Elizabeth: Learning with Others

Sometimes mastering a new skill is a breeze; other times it’s like trying to swim through quicksand.

– – -Beats?

– – -Scene escalation?

– – -Conflict lock?

Mastering those basic concepts, especially in terms of my own stories, has been like trying to swim through quicksand in a full suit of armor.

We’ve blogged about all of these concepts multiple times here on the blog, I’ve attended numerous RWA sessions on them, and of course we covered them in our McDaniel romance writing classwork.  Sadly, my grip on them has been decidedly tenuous, with hit-or-miss implementation.

According to a random article I read on the internet today, the problem may not be that these concepts are beyond me, it may just be that I need to find a different learning style.  There are, according to the aforementioned article, seven styles of learning: Continue reading

Jilly: Local Knowledge

How well do your favorite authors use local knowledge to give their stories depth and authenticity? What would you use in a story about your hometown?

We just spent a week on Long Island at a birthday celebration for a friend’s mother. It’s a beautiful place, and we had a fantastic time, but thanks to our friends we also learned a thing or two and avoided some obvious pitfalls.

It got me thinking about how many opportunities there must be for a writer to use setting to distinguish locals from outsiders, and to create location-specific plot points or conflicts.

Based on last week’s discussions, here are some tells that marked us out as Long Island rookies.

Fishing
Our friends chartered a boat and we went fishing in the bay between South Shore and Fire Island. Everyone else aboard was local, and they’d all been fishing since childhood. I had to be shown everything: how to hold the rod, how to let out the line and reel it in again. I didn’t know I should reel in my line when the captain was ready to move on. I didn’t know the difference between a sea robin and a fluke. I had no idea which fish should be thrown back or which were edible. The crew was friendly and helpful, but openly astonished at my ignorance of the most basic fundamentals.

Poison Ivy
My friend’s mum said that Fire Island supposedly got its name for the poison ivy that’s ubiquitous over there. Cue reminiscences from the family about how painful a poison ivy allergic reaction can be. Also poison oak. Eek. We don’t have either plant over here, and I have no clue what either one looks like.

Ticks
We had to be warned that there are deer ticks in the long grass and dunes. They carry Lyme disease, so it’s an important thing to know. I have no idea what a tick looks like. They’re present in the UK, but it’s a relatively new problem for us, and right now seems to be a bigger problem for pets than humans. I have never seen one, nor do I know anyone who has. I have no idea how to check myself for ticks, how to remove one if I should find it, or what a tick bite would look like. Just writing this is making me itch. Continue reading

Jilly: The Case for the Oxford Comma

Do you care about the Oxford comma?

A few days ago my husband and I found ourselves in a discussion about punctuation with the lawyer who prepared our wills. She explained the need for clarity in legal drafting, and highlighted the danger that a misplaced punctuation mark could completely change the effect of a clause. I don’t know what made me think of it, but in a moment of word-geekery I checked the draft will in front of me and noticed that the list of our potential executors (Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane) was written without a comma after the penultimate name.

I asked, and was told that this is the approved punctuation for a list of items or names: apparently the legal manual of style in England does not favor the Oxford comma. The discovery surprised me. If the lack of a serial comma can make nonsense of a simple sentence like “Susan organized a party and invited her parents, the Queen of England and Richard Branson,” (clearly Her Majesty and Sir Richard are not Susan’s parents), then surely, I thought, it would have the potential to cause confusion in some contracts.

I was curious, so when I got home, I spent some quality time on the interwebs and was tickled to find that the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued a ruling that hinged on this very point, Continue reading

Jilly: Cold Start Case Study

This week the Ladies have been discussing cold starts, sharing their tips and tricks for finding their way into a scene or story when inspiration is nowhere to be found. As you’d expect, their recommendations are as different as their personalities and writing processes.

Michaeline talked yesterday about the excitement of bashing two or three different ideas together to generate story sparks, and then using her own memories and experiences as kindling for those sparks.

That sounds like fun, but I’m not usually looking for story starters. When I commit to a character, I like to spend lots of time in their world. I’m like the worst kind of nosy neighbor: I want to know everything about everyone in the whole community. For Alexis’s epic I have at least five major areas to explore and a tentative series end date of some time in 2020.

I’m not a detailed planner like Nancy. I know roughly where I’m headed and who will join me on the journey, but until I start to write I don’t know the details. I have to cold start the beginning of each book, and I usually hit more icy patches as I’m writing.

I find that my writing troubles usually stem from my characters. If the story goes cold, it’s because I haven’t challenged them, or I don’t know them well enough to figure out how they’d react, and why.

Momentum helps me. If I spend quality time with my characters on a regular basis, they’re top of my mind and I learn a little more about them every day. If I take a break from them, I lose that proximity and have to spend time getting to know them all over again. Just like real people—if you don’t see someone for a month, or a year, it takes a while to get back into the swing of the relationship.

Right now, I’m the poster child for cold starts. Since my mum died in mid-January I’ve had neither the time nor the inclination to write. Add in some family downtime over Christmas and New Year, and I reckon it must be two months since I really got to grips with Alexis. I want to get back to work, but my story brain is feeling sluggish and unresponsive.

I decided to try Continue reading

Jilly: Evaluating an Edit Report

So how’s the New Year shaping up for you?

I started January with a new challenge—deciding how to respond to my very first professional content edit. I’d previously seen the excellent report the editor, Karen Dale Harris, wrote for Jeanne’s The Demon Always Wins, so I knew roughly what to expect. That didn’t mean I was ready for it.

The overview/summary report alone ran to 24 pages, and covered everything from subgenre choice and the implications of that, to characters, conflict, plot, plot holes, world-building, language choices, inconsistencies…you get the idea. I’ll just say that it’s not a comfortable experience to have one’s every last choice subjected to such detailed scrutiny. Continue reading

Jilly: What I Learned at Gollanczfest

Good writing craft workshops are like London buses—you wait for ages, and then three come along at once. Today I’ll be finishing up my second workshop in as many weeks: the fourth and final day of Robert McKee’s legendary Story. It’s an add-on dedicated to Love Story.

All being well, I’ll report back on my Four Days of McKee next weekend. Today I promised to report on my takeaways from Gollanczfest (click here for my previous post about the event.)

Firstly, and most importantly, I had a fantastic time. I made a note to self that it’s worth attending some kind of writing-related event at least once or twice per year, simply because it’s inspiring and energizing to spend time with other writers.

Last weekend the writers were all about sci-fi and fantasy, so the talk was of worldbuilding, dragons, AI, dystopia and space opera. The discussions around process were entirely familiar, likewise the challenges of plot structure and character building. It felt strange that nobody made much mention of community or relationships. Continue reading

Jilly: Search and Destroy

Do you repeat yourself, waffle on, or over-use pet words and phrases? Do your favorite authors?

This week I’ve been cleaning up my WIP, which is due to my editor tomorrow (yikes). I’ve spent way more time than I would have liked down in the weeds, examining individual words.

I know some writers use editing software like AutoCrit to iron out their tics and foibles. I’m tempted to try it some time. For now, my chosen method is to teach myself better writing habits by working systematically through a checklist of problem categories and likely offenders.

Based on this week’s findings, I have work to do.

Continue reading