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?

Jeanne: Outputs, Inputs, Process

The method that is used to design computer systems is described as “outputs, inputs, process.” That is, you first define what you want the computer system to do (outputs). Next you identify the data you have to feed into the system (inputs). It’s only after you complete the definitions of these two items that you think about processes—the steps that will translate inputs into outputs.

Because my career was in I.T., my plotting process looks a lot like that. My first thought is about outputs–how do I want my story to end? What kind of character arc am I looking for?

For example, in my current WIP, I want the story to end with the couple, demons Lilith and Samael, becoming a loving, human family. For this to happen in a believable and satisfying way, Lilith’s character needs to arc away from rebellion and resentment to trust and joy. Sam needs to arc away from workaholism and ambition to being a family man.

Then I think about the inputs that are required to create that kind of story—characters and setting.

In this case, the characters were delivered to me by the ancient Judaic legends contained in the Kabbalah. If you want to read more on my take on the legend of Lilith and Samael, you can download a free short story, “Original Sin,” by signing up for my newsletter on my website.

It’s only after I figure out these two “big picture” items that I turn my mind to the plot–the process of turning my inputs into the outputs I want to see at the end of the story.

That’s still a work in progress.

The backstory is that, 10,000 years ago, Satan decided Hell’s power couple, Lilith and Samael were a threat to his supremacy, so he demanded they split up. As the story opens, trade talks between Heaven and Hell are in the offing and he orders them to collaborate to ensure a good outcome for Hell (e.g. an increase in human misery).

Former human turned she-demon Lilith tries to refuse the mission, but when Satan threatens to take away her immortality, she decides to use the opportunity to sabotage her ex, whose career in Hell has far eclipsed her own.

Even though 10,000 years have passed, Sam has never gotten over Lilith. Figuring that what happens Aboveworld stays Aboveworld, he plans to seduce her back into his bed for the duration of the mission and then abandon her again.

On Earth, Sam leads Hell’s delegation while Lilith handles the administrative details. Her angelic counterpart turns out to be Gibeon, the very angel who predicted the death of her first baby (see aforementioned short story) and told her she’d never have a child that survived infancy. If she does, he will be branded a false prophet, thus ending his career in Heaven.

Then Lilith becomes pregnant, and she must figure out how to keep her child safe from an avenging angel, the lord of the Underworld—and its own father.

Jilly: Do You Believe In Love At First Sight?

I finished my draft of The Pulse of Princes, the novella that’s been gobbling up my time for the last few weeks. I sent it off to gobble up my editor’s time instead 😀 .

I’m so happy I chose to write this story. It turned out well, and best of all it made me think hard about the early life of Prince Daire, who’s turning out to be the most influential character in the Elan Intrigues stories. I gleaned some insights which have me really excited.

The Pulse of Princes shows Daire before he inherits the throne of Caldermor, when both his parents are still alive. I had to put them on the page. I had to figure out how they met, and how they each found a role in their marriage.

Here’s a snippet:

Princess Irmine’s dark gaze assessed Daire: the tidy queue that was making his head ache, his tense posture, carefully chosen clothes, and comfortable gray watersnakeskin boots. Her eyes narrowed. “You are so like your father. Do you know why he married me?”

That, at least, was easy. Daire relaxed his arms, used the question to restore his equanimity. A reprieve, though no doubt a temporary one. “He tells me the story, often. He loved you from the moment he saw you. He never saw a woman so strong. So beautiful. He forgot the biting cold. Forgot the furs he’d come in search of. Forgot everything except you.”

Just for a moment, his mother melted. Her dark eyes shone. Her lips softened and curled upward in sheer pleasure. Just for a moment, Daire saw the woman his father saw every time he looked at the crown princess.

“Well, yes.” Her smile faded. “But it’s more than that. Your father takes his vows seriously. His duty. He knows the best way to protect Caldermor is to have a strong, powerful country.”

“Father traded everything he had with him to carry off an unknown princess from a wild island nation on the edge of the ice fields, and you call it duty?” Daire rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you do yourself a disservice.”

“I say he did me a great honor.” His mother stood straight as a lance, every inch a princess. “I organized everything for my father the king. Our stronghold. Our people. Our fur trades. Desmond saw I could rule Caldermor for him. And better still, I’m not Calderran.”

“How so?”

“Because I can take the decisions he can not.” She relaxed, just a hairsbreadth. “Daire. I was traded myself. I understand everyone has a price. I’m not sentimental about Calderran people the way your father is.”

Daire winced. “And I am.”

“So it seems.” She leaned toward him, and for once he got the sense she was speaking from the heart, without calculation. “I strive every day to be worth the great price Desmond paid for me. I will do what I must to keep his country safe and strong. And I shall do so as long as I have breath in my body. Whether he is here to see it or not.”

I like this. It explains Irmine’s no-holds-barred mindset. It also led me to think about my new WIP, The Seeds of Destiny, which is Daire’s love story. I had imagined he’d be influenced by the events of the two previous Elan Intrigues books, where true love happens to people he cares about. Of course those events are important, but the bond between his own parents would be an earlier and stronger influence.

That got me to musing about love at first sight, in real life and in fiction. Lust at first sight happens all the time, of course, but I think sometimes it can be more than that. My father decided to marry my mother before he ever spoke to her. They would sit at bus stops on opposite sides of the street on working days. They spent months smiling at one another before heading off in different directions. That turned into fifty-something years of powerful togetherness.

I like it as a trope in fiction too, as long as it’s more than he’s so hot/she’s so beautiful. More like the fabulous first meet in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. Of course there’s immediate physical attraction between Dain and Jessica. He is hot, and she is beautiful. But there’s also a major battle of wits and an even bigger battle of wills between two smart, headstrong characters. We already know Dain is hyper-competitive. When he loses both battles we know he’s toast. I love that 🙂 .

What do you think? Do you believe in love at first sight, on the page or IRL?

Jeanne: Character Signatures

I was out for my morning walk one day last week and listening to the soundtrack from Les Miserables when I got to thinking about how each of the major characters have a clearly identifiable musical signature, a theme that, when you hear it, you know the front-and-center character is Javert, or Jean Valjean, or Eponyme, or whoever. Which in turn made me wonder how that translates in written works.

Each of my main characters has one or more identifiers, a brand, if you will. For Lilith, it’s her stilettos. For Satan, it’s his skin, which cycles through various wine colors (from a blush rose to a pinot grigio) as his mood darkens.

Dara, the protagonist in The Demon Always Wins, was notable for the burn scars that disfigured her collarbones and the backs of her hands (unless you were a demon who found them strangely alluring). Belial, the hero from that same book, was identifiable by his signature scent, a mix of vanilla and petrichor–the smell of fresh rain after a long, dry period.

Keeffe, the artist in The Demon’s in the Details, always smelled of paint and turpentine. Bad, her computer-like boyfriend, was always pushing his glasses up on his nose.

In my yet-to-be released Contemporary romance, Girl’s Best Friend, Taylor is a former dancer, and even though a severe injury means she’ll never dance again, she still moves with the grace of a dancer.

What signature traits have you read or written that have really stuck with you?

Jeanne: More on Using YouTube for Research

The Demon Wore Stilettos, my work-in-progress, begins with a courtroom scene–Lilith, the protagonist, is on trial for murdering her ex-husband and the love of her life, Samael. I knew where I wanted the scene to go, but I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about courtroom behavior to really nail the scene.

So I went scouting for information about courtroom procedures and found this:

(You may not want to spend a half an hour watching this very nice lady deconstruct all the ways TV and movies misrepresent what happens in courtrooms, but by the time I finished it, I knew exactly what to do with my scene.)

The inner part of the story, the story of how Lilith came to push Samael into the Lake of Fire in the first place, revolves around a trade summit that takes place between Heaven and Hell. After thinking about neutral ground where Heaven and Hell might meet to hammer out an agreement, the United Nations seemed like an obvious choice. Unfortunately, despite numerous trips to the Big Apple, I’ve never visited the United Nations.

YouTube to the rescue: There a several tours of the buildings available. This is the one I found most useful:

Again, you may not want to spend a lot of time on this, but it was helpful in allowing me to get a sense of what my characters will see.

And yes, I know this if the fourth location I’ve chosen for this story. Writing is a process, people! Which reminds me: I’m going to reward myself for finishing my blog post by going back to YouTube and watching our professor, Jenny Crusie’s inteview at the Australian RRA.

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: Sitting with Your Setting

Animal figures carved on steleSettings play a huge role in my demon novels. All of the books spend some time in my take on Hell, which is a cross between the fire-and-brimstone Hell described by the terrifying Baptist preachers of my childhood and the equally terrifying large corporations I worked for during my career as a software engineer, but each of them also has a more mundane setting here Aboveworld.

The first book, The Demon Always Wins, is set in northern Florida, near the ocean along the Georgia border. My eldest sister lives there, so I’ve spent several vacations in that area over the years. Much of the book takes place in a free clinic staffed by paid staff and volunteer doctors, similar to one I worked in as the office manager for eighteen months.

The second book, The Demon’s in the Details is set in Sedona, AZ. I’ve never had the joy of living in that beautiful place, but I did spend a wonderful week there in January, 2016, getting the lay of the land and soaking up atmosphere, before setting pen to paper (or fingertips to keys). Continue reading

Jeanne: From the Cutting Room Floor

Deleted Scenes Movie Film Clapper Board Bloopers 3d IllustrationLast week I talked about designing your books to focus on the things that your readers value and to minimize the amount of effort you put into adding things that they don’t.

One of the things that my readers seem to particularly enjoy are my descriptions of Hell as a giant dysfunctional corporation.

I wound up cutting the scene below from my first book because my editor felt that it put too much emphasis on Lilith, who was a minor character in that story.

I recently pulled it out to look at because she is the central character in my work-in-progress, but it doesn’t work for this book, either, because I’m trying to redeem her and this scene doesn’t help with that effort.

Even so, the scene was a lot of fun and deserves to see the light of day, or at least the light of blog.

“If you could just sign right here, sir.” Hovering behind the red granite counter by means of his substantial wings, Focalor pushed a quill and a three-part form toward Belial. The griffin had run the Travel department since time immemorial.

Behind him, row upon row of men and women sat at cramped desks, arranging various demonic missions. Their chairs were bolted to the floor six inches too far back from their desks, forcing them to hunch forward to reach their keyboards. After just a few minutes, their backs burned with the strain and they worked twenty-hour days. Continue reading

Jeanne: Another Delivery from the Girls in the Attic

In the atticWhen the Eight Ladies were in class at McDaniel College years ago, our instructor, Jenny Crusie, used to talk about the Girls in the Attic. The Girls, she said, were the source of inspiration. What they handed down might be weird and totally not where your conscious mind wanted to go with your manuscript, but you should never disregard them.

(The Girls, by the way, were Jenny’s answer to Stephen King’s Boys in the Basement, who serve a similar purpose.)

Last week I started noodling around with another demon book. I have no idea why. I have one manuscript with 60,000 words written that’s waiting for me to come back and mold it into a readable story. And the next logical book in the demon series isn’t the one I started playing around with.

Clearly, following a straight line is not something I excel at. Continue reading

Jeanne: Hidden Factories

industrial buildingsRecently, we had a conversation on one of my author loops on applying Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing techniques to writing. Apparently some guru will soon be teaching a class on using Kanban boards to increase author efficiency.

One of the Six Sigma terms I remember from my training back when I worked in the manufacturing sector was “hidden factories”—process steps that take time and resources but don’t add value as defined by the customer. For example, let’s say you have a coffee shop that puts a little paper doily on each saucer before placing the baked good on the plate. If the customer (not the waiter, not the baker, not the store owner) doesn’t perceive that doily as adding value to his bearclaw, that step is a hidden factory.

So how would the concept of hidden factories apply to writing? I’m just riffing but here are some things that authors put a lot of time into that don’t necessarily improve the quality of the book from the readers’ perspective:

  1. In depth research into careers/jobs held by characters.

This is definitely one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a book. In The Demon’s in the Details, the protagonist was a painter. Since I’m not even a tiny bit artistic, or even crafty, I had no clue how artists view the world. She was, specifically, a muralist, and I didn’t know how artists go about painting murals. Continue reading