Friday, May 22, 2015

Fiction Friday: Writing What You Like

"To thine own self be true," Polonius tells children in Hamlet, "and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not then be false to any man."

The problem with this advice, of course, is that Polonius is as false a man as exists in all of literature, a conummate politician whose eye is always on the main chance, who's willing to prostitue his daughter if it means winning a bigger role in the government of Denmark.

Still, if you take his advice as it exists on the surface, it's good counsel.

One of the reasons it took me so long to really start writing was that I was embarrassed by what I wanted to write: romance. Tawdry, pulpy, emotionally adolescent romance.

When I told people that, they'd say, "You can do better than that. You're smarter than that."

But when I tried to write other genres, my heart wasn't in it, and my efforts went nowhere. The fact is, I love the sunny optismism of a genre where the promise of happy ever after is implicit. I love stories that feature people who manage to change in fundamental ways that make their lives better.

One of the lovely things about growing older is you come to realize that, regardless of where you graduated in your high school class or how high your SAT scores were, you're actually not that smart. By the time you turn sixty, you have a history that makes it clear you're really just a step up from a pet rock.

To every writer out there who's yet to achieve the lofty status of sexagenarianism, I say: give yourself a bye and just assume you're dumb enough to write whatever takes your fancy.

Live like you're sixty and write what you want.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fiction Friday: Story vs. Premise

One of the things we studied at McDaniel College was the difference between a premise and a story.

A premise is an idea. defines it as "a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion." It comes from two Latin words meaning "to put before." So, basically, it's the underlying idea that supports your story--and has to come before you can build your story.

A story, according to Aristotle, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories also have characters, settings and plots.

Your premise asks the question, "What if...?" Your story answers that question.

L.M. Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she saw an article in her local paper about an orphanage that mistakenly sent a child of the wrong gender to a family looking for a child to help out around the house. (The adoption business was apparently pretty fast-and-loose in those days.)

Robert Louis Stevens once drew a map to pass the time on a rainy vacation. The map
inspired Treasure Island.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to 16-year-old C.S. Lewis as a daydream.

Jules Verne got the idea for Around the World in 80 Days from a newspaper advertisement offering such a trip.

A lot of my writer friends complain that it's tough to come up with ideas, but once they have an idea they can run a marathon with it.

I'm just the opposite. Premises grow like weeds in my brain (probably thrive in all that manure). It's story that's tough for me. Figuring out what kinds of characters and plot will allow my premises to blossom into full-blown stories is like trying to make fire from flint. If all I had to do was strike rocks together and generate sparks, it would be great. But there's that whole mess with tinder and twigs and small branches and making sure there's enough oxygen and.... Okay, that metaphor's getting away from me.

Not all premises (even really cool exciting ones) turn into stories. An idea may grab me, but investigation reveals that the characters don’t have what it takes to grow and change the way they need to for a satisfying story. Or, sometimes the premise has difficulties built into it that I’m just not smart enough to get around.

Fifteen years ago I started working on a historical novel set in Minnesota lumber country in 1894. The premise was that Lucy, my young protagonist, wanted to become a photojournalist. Her dream put her at cross-purposes with the conservative young editor of the town newspaper, so I had the conflict I needed for the romance piece. The technology to print half-tone photographs on rotary presses had just been invented, so I thought I could make it work. As I did further research, though, I discovered that, for a variety of reasons, photographs didn’t replace line drawings in newspapers for nearly 40 years. I love that character, (I love Lucy!) but I’ve never figured out how to give her story a happy ending.

I could list a dozen other stories that never got off the launch pad, but you get the idea.

What’s your process for turning premises into stories? Or do you even go about it that way?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Fiction Friday: Confessions of a Contest Whore, Part 1

Since the first of the year, I've entered Demon's Wager in five contests. Each contest costs $25 or $30 to enter, so you may be asking, "Why did she do that?"

(If, in fact, you're asking, "how can she afford to do that?" the answer is: I program computers to support my writing habit.)

Why I did that was:

1) To get unbiased feedback from strangers, people who don't know me and therefore won't cut me any slack based on friendship or knowing how long and how hard I've worked on this book.

2) To find out if my story connects with readers.

3) To toughen myself up in preparation for the real world.

4)  To get a shot at getting the attention of industry professionals--agents and editors--who generally serve as final round judges.

I was doing pretty well against this list, except for item 3) until I got to the final contest.

Up to that point, the worst thing any of the first-round judges had said to me was, "I don't find devils and demons appealing, but your work is excellent and I can see it doing well in the future." Not exactly soul-crushing.

In another contest, one judge ran my pages through copyediting software and sent back the result, which pointed out every unneeded hypen and misplaced comma. Kind of nice, actually, since I don't own such software myself. I went in and fixed everything it found (including overuse of a few words that I really, really, really like).

And, two editors have requested to see my full manuscript based on the pages they read.

And then my scoresheets from the fifth contest came back. My scores were (out of 60) 59, 56 and 41. Ms. 41 had this to say: "I feel like I’ve read this story before.  The idea doesn’t seem all that original."

And "Would caution the writer to look deeper, even in this light, humorous story, in order to make it less cliché. "

And "I hope that author works more on this story and finds a way to lift it out of the cliché."

Snarl. Name me one other romance novel that begins with a poker scene in Hell.

Although, if I'm honest, I have to admit the story is familiar: it's the story of Job, retold as a paranormal romance. So, um, yeah.

Okay, looks like I need more work on 3).

Graphic courtesy of Stuart Miles and

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fiction Friday: Nobody Told Me There Would Be Math

I work in the Institutional Research department of a community college. One of the researchers there once told me, "People really like things that are one standard deviation off the mean."

He went on to say that things that are further from the mean are too far out for most people's comfort. Things that are right on the mean are too familiar to be interesting. The sweet spot is one standard deviation off the mean.

I entered Demon's Wager in five contests this winter. It was selected as a finalist in all five, including the Golden Heart®, the grandmother of all RWA® contests. Although I've received some valuable criticism, the overall reception has been very positive. In the Diamonds in the Desert contest, I won the paranormal category and the final round judge, Brenda Chin from Belle Books, gave me full points for "Avoiding cliche and bringing a fresh perspective to an old idea." (Final results aren't back for the other contests yet.)

My takeaway is that my co-worker is right. Demon's Wager, based on its largely positive results at contest, falls right at that standard deviation. It's a little weird, but not too weird.

So my question to you is: what is it about your work that pushes it that one standard deviation off the mean?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fiction Friday: How a Manuscript Becomes a Book

Now that I have a finished manuscript, I get asked this question a lot: when is your book going to be published?

This is a simplified version of the publication process. It doesn't include:

  • The agent asking you to revise and resubmit (sometimes multiple times)
  • The editor selling the rest of the publishing house on why they should buy this particular book 
  • and it glosses over the entire production process
It should give you a good idea of how things work, though. I threw in a few statistics I've picked up along the way to give you a sense of the likelihood of success at any given point and some of the factors to consider in choosing whether to go with traditional publication or to self-publish.

I am currently on the second box on this chart: "show to trusted readers." I hope to be at "query an agent" by the end of May.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fiction Friday: Beats, Week 2: Robert McKee's version

As I mentioned last week,according to Robert McKee, the famous screenwriting guru, a beat is "an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these chagning behaviors shape the turning of a scene."

This week we're going to take a passage from one of my favorite novels, Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, and analyze the beats. Lord of Scoundrels is a historical romance, set around the turn of the 19th century. Jessica Trent, a beautiful and strong-minded young woman whose foolish brother, Bertie, has fallen under the influence of the infamous Marquess of Dain. Dain is causing him to drink more than he should, gamble more than he can afford and consort with prostitutes.

This scene takes place in a Parisian tea shop, where Jessica and Dain are haggling over a beautiful miniature Jessica unearthed in an antique store and which Dain desperately wants to own .

Beat One: Jessica offers Dain the icon as a bribe to leave Bernie alone. Dain misinterprets the offer as a taunt. The behaviour for this beat is banter.

"I shall gladly give it to you, my lord," she said.

"No one gives me anything," he said coldly. "Play your game--whatever it is--with someone esle. Fifteen hundred is my offer. My only offer."

"If you would send Bertie home, the icon is yours," she said. "If you will not, it goes to auction at Christie's." 

(There follows a couple a pages of internal monologue giving us his state of mind and some fun dialogue.)

Her silver eyes flashed. "There is only one way for you to get it, my lord Beelzebub. You throw him back."

(More internal dialogue, more banter.)

"No, you do not see clearly at all," he said. "There is always another way, Miss Trent. You think that because we're in a public place and you're a lady, I'll mind my manners.Perhaps you even think I have a regard for your reputation." He smiled evilly. "Miss Trent, perhaps you would like to take a moment to think again."

Beat Two: Dain threatens to ruin Jessica's reputation,

This is a turning point because we move from bribery to threats.

"Let me make it as clear as you did your own threat." He leanded toward her. "I can crack your reputation in under thirty seconds. In three minutes I can reduce it to dust. We both know, don't we, that being who I am, I need not exert myself overmuch to accomplish this. You have already becme an object of speculation simply by being seen in my company." He paused briefly to let the words sink in.

She said nothing. Her slitted eyes were glinting furious sparks.

"Here is how it works," he went on." If you accept my offer of fifteen hundred, I shall behave myself, escort you to a cabriolet, and see that you are taken safely home."

"And if I do not accept, you will attempt to destroy my reputation," she said.

"It will not be an attempt," he said.

Turning Point: Dain removes her glove.

This is a turning point because we move from verbal threat to action.

Beat Three: Dain pretends to make love (in the Georgette Heyer sense of the phrase) to Jessica in Italian in front of a cafe full of people.

And while in Italian he detailed his heated fantasies, he was slowly peeling the glove back, exposing a delicately voluptuous palm. Then he gave on e small tug toward her knuckles. And paused. Then another tug. And paused. Then another tug...and the glove was off. He let it fall to the table, and took her small, cool, white hand in his great, warm one.She gave a tiny gasp. That was all. No struggle. Not that it would have made the least difference to him.

He was overwarm and short of breath, and his heart pounded as though he'd been running very hard after something.

Turning Point: Jessica makes a counter-threat.

This is a turning point because we move from Dain's action to Jess's counter-threat, upping the stakes.

"Dain," she said in a low, hard voice, "if you do not release my hand this instant, I shall kiss you. In front of everybody."

Beat Four: Dain copes with the realization of how attracted he is to Jess while believing she cannot possibly feel the same way. Then her brother Bernie arrives.

Trent gave Dain an apologetic look. "Don't pay it any mind, Dain. She does that to all the chaps. I don't know why she doest it, when she don't want 'em. Just like them fool cats of Aunt Louisa's. Go to all the bother of catching a mouse, and then the confounded things won't eat 'em. Just leave the corpses lying about for someone else to pick up."

Turning Point: Jessica (almost) laughs, humiliating Dain.

This is a turning point because Dain moves from the fog of sexual attraction to humiliation.

Beat Five: Dain processes his feelings, which are similar to how he felt as a schoolboy when older boys tormented him and decides he can't let Jessica win this round.

Climax: Dain invites Bernie over for an evening of dissipation.

This is a scene climax because Dain has refused Jessica's offer of the icon, instead choosing to keep Bernie within his sphere of influence.

Lord of Scoundrels is a thoroughly enjoyable read--great conflict, lots of fun banter, thoroughly likeable characters. You can buy it here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fiction Friday: Beats Week 1: Introduction

According to Merriam-Webster, the word "beat" means:

1) (verb) To strike repeatedly and violently
2) (verb) To defeat
3) (noun) A main accent or rhythmic unit in poetry
4) (noun) An area allocated to a police officer to patrol
5) (adjective) Completely exhausted
6) (adjective) Of or relating to the beat generation or its poetry (e.g. Allen Ginsberg)

The Urban Dictionay adds "ugly" to that list--"I thought she'd have some hot friends, but, boy, they were beat."

So, lots of definitions for one four-letter word.

In fiction writing, the meanings of "beat" are equally diverse, and each one represents a concept that is valuable to understand.

This week we're going to take a high-level look at each definition. In the coming weeks, we'll delve more deeply into each meaning.

The late Blake Snyder defined a beat as a plot point. In his brilliant screenwriting manual Save the Cat, he listed and described 15 beats he felt were essential to a successful Hollywood screenplay. (American screenplays are fundamentally different from the work being done in Europe and the Far East.) For Snyder, a beat is a scene.

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee, author of Story, defines a beat as "an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene." He gives an example of a couple who start out joking around with each other, escalate to arguing, then to physical violence. Each of those behavior changes represents a beat. Note that while Snyder's version of a beat is a scene, McKee's version of a beat takes place within a scene.

Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, give this definition: "Beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes--the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as "stage business." Browne and King's definition of beat is even more granular than McKee's. It not only within a scene, but within one of the exchanges that takes place within a scene.

Each of these beats can bring something  valuable to your writing. Over the next few weeks we'll explore them in depth.


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