Michaeline: The Pandemic and Your Writing

Well, it’s been a little more than a year of lock-downs and warnings, sickness and death, constriction and austerity as a result of the global pandemic sparked by the COVID-19 virus. Big, big changes. Have you had enough space to see how this is all affecting your writing?

The pandemic bubble is represented by the arc of a rainbow. Inside are two goddesses and two peacocks. A tree completes the arc. Outside under the tree are two little cherubim, pointing at the goddesses.
Inside my pandemic story bubble, the story shrunk to two characters, with possibly another couple on the side. OK, and maybe a pair of peacocks playing minor roles. But compared to my pre-pandemic stories, the cast was limited. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For me, I’ve seen a shift to smaller casts – people with more localized problems, and only two to four people in a story. You can see this with my Christmas story last year – a crappy boss, a heroine wallowing in loneliness, a mystery man passed out on the pavement, and a touch of Mother. This is

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Jeanne: Selling the Unsympathetic Heroine

One of the toughest sells–possibly the toughest sell–in the romance world is the unsympathetic heroine. By “unsympathetic” I don’t mean a heroine who lacks sympathy for the other characters–although she may. I’m referring to the literary definition of sympathetic: A sympathetic character is a fictional character in a story whom the writer expects the reader to identify with and care about, if not admire. (Wikipedia)

When I began work on The Demon Wore Stilettos, my upcoming novel about an author who sells her soul to Satan to make the New York Times bestseller list, I wanted to give her a possible way out, so I devised a clause in her deal with the devil that says if she performs an act of total altruism between the time she signs the contract and the day her soul falls due, she’s off the hook. (You will be unsurprised to learn that Hell has a very narrow definition of what constitutes altruism.)

This setup means the external plot arc is about Megan’s efforts to do something Hell deems perfectly selfless. Logically, this means her internal character arc is along learning to be less self-centered.

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Jeanne: The Messiah Trope

Last weekend, on the recommendation of my 16-year-old granddaughter, I watched the Winx saga on Netflix. The story opens as 16-year-old Bloom arrives at Alfea, a boarding school for fairies. The school also has a wing for “Specialists”–non-magical but gifted fighters. Alfea is a training ground where the students are taught the skills needed to protect the Magix realm from the Burned Ones, an army of horrifically burned creatures whose touch generates an infection that will kill the recipient if the Burned One isn’t quickly eliminated.

Bloom has grown up in a human family. When she reached adolescence and her powers as a fire fairy awoke, she unintentionally set the house on fire, resulting to third-degree burns to her mother. After being recruited to Alfea, Bloom is initially told there were family genes somewhere far up her family try, but she eventually learns she’s a changeling–a fae infant who was substituted for a human baby without the human parents’ knowledge. Over the course of the 6-episode series it becomes clear she was born to save Magix from the Burned Ones. (She’s also self-absorbed and a bit of a mono-maniac about finding her real parents.)

That got me to thinking about the Messiah/Savior trope in children’s fantasy literature. A few features of the messiah figure are:

  1. They were born for a specific purpose.
  2. Their birth/coming may have been foretold.
  3. They are way better at fighting and/or magic than their peers.
  4. They are often orphaned or half-orphaned
  5. They have often been fostered in a family outside the realm they’re supposed to save, and come to the job as adolescents.
  6. They have often been badly treated by these caregivers, giving them an inner resiliency.

Examples of child saviors are:

  • Harry Potter–enters wizarding world at age 11.
  • Frodo Baggins–sets off on a quest to destroy the One Ring at age 51 (which is much younger for a hobbit than it is for a human)
  • Anakin Skywalker (but he turned to the Dark Side) –9 in Episode I–The Phantom Menace and 19 in Episode II–Attack of the Clones
  • Luke Skywalker–sets off to save the galaxy from the Empire’s battle station at age 19
  • Katniss Everdeen–steps up to take his sister’s place in the Hunger Games at age 17, setting off a chain of events that will bring down the repressive government of Panem.
  • Jonas in The Giver is 12 years old when he becomes the Receiver, charged with keeping memories of the before-times for his community, which has elected to take away life choices from people as a way of preventing discord.

Recently, I’ve been reading the Kate Daniels books by husband and wife writing duo Ilona Andrews and it occurs to me that Kate appears to be another example of a messiah character. I’m only on the fourth book and at this point I don’t know if she winds up saving her world (though I suspect she does) but she definitely checks most of the other boxes.

It also occurs to me that heroine of my first book, The Demon Always Wins, checks a lot of these boxes–Dara was born to save Belial; she’s better at demon-fighting than anyone else (in part because few others recognize the presence of demons in this world); she was orphaned as a small child; she was brought up by her grandparents, who were absorbed with fighting demons.

Funny the stuff you internalize without ever realizing it.

Elizabeth: What would you do?

“You pay your money, you take your chance.”

If you’ve followed the (non-political) news lately, you may have seen that the jackpots for two US lottery games had grown to ridiculous sizes.  The Mega Millions jackpot passed into billion-dollar-territory, causing a challenge for the signs that display the value, since they only go up to $999M.  A few days ago, someone from Michigan was the big winner of that jackpot, which was apparently only the third-largest in US history.  At $731M, the recent Powerball jackpot, won by someone in Maryland, pales by comparison.

As the jackpots continued to grow, people lined up to buy tickets for their chance to win, and newscasters did human-interest stories, asking hopeful players what they would do with the winnings.

The answers were familiar:

  • Buy a house
  • Buy a house for all of my family members
  • Get a new car
  • Pay off my student loans
  • Give it all away

I’ll admit, I was a little curious about the young woman whose only thought was to pay off her student loans.  Just how expensive was her education? Continue reading

Jeanne: Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Anyone who has ever read Deb Dixon’s brilliant book, Goal, Motivation and Conflict is familiar with these concepts as they relate to plotting fiction. Your protagonist and your antagonist must each have a goal–a specific, measurable, time-bound objective they want to achieve, motivation–a reason why failing to achieve that goal will result in actual or psychological death, and conflict–something (related to the other character’s goal) that is keeping them from achieving their goal.

In addition to having an external goal (Slay the dragon! Save the homestead from foreclosure!) your characters also need internal arcs–goals, motivations and conflicts–that allow them to achieve some kind of psychological growth.

When I first learned about GMC back at McDaniel, I felt like I could see how story worked for the first time. A while back I put together a spreadsheet that lets me track internal and external GMC for each character in my story but I found I still had problem figuring what goes in which column.

I’m currently taking a class with Linnea Sinclair and Stacey Kade (Who are amazing. If you have an opportunity to take a class with them, do it!) Based on what I’ve learned in the class, I’ve amended the headers in my spreadsheet and I’m finding it much easier to understand what goes where.

  • External Goal (Something tangible to achieve)
  • External Motivation (May be personal, but should be on the surface)
  • External Conflict (Related to the opposing character)
  • Internal Goal (What character needs to learn)
  • Internal Motivation (rooted in her backstory)
  • Internal Conflict (aka The Big Lie)

Do my parenthetical descriptions line up with your understanding of external and internal GMC? If not, how/where do you differ?

Jeanne: The Proud Guys

As discussed last week, Samael, the hero in my work-in-progress, suffers from the deadly sin of Pride.

As part of my research for the character, I asked the other Eight Ladies for book recommendations. They came up with some great suggestions! Today, I’m going to talk about some of them.

The Misunderstood Proud Guy

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Mr. Darcy is the “pride” character mentioned in the title. He is wealthy, owns an estate and is the object of all the matchmaking mothers in Longbourn, where he’s visiting a friend. When he haughtily refuses to dance with the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, she takes him in instant dislike.

Over the course of the book, though, it becomes clear that he is a good man. Much (though not all) of of what people view as pride is really a combination of introversion and shyness.

The Broken Proud Guy

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Sebastian Leslie Guy de Ath Ballister, aka Dain, prides himself on his bad behavior. The product of a very bad marriage that resulted in his mother abandoning his father (and him) when he was eight years old, followed by years at prep school being tortured by other boys, leaves him with the conviction that he was damned from birth. When his father dies and he inherits the estate and title, he decides to live out that belief.

Miss Jessica Trent has helped rear ten male cousins, so boys behaving badly are nothing new to her. Over the course of a very enjoyable 357 pages, she brings Dain to heel and mends him.

The Redeemable Proud Guy

Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The gods were smiling the day Bobby Tom Denton was born. Smart, good-looking, gifted at business, irresistible to women and an exceptional athlete, he had it all until an unlucky tackle in the Super Bowl ended his football career. Although he’s ridiculously generous to friends and acquaintances, who are more than willing to take advantage of his generosity., he doesn’t let anyone get close to him.

Gracie Snow was not born under the same star. Average-looking, badly dressed, nearly broke and a thirty-year-old virgin, she was raised in a nursing home. She’s much more at home with old people than a hot young bachelor.

When an odd feeling of connection leads Bobby Tom to consider helping Gracie shed her virgin status, he eradicates the feeling by telling himself it’s beneath him to have sex with a “charity case.”

By the end of the book, both Bobby Tom and Gracie learn to value Gracie for the excellent person she is, and Bobby Tom finally learns to set boundaries.

The Accept-Me-As-I-Am Proud Guy

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

The Marquis of Vidal was born heir to a wealthy dukedom. Bright, good-looking and athletic, he believes he is entitled to whatever he wants, including attractive young women.

Mary Challoner is a sensible middle-class young woman with middling looks and a very good brain. When she perceives that Vidal is about to ruin her beautiful but rather silly younger sister, she disguises herself as Sophia and takes her place, thinking to teach Vidal a lesson.

But Vidal is quite capable of kidnapping an unwilling woman. Only after Mary shoots him does he realize her reluctance isn’t feigned.

When the book ends, Vidal has learned to treat Mary with respect, but is otherwise essentially unchanged.

The Cosmically Ordained Proud Guy

The Iliad by Homer

This last one is not a romance, and was suggested by G.S. Kenney, author of Freeing Eden and The Last Lord of Eden.

Chosen by the gods to be invincible, Achaean warrior Achilles doesn’t handle frustration well. When Menelaus, leader of the Achaean army, appropriates Achilles’ slave girl, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk, refusing to join his comrades on the battlefield.

Without their best warrior, the Achaeans get destroyed on the battlefield, so Patroclus, Achilles’ bestie, dresses up in his friend’s armor and goes to battle pretending to be Achilles. Unfortunately, the armor doesn’t work for him and he winds up dead.

Overwhelmed by guilt, Achilles gets up off his duff and does his job–and gets killed, too.

My Proud Guy

So now I just have to decide which of these gentlemen, and thus which character arc, is the model for my hero, Samael.

Thoughts, anyone?

Jilly: What Codename Would You Choose?

Anyone who ever read a thriller or watched a movie/TV series involving US politicians knows the United States secret service uses codenames for presidents, first ladies, prominent persons and important locations. Originally the names were for security, but today they’re used for brevity, clarity, and tradition, and are often public knowledge.

I discovered this week that people who require a codename get to choose one for themselves, selecting from a list of “good” words maintained by the White House Communications Agency. Many choose a name that resonates with them personally. So, for example, we are told Kamala Harris settled on PIONEER.

I’d pretty much reached max election-coverage fatigue, but this thought-provoking snippet perked me right up. So much baggage for one word to carry!

How would you choose a codename for yourself?

I spent an hour or two playing with the question. Do you pick a word that epitomizes the way you define yourself, or one that reflects the way you want others to see you? The options may be similar or wildly different, depending on (to borrow a concept from writing guru Michael Hauge) how closely your public identity matches your private essence. And do you choose a word that describes who you are, or who you aspire to be?

In the end I used the simple brainstorming technique I use for book titles and the like. I wrote every word I could think of in my notebook, then picked the one that instinctively felt right. For myself I’d like INDIE.

Some definitions of “independent”: free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority; thinking or acting for oneself; not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence.

Yes! I’ll take that.

I also think choosing a codeword would be a great way to develop a deeper understanding of a fictional character. I found a list of some famous ones (Liberty, Eagle, Falcon, Condor, Baroness, Duchess)—but they feel to me like a vehicle for the author to tell the reader what kind of character or story to expect. That’s like letting the Secret Service choose for you 😉 .

I took the test for my Elan Intrigues character Prince Daire of Caldermor, because I’ve just written a couple of novellas from his POV and I feel I know him fairly well. Plus I’m about to knuckle down to work on The Seeds of Destiny, a new novel that wraps up his story arc.

As the author, my codename for Daire would be LODESTONE. It’s a Middle English word for a stone that’s naturally magnetic or a person that’s the focus of attention or attraction. It’s uncommon. Something that leads or sets a course, and that brings healing and balance.

He’d never choose that for himself though. I think he’d pick HEIR, even after he becomes Crown Prince, because his whole life is defined by heredity. He inherits property and rank (a throne), physical characteristics (excess vitality, which enables him to make magical elan pulses but drastically curtails his life expectancy), a whole library of rules (the Edevald Family Statutes) and a secret pact with the ancient guardians of Caldermor (the Legacy).

Now I need to find a codename for Annis, the mountain-dwelling healer heroine of the new book.

How about you? What codename would you choose for yourself? Or for a favorite fictional character?

Michaeline: Pet Inspiration for NaNo and Other Writing

I’m writing short stories for National Novel Writing Month, and here’s the elevator pitch for my work in progress:

Tabby Kate, caterwauler at the Brawler’s Grate, is on the run from her boss and former lover, Tuxedo Jones. Stowing away on Captain Alphabet Greebo’s ship seems like an easy solution for getting off the planet without getting noticed, but this stickler for the rules notices right away that he’s got trouble on his hands.

–Weird and Wonderful Stories for Every Holiday (WIP)

It’s about cats in space.

Tom cat looking in the window with his tabby lady cat friend. Both cats have ears perked forward and interested whiskers. Tabby is ready to run, though.

The Dynamic Duo: Captain Alphabet Greebo and Tabby Kate. Unlike their fictional counterparts, they don’t fight crime: they commit it. (E.M. Duskova)

 

Now, let me backtrack a little bit. We have two housecats and two dogs who have been featured on these screens before. But staying home this summer, I came to realize we’ve got at least seven outdoor cats. One mostly stays in the barn, and I rarely see him (a Tuxedo boy who is white and black), but the others hang around our house and the house next door, waiting

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Jeanne: Verbalizing My Story

Over the years, I’ve attended several workshops by Damon Suede. Although he has fallen into disfavor with the romance writing crowd, I’m still a fan of his teachings. (I don’t believe in canceling people. People screw up. Bigger people forgive them.)

One of the most useful things I picked up from these workshops was Suede’s focus on verbs. In teaching both about author branding and about fiction writing, he encouraged students, when describing things, to think in terms of verbs rather than adjectives or nouns.

Suede uses Pride and Prejudice as an example. He says Mr. Darcy preserves (i.e. he tries to preserve his estate and way of life) while Lizzie Bennet provokes (i.e. she needles Darcy and the other characters). Suede says if you set up your romance such that your main characters’ verbs are in direct conflict, it makes your job as an author a lot easier.

I’m very close to a first draft of my work-in-progress. I know how it ends (always a good thing, especially when you’re 50 pages or so from the finish) and I understand the characters (also a good spot to be in this close to the end), but my scenes weren’t all working. Many felt like rehashes of information the reader already knew.

My problem is that, while I feel like I know the characters, I still can’t clearly define their flaws. I know that Lilith has an issue with forgiving. She can’t forgive Samael for dumping her and she’s convinced that God will never forgive her for abandoning her first husband. Sam is the Demon of Pride, which makes his flaw pretty clear. But when I tried to think about how these issues motivated the characters, how the flaws impacted their behavior in any given situation, things got a lot fuzzier.

So I decided to try Suede’s suggestion: Think in terms of verbs that describe these characters’ flaws.

Lilith can’t forgive. Verbs that describe unforgiving behavior include:

  • Resents
  • Retaliates
  • Reproaches
  • Blames
  • Shames
  • Criticizes
  • Punishes
  • Mistreats

Sam is proud. Verbs that describe proud behavior include:

  • Peacocks
  • Patronizes
  • Pontificates
  • Disregards
  • Deflects
  • Defends
  • Ignores
  • Competes

(Side note: Suede suggests you sort your list in ascending order of escalation. Then write your manuscript, transitioning up that ladder, to ensure that your character’s behavior escalates. I haven’t sorted these in any order.)

What I’m going to do next is just go back and rewrite the scenes that aren’t working (including the one at the end that I’m stuck on), drawing from the behaviors listed above.

I’ll report back next week to let you know how it went.

Elizabeth: Meet Cute

It seems we’re in the midst of an unofficial Love-at-First-Sight week here on the blog.  After reading Jeanne and Jilly’s posts earlier today, I started thinking about the “first sight” (meet cute) the characters in my favorite books have of each other.

In the perennial favorite Lord of Scoundrels, Jessica and Dain meet in an antique shop.  They both do their best to keep their cool despite clearly feeling lust-at-first-sight.  Dain experiences such a massive shock to his system that it disorders his thinking so much that he never really recovers–a wonderful start that had me eager to find out what would happen next.

In Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation, Phin meets Sophie, a stranger in town, when he stops by the farmhouse to make sure she and her sister aren’t causing trouble or filming porn.  Neither Phin nor Sophie want to have anything to do with each other, but reading their initial interaction is like watching two magnets trying to keep away from each other.  You just know they’re going to fail at that and wind up together, and that it’s going to be fun to watch. Continue reading