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

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

Jilly: Bujold’s Sharing Knife Books, Old and New

I was super-excited to learn from Michaeline’s post a couple of weeks ago that Lois McMaster Bujold is to publish a new novella in her Sharing Knife universe. I’m a huge fan of the original tetralogy and somehow I never expected her to revisit this story world, so I feel a squee brewing. Yay! Fingers crossed!

The new novella, called Knife Children, should be published later this month. I see from LMB’s Goodreads blog (link here) that it can be read as a standalone, so if you’re tempted to take a look, don’t assume you have to read the original four books first.

That said, if you’re short of something to read right now, and you enjoy engaging, subtle fantasy stories, you could always try Beguilement, followed by Legacy, Passage, and Horizon. I usually revisit these books once or twice a year, so I’ve been enjoying a leisurely re-read this month while I wait for Knife Children.

I’ve also been pondering, not for the first time, exactly why these books fit so well with my personal id list—the tropes, characters, premises and details that I, as a reader, really, really like (click here to read more about id lists).

I’ll try to describe in a fairly generic, non-spoilery way what I enjoy most about the stories.

The books are set in an imaginary pre-industrial country that looks a lot like America. There are typical fantasy elements—romance, a hero with mage-like powers, scary mythical creatures, blood magic, powerful objects, horses-n-swords, success against overwhelming odds—but here the story is so grounded in normality that the fantastic aspects blend seamlessly with the familiar.

Right from the start of the book the hero and heroine’s romance is as inevitable as it appears improbable. Fawn is a dewy eighteen-year-old farmer’s daughter, two months pregnant after a disappointing tryst in a cornfield, who runs away from home rather than be branded a slut. Dag is a fiftysomething-year-old one-armed battle-scarred widower who has nothing left in life but thankless duty. From their first desperate encounter with one of the aforementioned scary creatures, Dag and Fawn rescue one another, and it rapidly becomes apparent to them (if not to anyone else) that their differences make them perfectly suited, empowering them both. Her common sense, logic, honesty and hungry curiosity challenge his idealism and stimulate his talent for innovation, leading him to develop all kinds of hitherto unsuspected abilities.

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: What’s on Your Id List?

What things in fiction, big or small, really do it for you? Tropes, characters, premises or details that you enjoy so much you’d auto-buy a book or stick with a really bad movie because of them?

A couple of weeks ago I listened to Writing For Your Id, a workshop presented at this year’s RWA National conference by Dr. Jennifer Barnes, a psychologist, cognitive scientist, and YA romance author. I’m super-grateful to 8 Lady Jeanne for recommending it.

The first part of the presentation, which would have been worth the price of admission, was that certain universal pleasures have become hard-wired into our brains, and encountering those treats when we read gives us a deep-seated hit of happy. Stories or scenes depicting sex, touch, beauty, wealth, power, competition and danger push our pleasure buttons. Different genres are associated with different pleasures, and the workshop offered suggestions about different ways to create pleasure-centric stories and to work with and against the typical pleasure buttons.

Lots of food for thought there, but what really resonated with me was the second part of the presentation: that you make your stories distinctive and memorable by adding in to them stuff that you, the writer, personally really, really like.

The idea is to develop a list of all the things that do it for you and use those things to bring excitement to your writing.

Work out which pleasures recur. Which ones you’re strong on and vice versa. And if you’re not looking forward to writing, get yourself in the mood by adding in something from your Id List.

Dr. Barnes said she has a list of more than a thousand items. I just made a start on mine, but here are a few things I came up with.

Sensible, smart, plain heroines who get the hot guy
Especially the overlooked bluestocking sister with a drop-dead gorgeous sibling.
I’d put Lizzy Bennet top of this list—Jane is beautiful, but Lizzy’s smart and interesting. Or quiet, competent Mary Challoner from Heyer’s Devil’s Cub.

Heroines who shoot the hero
That would be Mary Challoner again. And Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels. And Sophy from The Grand Sophy (well, she shoots a friend to prevent the hero from challenging him to a duel, but I think it counts). Continue reading

Jilly: Public Proposals–Swoon or Cringe?

Where do you stand on public marriage proposals?

I’m a sports fan, and I had the England v India cricket match playing in the background as I sat down to write today’s post. Normally I find cricket commentary provides the perfect background for writing, but today there was a break in the action, the cameras focused on a tense-looking young man in the crowd, and the TV presenter said “That’ll be Martin*. He’s here today with Suzanne*, and I believe he has something to say to her…” Martin went down on one knee and fished out a ring box. The giant TV screens said DECISION PENDING. Suzanne cried and kissed him. The screens switched to SHE SAID YES! The crowd went bonkers.

The whole episode made me cringe so much I turned the coverage off. Then I started wondering if I’m a grouchy curmudgeon who’s incapable of appreciating a heartfelt romantic gesture.

What do you think?

I’m not talking about a spontaneous proposal that occurs in front of other people because Circumstances. I love those, in life and literature. My problem is with a carefully orchestrated piece of showmanship set up with the intent to share a serious, potentially life-changing decision with as many strangers as possible, without the decision-maker’s knowledge or consent.

Why might you do that? The best answers I could come up with were:

  • The young man, his beloved, or both, are narcissistic exhibitionists;
  • The young man sees the public proposal as a grand gesture, a demonstration of the strength of his love;
  • The young man is afraid the object of his affections might refuse him, and he is relying on public pressure to tip the scales in his favour;
  • The young man is so thrilled and giddy at the prospect of marrying his beloved that he wants to share the moment with the whole world.

Which brings me to my next question. Generalizing here, but do you think a public proposal of marriage is something the twenty-first century bride dreams of? Continue reading