Jilly: Reading Week Lessons Learned

For reasons best left unexplained except to say all’s well that ends well, last week I spent a few days out of action, followed by a few more recuperating on my sofa with a restorative book or ten.

When I’d soothed myself with all my favorite re-reads, I decided to try a highly rated fantasy series. It’s been on my radar for ages but I never bought the books because while I like the premise, the blurb and the reviews, the story is written in first person, present tense, which isn’t my catnip. The POV character (in this case, the heroine) is telling the story, so either she’s using present tense to describe something that happened in the past, which seems affected, or she’s providing a running commentary in the midst of the story action, which suggests she’s not fully engaged in what she’s doing. If the heroine isn’t all-in, why would I be?

No matter. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

The writing was good—good enough to get me past the first-person-present-tense obstacle. The characters were engaging, and the world fascinating. The chemistry between the heroine and hero was credible, with plenty of zing. Sadly I stopped after Book One of the trilogy, for two main reasons.

One (the lesser of the two) was that the book didn’t have a self-contained storyline. The characters grew and changed, but the book was a collection of unanswered questions that will no doubt be resolved over the remainder of the trilogy. So there was no moment of thrilling catharsis at the end of the book, just a vague feeling of “to be continued…” .This was a light-bulb moment for me, since the edit report on my first Alexis book (edits still on hold until I finish the prequel story) said I was guilty of this same folly. Aha. Okay. Must cogitate.

The second issue, which really annoyed me, was the author’s persistent use of deus ex machina at critical plot points. (According to Wikipedia: deus ex machina is a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived). The story may be a fantasy, but that does not give the author the right to wave her magic wand every time the plot gets too difficult for the characters to resolve on their own.

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Michaeline: In Like a Lion, and Vice Versa

A princess feeding two lions in a courtyard

If you feed your fiction lions the right things, they turn into lambs by the end of the month, right? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a very long time since I’ve dipped into Robert McKee’s screenwriting guide, Story, so I may be misremembering the details of scene reversal. But, even if it is misremembered, this is what I need right now.

Do your scenes turn? McKee’s blogsite asks that question here, and as I remembered it, one way of doing this is making sure your character comes out of the scene 180 degrees turned around from the way she or he enters it. For example, Betty starts the scene happy. She’s going to marry her rich boyfriend, Jon, and Continue reading

Michaeline: Settings in Living Color

A girl and a sailor on a boat under the moonlight; the imagery is dark blue, and reflects the "My Secret Marriage" theme of the cover of the magazine.

Dark blue love, vs. happy pink love? The colors of the sea reflected in the color of his eyes? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a very interesting review of Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson in Vox this week. Rebecca Jennings talks about how the movie uses dark, dull imagery pre-meet, then the film turns into Living Color with all the flowers and hearts in the world, crammed into the New York setting.

Of course, Isn’t It Romantic isn’t the first film to use darkness and light. You can find plenty of articles about this little trick, and it’s as old as color film itself. Notably, The Wizard of Oz was filmed in black and white while Dorothy was in humdrum old Kansas, but the images turned into gorgeous color when she was transported to magical Oz.

And, while that particular trick was part of the film, the original book also used color to good effect. “The Emerald City” invoked specific images for readers, and the Yellow Brick Road would have been not as effective if it had been the Shiny Brick Road.

It’s a nice reminder for us to use color in our stories. (It probably makes doing the cover a little more specific, too.) How do you use color in your stories? Or, do you have a story that used color to invoke feelings, emotions, themes and ideas very well?

Jilly: Give the Girl a Goal!

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week judging contest entries.

We’re talking genre fiction, not literary works. I’ve been judging as a reader. Clean, smooth prose is good, but it should be a delivery vehicle for strong storytelling.

Many of the pages I’ve read have been thrilling. The heroine has a strong, active role – she’s a bodyguard, or a firefighter, or sniper, or a PI, or whatever. The world-building has on the whole been convincing and the writing sound.

So it pains me to say I would not have bought any of the stories I read, nor even bothered to read on if the author had given them to me gratis.

The problem, I think, was that not one of these strong, active heroines had a goal. They had expertise, they were parachuted into action-packed scenes, and they responded as they had been trained to do. They saved themselves, children, cute puppies and even hunky heroes. Things happened to them, and they reacted. Boom! Pow! Continue reading

Michaeline: Music behind the words

I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty.” – Edgar Allen Poe (sourced from Goodreads)

We’ve talked many times on this blog about creating a playlist to help us get a better grip on character, setting or the feeling of a plot. And we’ve also discussed (here and among ourselves) the power of a good writing soundtrack that helps us tune out the world and dip into that trance state where good writing just flows.

And I believe we may have even mentioned the usefulness of reading a late draft aloud; we catch things we’d otherwise miss, and the spoken word highlights the underlying rhythms of the written text.

I suppose you could mark it out deliberately, and tell me just how many iambs I have in my pentameter. And a good writing teacher would say, when you put your rhythms in play, they should not mark the time, nor dally in rhyme, like a limerick on spring holiday. Those teachers probably have a point. On the other hand, using a series of short, sharp words to slap a guy in the face is legit, I think. Or flowing down a river of sounds and rhythm when you want to evoke a lazy mood is another thing.

There is a rhythm to writing, good or bad. I recently ran across an interesting clip of Steve Allen playing jazz piano while Jack Kerouac gives a short reading. They go well together, and if you’ll give it seven minutes of your time, you may find yourself meditating on the music behind the language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LLpNKo09Xk

And I’ll leave you with this quote.

 “I’m very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it … Interviewers have said, you like jazz, don’t you? Because we can hear it in your writing. And I thought that was a compliment.” – Elmore Leonard (sourced from Goodreads)

Jilly: Were There’s a Will–Sunday Short Story

Last weekend I was part-way through Elizabeth’s short story challenge when I was struck down by a surprise health problem. All’s well now, I’m glad to report, but after three days of blood tests is it any wonder my story brain turned to vampires and werewolves?

Better late than never. Here are the prompt words, and my attempt:

A scandalous family secret is uncovered during the reading of a will, using the words

Eternity                     Teeth                          Grasp                         Poison

Land                           Cocoon                      Blankly                      Haunt

Capture                      Booze                         Casket                        Faint

Bluster                      Shake                         Nerve                         Awful

 

Were There’s a Will

Annabel McCallan-Whyte stared blankly at her rapacious baby brother. She understood all the words he used, but for a moment or two there she’d failed to grasp his meaning. The sheer nerve of him made her shake with rage. Grandpa was barely in his casket, and Jonathan was already peddling his unique brand of poison.

“A private golf club? Conference facilities? A helipad? Luxury housing? It’s beyond awful. Grandpa would haunt you.”

Jonathan shrugged, but his eyes slid away from hers.

“Come on, sis,” he wheedled. “This place is huge. What else would you do with a hundred acres of prime development land?”

“Give it to the village,” she shot back. “That’s what Grandpa wanted. Use the house for a community center, like they’ve been doing for years.”

Jonathan shrugged again. “So buy or build them one from your half of what this place is worth.”

Luckily the door opened before she could brain him with a priceless Benvenuto Cellini candlestick. She knew old Mr. McLeish, who’d been Grandpa’s lawyer for as long as anyone could remember, but the curly-haired, smooth-faced young guy with him was a stranger. Probably born in the twenty-first century, or at least the very end of the twentieth.

The new kid wore a sweatshirt, a slouchy hat and a broad smile, none of which seemed remotely appropriate given the seriousness of the occasion. Mr. McLeish didn’t seem to mind, but she sent the young man a stern glare. He winked at her.

“Who’s that?” Jonathan glowered at the boy, his face dark with suspicion.

“All in good time, Mr. McCallan-Whyte.” The lawyer shuffled to his usual place at the end of the dining table and set a slim file on the polished walnut. The mystery kid helped him settle into his seat, and then parked himself in Grandpa’s carved chair at the head of the table, where he slouched, entirely at ease.

It was too much to bear. Annabel almost reached for the candlestick again, but something in the boy’s expression made her think better of it. She knew she’d never met him before, but there was something terribly familiar about the way his cheeks dimpled, as though he was enjoying a private joke at their expense.

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Michaeline: Dear Freddy

A dandy from 1815 in a smart coat and pair of trousers kneels before a fashionable young lady, kissing her hand. Proposal.

And at the end of a cotillion, all of the couples are sorted. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, and I like mine tall and a little bit goofy. I’m re-reading Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion today, and Freddy Standen checks off both boxes.

Georgette Heyer is a writer’s writer, and one of the very cool meta-things I noticed the read-through is that so many of the characters come in pairs. In the first chapters, Freddy Standen is meant to be an idiot – a well-dressed fop who hasn’t two wits to rub together. In a complicated plot, he’s set up against his four cousins as competitors for our heroine’s hand in marriage. An evil uncle has made it part of his will that his fortune will go to Kitty Charing if, and only if, she marries one of his nephews. Otherwise, she’ll be destitute, and the fortune will go to Continue reading