Jeanne: Telling Parallel Stories

Like Jilly, I have been spending time judging contest entries lately. Unlike Jilly, some of rails-3309912_640mine have been pretty good. One, in particular, interested me because the story paralleled the romances of three different couples, which is what I’m trying to do with my third demon book, The Demon Wore Stilettos.

I was especially interested because every time I tell other authors what I’m working on, they say, “That’s way too complicated. You need to get rid of some of that.”

And it may come to that, but I really want to keep all three stories, so I was happy to see someone else had tried the same thing with, I thought, some success. Her stories were all set in the same small town and used the marriage-of-convenience trope for all three.

Mine are all set in Minneapolis-St. Paul and all revolve around the second-chance-at-love trope.

Where I thought the contest entry could have been stronger was in cohesion. The stories run along side-by-side like train tracks, never crossing, never even approaching each other. In mine, the three couples are, respectively, demons, humans and angels. All three couples have had past romantic encounters and all are now, for various reasons, no longer in those relationships. Continue reading

Jeanne: What’s in a Name?

Recently, a friend in my RWA chapter did an advance read of The Demon’s in the Details, Book 2 in my Touched by a Demon series, which came out last Tuesday on Amazon.

demon's in the details ebook coverShe did a terrific job of catching little errors my copy editor and proofreader missed, but in one case, she brought my attention to a problem that I didn’t think was a problem. She pointed out that in the first scene, my protagonist thinks of her father and stepmother as her father and stepmother, but later she becomes less formal, thinking/referring to them as “Dad” and “stepmom.”

There is, she pointed out, a best practice in fiction writing of choosing a single name for each character and always using that name to reference the character.

As a general rule, I completely agree with her. When you have a character that is sometimes called, “Charles,” sometimes “Charlie,” sometimes “Chuck” and occasionally “Binky,” the reader has to stop each time and figure out who this is. While there may be valid reasons for switching names–maybe every other character thinks of him differently, or your POV character thinks of him by different names depending on the current state of their relationship–it’s extra work for the reader. And, in general, we want to make reading our books as easy as possible.

But in this case, I felt differently, for two reasons: Continue reading

Jeanne: The Complexity of Romance

muffins-2225091_640Romance may be the single most complex genre of fiction there is.

A romance author has to juggle five different arcs:

  • Story (plot) arc
  • Character arc for the heroine
  • Character arc for the hero
  • Relationship arc
    • And within that relationship arc, both the emotional arc and the physical arc of the romance

That’s at least double most other genres, which have a plot arc and character arcs for only one or two characters (and sometimes no character arc at all).

To make things even tougher on the romance writer (though easier for the reader), some of those arcs should line up, sharing common turning points.  Let’s do a hypothetical example:

Our Heroine wants to open a bakery in the perfect location in her little town. She has a character flaw, though. She hates confrontations and backs away at the first sign of conflict.

Our Hero wants the same spot to open a mobile phone franchise. He’s a good guy, but he’s very competitive. Continue reading

Jilly: Menu Gourmand

In romance there are basically two kinds of series. The first, which Nancy discussed last Monday, focuses on a community: a family, or schoolfriends, or regimental comrades. In this kind of series, each book tells the love story of a different member of the community. It works really well in historical romance.

The other kind of series follows the adventures of one couple over multiple books and is a natural fit with fantasy and urban fantasy. That’s what I’m busy writing.

At its best, this kind of series is like a tasting menu from a really, really good restaurant. Delicious, ambitious, and not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.

  • Choose your cuisine.
  • Decide how many dishes you plan to offer.
  • Each dish should stand alone as a tasty, balanced, harmonious whole.
  • Every course should be delightfully different, offering contrasting flavors and ingredients but in a cohesive style.
  • The menu should flow, offering a natural progression leading the diner from piquant to savory to a delightful sweet finish and possibly some perfect petits-fours.
  • The content of each dish should be perfectly judged, leaving the diner neither over-hungry, nor sated too soon, but wanting more until the final satisfying conclusion.
  • The sum of the whole should be greater than each of the parts.

To whet your appetite, click here for the Land and Sea tasting menu from one of my favorite restaurants, The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye.

In literary terms, this kind of story is exemplified by Dorothy Dunnett’s Scottish Historical Lymond Chronicles, or Karen-Marie Moning’s Celtic urban fantasy Fever series, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife books or more recently by Ilona Andrews’ Hidden Legacy trilogy.

This is what I’m aiming for: something a little different, offering fine local ingredients combined with flair and executed with skill. If I get it right, hopefully my Menu Gourmand will be mouth-watering, memorable, and a treat worth saving up for 🙂 .

Jilly: Books That Put The World To Rights

When you’re feeling down, do you use fiction to restore your emotional equilibrium? I know I do.

Many of my friends, on both sides of the pond and on differing sides of the political divide, are feeling angry and/or depressed at the state of our world right now. They’re responding in a variety of ways, but the one thing they have in common is that almost all of them are finding their balance by losing themselves for an hour or two in a well-chosen and usually much-loved book.

Some people find catharsis in a story where the good guys smite the baddies and justice prevails. Sometimes I want smiting. Usually I prefer something gentler, upbeat, a fun story in a world where smarts, humor, kindness and generosity triumph.

Austen, Heyer, Pratchett and Crusie are bankers for me, but we’ve talked about them at length here, so chances are you already know whether they do it for you.

With that in mind, I’d like to share three recently-discovered favorites, in the hope that you might find them as restorative as I do.

The Kingpin of Camelot—Cassandra Gannon
A light, twisted and entertaining mash-up of well-known fairytale characters in an alternative Camelot where people are born Good or Bad. Good Folk (who are not all good) are privileged, while Bad Folk (who are not all bad) form the underclass. Following the untimely death of King Arthur, his evil regent The Scarecrow seeks to marry Queen Guinevere and claim the throne for himself. Gwen, who is Good, needs to protect her daughter, which she does by marrying Midas, the biggest, smartest, Baddest gangster in Camelot. This story has contracts, magic, humor, snark, battles, a child who is the antithesis of a plot moppet, a heroine with sweaty stable boy fantasies, a world put to rights and a fabulous Happy Ever After.

Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox—Forthright
Tsumiko, a teacher at St Midori’s School of the Heavenly Lights, unexpectedly inherits a fabulous estate, a huge fortune, and a butler. Argent is a fox in human form, a powerful trickster who is magically bound to obey Tsumiko. Argent needs Tsumiko for his own survival, but he resents and possibly hates her for it (he’s tricky, so you can’t be sure exactly what he hates). Tsumiko is the first of Argent’s owners to reject the idea that one person should be able to own another. With implacable determination she sets out to free him, uses her new-found wealth and power to build a caring and diverse community, finds a purpose in life and earns lasting love. This book is as delicious as a cup of top notch hot chocolate on a cold day. It hits all my pleasure buttons and I’m eagerly anticipating the second book in the Amaranthine Saga, Kimiko and the Accidental Proposal, which goes on sale in a week or so. Continue reading

Jeanne: The Chicken and Egg of Fiction Writing

hatching-chicks-2448541_640

I’ve been doing an in-depth critique for a writer friend. She has a lot of talent, and she’s as committed a writer as I’ve ever seen. She stood up to the scrubbing sandstorm of my critique and kept asking for more. Tough lady!

Working with her has gotten me thinking about the kinds of issues exhibited by the work of newbie writers:

  • Wandering POV
  • Lots of telling rather than showing
  • Dialogue issues
    • All characters sound alike
    • Dialogue is stiff and unnatural
    • Lots of “as you know” dialogue–where one character tells another character something she already knows in order to clue the audience in.

There were also some plotting problems–the third act, which should be the most consequential and high stakes, revolved around a character who had been a really minor player up to that point. The conflict between the romantic partners was already resolved, which meant the couple could work together to save the minor character, but eliminated the sexual and relationship tension that might have upped the Act Three stakes.

There were plot holes and dropped plot threads. (Full disclosure: these types of issues *may* continue to hound even the more experienced writer, if my editor is to be believed.)

There were also places where characters did things for no apparent reason, behaved inconsistently from their previously defined characterization and even did things that seemed to go against both their best interests

You know, the stuff we all do when we first start writing and often continue to do in our first drafts.

I give this writer huge props, because she was very open to hearing feedback (lots of feedback) and made amazing strides in addressing the issues I identified. She was committed to writing the best book she possibly could, and she was willing to set aside her ego and put in the work to make that happen.

In working with her, I focused on the first set of problems (word-craft) more than the second (plotting), mostly because that was the order in which I learned to write. Back in 2002, I formed a critique group with some people I’d met in a novel-writing class at the local community college. For the next ten years, we hammered on each other about the items in the bulleted list above. We didn’t give each other a lot of feedback on plot, other than to point out plot holes and character inconsistencies. This may have been because we didn’t know enough about plotting to do that.

It makes sense to me that you need to work on your prose first. It’s hard to get anyone to read your story until your writing becomes strong enough for them to make it through to the end of your book.

On the other hand, the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Gray and The Shack prove that you can create a bestseller with really weak word-craft if the story is compelling enough.

What do you think? Which should come first–word-craft or plot?

Jilly: Alpha Males Revisited

Is anyone up for more discussion on the evergreen topic of Alpha Male heroes in romance fiction?

Mr. Alpha has been on my mind recently, thanks to a combination of circumstances. I lost a chunk of writing time earlier this year following the death of my mum. Dealing with her estate has been a time suck, so the books I had hoped to self-publish this year are now rescheduled for 2019. Which means that I will still be unpublished at the end of 2018. That’s frustrating, but the upside is that the RWA has decided to run the Golden Heart contest for one more year, and now I will be eligible to enter. I would love, love, love to final in the Golden Heart, to join the supportive and welcoming sisterhood that Jeanne described in her recent post, The True Heart of the Golden Heart.

In planning my final assault on the contest, I decided that in addition to entering my Alexis paranormal stories, I’d dust off the English/Scottish contemporary romance I worked on at McDaniel and which I haven’t read in the last three years or so.

I got fairly close to snagging an agent with that manuscript, and it finaled in a number of local RWA contests, so I thought it should be relatively easy to tweak.

O.M.G. I am sooo glad I never sold that book. It didn’t need a quick edit so much as a comprehensive rewrite. I think the general premise, the characters, the community and most of the plot points are solid, but among other things, the hero (who is, obvs, a very good guy) made me cringe. He was guilty of arrogant asshattishness rather than the kind of consent offences Jeanne discussed in her excellent post The Thin Line Between Alpha and Predatory, but still. Even if his BDE showboating was a persona rather than his true self, the patronizing way he interacted with the heroine was simply not okay. I had to give him a thorough makeover.

The thing I found curious is Continue reading