Tag Archives: theme

…Nor Do I Play One On TV

but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Today I want to talk about expert knowledge. This take on the “write what you know” trope is inspired by a recent post from Larry Brooks, whose brain you know I admire greatly. In it, he observes how the biggest name authors, the ones we all recognize, even if we never read their genre, have taken their expert knowledge from a previous career path or life experience and use that to write books packed with inside information and perspective, to create a story that no one else could have written.

As a young writer, it can be frustrating to read an author like that, to feel that you have it in you to tell that kind of a story. The writing inspires you, and you start to spin your own genre-similar tale in your head. You love the idea. It would make a great book–if only you could get the experience as a fighter pilot to fill in the gaps. Sadly, watching Top Gun a dozen times in one weekend doesn’t seem to make that happen, now you’ve got “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” stuck in your head, and you’re seriously bummed because you’re pretty sure there’s no cooler name than Maverick, but it’s already been used, so screw this whole thing.

One thing Larry says:

There’s nothing wrong with a housewife from Wisconsin setting out to write a sexy novel about a drug dealer operating out of Havana.  Research is a beautiful thing.  But the truth is, the real ex-Havana crack dealer writing the same story already has a leg up on her, and no research in the world can supplant the vicereral, minutea-bound credibility of someone who knows.

This, by the way, reminds me of a writer I know who was drawn to a particular kind of story that she hadn’t lived, and got so wound up in perfectionist research that she was letting the minutia run the story. Her thinking was much more about what would happen next according to real procedure in the real world, and not so much about telling a story and using the research to color it and fill in the blanks.

Anyways, a lot of us are writers because we love to read, and a lot of us love to read because we love the escapist fantasy of it. Because we’re not ex-FBI agents, nor did we stay at the Holiday Inn Express last night. So while Larry’s talking about these big-name authors having a leg up because they’ve been LA crime reporters, forensic techs, spies, pilots, etc., he also says:

Sure, it’s fiction, we get that.  But you have to bring it to life, and life is about truth.  And everybody has lived a truth worth telling.

This is what I believe. And you know who really inspires me in this regard?

La Nora.

That’s Nora Roberts. Now, you don’t have to be a fan, you don’t have to like her books. But you can probably bring yourself to admit that she’s done mighty fine for herself as a writer. If you go back and read Larry’s post, and you read about the big-name authors who have “lived their way in” to their type of story…I think La Nora probably smokes them all in terms of fame and earnings. (I don’t have to be right about that and don’t much care. It’s enough to say she’s at least on par for the sake of argument.)

So what’s her expert knowledge? The story goes–and I read it in The Official Nora Roberts Companion which has a lot of interesting stuff in it–that Nora started writing in 1979 when she was snowed in with her two boys and turned to writing a novel in a spiral notebook in an effort to save her sanity. The story paints a picture some of us–ahem–can relate to. It’s a picture of family, together, sometimes driving each other nuts.

The concept of family plays a huge role in her work. Whether it’s the family you were born into or the people you choose, the family themes, plots, and subplots in her works are part of what make them different from a lot of what’s out there, and part of what helps readers relate to the work, draws them in, and contributes to her popularity. There’s a very strong component in many of her works, a connection between characters that’s almost like ownership. Whether it’s a relationship between a hero and heroine, a relationship between brothers, or the relationship between a cop and the victims she wants justice for, there’s a sense that this person is mine, mine to care for, mine to protect, mine to stand with.

I think that if you look back at what Nora chooses to reveal in her origin story, the story of a harried mother of two young boys, it’s pretty obvious where at least part of that is coming from.

She has never been, to my knowledge, a spy, a pilot, an FBI agent, a cop, a cowboy, or a vampire. Part of what amazes me about Nora, and part of why she’s managed to put out well over 100 novels, is because it seems like she can write about anyone she wants. The research is there, the feel of it, but those professions–and their attendant minutia–aren’t what her stories are about. They’re about relationships, not just romantic relationships, but relationships of all kinds. They’re about family, something nearly everyone has or at least longs for, something to which everyone can relate.

So you’re just a high school student, or a retail clerk, or a server at Applebee’s, or you’re the night person on the desk at the Holiday Inn Express, so what? Something in your brain, in the way you think, makes you so different that you’re absolutely fascinating. If you weren’t fascinating, you’d never have started writing because you’d bore the crap out of yourself. And you’re human; you’ve got something that makes you just like me. That’s why I’m going to connect with what you write and have to read every book you put out.

I think that’s the magic. If you’re Grisham, you can write about all the little lawyery details we don’t know about, and that, in and of itself is interesting, especially since we get it in a gripping tale instead of having to sit through law school. If you’re not, then maybe your tales will have lawyery flavoring and a dash of artificial attorney color #5, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about something that only you bring to it out of your experience.

At least, this is what I understand about me: I can write about things I know in an academic sense, but I can write passionately about things I’ve felt my way through. And when I write with passion, it’s a whole other level.

So, expert on all things youish, what parts of your own unique journey are you using for your current work-in-progress?

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Heroes ‘Til Curfew: Cover Art and Latest Info on the Sequel to Hush Money

Ok, that was the longest title ever.

I’m sure that there are some of you out there who fondly remember a time when I had planned this book to be a fall release, with yet another book out before the end of the year. Let’s all get that laugh over with. Life just happened all over me this fall, and I’m still trying to recover.

Work on Heroes is back on in earnest now, in a way that makes me feel like I’ve got a bit of my mojo back. At least enough to go to Robin and say: these are some things I know happen, these are some themes in story, etc. (Incidentally, I think the fact that I discuss themes with Robin, as well as characters, events, and set-pieces, might be why she’s able to come up with things that work so well. Or it could be just because she’s awesomesauce.)

So I have a cover. Here it is:

Heroes 'Til Curfew Cover Art

Cover Art by Robin Ludwig

I’ll give you a moment.

Do you love it?

Ok, so when can we expect the rest of it? Right now I’m saying January 2011. I hope you’ll all run right out and start up some best of 2011 lists as soon as you read it. ETA Release info: Since this post gets a bunch of hits from people searching for release info, I wanted to say that Heroes ‘Til Curfew still isn’t finished (*cringe* sorry!), and I don’t have a release date right now. I’ve added a line at the top of the sidebar with it’s status for your quick reference, and recommend signing up for the newsletter. I so much want to thank everyone for your patience and support.

I know that’s a while yet, although, trust me, it doesn’t seem like so very long from my perspective. I do, however, have a beginning. Imogen Rose was kind enough to include the first scene of Heroes ‘Til Curfew at the end of her latest release, Quantum. That “sneak peek” excerpt is just under two thousand words.

One thing I’ll tell you about the new story: it does not pick up right after Hush Money. A little bit of time passes between the two stories. For those of you who may now be going–

But wait! What happened when Joss got home? What did her dad say?

Hey, no one wanted to know that more than I did. I’m currently working on a short story which will serve as a sort of epilogue to Hush Money. Right now, what I have is being told from Dylan’s perspective. And all I can say is, “Poor Dylan.” Heroes ‘Til Curfew is my number one priority, but I hope to get back to the epilogue while Heroes makes the rounds with the beta and proof readers. I think it would be lovely if I could have that out for you around Christmastime.

As of right now, I intend for that story to be a freebie, a gift to readers who enjoyed Hush Money enough to sign up for a newsletter that will alert them to new releases and events in the Talent Chronicles series. Anyone who signs up for the newsletter now will receive information on how to download the new story as soon as it becomes available. (And anyone who doesn’t want to receive emails about new releases will be free to unsubscribe at any time.)

Did you know that Hush Money has now sold over 2500 copies, here in its fourth month of release? This blows my mind. That’s thanks to a lot of people who have written reviews, tweeted, and even hand-sold copies of the book to their friends, for which I am so grateful. And that’s a lot of people who will need to know about that sequel! If you’d like to offer help or ideas, please feel free.

Meanwhile, I gotta go write the damn thing.

ETA for PS: If any of you wants to borrow this cover image for the purpose of generating interest in the series and otherwise having something to blog about, please feel free.

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Wanna Nano Buddy?

Yeah, I did it. I went and signed up all fresh and new this morning. Here’s my profile, if you think you might like to buddy me. It’s a little slap-dash. I have no idea what years I’ve tried to do Nano before, but I can tell you that I’ve never finished. I think I’ve had two accounts, the second one because I couldn’t get back into the first one for my second year because of all the website problems. This year, though, I’ve put all the past behind me, all the hiding behind a handle, afraid to tell anyone that I write, and I’m there with my real name. So there. [self-directed “so there”]

I’m working on Heroes ‘Til Curfew. I know that, technically, it’s supposed to be something fresh and new. I had hoped to have HTC out in beta and be able to possibly start the rough of the third book for Nano. Well, there’s a dream that’s long behind me as I fall further and further behind. I really feel like I need something to get me going right now. And trust me, I’ve got at least 50, 000 new words left to write in this draft.

I’m not sure how I’ll do with the goal. I’ve never finished. Nano is a difficult concept for me. The idea of waiting to start something until a set date, setting that date around one of the busiest and most stressful parts of the year, and then all that just writing whatever to get words out, the frantic output to be fixed later–that’s not really how I work at all. So I may end up plodding along at my own pace and being behind, but I think it will be nice just to be part of Nano fever, because just the energy that surrounds it is sometimes helpful–if you don’t let it stress you out and drive you mad.

Anyway, if you’re doing Nano this year, feel free to add me.

I’m feeling really reflective today, and I was just thinking about what I said above, about how I had been hiding behind internet handles and how I avoided telling any one in real life that I was a writer. It’s been really interesting, and very nice, to be able to do this with a shiny book in my hands and my name on the cover. People in my life have been very kind, supportive, and downright enthusiastic. But I’m not sure what it would have been like without that shiny book, and I wonder if I ever would have done it.

A lot of Hush Money is about fear. I know I said this in an interview somewhere, that one of the movie lines that repeated in my head while I was writing, and continues to live there when I think about the story, is from Pump Up The Volume. It’s the part at the parent meeting when Paige Woodward, the girl who blew up her kitchen, takes the stage and passionately tells the crowd how she’s just been going through the motions of being perfect. “We are all really scared to be who we really are.”

And didn’t think too much, until I started to out myself as a writer, how much of Joss’s secrecy was actually mine.

I got another bit of fan mail this morning, from someone who hasn’t quite reached the end of the story, but wanted to tell me how much I made her feel like she was there, in school, living this life. (As a writer, I should have better words for what those messages mean to me.) Looking forward to her finishing the book, wondering how she would feel at the end of it, I started thinking about the ending of the book myself, and how I lived it.

Writing that ending was very exciting. There was a sense of Oh my God, this is finally over. That feeling of exhilaration was both Joss’s, having just come through the other side of this battle and solved this big problem that had been hanging over her, as well as mine, having come through it with her, and also having come to the end of a struggle of my own. I felt like I had conquered something too. As I was typing her thoughts, I was thinking, this is starting to sound like the end of an after school special.

And then I decided that was just fine.

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Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.

This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.

For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.

Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.

So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.

The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.

Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)

Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.

So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.

They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.

Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).

But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.

After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:

  • Angel or Spike?
  • Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
  • Marvel or DC?
  • Ginger or Maryann?

And where would the internet be without that?

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Blueprint Series part 13: Battling Threads

Now that we’ve learned how to plot from beginning to end, I’m going to talk about what to do with the subplots and other threads you might have hanging around in your story. (For Part 1 in this series, click here.)

I’m calling these threads because sometimes “subplot” feels like too much word for these. So we might be talking about subplots in the way you think of them, or we might be talking about themes, or just things you want to develop and remember to follow.

A friend recently had a specular, freak-out meltdown over her WIP because she went to look at her outline, and there were points there that didn’t make sense, things that seemed left out or left hanging, and the outline itself was no longer a treasure map but sort of an encyclopedia of Huh?

There were a number of reasons why this happened, but essentially it all came down to her not having spent the time to understand her threads, work them through, and tie them into the plot. Consequently, when she had thrown an idea onto the outline that made sense when she thought of it, she later had no idea how to relate it to the story. And this story was an intrigue that really grew in terms of having a lot of different threads to follow. Complexity is great, scary fields of tangled threads and seeming randomness are not.

It took hours of talk therapy to get all the information out of her. It was all there, and it was mostly all good, it just took a long time to straighten it all out, tie it all together, and show her what she really had. On the bright side, it taught me stuff about the process.

But after all this work, and getting to The End, I don’t think you’re going to like it…

Step 13: Battling Threads

  1. List different the different threads/subplots in the story.
  2. For each thread, list its major plot points, and/or how it relates to the plot point moments in the central plot as described above.

Things you might list as threads:

subplots

themes

the constant battle against the inner demon

your romantic relationship

another relationship the character has, like a friendship

a mystery

something a secondary character is doing that will affect your main plot later in an important way

something going on in the background, like events in the town that enhance the setting

Like some of the things we talked about with regard to characters and setting apply here. Namely relevancy and connections. While you’re working through these threads, trying to build them as plotlines, look for ways to tie them back in to the main story. When the main plot points in your main storyline take place, how are these threads affected? How can you use what you already have to build on these ideas? If you need a distraction for your main characters or a red herring to distract the reader, choose from threads you’re already using rather than making up an unrelated incident.

Not all threads will have all their major plots–or at least, if they do, those won’t necessarily happen on the page. It’s probably not true for all stories that plotlines should interweave. I’m sure there are some that keep seemingly independent storylines going without tying them together until some shocking reveal at the end. If that’s how you roll, more power to ya.

I’d guess the important thing is just to be aware of your plans. Keep good notes for yourself, so that you don’t lose any of those great ideas, and you’re not letting threads slip and lie half developed and forgotten as you work.

After this, the only thing left to do is to actually outline. I continue to do this in Word, just making a list of scenes with brief descriptions or bullets of what needs to be shown and why. I then work through the writing of each of the four parts, stopping in between to make notes on changes or new things that developed during the writing.

After all this, I think I need a bit of a break to finish up my own outline for my current project. If you’ve followed the series, I want to say a special thank you. I hope you’ve found it useful. Please feel free to come back and comment (any ol’ where) and tell me how it’s going.

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Blueprint Series Part 9: Fleshing Out Part 1

Thanks for visiting part 9 of the series. We’re really going to start fleshing out your story this week. In keeping with the 4-part structure we’ve been discussing, we’ll be going over one story section each day and working on some of the things that will help you build your outline. I’ve added a section into the Blueprint that deals with following up with your different threads and subplots. Check the download page to get the latest version. And if you’re just finding the series, click here for part 1.

Step 9: Part 1

  1. What is the hook or question that happens within the first few scenes?
  2. How will you introduce the hero? What will allow the reader to connect with the hero?
  3. How will you introduce the heroine? What will allow the reader to connect with the heroine?
  4. When and how do the hero and heroine meet?
  5. What is the theme(s) of the story?
  6. How will you allude to the theme(s) in Part 1?
  7. What events will you foreshadow and how?
  8. What are the hero’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  9. What are the heroine’s inner demons? How will you show that?
  10. What’s at stake for the hero? When the FPP happens what does he have to gain and lose?
  11. What’s at stake for the heroine? When the FPP happens what does she have to gain and lose?
  12. Are there other characters introduced in Part 1 who will continue through the story? List them, their relationships to the characters, their functions in the story.
  13. How does the FPP come about?
  14. How does the FPP unveil the antagonistic force?

Part one of your story is all about setup. It’s showing us what your character’s life is like before everything changes and she is pulled into the story proper. This is the place where you’re really doing a lot of planting and foreshadowing. You’re showing us what your characters want and need, what they’re afraid of. You’re planting elements that seem like background now, but may become oh-so-important later. When the FPP comes around at the end of part 1, a lot of these pieces will take on new significance for the reader, as she will automatically be in a position to understand how the FPP changes everything. She’ll know, without having it spelled out in exposition, what your character has to gain, what she’s afraid to lose, and why she must move forward into her story. Because you’ve shown all that in your setup.

Opening Hooks: Questions are important to me at the beginning of a story. What will happen next? Will she or won’t she? Why does she feel that way? How did this circumstance come about? What kind of a world is this, where things like this are possible? … Whatever it is, the books that really draw me into a story are the ones that give me some kind of a question that makes me want to turn the page and find out more.

Perversely, nothing turns me off of a story like feeling strung along and left in the dark. There’s a balance between creating intrigue and creating reader confusion. Good critique partners and beta readers will be invaluable to you in deciding if you’ve done your job right. For now, just remember throw the reader some breadcrumbs and answer some of these questions while you create others.

Getting readers invested: Readers follow your story by identifying with, and investing emotionally in, you characters in some way. Figure out what it is about your characters that will make your reader root for them and want them to succeed, whether it’s some need or trait we all tend to have in common, or something compelling that your character really cares about and needs to accomplish. Once you’ve figured out what that is, remember to find a way to show (not tell) it in your setup.

Theme: Some people hate the idea of theme. I love it. I believe in it. And no, I don’t believe writers always have a theme when writing or planning, but theme emerges all the same. I can usually find one in anything that’s been worth reading. It’s really about the question What is this story about? and the answer that doesn’t just summarize the plot. It could be about finding your place, discovering or embracing who you are, the places where Truth hides–this is the place to think a bit dramatically, I suppose. It’s about what you’re saying, beyond simply telling a series of events. It’s about why you’re passionate about telling this story. You may not know what your theme is at this point, but once you find it, you’ll be able to craft details and dialog to enrich the thematic experience for the reader.

Inner Demons: This goes back to your character arc stuff. These are the things your character needs to get over in order to win at the end of the story. In your setup, you can choose to show us what the character is afraid of and why, or you can save the why for later. You can present us someone who’s so distrustful of others that he’s never going be able to be the kind of team player your characters need to achieve the story goal. You can show us someone who is so beaten down by past failures that they can’t even conceive of trying again. Lots of different kinds of demons to slay out there.

Stakes: FPP’s Happen. Should be a bumper sticker. When yours happens, what’s at stake for the character? She must move forward. Why? What will happen if she doesn’t? What will she gain if she succeeds in gaining the story goal? Of course, she’s reluctant to go forward. Why? What will she lose if she tries and fails? Set it up and show us, so you don’t have to tell us.

Other Characters: Since these are notes you’ll be using to develop your part 1 scenes, it’s a good idea to list all the players you need to introduce, so that you can start thinking about at least giving them a mention or a walk-on in your setup.

FPP: If you don’t have some kind of an idea of how your First Plot Point happens by now, you really should. This is the most important moment of your story. The moment that makes it a story. If you’ve got no idea how it happens, make figuring that out a priority.

You might have introduced your villainous character somewhere in your setup. At the FPP, something else is revealed about him. He’s not just the mean, he’s evil. He’s not just greedy, he’s a demon (literally). He doesn’t just casually hate your main character, he actually has a plan in place to destroy her.  What new thing about the antagonistic force are you going to show the reader through the FPP?

There are a lot of questions to think through here, but that’s what makes Part 1 the easiest chunk to put together. By the time you get all of this stuff answered, it pretty much builds itself. Good luck with it.

Tomorrow, we’ll be on to fleshing out the first half of the middle.

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