RT #17 was held in Atlanta this past May and I have to tell you, it was an amazing experience. I met readers, bloggers, and did my fair share of fangirling when meeting some of my favorite authors. By the end of the first night, I discovered why everyone recommended wearing comfortable shoes. The events/sessions start early in the morning and doesn’t end until well after midnight.
For anyone who has the opportunity to go, I cannot express how much I encourage you to do so. It’s an experience I will never forget. Participating in my first ever book signing, author events, and introducing my novels to new readers still has my heart smiling. I simply cannot wait for RT#18 which will be in Reno next May.
My latest novel, Chasing Wicked – The Mitchell Brothers – Wicked Series, Book 1 came out a week prior to the event…just in time to introduce my bad boy Stone Mitchell. I’m planning to have Garrett’s story, Finding Wicked out by the end of the year and following will be Chad’s in Keeping Wicked.
Anyone interested in attending RT, here’s the link where you can keep up to date on any hot topics for planning early.
Some writers naturally excel at description, others avoid it or struggle to find the right balance. Too much can be a drag on the book and modern readers are a lot less patient with description; too little can leave the characters floating without anchor in time and space, or lead the reader to imagine a setting that is later shown to be wrong – a subtly upsetting experience that can lead them to put the book aside.
My natural tendency is to include only a minimum. A regency novel typically takes place in a well-known setting, as far as the fan of the genre is concerned; no need to give yet another detailed description of Almack’s, of a society ball, of a young lady’s gown, unless it bears on the story and characters. But a little is still necessary. In the Urban Fantasy series I co-write with my writing partner, we need a bit more, so that readers can imagine our alternate world – luckily my partner is a deft hand at description and tends to include just enough to satisfy the readers, without impacting the pace.
Lately I have paid more attention to how much and what kind of description the books I read contain. It varies from lots of atmospheric, almost excessive setting description (typical for the historical mystery romance, and mysteries in general) to barely any (e.g. in a self-pubbed hugely successful SF series).
Here are some of the lessons I have learned:
The place where you really need a bit to anchor the reader is at the beginning of a scene, so we know where and when it takes place. But not more than a couple of sentences, if possible.
Less is more. In genre fiction, the readers want to get on with the story, so you need to use the telling detail, rather than long lists of things the characters notices.
In close third or first POV description does double duty by showing what kind of detail your character focuses on – e.g. an alpha male would not notice or care about the details of a girl’s sleeves and hems, though another lady would notice they are not according to the very latest fashion.
People notice things that are unusual for them – that gives you a chance to slip in a bit of backstory, or show a new side of your character. Cinderella at the ball contrasts this splendor with her own circumstances, the nouveau-riche character finds the style of old wealth too understated for his tastes, etc.
Even if your character would not normally notice anything much about his usual environment, at the start of the chapter you have a little leeway to slip in necessary information for the reader’s benefit. Just don’t use expressions too far from the POV character’s style and nobody will notice your sleight-of-hand and brief deviation from the strictest POV.
Short weather (or better, “changing light”) descriptions can be useful to demonstrate the passage of time.
Visual cues are important, but don’t forget to include odors, noises, and textures – try to involve all the senses, and not only in intimate scenes. To the falling darkness on a London street you can add the creeping fog, the cawing of a rook, the slithery wetness of the dirty cobblestones, the pungent smell of horse urine, the flicker of the gas light, etc. But only pile it on if you need to set a certain mood, e.g. to show your character’s fear or uneasiness. Otherwise, one or two telling details must do duty for all the rest of the scene.
Don’t use details that contradict the desired mood. If you want a foreboding effect, with a nervous character, don’t use cheerful details like daisies, sunshine, lilting melodies, etc. (Some writers can combine these with frightening details to heighten the effect, but that is tricky to pull off.)
Don’t include current cultural references to real people, companies, etc. if you can help it. It dates your story. To compare somee to a current pop star or singer, an actor etc. risks making the story incomprehensible if someone reads it in twenty years. Even now, someone from another generation, and large swathes of the world’s potential readers are not going to get it – remember that fame is ephemeral, today’s household word is tomorrow’s has-been.
Go for the concrete over general – instead of having the character arrange flowers on the mantelpiece, have her select and cut specific flowers that are appropriate for the country, season and social class of your character. No tulips or violets in autumn before we had airplanes, for instance, while roses (what size and color?) will do year-round in most places and periods (if it is plausible they had greenhouses nearby).
When people talk over a meal, include a bit of the typical fare, and what they drink. Who cooked and served it? Is the steak rare or well done? Are the flowers in the vase real or artificial? What is the tablecloth like? While you should not include all these details, you ought to be clear on them in your own mind.
Don’t forget that the right verb is also a part of description, often a crucial part. A young lady in a formal garden might amble, stride, rush, meander, kick the pebbles, etc. – each verb paints a very different picture. Choose carefully.
One-of-a-kind witty descriptions and quips can work wonderfully for people with a special talent, and in genres like humor. They can be essential for the unique voice all writers strive for, but can also look pretentious and stupid if you cannot properly pull it off. Such descriptions may also break the reader’s immersion. If you tend to do this, be sure to get honest beta readers to check that your originality truly achieves what you aim for.
In romance as in other genres, description is an important part of your story – like the furniture in your house. Too much creates a cluttered effect, but too little is cold and sterile. Readers should not particularly notice or stop to admire description as they follow your story, but must always feel they know where the characters are, what they look like (at least in general terms) and receive just enough clues to mentally picture the scenes you are writing. They will do the heavy lifting, as long as you give them something useful to work with.
Few writers get description exactly right as they set out on their learning curve, although some display a natural talent for it. Luckily, this is an area and technique that can be learned, and we have countless masters to learn from.
May Burnett is a writer and editor living in Vienna, Austria. Currently she is at work on the next sequel to her Amberley Chronicles, as well as the first volume of a co-written Fantasy Romance Trilogy.
And while moving last year did involve abandoning my blog for a month, I kept up with my publishing schedule.
Now, however, I am writing, not publish, but to create. There is no set release date, no expectations of editing, it’s just me and the words, until I get them right. Which is liberating, but also harder.
It’s easy to be motivated when you can plan and schedule releases. Now, it’s write what I feel, when I feel it. And I have slowed down… a lot. I used to bang out a miniumum of 2000 words a day. I can still do that on the good days, but mostly I’m closer to 100 or 200, when I write at all. (Full disclosure: I am also editing a book, not drafting, but still…)
I have this irrational fear in the back of my mind that I might stop working on Red Witch and never pick it up again.
Which is really stupid considering I picked it back up after nearly a three-year break. But if feelings were rational we wouldn’t have needed to create the word irrational, amiright?
However, the upending of my life is going to happen, and happen soon. What to do with this existential dread? Keep it tucked away, and use it in my book, once I get settled again.
Creating believable characters is hard and showing how they change emotionally during the course of the story, harder still. Sometimes I feel like I need a degree in psychology to get it right.
In my last two blog posts I discussed character arcs, also known as the internal journey, or in the vernacular, emotional baggage. We all have it, but often it’s human nature to bury our heads in the sand and not think about it too much. However, examining our own inner psyche and the journey we have made through life, may help provide us with a better understanding of the characters we create.
Dara Marks, in her book The Power of the Transformational Arc, maintains that in order for a writer to be successful, they not only have to know their story, but also know themselves. She says:
“A natural story structure is one that reflects the true nature of the human experience.”
Or as Aristotle put it “Drama imitates life.’
One of the first things I learned about story structure was that every character should have a goal, and this in itself is a reflection of the human condition. Psychologist Abraham Maslow describes humans as “wanting animals”. As soon as we get one thing, we move on to wanting something else. To show how we prioritise these different wants, he developed the Hierarchy of Need.
At the bottom is the basic need for food, shelter and safety, we then move on to want love, self-respect and finally, self-actualisation. In character-driven fiction, it is these latter needs that often form part of a character’s inner journey whilst action movies may focus on more basic needs, such as safety.
Whether a story is character or plot driven, our characters will face obstacles which will force them to make decisions. But sometimes it’s difficult to know which path our heroines and heroes should take. Whatever they choose to do, it must be believable and consistent with the background we have given them. That’s when it can be helpful to draw on personal eperiences.
At birth, inherited DNA aside, we are pretty much a blank canvas. It is what happens next that creates character such as parenting, upbringing, schooling etc. All these factors will influence the type of person we become, how we respond to adversity and the decisions we make. Our characters need to evolve in the same way.
My favourite TV programme at the moment is First Dates where single people of all ages and background are looking for love. Some talk about their parent’s bitter divorce, a cheating ex, or tragically, a loved one who has died. These experiences have made them reluctant to open their hearts because they fear being hurt again and to love makes us vulnerable.
If we can similarly understand our own vulnerabilities and where they come from, it may help make us become better writers and in turn, create believable characters.
Maslow says: “human motivation is based on people seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth.”
It could almost be a line from a writing craft book.
Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson
We all know we’re supposed to have plot points and pinches and turns and twists and arcs in our novels, but how are they relevant to internal and external goals?
My preferred quick and dirty overall skeleton is Dan Wells’ seven point system, which runs as follows:
First Plot Point – Around the 25% mark of the novel
Pinch Point One – Around 40% of the way in
Midpoint – Halfway (Else it wouldn’t be the midpoint…)
Pinch Point Two – Around the 60% mark
Second Plot Point – Around the 75% mark
Having established where all these points should come in my pantsed novel, I mapped out where my plot points do fall. It turns out that not only do I have plot and pinch points for the external story but also for the internal story line. My overall story goal was to get my FMC in a place where she is confident in her ability to manage a large demesne (medieval romance), so I needed the various plots and pinches in certain places relevant to this goal. This was difficult, because I wasn’t sure what constituted a plot point. Was it a kiss?
Or was it her enemy invading her home and trying to take it by force?
The first plot point must be a game changer, according to Larry Brooks. It must define the hero’s need and quest going forward. Something, or someone, enters the story and alters the hero’s status.
I struggled with identifying what my first plot point was, until I realised I had two. One for my FMC’s internal need/goal, and one for the external.
It turns out that the kiss is the first plot point for her internal goal because it changes how she thinks. Before, she thought she could resist this guy. After – she knows she can’t resist him and must stay away until she knows how to resist him.
The invasion is the first plot point for the external goal – which is for her to manage the demesne alone, without the need to get married again (we’re talking medieval, here, remember!). This invasion alters her status by establishing that she needs help. The question then becomes – from where should she seek help?
The same happened for the pinch points and midpoint. They all occurred roughly at the right times, give or take ten pages or so. When I was done, I had mapped out all the points for both her internal and her external goals!
For anyone reading this, my comments might be a ‘duh, you twit, didn’t you know that’ moment, but I wasn’t aware of this, and now I am, I am determined to add this to my next novel to give it greater depth.
For a few years, I was on a tight publishing schedule. One short or novella every month, with the occasional month off in between series.
This was a lot work. I don’t think anybody who isn’t a writer can truly understand how much work it was. I was writing stories 12 to 18 months before publishing them. Workshopping them for months, and then polishing and publishing. This includes making covers, formatting, and so, so much more.
Then I stopped. I wanted to get back to my novels. I wanted less deadlines and more creativity.
One year later, and I have written anything over a week. But I have been writing.
None of it is being typed, but I’m writing and rewriting scenes in my head, like constantly. On the plus side, I’m still working. On the downside, no words on paper.
Also, I keep burning dinner, because my brain is in the Haven, not in the kitchen.
So while I know, intellectually, that I’m writing, emotionally… that number counter isn’t going up and that chapter is still in pieces. Keeping up morale for the job is hard when I don’t have tangible things to focus on, yet I don’t see the point of writing the damn chapter until I’m sure of where it’s going.
I’m getting caught in my own paradox of working, but not writing.
That endlessly blinking cursor can be a such a burden some days. And even though I know that when I get back to work I will likely have two or three chapters properly arranged and ready to go, I’m still not writing.
And there really isn’t anything to do, except keep working that dialogue and working through the brick walls of “but character A wouldn’t do that” and “Character B wouldn’t be there.”
Maybe tomorrow I’ll have every little thing worked out and can get some words on paper.
At very least, maybe that means I won’t burn dinner.
I heave a huge sigh. “There are four teams ahead of him. I know what’s going on.”
“How’s the scene going?” I can tell he’s trying not to laugh.
“Not well. I’m not exactly sure who’s POV to use, or if I should cut directly to the action. Right now, I’m contemplating a quiet scene, and I don’t know if that’s right for the overall story. So I’m trying out dialogue.” I glare at him. “Did you need something?”
He finally laughs, soft chuckles that don’t carry far. “Yes. You. In this moment. And not looking crazy.”
My fingers drum on my twitching leg as I stare blankly at the stage where a small cube with arms manipulates Legos.
(Full disclosure: This video does not feature my kids or their robot.)
Two seconds later, Marley is clutching his guitar and flirting with Brenda. I’m not sure if this scene will work either, but I’m enjoying the hell out of their banter. Those two are always good for lightening the mood. And the book has been fairly heavy so far…
“You’re doing it again.” He’s laughing out loud, now.
“I really don’t care.” I try to hold on to the scene, but talking banishes the image of Marley laughing on the beach.
“Do you really wander around talking to yourself outside of the house? Don’t you realize how crazy you look?”
Our youngest, all of seven, though cynicism and emotional manipulation makes him seem at least two decades older, plops into my lap. He munches on a granola bar and flaps a hand at his father. “Yeah, but, dad, mom is crazy. How did you miss that when you married her?”
My husband loses it at this point, and his big-belly laugh echoes in the gym. My two oldest children glance around the makeshift divider that has been erected. We smile and wave before turning our attention back the robots.
I make it through the end of the round, but once the setup for the next round starts, my mind is, again, in the Haven. This time, I’m trying a fight practice scene with Barb and Matt.
“You really can’t help it, can you?” My husband heavy, warm arm slips around my shoulders.
“What can I say? I’m a writer. Also, still not sure what the next scene should be…”
Inventing stories and scenes inside the mind is one of the hallmarks of the writer, a habit we share with many people who never bother to write their ephemeral creations down. However, not everyone does it. Quite a few simply cannot if they try. I have even met people who seemed unable to follow a simple “What would happen if…?” scenario, getting upset that I was wasting their time with something unreal, even though we were just chatting over lunch. Perhaps they were never told stories in their childhood, or discouraged from using their innate imagination, and I can only pity them. (It seemed more tactful to change the subject, than try to discover the origins of their inability.) Continue reading →
I know, I know, this is a concept that is discussed time and time again! But the more I learn about writing, the more I understand what this simple plan can bring to a novel.
Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) by Debra Dixon was the first writing craft book I bought, and now having read several other excellent books, this is still the one I repeatedly come back to. Why? Because for my easily confused, pantser brain, the message is simple.
The premise of the book is that a plot can be broken down into three parts:
A character wants a goal, because he/she is motivated but conflict stands in his/her way.
Typically, a character will have both an external and internal GMC, with the internal outlining a characters emotional arc. “If you can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it . . . that’s external,” the book explains and uses movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, to demonstrate the idea:
External: Dorothy wants to go home, because Aunt Em is sick, but the wicked witch stands in her way.
Internal: She wants to find a place where she’s happy (think Somewhere Over The Rainbow), because she’s miserable and always in trouble, but she doesn’t know what she really wants.
As a pantser with aspirations of becoming a plotter, I’ve tried The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, The Six Stage Story Structure by Michael Hague, but my disorganised, right-brained mind, always rebels. These two GMC sentences, however, I can manage and never start a story without having them in place. It provides the essential who, what, why and why not.
“If you can trace every action in your book to a unique character’s goal and motivation, then the character will create the plot right before your eyes.”
I have found this to be true. Not only for the story as a whole, but also at scene level. When I get stuck, it’s almost always because I’ve lost sight of what one or more characters want, and why.
“Every scene should illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal, or bring the character into conflict with opposing forces, or provide the character with an experience that strengthens or changes his motivation.”
But, although at the most basic level those sentences may appear easy, they are not. It’s easy to confuse internal with external, or to discover your character goal is actually her motivation. Or the GMC may be beautifully laid out in the first chapter, but then there is no follow-through, especially if you’re writing romance like me. It’s very tempting to get distracted by the developing relationship between your characters. The romance maybe the heart of the story, but it’s not, the book stipulates, a character goal:
“The heroine’s goal in a romance novel is not to fall in love and get married. Ditto for the hero. The last thing on their minds is meeting a soul mate. In fact, it’s darned inconvenient. Romance will be a conflict for your characters.”
The book additionally covers black moments, scene development, query letters, turning points plus a breakdown of the movies Casablanca, The Client and Ladyhawke. Also included is an example of Miss Dixon’s own query letter for her book Mountain Mystic.
Every writer has to find their own way, and different things click with different people, but this is the book that works for me. Debra Dixon is known in her own writing for pushing the boundaries of category romance, in particular with her book about a hit woman, Bad to the Bone (1996), which I recommend it to anyone wanting to write in this field.
For help outlining GMC and additional character development, the Mid-Michigan chapter of the RWA has a great chart here:
Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson