. And (because I can be slow) it’s taken me a while to really understand what this means.

JR Ward said she cemented the rules of her world really early on in her Brotherhood series, knew what she could and couldn’t do, and you know, I really bought in to her world.
Her characters seemed to be true to her world, which made me believe it more.

I know that’s a cryptic statement, and the best way I can explain is using Historical romance. There is occasionally talk of world building in Historicals, but mostly it comes across as historical details and getting them right. And sure, don’t have your character flip a light switch in the regency period.
For me lately, it’s become less about the details and more about how the characters interact in their environment.

For example, a regency romance, where the focus is often on the heroine, a lovely young woman from a good family making a good match. And then in the course of the book, gives up her virginity without any real thought, for either herself, or her family.
This happens a lot and usually drives me nuts. For me, it’s often a case of the author setting the rules of their world, and then abandoning them to drive the story forward.

If the author started by creating a world of upper, upper class where money and position drove the marriage process and affairs were ignored, then I’d buy into the above scenario, which for the regency period isn’t historically inaccurate. (really awkward sentence, but can’t think of a better one, sorry)

Just something that’s been top of mind for me. My heroine is a young woman from an impoverished family, not hoping to make a good match and I’m trying to think how she feels about a pre-marital affair. And I’m setting rules for my world, that I’m hoping will take me through 5 books. I know if I screw it up now, I’ll end up paying down the road. (no pressure)

And on a completely side note: some amazing books out there. If we haven’t raved enough about Sherry Thomas, well here’s more. Read her second book, Delicious and it’s so good. And it’s a lesson in world building in a historical and characters staying true to their world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Good news: It's not all magic

Last time we had some DWT we were talking about how it makes each of us a little crazy when authors claim their stories simply come to them out of the ether, delivered by magic fairies to their keyboards.

While I'm willing to believe that there are some writers like that out there, I do question whether or not those same writers are getting better with each novel, or are able to build long careers by producing a consistently good product for readers each time. Particularly when they're on a 2-books-or-more-a-year schedule.

I'd also like to believe that most of these "it's all magic" authors are very hit or miss from book to book. Not that I'm suggesting everyone needs to write the same way, just suggesting that for most of us, it helps to have some idea of what we're doing and why some stories work better than others -- since not all of us have equal access to the keyboard fairies.

So this is all a lead in to more J.R. Ward admiration. In case no one's figured it out yet, I came back from the NJ conference, and the J.R. Ward/Jessica Andersen workshop in particular, all fired up and feeling better about the publishing industry than I have in a while.

Why? Because these two authors, who have very different processes, were both honest about it not all being magic. Sure, J.R. listens to her rice crispies, but she also made it clear how much work and thought and strategy (not to mention sweat, blood and tears) went into creating her highly successful series. Sure, she admits much of her best stuff, the stuff that knocks her readers off their chairs, came out of the ether (or the rice crispies) as she was writing, but the framework was already there. She had a plan. She knew why she thought these books would do well and where they'd fit in the market. She knew she was pushing the envelope of what romance readers were comfortable with reading, but she also thought about what themes and elements she needed to include to increase the chances romace readers would love her (quite violent and graphic for romance) books.

This got me fired up, because I love when the smart people achieve success. And by smart I mean the ones who don't get hung up on the rules and do oodles of things you're not supposed to do in romance, but do it with purpose and create great stories that are well plotted and have great characters and conflicts. ON PURPOSE. (Not by accident, or because the fairies came through.) I love it when those writers hit bestseller lists. LOVE it.

Because it gives me hope. Gives me hope that I can get there through hard work, and without full-time access to the fairies.

(The only thing that's terrified me, while reading her insiders' guide, was her saying that in 2005 she was worried the paranormal market was already peaking, so that even after she'd sold the first 3 books in her series, she wasn't confident she'd sell the seven more she had planned. That market peaking in 2005 doesn't bode well for me breaking into it now, but hey, I was already aware/worried about that. Just means I need to do even more to stand out. And I also think she revived that sub-genre. Took it in a new exciting direction opening up new doors for the rest of us. See? My optimism's back already.)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Endings part 2 or Credible Surprise or JR Ward blows my mind...again.

I've never claimed to be very smart. In fact I'm usually the first to point out what an idiot I am. Let me do that now, I am a total idiot. I had one of those moments this week, when I truly realized what something I've been yammering on and on about really means. It's like when I say over and over again "I have two kids." And the millionth time I say it I have a panic attack because suddenly I realize - holy crap I have two kids!!

Maureen and Sinead brought back the JR Ward guide to the BlackDagger series and trust me, I don't want to be this kind of fan. But apparently I am because I am gobbling the thing up, even the ridiculous things, like when the brothers show up on her message boards...yikes. But, she also talks about her process writing each book -what she knew and didn't know and the happy miracles that happened along the way in terms of plot, world-building and character. And anyone who has been blown away by this series should read this book -- Stephanie Doyle, I am talking to you.

She also gives us her rules of writing. And her rules Conflict is King and Credible Surprise is Queen, blew my little mind.

Yes, of course I know conflict. Conflict conflict conflict conflict. More and more, different and bigger and better and high stakes and internal and external - I know conflict. But this is it -- the conflict we give our characters WE HAVE TO RESOLVE!!!

It's easy to give your lovers roadblocks, but you've got to clear that stuff out of the way at some point. All of them. All that conflict that seems so riveting in your first act and the stuff you add in the second act because you think you need more conflict and then the stuff you shove into the back story because -- heck, your hero just isn't wounded enough. You gotta deal with it.

Sinead had a little rant a few weeks ago about how bad some endings are in books - writer's seem to get the idea of hooky beginnings and lots of conflict but then around page 260 they go...oops. And throw this crazy hail mary in an effort to resolve that conflict. And it doesn't work. I know that I am totally guilty of yadda yadda-ing my endings. In fact in my outlines to my editor I usually say "he grovels and they live happily ever after." And writing my endings is like pushing a boulder up hill and I just don't care at that point -- I'm so tired of all that conflict. And I am missing the chance to send a reader to bed at three am with a huge smile on her face. Endings are important - really important. They are why readers read romance. No doubt about it.

But, not only doing have to deal with all that conflict. Ward goes and ups the bar again with credible surprise. End your book in a way that the reader doesn't see coming and make it more satisfying than anything they were imagining. Reversing reader expectations to the tenth power. So, you have to make it something they didn't see coming but at the same time you have to plant some clues along the way so it's credible. It's not just about groveling, or near death experiences making character realize what they've lost or could lose. Or, as I can admit to having written - the hero taking a walk and figuring it all out. We've got to work on our endings as much as we work on our beginnings. We can't just let our endings happen. She talks about that ghost ending for those of you thinking of that. And for those of you thinking about that and saying perhaps Ward does not practice what she preaches, I remind you of Zsadist's ending, which was easily for my money the best ending in romance. Ever.

But what I need to think about every time I add conflict is how am I going to resolve it. How am I going to surprise the reader with my happily ever after? Good God - that's a challenge. I need a drink.
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