Nancy: Because Every Story Is a Special Snowflake

Writers love to talk about writing processes. We’re pantsers, or plotters, or ultra-plotters. We follow the hero’s journey, or Lisa Cron’s story genius method, or the snowflake method (no, seriously!), or one of a thousand either guru-inspired approaches. We write chronologically. Or out of order. Or by writing all the turning points first and filling in the interstitial spaces after that. We swear by writing every day, or binge-write a few times a week or a month.

By the time we’ve spent a few years on this journey and gotten a few completed stories under our belts, most of us have discovered our own process, our unique mix story theory and project organization and time management that ultimately results in a book. And once we understand our own approach, we learn to rely on it to get us through the next story deadline, and the one after that, and…you get the idea. And that can be a wonderful thing. It’s a well-worn path that becomes a shortcut to our creativity. An annotated roadmap to get us from nascent idea rattling around inside our bizarre writer brains to full-fledged story ready to go out into the world. A comforting guide to get us through the rough spots.

Until it stops working.

While every book requires tweaks and adjustments to our approach, every now and then there’s a book that so special (yes, that’s a euphemism for PITA) that we have to throw our trusty process right out the window. And so that’s where I find myself today, with the next installment in the Harrow’s Finest Five series, Harry and Adelia’s love story.

If this ever happens to you in your creative journey–and odds are, it will–it’s important to remember it’s normal, it’s surmountable, and it’s probably even good for you. After all, what good is creativity if it’s easy and stagnant and follows that same stupid rut-filled path every time, anyway? And in case you do ever hit that wall, I’ll tell you the same thing my wise writing friends have been telling me: Continue reading

Jeanne: Too Many Buts, Not Enough Therefores

I recently read a book that didn’t quite work for me.

The writing was strong and the author did a masterful job of pulling all the diverse plot threads together, but something about the story somehow missed. It took me a couple of days of analyzing it to put my finger on the problem: too many buts, not enough therefores.

If you’re not a long-time follower of this blog, that phrase may not make sense to you. (It may not make sense even if you are.)

Let me explain.

The single greatest “Aha!” moment during my time in McDaniel’s Romance Writing Program was hearing Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about “but and therefore.” Here’s a short (2:14) video of the two men explaining this rule to a classroom of students at NYU.

Here’s an even shorter recap: When you lay out the arc of your plot, the individual events should connect to each other via “but” or “therefore.” Like this: Continue reading

Michaeline: Sestina Fever!

I like short projects, but I also have a creative tendency to complicate them and turn them into puzzles that sometimes can only be tied to the original project parameters by very tenuous links.

For example, I’m the October Birthday Tixie for my reading list, and the job is relatively simple: look at a spreadsheet, then send birthday greetings to list members who have signed up for it on or near the day they’ve indicated (we’re a world-wide group, so we can have real or fictional time lag problems that graciously forgiven).

Image via Wikimedia Commons

But, it’s a creative group, and there are such fun things done with the idea! My most memorable birthday greeting involved a trek through the wild roses of Barrayar, and I believe there was Ma Kosti cake involved. (If you don’t know Ma Kosti, all you need to know is that her “little chocolate thingies” have the density of plutonium, and grown-ass warriors have been known to divert their plans in order to experience a Ma Kosti luncheon. Chef and food business entrepreneur extraordinaire.) I have the Head Birthday Tixie to thank for that!

My method is to choose a theme (cakes, or treasures, or fictional animals that need scientific names), write down on cards about 14 or 15 possible ideas (I have 13 people on my list), and then choose a card at random to spice up the greetings, and tie it into the Authorial Canon that my reading list enjoys.

This month, I decided to do different forms of poetry, and boy . . . I face each birthday with a combination of terror and thrill. Will the muse pull through? She’s done a decent job so far, although the scansion may be off and the syllable-counting not quite as precise as one would like.

So, the first trick was finding 13 different poetry forms; I got nervous as the first hits on Google were “the five different poetry forms” – but as I scrolled down the page, I saw “10 Poetry Forms You Must Know” and finally found one with 22, I think it was. Good enough! I started my cards – haiku, limericks, tanka, sonnet, etc.

Then it was time to write the first poem for October 1, and to my dismay, I got sestina. My first try, I have only an hour or so, and I’ve got to come up with a sestina! Continue reading

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?