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Friday, June 13, 2014

Roaring Gap Writer's Retreat

Today I can be found at Magical Words, where I and my partners-in-crime share our experiences with our very first writers' retreat. Come check it out!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Identity, Anxiety, Self-Esteem, and the Pen Name That Failed

How do I phrase this so I don't sound like a crazy person?

I forced back the bile threatening to rise in my throat. Tried to calm the buzz of nerves that had my heart competing to win the Indy 500. And when the moment arrived and my turn came, I took a quick deep breath, willing my voice not to shake.

The author glanced at the post-it note the helpful Chapters employee had stuck to the title page. "Hi, Laura. How's it going?"

That's when it hit me.

"Um, hi." I set down my bag. Now or never. "I'm *not* Moira Young, and I wanted to thank you for that."

Okay, the above exchange probably makes very little sense to anyone not in the know. As the webcomic Head Trip's creator, Shinga, would say, "Welcome to Out-Of-Context Theatre." So let me explain.

About six, nearly seven years ago, I was freshly married and reeling from events that ended my friendship with two of my bridesmaids and a few other people in my life. One bridesmaid in particular had done and said some very damaging things before, during, and after the wedding that left me picking up the pieces for months after. My self-esteem was at a low I hadn't experienced since high school or earlier, and despite my wonderful and supportive new husband, Don Rocko, my anxiety levels were higher than they'd ever been. Top it off with a rejection from a publisher who'd asked me to rewrite and resubmit, and it's no surprise that I suddenly didn't want to be myself anymore.

So I took a pen name.

Hey, it worked for some people. Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade, for example, who didn't mind the anonymity despite being "famous on the Internet," as I think one of them put it one Pax Prime. Local horror author Michael Slade, for another, who at a party told me and and a friend how it was helpful to keep his writing and personal lives separate. Many people have many reasons for taking pen names. So I thought, why not? I should, too.

I think at the time it was exactly what I needed.

Choosing a name wasn't hard. It just so happened at the time that multiple strangers, on hearing my name, for some reason misheard it as "Moira". Then I thought, well, a name like that needs a strong single-syllable last name. So I randomly chose the name of an old high school teacher, Mrs. Young, without giving it much thought.

New identity in hand, I went full out embracing the name. Thinking that one aforementioned rejection equalled failure, I started a new novel. I posted on the Internet under this new name. I set up a Twitter handle, got business cards, even purchased In 2010, I stumbled upon and started commenting there as Moira Young, too.

Awesome and now embarrassing factoid: there's a comment in the MW book, How To Write Magical Words, that is attributed to Moira Young. As I told the editor, Edmund Schubert, "That's my pen name, so I'd like to keep it that way in the book, too!" Sigh. Weeks later, just after the book went to print, I'd regret ever saying that.

Things were going well. I was happy. Then one fateful night between Christmas and New Years in 2010, I got an e-mail from a published author I know:

I saw the news on GalleyCat about BLOOD RED ROAD. Are congratulations in order?

Wait, what?

That's when I learned there was another author who'd just been accepted for publication under the name Moira Young. Further research told me the following: not only was that actually her name. Not only did she also write YA speculative fiction. Not only was she also Canadian. No, to top it all off she was also from New Westminster, which is very near where I live.

Seriously, what are the odds?

I won't lie, it felt like a cosmic slap in the face. After pouring all that energy into this new persona, I suddenly had to find some other name. I had to rethink who I was, who I wanted to be. Never was I actually angry at the other author (after all, it's her name), but I was mortified. And totally lost.

What am I supposed to do now? I think I floundered for about a week, asking everyone I knew for advice. But the more I talked about it, the more options I considered, the more I suddenly realized the answer staring right in my face.

More than two years had passed. I wasn't as hurt or scared as I'd been. My time as Moira Young had given me a chance to regain my lost confidence, to break new ground about my identity and most importantly, to heal.

I was ready to be myself again. My real self, the name I was born with. So I went with L.S. Taylor and I've been fairly happy ever since.

There was just one lingering problem. I felt like the story lacked closure.
I had nothing to regret. After all, when using the pen name, I'd kept my posts and web interactions polite. If anything, I was worried that the actual author would for some reason be angry with me. But I wasn't quite sure how to get in touch with the author (yes, me, of all people), especially without it sounding weird, or worse, me being written off as crazy.

Which brings me back to what happened last Saturday.

When I found out she was coming to my suburb of Greater Vancouver, it seemed like fate. I worried myself nearly sick that morning, trying to figure out what I should say, how not to get kicked out of the bookstore or sound harassing. I calmed down through her talk. Listening to Moira speak about how she was inspired by the landscape around her, when I'm a geography nerd and would like to think it's been a part of my writing too, absolutely mesmerized me. And as my turn in line neared, all I could feel was one thing: gratitude. Without this experience, I wouldn't have discovered myself.

At my words, Moira pushed back her seat, leapt up, and hugged me. "I've heard of you!" she said, and she didn't mean it in a bad way. (I believe my response was, "Oh wow. This is a thing?") And then we cheerfully talked for a few minutes. I got some photos and autographs. And everything was okay.

So this story had a good ending. I worried way too much for nothing. But I am grateful for the journey this Adventures With Pen Names led to. I'm not saying that no one should take a pen name, just that it didn't work out for me, and the path I took was exactly what I needed.

The best part was how she signed my copy of her book.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sleight of Hand (SIWC 2013 Notes)

I haven't forgotten my promise! Things were just a bit hectic last week. Here's some more notes, now from SIWC 2013.

I didn't go to as many classes as usual at the conference this time around, but this one was definitely useful. As the author notes, all books have some kind of question we're trying to answer. Thinking about how to seed clues in a story is an important technique no matter what the genre, so I was very happy to hear what he had to say.

* * *

Sleight of Hand

How does a skilled mystery author manage that perfect reveal, plant the clues along the way without spoiling that ending? Mystery and SFF author Don DeBrant, AKA D.D. Barant, Don Cortez, and Dixie Lyle, has a few tips and tricks to help you find that balance.

Weaving a mystery
-    First: Tap into the momentum, write the story as it comes, but when that initial rush is over, go back and look at what you wrote.
-    Figure out where to put the clue, where to set something up.
-    Have much in the story do double and triple duty. Characterization, someone’s hobby, whatever it is, you have to make it something else as well, part of the plot.
-    Don’t create coincidences; use elements of the plot as an opportunity to do more than one thing. If you need a character to be at  a particular place, don’t just use that as an excuse to go there. Something else should be at work as well.

Audience Question: Whose mysteries made you want to write mysteries?
-    Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot
-   The Three Investigators – boys who solved crime with help of Alfred Hitchcock

How do you seed clues?
-    Try to find a way to integrate it with other aspects  mood, pacing, characterization, someone to be at a place, set up description, clues you could only find in particular places.
-    This all depends on sort of mystery you’re writing.
-    Mysteries are no longer straightforward. These days, there are many subgenres.
-    Classic mysteries these days are often divided into novels of place, about where the mystery takes place; characterization based; florid; gothic, spooky, etc.
-    There are many ways and means for how you plant clues.

Types of Mysteries:
-    Geographical: where the character goes from place to place
-    Forensic: which is like a police procedural but with concentration on science rather than police work (he writes this) – plants clues by designing crime and crime scene first. It’s a puzzle deconstructed backwards, step by step they have to figure out how they got there, who put them there, why they were killed, and start at the end and goes backwards, and piece the story together bit by bit.
-    Police procedural: similar to forensic, it’s about the nuts and bolts of police work, closer to nonfiction to capture an investigator going through the crime scene bit by bit.
-    Everyman mysteries: This is where you pick a profession or hobby and the specific POV of an ordinary person, and tell how they get involved in so many mysteries. In those, you need to integrate what makes that character essential. Everyone has a specialized set of skills, has knowledge that is unique to them and their profession. These mysteries are aimed at a very specific audience, so you have to understand who you’re writing for.
-    Thrillers: Technically this is a different genre, but there’s lots of crossover. It’s important to come up with a memorable reason for the story, something that holds your attention. Hannibal Lecter sticks in our heads.


Playing with Expectations (or, how to trick your reader without cheating)
-    The most important thing when writing a mystery is the subject. You are setting up particular assumptions in your reader’s minds and whenever possible you’re trying to figure out what the reader’s assumptions are ahead of time. That way, you can play with them. E.g. the expectation that the character will do something off.
-    Use standards set and recognized in our culture. Tropes and archetypes. Then play with it. Like the comic sidekick, the goofball. Make them the killer.
-    Set it up in a particular way – that’s the best payoff. William Golding (author of The Princess Bride) does this wonderfully in his thrillers. He leads you down the garden path thinking one thing, then yanking the rug out from under your reader. E.g. in No Way to Treat a Lady, he sets up two opposing point of views, and one is about a crazed killer stalking new York, the other told about an angry women-hating guy. The two story lines are completely unrelated, though the way it’s presented leads the reader to assume that the woman-hating guy is the killer, until the surprise twist. It’s resolved at the end. He only did it once, though. This is not necessarily recommended.
-    If you get away with the twist, you’re golden. If you don’t, it’s not good.
-    One good instinct to have in a mystery is playing on reader’s assumptions: if you have a character say or do something, the reader will assume things about that character. That’s an opportunity, a terrific point to exploit, to make things completely wrong. Don’t confirm it, just have little clues that imply it.
-    Another good way to trick readers: the unreliable narrator (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where we eventually learn the narrator is the killer, sets up the idea that just because someone is telling you something doesn’t mean it’s true.). Or have the main character in a position to do something wrong and they don’t, little markers you put in where the reader will think things about the character, ways to make sure that what you’re telling them isn’t what they think it is. Not outright lying (that’s changing the rules, which is cheating). Don’t let the reader feel cheated, just craftily tricked.

Lots of Info
-    Have an overabundance of information. Bury an important clue in a number of other clues. If you need an item to be discovered, surround it with a bunch of other things, even things that appear more interesting. Minds get overloaded with info and won’t be able to tell which one is important. Sensory overload to obscure the facts is slightly cheating. But there are really no cheap tricks, just things that work and things that don’t.
-    Structure: Have parallel storylines, things happening side by side, which may confuse the reader as to which storyline is important. Include not so much info that the reader is confused, but enough that it draws their attention to keep them guessing. Have enough balls in the air and they don’t know where to keep  their eye. The character-driven, the humourous, the serious – e.g. Hill Street Blues. The author swapped stuff around.

Using Subtlety
-    Readers are sharp.
-    Subtle red herrings can play with readers’ assumptions.
-    If played subtly enough, they assume a red herring has more importance than it actually does.
-    You can plant one subtle clue that leads nowhere, and one that seems related but isn’t – readers assume, string that together – a trail of visible bread crumbs that lead to a brick wall. And that can be strangely satisfying.
-    If you’re careful and have a devious mind, you can pull it off.

Doubling back
-    The technique: doubling back on a plot
-    When you have a number of suspects, but one’s been written off because they’ve alibied out, and just happens to be fake, or some other detail makes it seem like they wouldn’t likely be the culprit.
-    Come up with a reasonable explanation for why an alibi doesn’t hold water.
-    A good way to fake an alibi is a good way to fake a murder.
-    You can double back more than once, and that makes it even harder to figure out who the real killer is.
-    Even worse, do it a third time.
-    If the killer is caught too early in the story, the reader assumes that the real killer will be caught, until you double back and show how.

Using details to trick the reader
-    The story is never just about the one mystery, it’s about all the things along the way.
-    Put something so obviously in plain view, the reader assumes it’s not important, and so the detail gets missed.
-    Using diary entries (if using an unreliable narrator) – everyone assumes that no one lies in a diary, that it must be true.
-    Always make sure you have a big pool of suspects. If it’s too small, reader will pick and narrow it down, especially if there’s a secondary character that seems vaguely menacing.
-    If you’re worried it’s too obvious, it’s good to get some feedback from beta readers and close friends.
-    People who know you can know your patterns, and pick out any flaws.

Layer bits of characterization to reveal more of the character.
-    If the character is behaving one way, you can surprise the reader when they behave differently.
-    Generally if you can surprise the reader, that’s a good thing.
-    Sometimes the plot forces a character to act in a different way.
-    If they don’t usually act that way, but did somehow, then ask yourself, why did they do it? This leads to epiphanies about the character.
-    All people are contradictory, and we all have opposites in ourselves.
-    This makes the character more three-dimensional in your mind. It will help to make them more three-dimensional on the page.

Writing mystery in Science Fiction and Fantasy
-    Establish what the rules are first off. Then stick to those rules.
-    Particularly establish what you can’t do (with magic and the paranormal). That’s most important. Otherwise people will accuse you of cheating.
-    For example: establish early on that vampires burn in sunlight, so readers will expect you to stick with that. It keeps readers happy.
-    All books are some kind of mystery. Some kind of question you’re trying to answer. A question of character, who did something, why did they do it, how did they do it. Figure out which one do you want to concentrate on.

How to establish memorable characters - Examples from his own work:
-    The Bloodhound Files (his alternate-universe series): In a world completely dominated by the supernatural, humanity is an endangered species. The world is normal, looks like everyday life, but with subtle changes. The “monsters” weren’t the monsters, they were the norm. And the human main character has to deal with that. This world has no firearms, because of a spell cast centuries ago that made everyone thinks it’s a dumb, silly idea. If you think about it, you’ll forget it. Jace Valchek, the main character from our world, brings her gun, and no one takes it seriously, but it gives her a superpower as a result. This isn’t the only thing that made her an interesting character. She’s human in a world with few other humans. She has a gun. Even her weaknesses are her strengths, because she can throw herself into situations and get out of them. Her sarcasm means she has snappy dialogue, and he gun puts her in tough situations. Make your character distinctive and unusual. Make their weaknesses their strengths.
-    Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot series (his brand new series, starting with A Taste Fur Murder): The number 1 job for women is Adminstrative Assistant. One of the people who run around behind the scenes and get stuff done for their boss. This position title also describes mothers. Women are still the people who organize things, work behind the scenes, don’t get acknowledged for it. The main character is the assistant to someone distinctive (a billionaire). What’s important about her is that she’s professional, optimistic, and nothing fazes her.  She keeps a cheerful cool head when things get crazy. The twist here is that the assistant is the hero.

Audience Question: Do clues sometimes surprise you, and you have to figure out what it means?
-    Not so much the clues. They’re usually a structural thing.
-    You need to figure out how they fit together because it’s a puzzle.
-    Characterization and plot can surprise him, but mystery is usually about careful planning. Architecture. Mystery is very outline-dependent. He’s a plotter. Pantsing can lend itself to some types of writing, but often the ending is dissatisfying. Stops, feels forced. (E.g. Stephen King.) Mysteries are not a good place for pantsing.
-    Dialogue itself can be made up on the spot, but the mystery itself needs to be plotted.

Audience Question: Are there useful tools for keeping track of who knows what when?-    Some writers, such as him, use index cards.
-    The mosaic approach: 3x5 index cards and post-it notes.
-    Think about mystery, characters, symbols, elements of the story.
-    When you feel you have a full idea and who the main character is, think of specific scenes.
-    Sit down and write each bit on a card.
-    Lay out the cards in front of you.
-    Set out the earliest as how the novel starts.
-    Put the ending at the end.
-    This provides a visual representation of a plot.
-    After awhile, you find a visceral sense of how it appears, how it will be paced.
-    Suddenly extra connections are made, gaps are filled in.
-    Then you can play with it, see how it works.
-    Then numbers cards in order, and writes them out like an outline.
-    Then flush out the story.
-    He writes an outline. This is a good way to plot.
-    A skeleton, fleshed out, becomes an outline.
-    Outlines are just a tool. A roadmap. Don’t feel handicapped or handcuffed by an outline; you can definitely go a different way with the lot if you want to. They don’t cheat you of the joy of discovery. That freshness can still come from characterization, plot, crafting a good line, discovering things about the characters as you go along.

Audience question: Is it worthwhile finding a different way to end a mystery than the typical ones? (eg killer is caught, murdered, or accidentally killed at end) -    Rules exist for a reason.
-    Break a rule as long as you break it well.
-    Don’t just break a rule because you don’t want to do what everyone else does.
-    It’s important to understand why that rule exists. The killer caught equals justice, a sense of order, closure.

Is there a way for a  main character to withhold info from the reader without the reader getting annoyed by it?
-    Don’t do it too often.
-    Don’t drag it out for too long.
-    Reveal it to the reader within a few pages, because it does tend to be annoying.
-    If it make the reader make an assumption, it can be useful, but as a rule of thumb, don’t drag it out.

Audience Question: How do you write a mystery in first person? It’s a limited POV – how do you seed clues, info?
-    There are always techniques, tips that can be used.
-    Have witnesses, others who were there who can relay the information
-    Remote electronic, video surveillance, recordings, cell phone conversations
-    Psychic phenomena
-    Mystery is about main character solving the crime, so what she knows is what the reader knows, so if there’s an essential piece that she has no way of knowing, either it’s not important or you should give the character a way to learn it, figure it out.
-    The challenge forces you to think. If they can’t know it, what then?
-    It may take you some time to figure it out, but it will work.
-    Trust your subconscious. It will often figure problems like this out. Go away and let it percolate. After a time it will often seem obvious.
-    Best writing can happen on a subconscious level.  Think about this stuff in the background. Let your imagination chew on stuff.

Audience Question: What's your writing practice?
-    Aims for a word count (1500 words per day, 5 days a week), and can write a novel in four months.
-    Having a small child has affected things, as he now also shares parenting roles. He may complain about decreased output, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Audience Question: About the CSI Books (written as Don Cortez) – What is it like playing in other people’s sandboxes?
-    Fun, because they’re other people’s toys that you have to put back later.
-    When writing for a media tie-in, people aren’t buying it for you, but for the line.
-    David Caruso – our generation’s Shatner – gave interviews about the character that helped Don figure him out.
-    It was also fun because a lot of the work’s already been done for him.
-    In this sort of situation, you can’t break the rules, but can explore.
-    It’s a strength if you’re good at capturing character’s voices.

What's the difference between mystery and suspense?
-    Mystery’s more of a puzzle, more cerebral
-    Suspense has a lot more tension.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Satisfying Ending (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

As Edmund notes when he introduces the panel, this was very fitting that this session was the last writing panel of the convention. Not only was it about endings, bur for me it was the end of my trip. Technically, I should have left sooner. I was a bit on the edge for this last hour; my buddy Alexander and I were poised to make a mad dash to the airport, since my flight was supposed to leave two hours later, he was giving me a lift, and the hotel was a good forty-five minutes away. Suspense!

Sort of.

My ending turned out to be anticlimactic because as it happened, my flight had been pushed back an hour and somehow I was never notified, and I didn't realize I could or should check online. (Not a satisfying ending, IMO, even if I was okay in the end. Just sayin'.) So I made it there just fine, with plenty of time to spare, and the only pain being my as-it-turned-out-unnecessary anxiety. (And I am never booking with that travel agency again. Sometimes, the points just aren't worth it.)

* * *

A Satisfying Ending
Aaron Rosenberg, James R. Tuck, Carrie Ryan, James Maxey
Moderator: Edmund Schubert

ES: It’s about wrapping up. (which makes this panel appropriate for wrapping up a con). A great opening brings the readers in in, but a great ending brings them back. It’s also about keeping the promise that book made at the beginning. How do you make sure you are making your reader happy with your ending?

AR: The reader’s two reactions should be: Surprise and rightness. “I should have seen that coming … why didn’t I see that coming?” Plenty of authors go for surprise and not the rightness. Example: J.K. Rowling lives to surprise with her endings, but doesn’t focus on the rightness. So he has an idea of his ending even before he begins writing, to help steer his way.

Surprise without rightness: When Sherlock sees  a clue not mentioned before.

Rightness without surprise: When the reader can see the ending coming from a mile away … so why keep reading?

JT: Endings should be both surprising and inevitable, no matter how much it took you by surprise it should be the ending that works. So that by the wrap of the story the reader can close the book and feel satisfied.

CR: That’s where revisions come in: go through and make it work. Give the characters a challenge at beginning that they fail, and the ending is they succeed (unless this is a tragedy). What challenge can you give at the beginning? What changes can you throw at them to show that these changes have happened? In books, we should go bigger than real life. When there are certain stakes, then ending has to match those stakes.

ES: He has to write with an ending in mind. He can’t write without the ending in mind. He wrote his ending first, and wrote towards it. Has anyone else tried that?

AR: No, because it constrains everything written up til then. Knows the ending, but wants the ending to make sense, doesn’t want to restrict possibilities along the way. Doesn’t want to narrow down his options.

CR: You hit the point of panic (speaking as a pantser) – the point for the reader where there is no way the characters are going to get out of it. Sometimes you have to go back to the beginning to see what you’ve already seeded in. The answer is often already in the text. You’ve laid out the pattern for yourself even if you’re completely unaware of it.

AR: Pantsed his work No Small Bills, until he was asked to show an outline, and realized that even without plotting deliberately the ending fit surprisingly well (after much panic).

Audience question: With writing, they know how the ending is going to go, but they don’t want to finish it because they like the world they created so much. How do you get over leaving that universe behind?

AR: There are different kinds of writers. Some can take a year or two on their books. Some have to write several a year. You have an internal story editor. Trust them when they tell you you’re done.

JT: Gets to the end of the book because he’s out there and wants to make money.

CR: Sometimes the ending you know may not be the right ending. If you’re having trouble leaving, it may be the story’s way of telling you that it’s not the right way to go.

ES: He doesn’t like to talk a novel to death. Using David B. Coe’s soda pop analogy: every time you take the cap off, more fizz escapes. Write that first draft as quickly and badly as possible, then go back and fix it.

JT: Writing is something he’s enjoyed and wanted to do. But with his current project, he wasn’t enjoying it, so he stopped and changed things and now is back to writing.

CR: Sometimes there’s a fear of once it’s done, moving to the next step. Revising, querying, submitting is hard and scary. It’s no longer that safe feeling. You have to step out of your comfort zone, leave your story behind.

ES: Let’s talk about endings that didn’t work for you. Why?

AR: Roger Zelazny’s Amber. The end of 5th book in 2nd series, when all the plot threads get dealt with in the last 20 pages. Merlin makes up with evil siblings. WTF. Merlin sets a truce with his secondary enemy, too. He (AR) wonders if it was from the editor’s pressure.

JT: The end of the Hunger Games trilogy. There’s a betrayal of the character, who she was in book 1 and 2. Also, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code – solid beginning, poor ending; Deception Point, 3 pages from ending, the author pulls in a submarine deus ex machine solution.

CR: Re: The Hunger Games - When your character is unconscious for a large part of the book, you should really revise. A book where the character wakes up having been unconscious and has  the climax explained to them, really doesn’t work. With another book read shortly after finishing Hunger Games: the last 15 pages were better written, provided more interest, and left a good taste in her mouth going forward. Afterwards, CR realized that the taste left in mouth is what you need to go for. The power of a solid ending. You can take a mediocre book and create and ending that turns readers into evangelists.

ES: So much of life doesn’t have satisfying endings, tidy endings, people want sense of closure. An author of a book he read violated the magic system after outlining exactly how it works and does not work, and that ruined the story for him.

CR: Even a controversial ending – one that leaves people who want something else, and hotly debate about ending, create passion in readers.

ES: Deus ex machina: why is it so incredibly irritating today?

JT: Since we write speculative fiction, we can write those endings, but we have to show that the world is set up as a way for that to work. It’s still very difficult to justify.

CR: But that setup negates the Deus ex. The deus ex machina is something from out of nowhere. The reason it’s so unsatisfying is because we as readers want to be involved. We want to solve the mystery, want to know te clues are there. Davinci code was so popular because reader goes through steps with the character and solve it with the main character.

ES: Readers like to be involved. They like to figure things out and feel smart. That level of engagement is satisfying.

JM (who joined the panel late): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ends with “good thing we escaped that huge whirlpool / but I don’t know how we escaped”.

AR: But there are also different cultural expectations. Hong Kong movie watchers expect that they might not get a happy ending. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was French. Hollywood makes a lot of the endings happy, and that’s not always the point.

JM: The original Tarzan was not a happy ending but it was a good one, because Tarzan sacrifices his chance to be with Jane because he’s found someone that would make her life happier. Tarzan’s lie to Jane saves the book.

ES: A great story can overcome poor writing.

Audience comment: Our whole culture is based on the dream, the optimism, that things can turn out different and better. That’s why we want happy endings.

Audience question: What if the ending doesn’t match expectations?

ES: The power of expectations is human nature: if you set up expectations and don’t follow through, readers will be disappointed.

JM: Robocop ends when he shoots the bad guy and the credits roll before the guy hits the ground.

CR: This can be easy to overlook, but your reader has earned that ending. They’ve made it to the end of the book. They’ve earned seeing it end in a satisfying way, seeing how life has changed. Don’t go on and on, but have some time after (the denouement) for readers to enjoy.

Audience question: What is the promise, exactly?

AR: There’s a difference between the promise the writer makes and the promise the character makes. The character wants something, but the  author knows they’ll wind up in another direction. As long as the author’s promise is satisfied, the character gets the appropriate ending.

ES: The promise is that there will be growth in this character. The story is about growth of the character.

AR: The story is either plot-driven, where characters are inconsequential (eg. James Bond, where the story is what matters), or the story is about the character.

JM: In the movie Rocky, the character’s promise is broken when he doesn’t win the fight, but the real promise is that by agreeing to fight and taking his life seriously, he’s become a better person and turned his life around. The goal isn’t winning the fight; he’s the one that became stronger and fought fifteen rounds. He learned more from that experience than if he’d won the fight.

CR: There’s usually a difference between what the character thinks they want and what they need.

JM: In his first novel in the DragonAge series, Bitterwood, the story seems like a typical fantasy, and then at the end the reader finds that humans have genetically modified lizards to make them dragons, who then evolved, but you don’t get that until the last few pages of the book. (ES: This is a brilliant twist out of nowhere, and there are ruins described and artifacts from the past of our civilization left throughout the book as clues.) The magic turns out to be nanotech. It was called “SF in fantasy drag.” But the publisher marketed it as fantasy. JM told people it was SF. He wasn’t trying to make a secret out of it, but that’s not how it was sold. He stopped writing that series because he felt it was a bigger and bigger lie to continue to write pretending it was fantasy.

AR: There’s fooling readers to demonstrate how clever you are, and fooling readers to make them think about something. The cheat in the first example impresses for half a second, and then it disappoints.

CR: Part of the reason a cheat is disappointing is that we’ve all read something like that. It’s fun being able to do the first to surprise readers, but you still don’t want to do it poorly.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Finding Your Voice (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

MMMYep, still a fan.

Finding Your Voice: A Magical Words Panel
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, Faith Hunter, Misty Massey is a website for readers and writers of fantasy that started in January 2008. Faith Hunter, David B. Coe (now also writing as D.B. Jackson), and Misty Massey all met at a convention and clicked, and the concept was born. Over the years they have brought in other writers and related folks. They have many regulars and guests. Enjoy another discussion with the founding members!

Voice: The most amorphous, the least easy to define, and yet probably the most necessary part of any kind of writing. Especially fantasy.

Voice is the distinctive tone, mood, and style that makes any particular piece of writing sound unique.

Voice in the dictionary: You will not find any reference to literary voice. This is a term that gets used in literary circles but doesn’t get used outside of that.

The term gets used in different ways by different people even within writing circles.

Types of Voice

Voice works on different levels, different kinds of voice. There are 3 major types:

Stylistic voice – Personal style and genre influences. Authorial voice (voice of author – can tell different betwen Faulkner and Hemingway – voice of author stands apart.); genre voice (an epic fantasy by Dbc and an urban fantasy by dbc red differently. Different subgenres. Supposed to be diff critters.)

Ambient voice – The mood of the world you’ve created and the book you’re writing. The Jane Yellowrock books read different from the Thorn St. Croix books. Partly because the worlds are different. The narratives are different. The characters are different.

Character voice – Particularly with 1 Point of View character. Character voice is the voice of your narrator, the way they express themselves or tell their story. If the POV skips around, you want different voice between each character, too.

FH: They blend so much, they’re hard to keep separate. Views voice because she writes first person, the voice types blend. Finding the break betwen things is harder to do in first person.

DBC: You as an author have a voice. Someone picking up your book recognizes it as your book.

Which books have influenced your voice?

MM: After reading The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, which was rich and powerful, in-depth and thrilling, she wanted to write something that made somebody feel the way that book made her feel. Also Michael Moorcock. Dark, bitter, angry, cold quest fantasy. She wrote the book she wanted to write. Not by following a commercial trend.

DBC: Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. Having read Tolkien it never occurred to him that a character could be dark, bitter, horrible, and still be worth rooting for. And then he read Guy Gavriel Kay and wanted to write like that. When we start, we have nothing to go on besides what we’ve read. But our own voices emerge that are our own unique compendiums of our taste and the writing styles of the books we’ve read. Then when he wrote Thieftaker, he started writing as D.B. Jackson, which was different from his work as David B. Coe. Thieftaker is historical urban fantasy, not epic fantasy. So he went for a different style.

MM: When writing Mad Kestrel, set at sea, she tried to use language that was rolling and moving, like something on a ship. Now she's writing something else set in Nebraska, and so is going for long and distant.

Audience comment: It felt that night and day in Thieftaker were written differently. There was a different voice at night.

Audience question: As you’re writing Chapter 1 of a new series, how much time do you need to invest in the new voice?

DBC: Starts a book, especially a first book in a new series, and finds upon completing a 400 page novel that the start needs to be rewritten the most. He takes time to find characters as he’s writing. Forstalls it by worldbuilding and writing short stories set in that universe. It's important to write stuff that doesn’t matter. Play with the world through short fiction is a fabulous way to start developing that ambience, that mood, for the larger work you’re going to write.

FH: Starts with first page and first line. Once she knows the character’s name and where she wants to go she’ll go back and work on it again and the voice is there.

MM: Doesn’t start with a short story. Loves playing with a world and getting it out in 20pgs or less.

DBC: Thieftaker was originally an alternate-world (epic) fantasy. Although it’s set in Colonial Boston, it has an otherworldly quality.

Audience question: How do you inject life in to something structurally sound that lacks it?

DBC: It helps to have great editors and beta readers. He put the book away because he wasn’t ready to make it the book he wanted it to be. Then he thought about how he could punch it up. How do you breathe life into something like this? He added action, showed the character in action. Made one change to first chapter and it was like a row of dominoes, and that broke him out of the stuff he thought that couldn’t be fixed. It changed his mindset.

Faith: She has to write the story she needed to write. Presented something her editor rejected in a different voice. It was a substantially different book. She was able to take what she wanted and what editor wanted and make a much better story.

Audience question: Character voice – what do you do to differentiate between different characters? Especially when they're from the same culture?

FH: Characters are not just one thing. Voice should be dependent on what your characters have gone through. Where do they come from, what are their histories, what have they lived through?

DBC: Point of view characters: You’re in their heads. It’s not just about dialects or language, you have to get into emotion. Ethan Kaille is broken, and has a history of being broken. Characters are a product of who they are and where they’ve been. E.g. Schlomo the Kosher Vampire.

Audience comment: Faith has a great example of the different voices between Jane Yellowrock and Beast.

Faith: Beast develops vocabulary as she grows. And Jane recognizes her primitivity.

DBC: Jane in Book 6 is not the same as Jane in Book 1. Ethan in Book 4 is different from Ethan in Book 1.

MM: Kestrel, too. She doesn’t have the luxury of the immaturity she had as quartermaster when she becomes captain in Book 2.

DBC to MM: How did you prepare Kestrel as a character before writing the first book? What influenced you?

MM: Kestrel is a street orphan, and Misty knows her origins and background. She comes from the streets and having to survive on her own from such a young age. It hardened her, made her more streetwise and clever than average kid. She knows how to handle people. How to not be afraid of people. How to assess situations and fights, and whether or not she can get out of them. BUT Misty focused on communicating character rather than communicating the background details.

DBC to FH: You didn’t do much prep work with Jane Yellowrock, but that works with story because Jane has no memory.
FH: Yes, and it was a process of discovery. She couldn’t do prep work; if she had, she’d have shared it too early. She’s discovering Jane as she goes. As Jane discovers herself.

DBC: Ethan spends his time as a thieftaker recovering everything he’s lost.

Audience question: What are the benefits of Pantsing versus Outlining?

MM: Pantsing is really really hard. She had to learn how to outline, but it’s so much simpler to have a map. Not necessarily every single detail, but a basic roadmap.

DBC: Do you mean that characters take over, go where we don’t expect? (He re-outlines as he goes along because characters will surprise us with things we can’t anticipate. That doesn’t mean you should avoid having that narrative roadmap. Knowing where the next plot point is gives the characters more freedom.

FH: Writing an outline in the character’s voice told her what her weaknesses were and how to fix it. She solved a plot problem that worked for the character, and fixed it, and made it work for the character’s voice.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The First Five Pages (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

Hey everyone. How has your April been? Mine has been absolutely insane.

Don Rocko and I were both part of a wonderful wedding between two of our close friends. (Not so unexpected, but still intense.) We didn't quite get much chance to take a breather after ECCC. Add bachelor/ette parties, holidays and requisite feasting into the mix, and it was busy, to say the least. Busy but fun.

I also sadly had to say goodbye to my maternal grandmother this month. To call it "not fun" balances out the narrative of the preceding paragraph, but doesn't really do the situation justice. Sometimes my penchant for euphemisms, though an excellent skill at key times that call for tact, instead leads to me doing an injustice to myself. That's about all I have the energy to say right now.

So if that was all tl;dr for people, the long and the short of it is that I've been very busy, and the result is that I've got a decent collection of notes I haven't had a chance to post, so my goal for May (and the days leading up to it) will be to share as much as I can. One of the great things about this is that it's good for me, too. When editing these to share here, I remind myself of what I learned in the first place. Now, let's get started with an exceptionally useful subject, taught by some of my favourite writers: a manuscript's beginning.

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The First Five Pages: A Magical Words Panel 
Faith Hunter Misty Massey, David B. Coe is a website for readers and writers of fantasy that started in January 2008. Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, and Misty Massey all met at a convention and clicked, and the concept was born. Over the years they have brought in other writers and related folks. They have many regulars and guests. Enjoy this discussion with the founding members!

The topic, in a nutshell: If you are unpublished and you want to become traditionally published in the traditional market, your pages have to be better than anyone else’s first five. Here’s some great tips on how to do so.

Getting Started

FH: Established authors can get by without a huge hook because they are known quantities. This has to be tough. If you’re already published you can get by with more than a new author.

DBC: Disagrees, because he thinks that editors understand your first 5 pages aren’t going to be as polished, clean, etc. as a writer who’s experienced. They want to see that you have potential, an understanding of how to write, and that you’re capable of taking a good idea and turning it into something that will last over the entire arc of a book. They might not see the same quality because they see the potential. Yes, your first five pages should be kickass.

FH: Editors are looking for a reason to stop reading, to throw out the manuscript, because they have a huge stack on their desk.

MM: Even for short stories. 14 stories were chosen out of 200+ submissions for The Big Bad anthology.

FH: The professional editor at a big house gets hundreds and hundreds. FH and DBC were lucky slush pile pickups.

Every manuscript needs a good beginning, character development, good conflict, resolution of conflict.

Your opening needs to contain a bait and hook. Something that will prove pivotal later in the book. Also: engaging characters, immediacy, conflict, strong active word use. And voice.

Focus on the event you see on the first page. Don’t open with an island and twelve monkeys unless they need to be there in the book. What the book’s about. Whatever’s there on the opening page is what you want to carry through in the rest of the book.

MM: Mad Kestrel opens on a ship in a storm, with another ship bearing down on it that suddenly vanishes.
-    Have an event, use a writing style that sets the tone, sets the genre, and hints at conflict
-    Immediacy: it has to be important
-    Time limit: e.g. the ship that’s bearing down on the main character’s ship.

DBC: He believes book begins where it needs to begin. At the moment when the events leading to the climax start to matter. It sets up the things that the book is about. The opening needs conflict, voice, all the above, but there are as many ways to get to those elements as there are writers trying to write a story.

Example: Thieftaker opens without a body. It begins with the main character, Ethan, chasing a thief. (This sets up that he’s a thieftaker, the original Private Investigator.) Ethan can smell smoke because there are riots happening in the city (the Stamp Act riots), confrontation with the thief leads to his use of magic, and the kid he arrests assumes he’s working for his rival. Lone wolf using magic. The mystery doesn’t begin until the third chapter. DBC likens the main character to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: there are two opening scenes, one for Robert Redford’s character, and one with Butch Cassidy. Ten minutes into the movie, we’re rooting for the characters already. He wants his readers to know Ethan isn’t someone to be taken lightly.

FH: Research is key. Lots of research on pirates and dance. David has a PhD in history.
“because with a PhD in History you can get an exciting job writing Fantasy novels!”

FH: There are several basic types of opening – the narrative, the dialogue, and the action. Old ones include journal entries, someone waking up, news article, dream. We want those first five pages to be unique and exciting. She’s opened a story with a character waking up, but not in her first novel.

Where do you go to research your first 5 pages?

MM: Read everything. What works and what doesn’t. Learn what other people have done and why it worked or didn’t work. If not, make notes and figure out why it didn’t work. Remember why they worked and why they didn’t. Avoid tropes: something that has been done to death. Not quite a cliché, tropes are done to death but keep being done. E.g. the magic baby trope – conceived, born, grows to adulthood in a week. Has been done and overdone but is still done because someone likes to read that.

DBC: Another example: the young person who doesn’t know they’re destined for greatness. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur. Not done to death, but narrative touchstones that we come to again and again.

MM: It becomes a cliché when you misuse the trope, because you don’t understand the trope. E.g. if you use it “because everyone else did it”. For example, using the reasoning “Tolkien did it” isn’t enough to understand why it was used.

FH: Find your own story, your own opening, something that weary editor cannot put down.

DBC: Agrees with MM. Read, read, read. Fionavar Tapestry. Ender’s Game.

FH: It’s about reading analytically. When you learn how to write, you’re often self-study. Figured out that since she couldn’t go to college, in order to make a living she’d learn how to write herself. Taught herself how to write with coloured pencils in books she’d read and marked great pieces of dialogue. Wrote what was good about something.  Or why something didn’t work. Learned to read analytically. Read blockbusters, things that resonate with the world. Even if it doesn’t resonate with you. Find what resonates with you and understand it. There is a trend for faster openings these days.

FH: Conflict is where so or something is struggling with something and the outcome is in doubt. Man vs. Nature, Man, himself. Introduce with some form of conflict. Doesn’t have to be  the main conflict, but it’s got to be something to do with your book.

Authors who write great hooks: Rachel Aaron, Jim Butcher.

What about internal conflict?

FH: I has a lot to do with voice. In Skinwalker, Jane Yellowrock walks into a new city, into the business of a woman whose type she usually kills.

MM: Kestel’s internal conflict is a secret she has to keep. Something that would change her life completely if the rest of the world found out. There are moments when she missteps/misspeaks, and she’s terrified of that getting out. Don’t just have one type of conflict for your character. Not just one. There has to be other conflict, internal and external, different ones that you encounter as you go along.

DBC: The secret to making it work: start off by knowing your character as well as you can, the emotional basis of their personalities. E.g. Ethan was a prisoner, and now he’s getting his life back. Know your characters well enough that you understand what sets them off. In the narrative, put the things that make them crazy, sets them off, in their path. This makes for compelling, interesting characters.

FH: It’s different from journalism, not the 5W’s and an H. Introduce with the tension of all these questions to be asked when the reader starts reading, but answer them throughout. This makes for a compelling story. You have to answer those questions by the story’s last word.

Audience comment: the First 5 pages are for the reader to decide whether they’ll keep reading.

FH: The opening has to be the best work you can do. It has to be the right opening for that book.

Audience comment: if things aren’t happening quickly enough, you’ve either started too early or too late.

DBC: The start has to be where the narrative that leads to your climax begins. Knowing what events set in motion the story that drives the narrative for the next X-hundred pages.

MM: Avoid the infodump (spilling everything in the first 5 pages).

FH: Start where it first makes sense. For Jane Yellowrock, there’s tension building up to meeting Katie (the vampire seeking to hire her).

MM: “Start the moment where things begin to go wrong.” —Marion Zimmer Bradley

FH: Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes the editor will say, “Unfortunately, we bought a book just like this.”

DBC: Write the book you want to write. Don’t try to anticipate the market.

Audience question: How much backstory’s acceptable in first 5 pages?

FH: Not wise for a first novel. Introduced in the second third of the book. Unless you’re Stephen King, but you’re not. Set the backstory in the second third of the book. Lasagne analogy: don’t throw the ground beef into one corner of the pot and the onion and noodles in the other – set it instead to layers. Chopped into small pieces. Give it as needed for the story. Should evolve with the cahr. Answering those questions is what the book’s about.

Audience question: Instead of backstory, what about hinting at backstory?

FH/DBC: There’s nothing wrong with that. Immediacy’s good. Little hints are awesome.

Audience question: How often does it happen that the first five pages need to be rewritten?

Everyone: ALL THE TIME.

Faith: Mostly through revisions. Rarely ever does she have to tear it up and rewrite completely.

MM: Don’t look at first 5 pages and keep tweaking. Only tweak because the book needs it. Don’t fiddle. Be aware of why you’re looking at your first five pages and want to fix it, don’t just fiddle.

FH: Do you have a last great bit of advice to writers before they send their work to an editor?

MM: Move onto the next thing. Don’t sit and wait. Publishing is the slowest business. You’re used to sending in and getting response right away. You’re wasting our own time if you do. Work on something else.

DBC: When he finishes a manuscript he puts it away 4-6 weeks then goes back to revise. He tries to create as much distance between editing and writing experience. That helps him catch as many flaws in the book as possible, both before and after beta readers.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Failing Better, Celebrating Best: March Madness End-Of-Month Check-In #WIPmadness

Welcome to the final check-in for the 2014 March Madness Challenge! Before we get started on the celebrations, I've been informed by our fearless leader Denise that we still have a few prizes left.

The final winners for March Madness are...



Jeanne Ryan!

Kristin Butcher!

Congratulations! Stop by our goal-setting post, and choose your prize from those still listed (first come, first serve). Email Denise at d(at)denisejaden(dot)com with your choice and we'll get it out to you as soon as possible.

If you’ve won a prize this month, I hope you enjoy it! If not, keep checking in throughout the year, as many of our weekly hosts offer up prizes from time to time.

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So, here we are at the end of another month, another year, of absolute madness. Now it's time to weigh in about how the entire month went for you. Dearest Mad Marchers, how did you do?

Did you meet your goals? Congratulations!

Did you *exceed* them? Wow, go you!

Or did you maybe not quite make them? Could you be feeling a bit disheartened about that? Don't be. Because no matter how much you did manage to accomplish, even if it was only a fraction of what you intended, you're farther than you were when March began.

However your mad month turned out, it's all valid.

This is an important thing to remember. Life often throws challenges our way. And yes, the platitudes about how "it's not the destination, it's the journey" can feel a bit wearing when we don't get to where we want to be in the time we originally planned. But it's really true. Take, for example, how my month turned out.

Confession time: *I* didn't meet the goals I set back at the start of March. Me, one of the hosts, who should be leading the charge by setting a good example to everyone involved in March WIPmadness. And yet, if I wanted to be negative about it, I could say that I failed:
  1. I completely ignored my goals this weekend while throwing my energy into an out of town convention.
  2. I set aside the urban fantasy I was planning to work on in favour of outlining another YA project I'm not even going to *start* writing this month.
  3. And then I failed at finishing *that* because I hit a major plot hole I couldn't seem to climb out of.
Yep, that's a total fail. Right?

Not the way I see it. And here's why:
  1. I took the time this convention to explore some of the writing panels that were offered. (And wow, there were some great ones.) I didn't devote my entire convention time to this, especially because a lot of them conflicted with other events I really wanted to be at, but I did make it to four. And I came away with more notes to share with everyone, which I totally hadn't expected.

  2. My goals change wasn't a cop-out. The project I'm now outlining was something I'd been avoiding because I hadn't felt ready to approach it, and didn't know how I could. Suddenly, that changed. So being able to actually finally sink my teeth into it was a relief, and for me, an even larger challenge. I'd been worried I wouldn't be able to.

  3. Fixing that plot hole now, before I started writing the story, was also rewarding. Maybe it took longer to figure out than I'd intended, but the solution I came up with stays much more true to my character than what I originally came up with. It has ramifications throughout the entire story. Not only is this going to save me major headaches later, but the novel feels stronger for it. And I'm just getting started!
My point is this: maybe my month wasn't what I'd originally planned. Maybe I didn't get quite as much achieved in a quantitative sense. But the quality of my month was absolutely astounding, and I am really happy with how it all turned out. And no matter what you managed to achieve with your goals, you should feel the same.

Most importantly, this is just one month. The goals don't have to end here. Keep going! And you don't have to do it alone, either. Most months, we gather once a week on one of our members' blogs to check in officially. On top of that, the community meets year-round on Twitter, under the #WIPmadness hashtag.  Feel free to check in with the progress you're making on all of your creative goals. We'll all be there to support each other.

Edit: Charlie Holmberg has offered to host the Monday check-ins for April at her blog, Come join us!

The madness never stops. Onward, Wipsters! Let's embrace this crazy together.

So, ready to weigh in on how your month went, Mad Marchers? Let's hear it!