Jilly: Plot Preferences

Almost all my favorite stories are character driven. What I want most from a book is a main character I can commit to. I love to dive deep into their head and stay there, living every word of their challenges, actions, setbacks, dark moment and ultimate triumph.

That means I prefer books written in first or close third person point of view with a powerful internal plot—a character who desperately wants something and will grow and change over the story as they battle to achieve it.

However. With the exception (maybe) of category romances, which focus intensely on the internal plot, a great character driven story needs a robust external plot to provide a framework for the hero or heroine’s adventure. And some external plots engage me more strongly than others.

I’ve been mulling this over for a week or two, ever since I finally read Martha Wells’ Murderbot books (four pricy novellas and a novel so far). The internal story is fascinating, because in this world the characters with biggest personalities and most powerful emotions are not humans but bots, especially Murderbot. The fact that I bought and read all five books is a tribute to the author’s skill in creating Murderbot’s voice, personality and emotional arc, because the external plot is computer-based space opera. Murderbot’s adventures turn on data, systems, drones, hacking, viruses and killware, with spacecraft, planets, wormholes and tractor beams. I know loads of people who enjoy those story elements. I’m so not one of them. I bought and read these books despite the external plot.

Which got me thinking about what I do enjoy in an external plot. I like main characters with career or life goals, because True Love alone is not enough—for a credible HEA the characters need something to do when they’re not kissing and cuddling. I like Jeanne’s heroine in The Demon Always Wins—a nurse who runs a free clinic on the Florida/Georgia border. I’m all in favor of the hero (retired quarterback, now CEO of a startup electronic car company) and heroine (language analyst for the CIA) in Kay’s upcoming trilogy. My heroine in The Seeds of Power is a princess who’s also an expert cultivator. The main character in my current WIP (The Seeds of Destiny) is a healer.

I love power politics. Like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, in which a forgotten half-goblin prince finds himself Emperor of the Elflands. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: derided underdog brilliantly survives the murderous excesses of the Roman empire and reluctantly ends up on the throne. Werewolf and shifter stories, which are usually built on hierarchies. And the brilliant, hilarious warlike theocracy of space vampires in Ilona Andrews’ Sweep of the Blade.

I don’t enjoy plot moppets—so Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester (Jeanne, Justine and lots of other people I know like this) or SEP’s Dream a Little Dream (a favorite of Michille’s) are not for me. And I have zero interest in shoes, clothes, shopping and the trappings of extreme wealth.

There must be others, but those are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

How about you? What kind of external story do you like best?

Jilly: Bake, Write, Repeat

Which of your newly acquired corona-shelter-lockdown skills is proving most useful?

I know I’m not the only one working on my baking craft. I’ve been cheering Elizabeth’s sourdough progress and applauding Kay’s inspired ingredient substitutions.

Not sure I’ve heard anyone else say that the experience has also been good for their writing, though. Michille said she’s a procrasti-baker. Weirdly, my adventures in bread-making have provided me with both food for thought and a handy writing routine.

Creative inspiration
As you know, I write fantasy romance in a historical setting. My fictional world is similar to northern England or Scotland, broadly late Medieval or early Tudor period. Of course I knew bread was the main carbohydrate in my characters’ diet—they had no potatoes or rice to bulk out their meals. I hadn’t thought enough about how the quality of flour and the kind of bread would vary according to a person’s social standing (apparently in the real world at that time there were at least seven different kinds). Or to wonder whether a character would have their own bread oven, or would take proven dough to a communal bread oven and pay to have it baked, or would buy it ready to eat from a bakehouse. To think about where and how they would acquire flour. How they’d find the time to hand-bake on an almost continuous basis. What they might flavor their dough with. And so on.

It’s not that I expect to use all those details in my books. Maybe a snippet will come in useful, here and there. But it’s a very practical way to immerse myself in my story world and connect with the rhythm of my characters’ lives. And it gives me something to think about while I’m kneading away 🙂 .

A writing routine
Making bread by hand isn’t something you can rush. At my kitchen temperature, a simple loaf needs to sit quietly under a damp tea towel for around two hours—an hour after first kneading, and another hour after it’s been knocked back and shaped. That rhythm works wonderfully well as long-ish writing sprints. Bash the dough, leave it to rise, set a timer, write for an hour. Knock the dough back and shape the loaf, leave it to prove, set a timer, write for an hour. If things are going really well, write for another 35 minutes while the loaf bakes.

Or even better-make sourdough. Mix the ingredients with the starter, set a timer, write for an hour. Add salt, write for another half-hour to an hour. Then turn the dough every half an hour for four hours. Write for eight half-hour sprints between turns. Shape the loaf. Write for another half hour. Then put the loaf in a proving basket and leave it in the fridge overnight. I get at least six hours’ worth of writing time, complete with timed breaks to get up and walk around. And fresh baked sourdough for breakfast.

I feel absurdly pleased to think I’ve inadvertently acquired a small lasting corona-benefit to offset all those missed birthdays, canceled holidays, and absent friends.

How about you? Have you discovered any corona-compensations, large or small?

Jilly: Unputdownable or Re-readable?

If you had to choose, would you prefer a book that’s unputdownable or one that’s re-readable?

That’s what I was asking myself yesterday. I’ve been working through a TBR list of new-to-me authors who write in sub-genres similar to mine—historical fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale re-tellings, what Michaeline memorably described as cozy high fantasy. They’ve all had something interesting to offer: an engaging premise, charismatic heroine, fascinating world, compelling conflict, lovely word-smithery—but none of them put the whole package together in a way that had me transported, desperate to read more and sold on the next in the series.

After a dozen damp squibs I started to wonder if the problem was me, so I took a break and paged through my Kindle to refresh my palate with a guaranteed good read or two. I have a new-ish Kindle with all my purchases on it, but I also have a really old device where most of my library is consigned to the archive. It’s my Keeper Kindle. The only live titles are books which have really grabbed me (unputdownable) and those which I re-read again and again (re-readable).

As I scanned my options, I realized I need to narrow the selection even further. There are some excellent, compelling, well-written stories that I return to again and again. Others that I was glued to first time around, but somehow when I’m looking for a special read I always choose something else.

Take historical romance author Loretta Chase. She’s an excellent writer and a brilliant storyteller. I love Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and her Carsington books. I particularly enjoy and often re-visit Miss Wonderful, thanks to its Derbyshire setting and Industrial Revolution-inspired plot. It’s clever, funny and energetically upbeat, so I root for the characters as they battle to overcome a seemingly insurmountable conflict. The book doesn’t just have a happy ending, it makes me feel happy as I read it. Contrast that with Silk is for Seduction, the first Dressmaker book. It’s powerful and emotional. It has a brilliant dark moment and one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read. The problem is that for most of the book it’s impossible to see how the characters can find a happy ending together, even though it’s equally apparent that they’ll never be happy with anyone else. Even though Love Conquers all in the end, reading the book is an emotionally stressful experience. I bet loads of readers love being put through the emotional wringer, knowing it will all be OK in the end. Not me. On first read I found the book utterly unputdownable. I don’t want to read it again.

In the end my choices were Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor followed by T Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace. I had a fabulous time. I’ve read both books multiple times but familiarity only enhanced my enjoyment—several hours of warm and uplifting feelgood, like catching up with old friends. I don’t think I’d describe either book as unputdownable, because even on first reading I took my time and savored every page.

The other question I asked myself was whether I’d like my own books to be unputdownable or re-readable. Obviously I’d love them to be both, but if I had to choose, I’d want to be re-readable. Unputdownable stories might bring bestseller status and greater financial rewards, but to stay with a reader over the years and bring them recurring pleasure would be my definition of success.

How about you? Do you have a preference, as a reader or a writer?

Kay: A Blurb for a Blurb

I got nothin’ this week. I spent a long, difficult Saturday having endless problems uploading a new cover (yay!) and newly formatted interior (double yay!!) for a paperback edition (triple yay!!!) of an old novel to Amazon, which necessitated tweaking my book blurb, among other refreshes. Nine hours later, I had a carpal tunnel flare up. So I’m typing briefly with two fingers. Nothing but good times ahead!

But in an effort to be useful (and mercifully short), I’m adding a link to an article about writing blurbs and teasers. Some of you might find it useful, as I did. (Full disclosure: I’m a columnist on the Writers Fun Zone site.)

Jilly: Searching for Niol

I don’t know about you, but I’m digging in for the long haul. It would be lovely to think the world was starting to return to normal, but I’m not making any plans that involve spending significant time in the wider world. Fingers crossed for next year.

Luckily I have a new writing project to keep me busy. I just finished up the developmental edits on The Seeds of Exile and sent it off for copy editing. Yay! Now I need to get to work on the next Elan Intrigues book, The Seeds of Destiny. I have a pretty good idea of the central story (more on that later), but I’ve acquired an important secondary character and right now I know next to nothing about him.

The Seeds of Exile is about the relationship between twenty-six-year-old Daire Edevald, crown prince and ruler of the wealthy city state of Caldermor, and Warrick Edevald, his twenty-one year old brother and heir. As I wrote the novella, I discovered a third brother, eighteen-year-old Niol. He doesn’t appear in the book, but he features strongly in the battle between the brothers and at the end of the novella Daire sends a message to call Niol home.

Salient details about Niol: he was sent away aged eight, to be raised at a friendly court on a remote peninsula four days’ ride away from Caldermor. That was a decade ago and he hasn’t been back since, though he’s always known he might be recalled. His political value is as backup to Warrick, just as Warrick is backup for Daire.

I was talking through my edit report with Karen, my developmental editor. She said “So, Niol. What’s he been doing and what’s he like?” Er. Good question. Better figure that out.

All the Edevald boys have been brought up to do their duty, no matter the personal cost, but they have very different styles and personalities. Daire is showy and theatrical, totally OTT, with a talent for political maneuvring and a big heart. Warrick is scholarly, introverted, idealistic, a touch pedantic. So what is Niol? Physically he’s like his brothers– tall and whippy, with masses of curly hair and a cute smile. As a character he can be almost anything I want him to be except an out-and-out villain.

I’d like him to be very different from the other two sons, and since he was raised in a different country I can easily justify that.

Is he happy or resentful that he was sent away?

How does he feel about the family and/or tutors who were given the responsibility of raising him? Does he feel more loyal to them than to Caldermor?

What’s his personality like? What skills has he learned in the last decade?

How does he feel about being recalled? I think he could have visited over the years but has chosen not to, which suggests to me he doesn’t see Caldermor as his home. He has no reason to feel brotherly love for Daire or Warrick.

I’d like Niol to be fun to write, and to read about. What kind of young man do you think he’d be?

Jeanne: Back to Basics: Acts and Turning Points

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Since throwing away a (really awful) 60,000 word draft of for my current work-in-progress back in mid-April, I’ve been struggling with the updated story line. I’ve got a lot of ideas about what could happen, but I need a framework to ensure that those incidents escalate, and that the external story mirrors the internal character arc so we understand why the character is changing.

This quest led me back to an assignment we completed at McDaniel that was designed for exactly that purpose. Jenny gave us a template that looked at the function of each of the five turning points in a four-act story.

  1. Inciting Incident
    • Introduce main character(s)
    • Get the action rolling
  2. Change of Plans
    • Surprise to protagonist and reader
    • Things are worse than he thought
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he’d set for himself
    • Forces him into an action so strong it turns the story around into a new story
  3. Point of No Return
    • Surprises the reader and the protagonist
    • Forces him to change his plans
    • Pushes past an internal limit he set for himself
    • He can no longer return to his stable life, even if he wants to
  4. The Dark Moment
    • The going-to-hell moment in the story when all seems lost and the protagonist is in crisis.
    • Moment when protagonist hits bottom, forcing him to rise again.
    • Reader is on her feet, cheering him on for that last push.
    • Revelation through action so strong it turns the story around and makes it a new story
  5. Climax, aka Obligatory Scene
    • Protagonist and antagonist meet in a final battle for all the marbles
    • Catharsis for reader, release from all the tension
    • Answers all the question, end of the journey
    • Revelation through action so strong it satisfies the reader completely and makes her want to read the story all over again.

My writing method is somewhere between plotting and pantsing. I need to have these five turning points defined or I wander around aimlessly. But once I have them, I’m comfortable winging it.

How much structure do you need before you start writing? Or, as a reader, how important is a well thought-out plot to you?

Jilly: Picking Your Brains

Is anyone up for a spot of brainstorming?

I’m finishing up my developmental edits of The Seeds of Exile, also known as Daire’s novella. There’s a small, impromptu wedding in the book (not Daire’s). In addition to the bride and groom there are a scattering of witnesses, one matron of honor and one groomsman.

The story takes place in a historical fantasy world a little like northern England or the Scottish border country. The time period would be vaguely late Middle Ages or early Tudor. With lots of otherworldly antics and fantasy tweaks.

There are gods and monsters, but no dominant theology. The marriage in question is a legal and political occasion (as well as a romantic one), but not religious. My edit notes quite correctly suggest that I should find terms for the official supporter of the husband-to-be and wife-to-be that suit my imaginary world and the story.

I was chatting to Eight Lady Jeanne about this on Friday, and she came up with the excellent suggestion of investigating the history of both roles.

As far as I can tell, the role of a matron of honor, maid of honor and bridesmaids over the ages and continents has been to protect the bride by providing her with a degree of camouflage, thereby confusing and confounding jealous suitors, evil spirits and potential kidnappers.

The role of the groomsman/men has been either to help the groom protect the bride against jealous rivals and potential kidnappers, or to assist him in kidnapping his intended (ew). Continue reading

Jilly: Cast of Thousands

Do you read series? What do you expect from the final book?

This week I happened to read the last book in two different long-running bestselling series, one urban fantasy and one straight-up fantasy. In each case the series ran to ten or more books, plus novellas and other related stories in a complex world with a large cast of characters.

To my surprise both grand finales left me underwhelmed, for the same reason. About a third of each book was devoted to wrapping up the series story arc in a high-stakes, satisfying manner. The other two thirds made sure that every single significant character across the entire series (barring those who’d met an untimely end) reappeared and contributed to the story resolution in some way.

It reminded me of the final number in a musical, where the entire cast is on the stage together, giving it full beans. Big finish. Rapturous applause. Curtain. Followed by individual curtain calls for the principals.

I was quite pleased to see some of the characters again, but after a while the whole setup became predictable, even tiresome. It distracted me. I started placing bets with myself about which character would appear next and how they’d be shoe-horned into the final confrontation.

These aren’t books written by newbie writers. They’re traditionally published titles written by skilled authors with proven track records. This can’t be a mistake. It must be what readers (or most readers) expect and enjoy.

When I’ve finished my Elan Intrigues prequel books I’m planning to write a long-ish series with the same protagonist (Alexis). At the moment I think it will be six books, set in various locations and with a hefty cast of supporting characters. If best practice would be to make the final book a kind of ‘greatest hits’ experience for the reader as well as saving the world and giving the H&H a happy ever after, I should try to get my head around that now. It might make a difference to the way I write the earlier books.

What do you think? Do you like to see all your favorite characters lend a hand at the end of a series, or do you, like me, just want the author to draw the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion?

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: Deep POV Takeaways

Depositphotos_18212529_l-2015Over the past month I took an online class on writing deep point-of-view with Linnea Sinclair.

I’ve taken several classes with Linnea and they are, hands down, the best online writing workshops I’ve ever found. If you’re looking to improve any area of your craft, you can do no better than one of her classes.

One of the things she does with her homework assignments is to ask each student to begin by mentioning any ah-ha! moment they from that particular lesson.  Here are a few of mine from the class.

  • Deep POV is like spice–you add in a little to intensify the flavor. You don’t have to create an entire dish from it.

This was news to me. I always felt like if I did any “telling” rather than “showing” I was being a lazy writer. Not true. Deep POV is most useful for moments of great impact. Telling, on the other hand, is good when you want to pick up the pace or for events that aren’t significant enough to belabor.

  • When writing a deep POV segment, consider using this formula:
    1. Action (i.e. stimulus)
    2. Decision (i.e. response)
    3. Thought
    4. Emotion

In this formula, you may think of Action as Stimulus and Decision as Response. So if you were writing a scene where a she-demon walks into her apartment to find it trashed, it might go something like this: Continue reading