Jilly: I’d Love to Read His Story

In her post last Saturday, Michaeline talked about subplots and secondary characters. We chatted in the comments about the movie version of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and Michaeline said she wished the whole story could have been about the master swordsman sidekick, Inigo Montoya.

Which got me wondering: which secondary character(s) would you like to see in a starring role?

In this era of series, especially in romance, many (most?) significant secondary characters are written and signaled as sequel bait. Usually I’m excited about that. I love the promise of more stories in a world I’m enjoying, and if I’m already invested in the characters, there’s a delicious frisson of anticipation whenever they do something that could come back to bite them later.

Sometimes the author dangles the treat but keeps the reader waiting through multiple books. Maybe even through an entire series, like Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green books, where it was always clear that the resolution of Lyon and Olivia’s romance arc would wrap up the series. That’s OK. I’m comfortable with deferred gratification. I know the story will come, eventually. If I care enough, all I have to do is stick with the author and series until it arrives.

Here, I’m thinking more about the cast of supporting players who people a fictional world but who are not set up to step into the limelight in due course. Take Christopher and Barabas, two characters from Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels urban fantasy series. Ilona put up a blog post a few days ago in response to a reader’s question about whether she would ever write their romance. Click here to read the post in full. In short, Ilona said the decision would not be a question of popularity, but one of inspiration.

If I had my way, I’d beg the story gods to Continue reading

Elizabeth: The Call to Action

call_to_actionAs writers, we’re taught that a story rightfully begins with an inciting incident; an event that changes something for our hero/heroine, throwing them off their traditional path and setting everything in motion.   It can be as simple as meeting a cute guy in the bar, the death of a family member, or being transferred to a new job, or more complex, like being transported into a whole new world.  Typically, the inciting incident is something that happens to the hero/heroine, rather than something they actively do.

Simply put, before the inciting incident there is equilibrium.  Afterwards, the balance has been upset and there is a problem to be solved. Continue reading

Nancy: Today’s Word is Theme

The theme is the beating heart of your book.

The theme is the beating heart of your book.

Judging by my posts this month, it seems I’ve spent most of January thinking about keywords that apply to my writing life and process, including intention, patience, and empathy. This past week, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about theme as a result of the confluence of disparate elements.

First, a quick definition of theme as I’m using it here, from Reference.com: “The theme of a novel or story is the major message that organizes the entire work…The theme of a work is distinct from its subject, which is what the story is ostensibly “about.” The theme is an expression of the writer’s views on that subject.”

On Wednesday, Elizabeth wrote about defining what you stand for, as well as what your characters stand for, to help uncover potential conflicts, arcs, and growth opportunities. In the comments section, Jeanne and Elizabeth wrote about the way an author’s view of the meaning of a work can change through the writing process. With this in mind, it makes sense that many writers get their first (or second or fifth) draft on the page, then step back and analyze the work to uncover the theme. Why look for the theme? Continue reading

Jilly: Don’t Leave Your Story in the Cold Over the Holidays

dont-leave-your-story-in-the-coldCan you believe it’s December already? How’s your month looking? Busy?

May I add something to your schedule? Earmark a few minutes each day – five, ten, fifteen, whatever you can shoehorn in – to make sure your story doesn’t get lost in the seasonal brouhaha.

Even for a holiday humbug like me, December is a time sink. It was worse when I had a day job – closing the payroll ten days early with the extra headache of bonuses to calculate and pay; a year end to prepare for; and in the middle of the financial scramble, parties to organize and/or attend for staff, clients and suppliers.

I’m glad I don’t have to do that any more. My life is also relatively quiet on the family front, but my calendar is still filling up. Multiple catch-ups with friends and ex-colleagues who are home for the holidays. A birthday trip to see the Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy. A night at the theatre. A few days with my mum, even though she doesn’t really know it’s Christmas anymore. Visits on mum’s behalf to her friends and ex-neighbors. A haircut. Gift and grocery shopping. A rare opportunity to see my expat brother, who’s flying home for a couple of weeks.

In the midst of all this activity, my immediate writing priority Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2: The Decoder Ring

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.

As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.

So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 1: Theme

There's an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

There’s an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

Okay, admit it. Your eyes rolled back in your head when you saw the word ‘theme’ in this post’s title, didn’t they? If so, it’s not surprising. Many writers, genre writers in particular – of which many of us here are – are often taught to disregard theme, at least in the early drafts. We’re told a story’s theme will emerge as we revise and dig deeper on later drafts, if indeed it need ever emerge. Who really needs theme anyway, other than your boring high school English teacher? After all, who wants a heavy-handed moral lesson or the author’s worldview shoved down her throat when she’s just trying to immerse herself in good fiction?

According to Lisa Cron, probably everyone.

As Cron discusses in Wired for Story, Story Genius, and workshops (for those of us lucky enough to attend one!), our brains are hardwired for story because story helps us decipher the world around us, and to discover ‘what would happen if’ without physically putting ourselves in harm’s way. In that way, stories are tied to our very survival as a species (sounds pretty cool to be a writer nerd now, doesn’t it?). Other cool things that happen to our brains on fiction are an increased capacity for empathy (through bonding with a protagonist and walking several miles in her shoes) and a willingness to challenge our own world views. And all that cool stuff happens because somewhere under all the scenes and character arcs and plot points and cause and effect trajectory, a story has a specific way of looking at the world, a message, a theme.

Instead of thinking about theme as some sort of moral imperative or high-brow statement to be made at the expense of good story, what if we think about theme as the beating heart of our story? Sound more appealing now? Continue reading

Jilly: Storyteller v Smooth Writer

storytellerI’m planning to spend today judging romance writing contest entries. It’s time-consuming and headache-inducing, but over the last couple of years I’ve discovered that analyzing other unpublished writers’ work is a great way to improve my own.

I guesstimate that on average it takes me about three or four hours per entry from first read to submission of score-sheet. Multiply that by four or five manuscripts, and you’re talking about a serious investment of time. It’s relatively quick, and usually great fun, to read an entry and reach a first impression. Are the scenes well-written? Do I care about the characters? Would I read on? It’s much harder to pinpoint what it is about the writing that makes me feel that way, and harder still to find the right words to give that feedback to the author in an honest, courteous and professional manner.

The last time I judged this particular contest I was lucky enough to read two very good entries back-to-back that made me think hard about Continue reading