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.

Jilly: Community

How are things with you?

At least here we don’t have an election to stress about, but I spent a dismal hour yesterday watching our Prime Minister, flanked by his chief scientific and medical officers, presenting the powerpoint of covid doom 😦 . Later this week we’re heading back into a national lockdown that is scheduled to last for a month.

The government seems to be taking action now because that gives them the best chance of ensuring restrictions are lifted for the holiday season. I think that’s plain common sense, because even really cautious, rule-following friends of mine are planning family gatherings around Christmas and New Year, and to hell with the official regulations or the potential consequences.

I’m a grinch even in non-corona years, so being required to spend the holidays quietly at home with my husband, books, puzzles, music, wine, and long walks, is no hardship, but we are definitely feeling the lack of face to face interaction with our wider community. Not just our friends and family, but people we’ve known for years at our favorite restaurants, shops, hair salon, dentist, car service company, dry cleaners—all kinds of personal and professional contacts that may not be deep but are long-lasting and treasured relationships.

I was thinking about this recently as I re-read Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series (strongly recommended, especially the first three books). The author does a fabulous job of uniting the young rulers of three warring kingdoms. Over the course of the series they bond into one tightly-knit community strong enough to defeat the invasion of a powerful, predatory empire. It’s cleverly written and deeply enjoyable to read.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I think I read for community even more than I read for romance. Becoming part of a kind, strong, successful community, even a fictional one, gives me the warm and fuzzies. It’s not a complete substitute for real-life interactions, but spending mental time in that connected world leaves me feeling happy and empowered, and it lasts after I’ve put the book down. In our current situation that’s no small thing.

Most of my favorite authors are excellent at creating community. Ilona Andrews. Grace Draven. Loretta Chase. Jenny Crusie. Dorothy Dunnett. Georgette Heyer. Lois McMaster Bujold. Martha Wells’ Murderbot books. Our own Kay has a talent for writing community. Her heroines are people magnets and her stories are super-fun to read for the way all kinds of unexpected characters become part of a strong network of generosity and friendship. I hope I can do half as well with my elan stories.

What do you think? Is community an important element of your reading choices?

Do you think fictional communities can help people feel connected when we’re forced to narrow our real-world interactions? And do you have any favorite authors you think are especially stellar at creating that community buzz?

Elizabeth: Wednesday Motivation

Thanks to an internet outage (6 days!!!) my planned post for this week will have to wait.  There is always time for a little motivation though.  I found this image on my computer and thought it was a good reminder. No matter what project you’re working on, if you’ve done anything then you’re moving closer.

Have a great day!

Kay: Agatha Christie’s Villains

We’ve been talking about plots this week—Jilly about what she likes; Jeanne, what she doesn’t; and Elizabeth, how many plot elements in a story are too many. In keeping with the theme (especially Elizabeth’s theme of murder mysteries), I found a great article by Dorothy Gambrell in Bloomberg Businessweek, of all places, that charted plot and character elements in Agatha Christie novels. It’s pretty cool.

I’ve read quite a few of Christie’s novels, and while I’m not a huge fan of her work any more, there’s no denying that she had a huge influence on the development of the mystery genre. So it was interesting and fun to look at these charts and see what characteristics Christie gave her killers, broken down by age, gender, occupation, method, motivation, and relationship to the victim—and how these elements changed over Christie’s working life. (I tried to post some of the charts, but alas—Bloomberg didn’t use a format that I could reproduce.) Continue reading

Jeanne: Writing through Coronabrain

Digital illustration of macro Covid-19 cells floating over a human brain and a web of connection. Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic concept digital compositeWhen I was a child, my mother sent me to the local YWCA for swimming lessons. Although I took lessons for what I remember as an entire winter, I never really mastered the art of moving horizontally through water.

There were two issues I couldn’t seem to overcome:

  1. I never got to where I could put my face in the water and turn my head for breath every few strokes. Putting my face in the water engendered a feeling of panic I could never conquer–not even after spending a week faithfully practicing dunking my face in the tub when I took my bath each night.
  2. The frustration that came from furiously flailing my skinny little arms and legs until the whistle blew, only to discover that I hadn’t progressed forward to any appreciable degree, left me unenthusiastic about continuing.

Lately, I’ve had much the same feeling when I sit down to work on my manuscript. I work away industriously, face in the water for what feels like hours, only to surface and find that I’m still in the same spot I was when I jumped in (though without that gasping sense of panic that I can’t breathe, so that’s good).

Part of that is the Coronabrain mentioned in the title of this post–difficulties in focusing brought on by the stress of living through (and watching my kids and other loved ones struggle through) a global public health crisis whose long-term impacts are impossible to predict and there are no guarantees we’ll all make it out alive and solvent.

But with cases back on the rise and no relief in the near-term future, it feels like it’s time to figure out how to propel myself forward, despite the situation.

One of the problems is that I’ve let myself wander away from my trusty schedule of writing from eight to noon. I’ve been staying up later at nights and therefore getting up later in the morning, making it difficult to work out, shower and breakfast before eight a.m. And since I am not at my desk by eight, I go ahead and prioritize other things (grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning) ahead of writing.

This week I’m going to try to return to my schedule, putting writing at the top of my list again. I’m going to try giving myself a reward (watching an episode of Gilmore Girls, which I recently discovered on Netflix and LOVE) each day that I complete one thousand words. So we’ll see how that goes.

If you’re having any luck with productivity, what magic spell are you casting?

Kay: Getting Unstuck

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Father Tim Pelc of St Ambrose Church in Detroit, Michigan, blesses parishioners by shooting holy water into their car windows. He’s been a little concerned about how the Vatican might react if these photos reach the Pope, but so far, no word from the pontiff.

Things are tough all over, but I’ve been happy to see that the Catholic Church seems to be doing a good job at improvising during the pandemic.

In other news, the folks at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) have nagged me relentlessly the last couple of weeks, begging, exhorting, cajoling, and threatening me to join JuNoWriMo, the summer version of Novel Writers Torture Month. I have easily resisted this call, because I tried the November version once.

But when I was thinking about what to post today, I bumped into the blog of author Sarah Wynde, who talks about participating in this event. I’m sure otherwise she is a sane person. I’ve seen her comment on Jenny’s blog, and she always strikes me as intelligent and thoughtful, as well as amusing and kind. Continue reading

Jeanne: Six Sigma for Fiction Writing: Five Why’s

Question Concept with Magnifying GlassA couple of weeks ago we talked about a technique used in manufacturing problem-solving that can be adapted to fiction writing, the fishbone diagram.

Another Six Sigma technique that can be adapted for fiction-writing is Five Why’s. With this technique, the problem solver attempts to get to the root of the problem by asking “why?” five times in succession. This technique is used to avoid declaring victory before really drilling down to the fundamental issue.

Manufacturing situation: a customer rejects a print order because it’s flawed.

  1. Why is it flawed? Because the press wasn’t set up properly.
  2. Why wasn’t the press set up properly? Because the operator set it up wrong.
  3. Why did the operator set it up wrong? Because he wasn’t properly trained.
  4. Why wasn’t he properly trained? Because that part of the training program was discontinued.
  5. Why was that part of the training discontinued? As a cost-saving measure.

If you stopped after your second “why?” you would assume the pressman was at fault, when in fact the root cause is a policy issue.

(Note: Five Why’s is particularly useful, in my experience, when you want to actually solve a problem, rather than just find someone to blame it on.)

In fiction writing, I find this technique really useful when I’m trying to dig down into my characters’ motivations. For example: Continue reading

Jilly: Planning for the Zombie Apocalypse

Have you been reading (or watching) much fiction over the last few weeks? What kind of stories did you choose?

I spent the first week of my enforced homestay on the sofa, re-reading Jenny Crusie. I picked Agnes and the Hitman, followed by Fast Women. Angry heroines, laconic heroes with just the right skill-set, a dazzling array of secondary characters, terrific dialogue, and murder. Just what I wanted. No softness, lots of snark and action. Edgy stories tinged with darkness and humor, and a heroine with agency who fights her way to a happy ending, for herself and everyone she cares about. Very cathartic.

Then last week, between obsessively reading the news and completing a fiendishly tricky jigsaw puzzle with an underwater fantasy scene featuring strange fish, steampunk machines, grandiose ruins and Pre-Raphaelite mermaids, I revisited MR Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts. Continue reading

Kay: Narrating Family History

The family tree of Cesky Sternberk Castle, Czech Republic (Library of Congress)

Novelists create characters. We give them names and personalities, families, backgrounds, and histories. We give them motivations and core values, often based on what they learned from their families or what’s important to their heritage, so they have reason to make the choices they do in our narratives.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from Ancestry that individual Americans actually know very little about their heritage.

Ancestry commissioned a survey from OnePoll, which canvassed 2,000 people in the United States. They found that many Americans don’t know or are unclear about their family origins.

  • 25 percent don’t know from what countries their families came to the United States
  • 40 percent of Americans polled are not certain from what country their last name originates

Continue reading

Kay: Why I Write

In 1946, J.B. Pick and Charles Neil, editors of Gangrel magazine, published an essay by George Orwell called “Why I Write.” Orwell’s essay became famous, and when I first read it, it was a revelation, from his early life that shaped his mind, to his military service and early jobs that focused his point of view. His thoughts and opinions are, shall we say, bracing. So, whenever I want to think about why I spend so much time by myself in a small room, I look to see what other people who do what I do think about it. Continue reading