Jilly: Tell Me More!

Do you like your romance novels to be tightly focused, or do you prefer a wider, more complete view of the main characters and their lives?

I read a book last weekend that was passed to me by a friend of a friend. It was a romance, by an author I hadn’t read before, in a subgenre I don’t normally read. I’ve been on a fantasy/urban fantasy/steampunk kick for the last few years, with excursions into historical, paranormal and suspense. This was a contemporary romance with dashes of suspense and adventure.

My friend has high standards, so I was confident the book would be well-written. It was, but I found it enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure. The heroine and the hero were engaging, complex characters. They both had strong personalities, interesting careers, strong goals and challenging backstories. The setting was exotic and spectacular. The conflict was a little iffy, but both characters faced tough external obstacles and had to overcome some level of internal conflict in order to earn their Happy Ever After.

Sounds good, right?

What drove me nuts 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

Jilly: Too Many Dogs

Do your favorite authors have signature metaphors? Do you?

I’ve just finished working through my developmental edit on The Seeds of Power (yay!). Among many other smart observations and suggestions from my editor, Karen Dale Harris, I was surprised to find this comment: You use metaphors with dogs a lot. Do a search for “dog” and try to vary this.

My reaction: I do? Dogs? I don’t even have a dog. And no dog plays a significant part in this book. Really?

A search revealed the following:

  • The man was like a fighting dog. Once he sank his teeth into a problem, he never let go.
  • Her whole body came to attention, like a hunting dog on point.
  • Captain Randsen’s hackles rose like a well-trained fighting dog.
  • The prince was dressed and waiting. Soft boots, loose overshirt and trousers, and the ill-contained impatience of a dog who’d been promised a walk, despite the fact that the lad probably hadn’t gone to bed until the small hours.
  • Daire said nothing, but if he’d been a dog, his ears would have pricked up.
  • He put his enforced inactivity to good use, worrying at his mission like a dog with a sore paw.
  • Oriel had described her as a strong ruler, politically astute, fiercely protective of her family and their domain. Again, nothing to set the dogs howling.
  • She had the Hollin deep blue eyes and challenging stare, and she looked at him as though he’d thrown her pet lapdog to the hounds for a snack.

Yikes! Dogs, dogs, everywhere, and I hadn’t even noticed.

I’ve fixed it, but I wonder what else I write without realizing. And I’m even more convinced that quality editing is money well spent.

Do you, or your favorite authors, have a go-to metaphor? Or is it just me?

Jeanne: A Body in Motion

I just finished reading a first chapter for a friend who’d been wanting me to critique for her. (Note: I’m pretty sure this falls under the heading of “Be Careful What You Wish For”).

Her writing is solid—clear, grammatical, easy to follow—and the character she introduced was sympathetic and likable. Great start.

The problem I had with the scene was that nothing much happened. And not only did nothing much happen, but the character in question didn’t even move around very much. He got out of his car, climbed the steps to someone’s front porch, dodged a bee, and knocked on the door.

That’s not a lot of activity for eight pages.

After I fired off my response email, suggesting she incorporate more action and present conflict, I hopped on Instagram, where I came across a meme on “8 Reasons Your First Scene Isn’t Working.” They were all good points, but the list didn’t include lack of action.

One of the things we learned at McDaniel was that readers judge characters, not by what they say, or even think, but by what they do.

All of that made me think about the motion/energy/activity level in my own new first scene. My scene has conflict, but there’s still a strong aura of “talking heads” about it—just two characters standing around yapping at each other.

Which, now that I’m aware of it, I can fix.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it okay with you if the first scene in a book is just people talking or thinking? Or do you want to see some bodies in motion?

Jilly: Rocks In My Head

I know it’s a holiday weekend and the sun’s shining, but is anyone up for a quick game of world-building “what if”?

As regular readers of this blog know, I write fantasy. Stories of chivalry, rivalry, power, and love, set in a fantastic pre-industrial landscape. I love my weird, crazy world, but I’m currently working through developmental edits, and after some good discussions with my editor and beta readers (thanks, Jeanne and Kay!) I’m looking for ways to make my stories stronger. In particular, I’d like to find a few well-chosen details to amplify the fantastic feel of my world.

I write a very practical kind of fantasy. My stories have powerful jewels, miraculous golden beans, sinister talking rocks and uncanny, mystical monks, but all my otherworldly elements are solidly rooted in the everyday. I don’t have dragons or spells or magical woo-woo. What I need is to identify ordinary things that would be natural and useful in my world, but which would not be found in a regular historical story. Small details that don’t drive the plot but that would support and enrich the world of jewels, beans, rocks, monks etc.

This week, I think I found something useful hiding in plain sight. Do you know what apotropaic marks are? Me neither. Apparently they’re symbols or patterns scratched into the fabric of a building to keep witches out. They’re most commonly found in places that witches were thought likely to be able to enter a building, such as doors, windows, or chimneys. Continue reading

Jilly: Craft Book Squee–Dreyer’s English

Last year I decided I wouldn’t buy any more writing craft books until I’d made better use of all the ones I already own and have at best cherry-picked my way through. A couple of months ago I broke my self-imposed rule, and I’m so glad I did.

Dreyer’s English is subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” The author is the Copy Chief of Random House, so he should know a thing or two about cleaning up one’s prose. The wonder and the joy of it is that while some of his book is about The Right Way and The Wrong Way to write, as much again is about ignoring the so-called “rules” and making mindful, intelligent choices to optimize your story and amplify your own voice.

He had me at the introduction: Continue reading

Jilly: Uglycry stories

Do you enjoy books and authors that make you uglycry?

I’m currently participating in an online workshop offered by Jeanne’s RWA Chapter (Central Ohio Fiction Writers). It’s called Inside Out: Crafting Your Character’s Internal Conflict, taught by Linnea Sinclair. So far, so very good—the class is challenging me to dig deep into my characters’ innermost selves. It’s also making me think about how best to use the discoveries I’m making to tell the kind of stories I want to tell.

This week Jeanne, who is also taking the class, raised a question about her WIP. One of the other students offered a suggestion that brilliantly fits the heroine’s situation and is so gut-wrenchingly powerful it would hurt my heart to read it. I know this kind of storyline makes a book unforgettable. I believe it would earn reviews and might potentially win awards. I think it could make lifelong fans of readers who seek out this kind of emotional torture and the catharsis that follows when the heroine triumphs and everything turns out okay after all.

That’s not me. I find that the emotional distress of the tense build-up makes me feel miserable long after the relief of the satisfying resolution has dissipated.

I’m still scarred by the ending of Gone With The Wind, and I last read that when I was a teen 😉 .

Or take Loretta Chase (love, love, love Loretta Chase). I happily read and re-read Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and all her Carsington family books, over and over. Those books pack a powerful emotional punch, but the story momentum always heads in a positive direction, and humor balances the serious undertones, so I never feel distressed. I can relax and enjoy the ride. Conversely, her first Dressmaker book (Silk is for Seduction) knotted my heart in my chest. The writing is brilliant. The black moment is one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read, and it made me uglycry. Continue reading