Jeanne: Finding Your Beginning in Your Ending

jen-malone-425423679Last week I attended an online workshop presented by Middle Grade and YA author Jen Malone on the topic of Show Don’t Tell.

The class focused on opening scenes, and how to write them in a way that provides enough information for your readers to understand what’s going on without drowning them in backstory. Following are a couple of gems I gleaned from the class.

First, a handy little rule of thumb for gauging the balance between showing and telling in your first scene. If you’re not sure if it’s too heavy on the telling, try visualizing it as a movie opening. If you need a voice-over to get through the scene, you’re telling too much.

The other thing she said that really struck me was to envision your main character the way you want them to be at the end of the story and then create a first scene that portrays the character as the opposite of that.

That was fairly easy to do for Lilith, my protagonist, because she’s a familiar character from my previous two books. The character I’ve been struggling with is Samael, Lilith’s ex-husband and the head of Hell’s legal department (i.e. the devil’s advocate).

I knew some of his character traits: ambitious, competitive (every lawyer I’ve ever met is over-the-top competitive) and a mind like a steel trap. But I couldn’t figure out what this would look like in my opening scene.

So, I tried out her method. At the end of the story, I want him to be:

  • Willing to give up being a power in Hell
  • Willing to lose if it will give him the life he wants
  • In touch with his emotions and able to recognize that not all choices can be made strictly via logic
  • Family-focused

Which means at the beginning I want to portray him as:

  • Ambitious
  • Competitive
  • Ruthlessly logical
  • Career-driven

This may not sound like much, but now that I know how to portray him in that opening scene, I feel like I have a much better handle on it.

What tricks do you use to help you get started?

Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Five Why’s

Question Concept with Magnifying GlassA couple of weeks ago we talked about a technique used in manufacturing problem-solving that can be adapted to fiction writing, the fishbone diagram.

Another Six Sigma technique that can be adapted for fiction-writing is Five Why’s. With this technique, the problem solver attempts to get to the root of the problem by asking “why?” five times in succession. This technique is used to avoid declaring victory before really drilling down to the fundamental issue.

Manufacturing situation: a customer rejects a print order because it’s flawed.

  1. Why is it flawed? Because the press wasn’t set up properly.
  2. Why wasn’t the press set up properly? Because the operator set it up wrong.
  3. Why did the operator set it up wrong? Because he wasn’t properly trained.
  4. Why wasn’t he properly trained? Because that part of the training program was discontinued.
  5. Why was that part of the training discontinued? As a cost-saving measure.

If you stopped after your second “why?” you would assume the pressman was at fault, when in fact the root cause is a policy issue.

(Note: Five Why’s is particularly useful, in my experience, when you want to actually solve a problem, rather than just find someone to blame it on.)

In fiction writing, I find this technique really useful when I’m trying to dig down into my characters’ motivations. For example: Continue reading

Jeanne: A Tale of Two Stories

Identical Twin Babies in Green BlanketsAbout a year and a half ago, I got an idea for what I planned to be the third book in my Touched by a Demon series. The thought was to write a Faust story–a tale of Megan Swensen, an author who sells her soul to the devil to make the New York Times Bestseller list. The romance would be a second-chance-at-love story. James, a third-year law student and her grad school boyfriend, helped negotiate the terms of the contract under the impression that he was helping her with a literary assignment for school. When he discovered the truth, they broke up. As the book opens, seven years have passed, the contract is coming due and Megan is panicking.

For its demon, the book would feature Lilith, the she-demon who was a player in the first two books, as Megan’s literary agent and Hellish customer service representative. I even had a title–The Demon Wore Stilettos. Continue reading

Nancy: Who said that?

In the past couple of months, I have been out in the writing wilds, reviewing multiple manuscripts. I return to you now with disturbing news: someone has absconded with all the dialogue tags.

Or so I thought, when three of the last four manuscripts I reviewed had long passages of dialogue with no attributions. None of those innocuous “he said” “she said” phrases. No bodies in motion in the same paragraph to show who must have said it. Not even the slightly more annoying scene blocking some of us (ahem, are those three fingers pointing back at me?) tend to use, at least in early drafts, for variation. This lack of tags occurred in scenes with two people talking. And three characters. And even five! Yes, I read a scene with five people in a conversation, with no way to discern, from the words on the page, who was saying what.

I got a sinking feeling.

When a trend appears across manuscripts of writers who do not know each other (and therefore probably haven’t come up with a new technique themselves), I smell “advice” emanating from “professionals”. When I asked one of the writers about the lack of tags, she confirmed my fear. She had cut most of the dialogue tags from her manuscript after her writing group (that’s a whole other blog post, isn’t it?) told her she should stop using them. WHAT?!!! I wondered out loud where they had learned this…ok, I’m struggling not to use profanity, so imagine some nicer word for BS. According to my writer, they got the advice from agents. More precisely, from agents ranting on Twitter.

That loud thwack heard ’round the world was my head hitting my desk. Continue reading

Nancy: In Praise of Backstory

Last week, Jeanne wrote about needing help figuring out how the characters in her book progressed to a second date in their years’-earlier relationship. In the comments, there were some great suggestions for how she could figure out how the hero convinced the heroine to go out with him after a less-than-stellar first date. In addition to the brainstorming, I liked some other things about Jeanne’s post, such as 1) an excerpt – yay! and 2) some love for the backstory she’s creating for her characters.

We’ve discussed backstory on the blog before. I wrote about it here and here, giving some examples of where you’ve seen and why it’s not such a bad thing. As I’m deep into a story that depends on multiple levels of backstory, and juxtaposed with Jeanne sharing her bit of backstory she’s writing for her WIP, I thought it a prescient time for a reminder of how important this nifty little element of fiction is. According to writing teacher extraordinaire Lisa Cron’s philosophy, backstory is the backbone of story itself. Continue reading

Jeanne: Help a Writer Out

It seems to me that the second-chance-at-love trope, by its very nature, calls for more backstory than fresh-out-of-the-box romance. (Even Jenny Crusie, who dislikes backstory more than any other writer I’ve ever known, wound up including a dash of it in Maybe This Time, her second-chance-at-love romance.)

question-mark-1872665_640Possibly because I had a bias against backstory drilled into me during the McDaniel program, I tend to minimize it in my books. But if you have characters who were once together and broke up for some reason and you’re now attempting to join them back together, I think the reader needs to know what caused problems the first time around.

And if they’re going to achieve a happy-ever-after ending, readers need to know what caused their problems the first time around so they can watch for the character arcs that will address those problems.

Right now, the main characters in The Demon Wore Stilettos (cover reveal coming soon!) broke up because she got him to help her negotiate a contract to sell her soul to Satan by telling him it was a literary exercise for her MFA program.  Underneath, though, the bigger issue is that she tends to conceal information and he has a driving need to expose the truth.

This shows up as a problem from the first time they meet, in the scene below: Continue reading

Elizabeth: We Interrupt this Story . . .

Like several others here on the blog, I’ve spent a bit of time recently reading and judging contest entries. Some have been really good and some, like Jilly mentioned in her Give that Girl A Goal post, have suffered from an unfortunate lack of goal-motivation-conflict direction.

Sadly, a few have also suffered from “and here’s a big chunk of backstory”. That’s annoying enough in a full-length book, but deadly in a 50-page contest entry where the author has a short amount of story real-estate to make a strong impression.

It can be hard for a new writer to avoid weighing down their story with all of the details about the characters that they have dreamed up over time, just like it can be a challenge not to include all the fascinating facts that might have been dug up during the research phase of the story. As we were taught at McDaniel (and frankly in most wring craft classes), backstory is best when it is interwoven throughout the story with a light touch. Too much backstory, especially in big chunks, can slow the story down, break the tension, and cause your reader to lose interest.

Swaths of backstory aren’t just the purview of beginning writers, however. I recently read a new mystery story by a previously-unread-by-me author that was just swimming in it. The book was part of a popular series with more than a thousand reviews on Amazon and a 4.5 rating, so I had high expectations. The story got off to an okay start, but after about 75 pages or so, the current action stopped and there was about 100 pages of backstory. While it provided information about the heroine’s past, it was completely unnecessary. The relevant information could have been woven into the story with a few well-placed sentences here and there. Instead, it was a big, not particularly interesting slog of “this happened, and then this happened.” After about 20 pages I started to skim. By the time the story returned to the current action, I had lost interest and pretty much speed-read the rest of the story.

Unfortunate, as I had high hopes that this would be the beginning of an entertaining, new series. Continue reading

Michaeline: The Conspiracy We Need NOW

A young girl from the early 1800s carries a big fancy sword over her shoulder.

Girls keep finding these swords. What are they going to do with them? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

What am I talking about? I’m talking about girls finding swords by lakes. If you’ve been on social media at all in the past 48 hours, you’ve probably heard about the little girl in Sweden (named Saga! Her name is Saga! How perfect is that?) who found a rusty old pre-Viking sword while playing near a lake.

If you haven’t heard about it, you need to check out this article in English from Sweden, or this Bustle article. The Bustle article also reminded me that this isn’t the first time this century we’ve heard about a “lady of the lake”. LAST summer, there was a little girl in Cornwall named Matilda who also found a sword in the pond that, according to local legend, had yielded up Excalibur, the sword King Arthur borrowed from the Lady of the Lake, and which eventually spawned one of the funniest Monty Python skits (3:16) of the 20th century. Matilda’s father said he thought the sword must be a movie prop that isn’t very old, but still, it remains. In September of 2017, a seven-year-old girl finds a sword in the lake. Sometime in the summer of 2018, an eight-year-old girl finds a sword in the lake, and this time, it’s a historical sword.

Do you see the pattern forming? I predict that in the spring of 2019, a nine-year-old girl is going to find a sword, probably somewhere in Germany, and this time, she’s going to save the entire world with it! The Ladies of the Lakes are collectively fed up with all our nonsense, and they are ready to get things fixed. No sense in waking up good ol’ Arthur. He borked it last time with Modred and Guinivere, so it’s time to put someone sensible in charge.

This, my friends, is the conspiracy we need now. The secret society of ladies of the lake could bail us all out! Sure, it’s no basis for a rational system of government, but we’re dealing with an awfully low bar these days.

Michaeline: Wedding Stories Part 2: When They Don’t Work

1950s wedding scene with a female guest approaching the bride and groom as they cut the cake.

Remember when we were protesting the patriarchy, darling? And now, here you are, married and everything! To my boyfriend! Just imagine!(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I talked about two of my favorite books in the world, and how they had weddings driving their plots. Then, I read a short story about a wedding industry worker who finds romance, and it didn’t work at all for me. So, I guess that while I love a trope, a trope isn’t going to do all the work of enchanting me into a story.

What exactly went wrong?

Well, first, the heroine was selfish and kind of whiny. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that, because I do like a snarky heroine who knows what she wants. Where is the line? This one was delayed by protestors in delivering a cake, and thinks to them, “Hey! I have a business to run here!”

Intellectually, maybe I can give the author back a couple of points that I deducted. After all, when she wrote this a few years ago, protest and rallies weren’t a major part of the American national dialog. But today, in 2018? I could feel a little sympathy, but combined with Our Girl’s other character faults, it just came across as self-entitled.

Another trope the author used was “he was once my love, but I still resent him for dumping me” which isn’t a trope I have strong feelings about, either way. The author used the “his wife died of cancer” card, and I really didn’t like the sudden self-realization that flooded over Our Girl – that she was being bitchy to a guy who lost his wife to cancer.

“I got a girl preggo, then married her (even though I didn’t want to impregnate and marry you), and then she died.” “Oh, good, now I can feel sorry for you, instead of angry.”

First, I don’t like that he gets a pass because of personal tragedy, and second, I don’t like the way she feels she has to swallow her anger and feelings. But hey, it was a short story. We don’t have enough real estate to spare for a long reconciliation. This did the job, quick and dirty as it was.

We did, however, have plenty of real estate for TWO wedding cake assistants and description of high heels. I feel the pacing could have been sped up a bit.

The biggest problem, though, Continue reading