Friday, September 28, 2007

Word On The Street

I'll be at Word on the Street, a book and magazine festival, in Toronto, Ontario this weekend. I'll be at the Toronto Romance Writers booth from 11 a.m. - noon, and the Harlequin booth from 12:15 - 1:15 p.m. Come on down, say hi and get a free book!

TV hits and misses

Now that the new TV season is in full swing, here's my take on some of the shows, old and new.

Prison Break: I dunno. Captain Wentworth still brings the pretty, but the plot seems to be calling for an incredible suspension of disbelief I may not be up for. However, that Whistler guy sure cleaned up nice -- and he's got that delicious Aussie accent to boot. I'll give it a few more weeks.

Heroes. What can I say? Hiro in medieval Japan. I'm there.

Journeyman -- I watched this strictly for Kevin McKidd, and was not disappointed in his abilities. But this could get a little repetitious. I'll keep watching for a few more weeks and see how it goes.

Chuck -- I don't get the flashbacks. I find them almost dizzying, and what's with the apple pie? And is Secret Agent Man dead? Too bad. Over at Television Without Pity, they're referring to Chuck's good buddy as Jack Black Lite, and I have to say, I concur.

Reaper -- Chuck 2.0, with a paranormal element thrown in. I suspect I'll forget to watch this next week.

As we did Gossip Girls this week. Bad sign. My main problem with that show, besides being several years removed from high school, is that the lead actress looks, to me, far too old to be a high school girl. I know girls these days look very mature for their age, but if somebody told me she was 32? I'd believe it. Whereas when Buffy started? I could totally buy those were high school kids.

Cane -- aka Jimmy Smits Talks A Lot On The Phone. I guess there was a plot here, and goodness knows Polly Walker should be in anything she cares to try, but this was boring. Not even the young hunks can save it. Eye candy only goes so far.

Kid Nation: aka Survivor Junior. How sweet was Jimmy? How cold does it get there? I went to summer camp in Canada, so I know from chilly mornings and getting dressed in the ol' sleeping bag, but still, this seems a little brutal for the younger kids. This also seems an odd mix of "let's see what the kids do" -- with a lot of planned interference (the caste system comes to mind).

America's Next Top Model: I'm finding this show less and less interesting. I was especially put off by the way Marvita was made to reveal details of her past she might have preferred not to have broadcast nation-wide, then they cut her. Unkind, to say the least.

Bionic Woman: Hey, it's Starbuck! And a couple of other Battlestar Alums! Cool! As for the BW herself -- I can see you'd be a little ticked to find out you've got a lot of new parts, but if the alternative is death? I think you could be a tad grateful -- until you found out about the new wiring in the cranium. THEN I could see getting really angry. Also, it seemed to take forever before she asked about L'il Sis after the accident. I liked the notion of Bad Prototype on the loose -- especially when it's Starbuck.

Life: I watched this solely for Damien Lewis, who will forever be Soames to us. As expected he was good -- but could they tone down his yakkery a tad? I can see his mutterings getting old fast.

Private Practice -- I don't watch medical shows. Not even Lance of the Lovely Lashes can compel me to watch, and not even if it's (mostly) a soap. Downside of a vivid imagination coupled with worry wart tendencies.

The Office -- oh, Jim! Oh, Pam! So cute! And yet, I worry that they'll do something to break them up. Dwight, you have so blown it! Happy to have the gang back!

Ugly Betty. ARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! Oh, how could you??? I was so happy, thinking Santos had survived, only to be thrown that curve at the end. I loved the opening, and then... I want the old Betty back. The competent, not going crazy Betty. I actually found her scenes stressful, not enjoyable. And I could live without the Amanda stuff. The kid who plays Justin? Love him! But I tell ya, the slip into dark with this show is not going well with me.

Next week, we finally get The Tudors. A somewhat sanitized version on the local network, but still...The Tudors!

And although I've already blogged about Survivor: Soaking in China, I'll say it again -- Go James!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Surviving, thriving and in between

Thanks to a query from a fellow writer, I've been doing a lot of thinking about what it takes to survive and thrive as a writer or historical romances, or any romances, for that matter. I wrote a long email response, and then thought, hey, this would work for a blog entry! So here, with a few revisions, is what I said to her:

First, a writer needs to know what's important to him or her, how each would define success as a writer, and recognize that it's not the same for everyone. One person's "thriving" may be another's "surviving," one person's "thriving" may be too stressful for another.

For some, the only true measure of success is public and "big" -- making the NYTimes list. For others, it's having a job you can do at home while the kids are small, making enough for "percs" or trips, and without the stress of trying to make it big. Or it can be something in between.

If a writer's main goal is to be on the NYTimes, they should:

1. Pay close attention to what's selling well. At the moment, it's lots of sex (or, conversely, inspirationals) and paranormals. A NYTimes bestselling author once said to me something along the lines of, "If my editor told me the only books that were really selling were set in Bolivia in 1819, I'd be writing books set in Bolivia in 1819."

2. Find a type of story that you do well and works for the vast majority of your readers, and write variations of it. Yes, there will be some differences from book to book, but if brooding noblemen are your forte? Stay with them. Let the differences come from the heroines or the details of the plot.

3. PR is your friend. Do a lot of it, as creatively as you can.

The price to pay for this sort of success? Stress (because you're at the most competitive end of the spectrum), and stereotyping, because editors and your readers may be very vocally opposed to you stepping from that path.
Other writers may also accuse you of basically prostituting your creativity for material success. But they don't understand you, don't know your history, likely have no clue what that goal is so important to you.

On the other hand, if you want to write for other reasons, pay no attention if the NYTimers think you are only claiming not to care about being on the NYTimes because you know, in your heart of hearts, you will never "make it." They will never really understand that a writer can have a different, more personal goal that is every bit as worthy. They don't understand you, don't know your history, have no clue why you hold a goal that is different from theirs.

However, there's a price to pay for marching to your own drummer and writing what you want the way you want. You may never "make it big." It may always be a struggle for you to sell. You may never get the glowing reviews if you veer from what's expected, or whatever a particular set of readers think is necessary in a romance, but you don't. You will not make the big money, either. Or get the plum speaking gigs. In other words, material success -- of the sort anybody can recognize -- and peer recognition may never come your way. But you may have a lot less stress when it comes to the actual writing, don't have to spend hours on PR or worry if you've missed something you ought to be doing that Suzy Big Author did, and can take more time for family and friends or other hobbies. You may not make huge amounts of money, but you can have enough that you don't have to worry about taking a vacation now and then, or helping put the kids through college.

It sometimes happens, for the fortunate few, that what they want to do happens to be what's hot at the moment. They are able to write what they want the way that want while riding the wave. This is the best of both worlds.

But it is rare. For the rest of us, there are decisions and sometimes compromises to be made. Reaching any goal require sacrifices and decisions, but only the individual can decide for themselves what their goal truly is and what they're prepared to do to get there. Or not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It isn't just publishing

A lot of readers complain about the way authors and publishers jump on the latest bandwagon. Suddenly there's a ton of Regency-set historicals, or paranormals.

But it isn't just publishing that does this. I was really struck by the similarities bewtween two new shows that started this week, Chuck and Reaper. Both feature guys who work in (thinly disguised) large chain stores, who are basically slackers (dead end job, little or no post-secondary education), apparently lacking ambition, suffering from martinet bosses, with amusing yet even more slacker-y sidekicks, and seemingly unable to function around a pretty woman.

These are the offspring of successful films like Knocked Up.

As with any trend, the first example does well because it's new and fresh and different. By the time you've seen/read ten or twelve? They'd better be pretty good, because it no longer seems fresh and different.

So why do publishers and other companies follow a trend until it gets tired and worn out?

It's about trying to reduce risk. Publishers and companies can't foretell the future, or really know when one trend is going to take off, so they go by what's sold well previously.

Authors, like most self-employed people, live with a lot of risk. Will our work sell? Will our editors like what we've done, or will we have to do a lot of revision? Will the book sell well? Will we get another contract?

A publisher can hope to make up losses if something new doesn't catch on by having the "tried and true" in their lists, as well. But for the author to try something really new and different means risking income, and losing readers perhaps forever. That's why some will try something new (often under a different name) while keeping one foot where they've published before.

That's also why some will gravitate toward the trends -- to try to reduce risk, the same way the networks have jumped on the nerds/slackers-are-hot bandwagon.

Readers have cause to complain about a trend when it seems to be overwhelming everything else, but the author who gets on that bandwagon may just be trying to make their career a little less of a gamble.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The best-laid plans....

So there I was, bound and determined to forge ahead with the first draft. Yep, that was my plan and boy, I was going to stick to it! After all, I'd be doing plenty of revising at the end, so if I'd wandered too far from the Path of Synopsis, no big. I could fix it. Eventually.

And yep, I wrote yesterday, and I had notes for what I'd write today. Everything was golden, right?

Except that I sat down at the ol' computer today (and according to some, what I use to write would be an antique), and discovered that my gut was at odds with my brain.

Now granted, it could be that applesauce at lunch coupled with two helpings of peach crisp at dinner yesterday was responsible for a certain queebliness in that region, but there was more to it than that.

I have the uneasy feeling I've added at least one too many characters and subplots, and in doing so, I've wandered too far off course. If I continue, I could wind up so far away from the proposed story line, I'll never be able to find my way back.

So I'm going to read the manuscript through, list the characters, think about the plots and especially make sure I haven't added so much, the main romantic plot and the focus on the hero and heroine has been lost. I really was hoping I could just carry on, but I've decided that would be the wrong move in this case.

I've only had a few books where I knew exactly where I was going every single step of the way (and oh, what joys to write were THE NORMAN'S HEART, A WARRIOR'S BRIDE and THE OVERLORD'S BRIDE). But those are the exceptions, not the norm.

So it's back to Chapter One, Page One for me, red pen and additional paper at the ready to make what will no doubt be copious notes.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I just don't get it

The New York Times has made some changes to its bestseller lists. As of yesterday, the paperback books have been divided into two different lists, one for "trade" paperbacks (larger and more expensive, generally more "literary") and one for mass market paperbacks (smaller, cheaper, generally more genre-oriented). They've also lengthened these lists to twenty books, from fifteen. Hardcover remains at fifteen.

This makes a lot of sense, given the difference in the price between the two types of paperbacks. But you can't completely think of one as "literary" and the other "genre," as I've had both mass market and trade editions, although by far more mass market than trade. Many so-called "chick lit" books were published in trade format, although it seems that the editors of the Book Review section have other books in mind: "It gives more emphasis to the literary novels and short-story collections reviewed so often in our pages (and sometimes published only in softcover)."

As for increasing the number between hardcover and softcover, I think this reflects the difference in volume.

Unfortunately, it seems as though romance is still going to be shut out when it comes to actual reviews. "Regular features, like Crime and Accoss the Universe" are going to continue. There will be other columns, for poetry and horror fiction. And for romance?

Nothing, apparently, despite the number of romance novels that make their bestseller list, new criteria and old, and despite the number of bestsellers in other genres by writers who began in romance.

Romance novels still don't make the cut.

I just don't understand this. Why horror and not romance? Why mysteries and not romance? They have just as much of a "formula" as romance. You can have good writers and bad, cliches and innovation, in romance as much as the other genres. Yet only romance is consistently shut out.

Why? Truly, at times like these, the answer that seems most believable is that they think that because romance is read primarily by women, and written primarily by women, romance must be just so much fluff (women being, apparently, stupid and incapable of, you know, thinking) and therefore the whole genre is not worthy of their attention. I don't want to slam another genre, but I just can't see that horror is so much more august, worthy and of greater literary merit than romance, or some of those cozy mysteries, either.

If it's not sexism at work, what else explains this vast ignoring of a whole genre, a bestselling genre, a popular genre, whose books regularly appear on their own bestseller lists? Why isn't romance worth at least an occasional column, too?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Guarding the Son of Bun

As readers of this blog will know, I get very happy when we spot the Bun-Bun (aka a rabbit) in the backyard. It's a sign of spring, and if I see him or her later on in the summer, I'm still thrilled.

This morning, my husband spotted our neighbor's cat, Rocky, in our yard, with something in his mouth. He dropped it and it was moving. Rocky was sitting about three feet away, just...waiting.

Was it a bird? A mouse? No, says my husband in dismay, it looks like a baby bunny!

What? Son of Bun attacked, possibly dead? Was this even possible? Weren't baby bunnies born in the spring?

Since I was in my jammies and Hubby was dressed, he went out to investigate. Rocky continued to sit where he was.

Yes! It was Son of Bun! Oh, no!

I went out, jammie-clad as I was. Perhaps it was the sight of me striding purposefully forward, or the shock of my hot pink nightwear, or because there were now two people involved, but for whatever reason, Rocky sauntered away through the fence, to take up a surveillance position under the neighbor's deck.

After careful study from a short distance, we determined Son of Bun was alive. Such relief! But what to do? We didn't want to touch it, in case we scared it even more, and we couldn't bring it into the house anyway, where three cats reside. But we weren't willing to leave it alone, on the grass, with Rocky nearby.

As Hubby kept watch, I hurried into the house, got dressed (including a fleece jacket because it was pretty chilly in the shade), got the paper and my tea and went outside. I moved a chair about six feet from Son of Bun, and prepared to protect our little friend.

After about fifteen minutes, I was rewarded by the sight of Son of Bun hopping to the back of the yard, to the edge of the garden, when he proceeded to stay.

A little while later, I saw Rocky strolling along the hedge at the other side of the yard. Almost at once, a bigger rabbit burst out of the hedge and tore across the yard, passing Son of Bun without a pause, through the neighbor's fence into their yard, where he stopped and sat and looked around. Was this a relative, perhaps a parent of the baby bunny? Had Son of Bun been out with Daddy or Mommy and been caught by the cat? Did the larger rabbit realize it had passed the baby?

Bigger Bunny continued through the neighbor's yard and away.

Daughter, by now privy to the morning's excitement, got up and dressed and, with breakfast and a book in tow, came out to join me. We checked Son of Bun and had a moment's panic when we realized there was an ant crawling on him, and his eyes were closed. Had he died after all?

No! As closer inspection revealed, he was breathing. Were we traumatizing the poor thing more by getting close? Fearing we were, we went back to the lawn chairs.

Eventually, after an hour had passed with no sign of Rocky and with Son of Bun still in the (deeper) undergrowth close to the pile of sticks from my spring trimming efforts, we felt we could go inside, and probably should, so Son of Bun would relax and hopefully get home safely.

I just went out to check, and he's gone.

I hope the poor little guy made it home okay!

(If you want to see the map enlarged, go here.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fighting the urge...

I have once again reached the point in the first draft where I am past the set-up and into the beginning of the middle. And as always, I have the urge to go back and totally revise what I've done.

I understand why this happens. I don't do an extensive outline. My synopsis is pretty much it, so to go from a fifteen or so page story to a full book means I'm going to be adding material. And characters. That is why I also refer to my first draft as "the kitchen sink draft," as in, "everything but the." So right about a third of the way through, I realize I've added a lot of things that may or may not make the final cut. I also may have wandered off the original path of the story. A little wandering's not bad, but what if I've wandered too far afield? So I start to think maybe I need to go back and evaluate what I've done so far.

However, there are reasons not to. For one thing, I'm going to be adding a lot more before I'm done, and cutting and rewriting accordingly. Why not wait until I'm done the whole manuscript and see what I've got before I start with the cutting and rewriting? Also, I can get stuck revising and rewriting. Well, okay, it happened once, but that was enough and the only way to get out of it was to just write and not worry about it. So I'm thinking the best thing to do is keep going.

What if I've gone off the beaten path? I've already realized I dropped a subplot, and have taken steps accordingly. If I find I've gone too far afield at the end, I can always retrace and fix. After all, revising is not a problem for me, and I expect to do a lot anyway.

Therefore, I shall resist the urge to go back and reread and rewrite and forge ahead.

Oh, and I must say, after watching Survivor last word: James.

Okay, a few more words. James, the comely and quiet and modest. Audience manipulation or not, I've got somebody I care about already. I don't think I've ever been so tense about the outcome of a first challenge so much in the history of Survivor. Go James!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Speaking of dramatic tension....

It's time for another season of Survivor! And I am there!

Now, I appreciate that there's a lot that's not "real" about so-called reality TV. There is a whole lot of manipulation going on. And why? Why, to create dramatic tension. Just like with a book, that's what will keep people coming back.

Since I've been blogging about that a lot, let's use Survivor as an example of some of the ways an author can create dramatic tension.

Characters: Do they, through editing, try to create heroes and heroines you can care about and root for, and villains to hate? Oh, yes, indeedy! I was so invested in Yau Man's success, I was literally on the edge of my seat.

Do they use backstory and motivation to make us care? Yep. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. When it seems really heavy-handed, that tends to backfire. It's like loading down a character with too much emotional baggage at the start of the book.

Are there misunderstandings? Oh, yes. And sometimes deliberate misleading.

Is there conflict? Definitely. There are personality clashes, alliances made and broken.

Is there internal conflict? Yep. Do I trust that person or not? Should I break that alliance, or stay with it?

Complications? The reward challenges.

You've also got the tension of a group of being being "stranded" together, forcing physical intimacy. And there's often emotional intimacy, whether it's friendships forming or an even deeper intimacy, like the beginning of the relationship between Boston Rob and Amber (who I have now seen more than enough of, thank you).

What about public stakes? Well, they've tried. We've had the women vs. men and then the attempt at the ethnic/racial divisions. The women vs. men wasn't the best, because I personally found too many of the young women annoying. The ethnic/racial divisions proved to be essentially meaningless during the show, but certainly sparked a lot of tension among the fans before it even aired. However, it seems to me that their attempts to give Survivor greater social relevance rarely works.

What does make one season of Survivor more interesting and exciting than another? Just like with a book, it's all about the people. The more diverse the group, the more differences in their backstory and experience, the better the season.

That's why I'm a little concerned about this one. From what I can tell, it doesn't look like a very diverse group. But who knows? People, like the best of characters, can surprise you. And that's what keeps me coming back.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Raising the personal stakes through intimacy

When it comes to creating dramatic tension, I've talked about creating characters readers can care about, conflict, misunderstandings, complications and expanding the stakes from the personal to the public. What other ways can you raise the stakes for your characters? After all, too many quarrels can sound like petty bickering; too many misunderstandings that aren't resolved can make your characters seem immature. You can only put your characters in physical danger so many times before your story starts to sound like The Perils of Pauline.

Consider, then, something that can be either good, or bad, but that will certainly affect your characters' relationships, and thus your story: physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.

Think about stories where people are forced to be together, either because of a natural catastrophe or man-made situation -- a prison drama, for instance, or a "buddy" picture. In a romance, think stranded in a cabin during a blizzard, or an arranged marriage. The fact that your characters are, in one way or another, trapped together, adds to the tension and affects their relationship.

There's another kind of physical intimacy that, as a romance writer, I'm naturally going to be thinking about, and that's a sexual relationship. That sort of intimacy has to change a relationship, for good or ill. How much would depend on the characters and their situation, but if it doesn't change it at all, why bother writing about it? They might as well be brushing their teeth.

There's another kind of intimacy that can really up the tension in any novel, but especially in romances: emotional intimacy. Everybody fears rejection, so getting close enough to another person to reveal and share one's innermost feelings, can seem very risky indeed. What if you do that and the other person rejects you? Many of my characters would truly rather face physical danger than run that risk. Even the very thought of being emotionally intimate raises the stakes enormously for those characters.

Dramatic tension doesn't have to come from a big explosion, a natural disaster, shots in the dark, a huge quarrel or some deep-seated trauma. It can exist in the possibility of fingertips touching, or wondering if anything should be said. Who hasn't been reading a book, watching a movie or TV show and thought, as two characters are together, "Oh, please, say you're in love and kiss!"

That is dramatic tension, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Birthday! (No, not mine.)

Today is my Mom's birthday. She's out of town but I have spoken to her and sung Happy Birthday and, as usual, shared some laughs.

I probably wouldn't be a writer if it weren't for my Mom. However, unlike writers of a certain sort, that isn't because my Mom was a harpy and lousy parent. Nope, she was and is a fabulous mother. And I've thought about how she contributed to my success as a writer. Here are some of the ways:

When I was little, if anybody upset me at school or elsewhere, part of the "chinwag" afterward would involve this question: "Why do you think they did or said that?"

So because of her, I've been thinking about people's motivations -- looking beyond the actions to the emotional reasons for the why of it -- since I was a child.

My Mom never, ever told me to go outside and play if I was reading. Reading was a-ok with her. I shudder to think how much she spent, while on a tight budget, for Trixie Belden books.

My Mom didn't flinch when I wanted to get a (somewhat impractical) BA in English Lit. My Mom didn't get to go to university, although she certainly had the smarts. My Grandpa thought it was a waste of money for a woman. Instead of being like some parents I've heard of, who take the attitude, "I didn't get that, so neither will you," she had the opposite reaction. You want to go to university? Fantastic! You want to take English Lit? Wonderful!

She is still fantastically supportive. As my sister put it when my mother was seriously ill (now thankfully recovered), "She always makes you feel as if you're doing the right thing." This is a rare and wondrous gift, as I've come to learn over the years.

She can find the humor in those minor frustrations we all experience from time to time, so we generally wind up laughing about them.

She was a fantastic parental role model, and I can only hope I've lived up to the example she set. One of the greatest compliments people can pay me is to say I'm like her.

So Happy Birthday, Mom, and many, many more!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Take It Public

Writers hear a lot about "raising the stakes" when it comes to their story. That means, basically, increasing dramatic tension, creating anxiety in the reader about the outcome of events and their effect upon the characters so that they continue to read the book.

I've talked about creating characters people will care about, and using conflict, misunderstandings between characters and complications to up the tension.

Donal Maas, in his excellent book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, adds another element to the mix, what he calls "public stakes." I touched on this briefly in the blog post about characters (How To Get Tense), when I mentioned Todd Stone's advice from Novelists' Boot Camp about giving your characters an audience, so that their success or failure is more public. That way, they have even more to lose if they fail to reach their goals.

Donald Maas has a different meaning, though. He suggests you create a situation where the outcome of the events of the novel and the conflict you've created have a more extensive impact, not just on the main or secondary characters, but on the novel's society at large. To give an example that immediately came to my mind when I read that part of DM's book (although it's not a novel): in the film Gladiator, Maximus is primarily motived by his need to have justice for his murdered wife and son. However, he will also be exposing and punishing the usurper and murderer of Marcus Aurelius and saving the Roman empire from a terrible ruler. His person goal will have a far-reaching effect on the world he lives in, and if he fails, the catastrophe will extend far beyond him, too. Those are some pretty big stakes there.

In the series I'm currently writing (MY LORD'S DESIRE, THE NOTORIOUS KNIGHT and the upcoming KNAVE'S HONOR), there's certainly conflict between the heroes, heroines and villains -- but if the good guys lose, they won't be the only ones who suffer. So will their extended families, and so will, eventually, the people of England. The stakes are much greater than my hero and heroine's own personal happily ever after.

Note: I can do this because I have a big canvas. If you're writing a short category romance, you may not be able to make the stakes that big. But I would suggest going at least one step beyond the hero and heroine, to another circle of involvement, either family or friends, or perhaps business.

(Think I'm done with dramatic tension? Not quite. Last installment later this week.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Restin' the Wrist

I suspect I'm like most people who write, type, keyboard or play an instrument for a living, in that I dread doing something or having an accident that will impede my ability to use my hands. So I play close attention to any aches or pains I get in my wrists. This morning, no doubt because I've been sending a lot of long emails this week (planning a family function), writing longer blog posts and writing my book, my right wrist is a little sore.

So it's getting a break. I'm only going to be doing my five pages a day on the weekend, and short emails. Fortunately, all the party planning is now done. Unfortunately, that means no hand sewing, either, so the curtains will continue to be incomplete.

But I'm not taking any chances. Not when it might mean I'm putting myself at risk for carpel tunnel syndrome.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dramatic Tension: Complications

I nearly forgot about complications when it comes to adding dramatic tension to your book! But my ticking timer has reminded me of them.

Complications are things that happen that make a situation worse or -- no duh! -- more complicated. They can add to the conflict between the characters (I'll call that a character complication), or they can be separate from the characters (I'll call that a plot complication).

A character complication would be something like the arrival of Aunt Minny. On the surface, that may seem like no big whoop -- except that Aunt Minny knows all the family skeletons and is likely to reveal something the heroine would rather keep secret.

Plot complications are things that cannot be changed by any action on the part of the character. For instance, in the character complication of Aunt Minnie, the heroine could get Aunt Minnie to leave right away, so she doesn't have a chance to spill the beans. Or Aunt Minnie herself, seeing the situation, could decide to keep silent. In other words, a decision could be made that negates the complication, or makes it unimportant; a character can affect it. So it may be a major, life-altering complication, or it could just be a minor complication easily resolved after it's upped the tension for a little while -- preferably because something more important has come along.

(Note that character complications create more conflict. With this example, there's going to be conflict (a) between the heroine and Aunt Minny, especially if she doesn't want to leave or (b) within Aunt Minny, as she tries to decide to tell what she knows, or keep it to herself.)

With a plot complication, there is nothing a character can do. For instance, nobody can stop time (well, maybe in a paranormal, but I'm talking generally here). Nobody can prevent a tornado, or earthquake. They can only react to it.

Because they are uncontrollable, plot complications can really up the tension. How is the character going to achieve what he or she needs to accomplish if they cannot have any influence at all on what may prevent the achievement of their goal?

Now that's complicated.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pattin' myself on the back

It would have been sooooo easy not to write today! We're planning a 25th wedding anniversary that's coming up soon, and I spent all morning doing things for that. Then I went and had tea with my niece and her baby. I have never seen such a happy baby! So cute! However, by the time I got home, school was out and Oprah was on.

Not that I watched Oprah, because then I had to email the latest about the wedding anniversary to various folks. Also, call Mom to discuss.

By then it was 7 p.m. and I still hadn't had dinner. I'd planned an "every man for himself" night, and this man was starving. One of my favorite Stargates was on (the one with the young clone of Jack -- sooo funny), too. So I ate my tuna sandwich and watched it. (Oh, the wildly glamorous life of a romance writer!)

Then I had to send another email (about parking). By then it was 8:30. I hadn't turned on my writing computer, which is not hooked up to the internet, in part for security, and in part to keep me from checking my email or reading blogs when I should be working.

Oh, man, oh, man, I was so tempted to take the night off. So very, very tempted.

But I didn't. I wrote seven pages in an hour. And had one of those moments where a character says something I hadn't planned.

I love it when that happens! But I also have to take some time to decide if I like that direction, or if it's a wrong turn.

Since I've done more than my five page goal, I'm going to sleep on it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Building dramatic tension, Part II

Conflict creates dramatic tension. Generally, conflict is what prevents your characters from doing what they want to do at the start of the story.

For a romance writer, it's the reason those two crazy kids don't just get married and start a family.

You've got your two basic kinds: internal and external.

External's pretty easy to understand -- it's something that happens outside the character to cause problems. War, business takeovers, different socio-economic backgrounds. It's "I can't love you because I'm a Norman and you're a Saxon and our people are fighting each other." Or "I can't love you because I'm poor and from the wrong side of the tracks and you're rich and your folks are snobs."

Internal gets a little more complicated -- but for my money, this is where the fun really begins. This is where you create interesting, individual people. Why do they each think they shouldn't love the other? What happened to make them think that? How are they going to overcome those issues?

Okay, so far, I haven't really said anything you can't read/find in just about any writing book out there. But I heard something once (and I really, really wish I could remember where) that had a profound effect on me as a writer, and that is:

Every character in your novel should be in conflict with every other character at some time in the story.

It's not enough to have your hero and heroine at odds, fighting the villain. No, you can do. Much more.

To give an example, let's pick four standard main characters from a romance. You have your Hero, your Heroine, the Hero's Best Buddy (BB for short) and the Heroine's Sister, aka Sis. Hero and BB have been through a lot. They are fast friends. The Heroine is close to Sis. She's also a friend and a mentor.

So what kind of conflicts can we mine from these four character?

1. Hero vs. Heroine (no surprise)
2. Hero vs. Sis (she thinks he's going to break Heroine's heart)
3. Hero vs. BB (he thinks it's a mistake to get mixed up with that nutty family)
4. Heroine vs. BB (she thinks he's telling Hero lies about her family)
5. Heroine vs. Sis (she's beginning to think Sis is overprotective)

Is the BB telling lies? Is Sis being overprotective? Those conflicts can keep the tension going when the hero and heroine aren't together.

But I'm not done yet. What about some conflict between BB and Sis? Protective Sis meets guy who's been badmouthing the family. Oh, it ain't gonna be pretty! You could make this funny, to lessen the tension a little, because too much tension is literally exhausting for the reader. You could make it romantic -- a secondary romance plot, with conflict and desire all its own. Or you could make it serious. Indeed, these two characters can, unlike the hero and heroine in a romance, die. That ups the tension if they're in physical danger.

Throw in a villain, and what potential do you have?
1. Heroine vs. Villain
2. Hero vs. Villain
3. Hero and Heroine together vs. Villain
4. BB vs. Villain
5. Sis vs. Villain
6. BB and Sis vs. Villain (probably have to be rescued by Hero and Heroine, which leads to)
7. Hero, Heroine, BB and Sis vs. Villain

What if the Villain has a Henchman? Then you can have:

1. Hero vs. Henchman
2. Heroine vs. Henchman
3. BB vs. Henchman
4. Sis vs. Henchman (My sequel senses are tingling!)
5. Villain vs. Henchman

That's a whole lotta conflict goin' on -- but the more conflict, the more dramatic tension. The more dramatic tension, the more exciting your story, and the more the reader's going to wonder how it's all going to work out, so they won't want to put the book down.

That's exactly what a writer wants.

Jane Wyman

I was sorry to hear about the death of Jane Wyman. I think she was a wonderful actress.

One of my favorite movies of hers was the now relatively obscure So Big, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, who wrote several sagas, like Giant and Showboat. I've only seen it once, when I was a kid, and it was on TV. Yet I've never forgotten it.

So Big is about a woman who marries a poor farmer. He dies at a young age, leaving her with a small son, nicknamed "So Big," and a farm that's considered too swampy to ever grow enough to make a living. She discovers it's perfect for asparagus, among other vegetables. She becomes successful, and sends her son to university to be an architect. He meets up with a woman who pretty much takes over his life. She is not impressed with So Big's mother, and lets it show.

I don't remember the end; I'm going to have to get the book from the library, but I'm pretty sure it's sad.

Perhaps this movie stays in my mind because the idea of farming asparagus seemed so unusual to me. My grandfather grew corn and soybeans and kept pigs. But if my memory is correct, it's the way Ms. Wyman manages to convey determination and dignity without a word that made it stand out. She was really, really good at that.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

It's not you, it's me...most of the time

Having just mentioned the Big Misunderstanding in novels, I thought I'd talk about this a bit more.

What do I mean by the Big Misunderstanding? That's when the conflict between two characters is based on, well, a misunderstanding. One thinks one thing, the other another, one is right, one is wrong, or the truth is somewhere in the middle. This conflict keeps the characters at odds during the story.

I have heard/read readers complain about this many times. They don't like it, and if only the characters had had a single, simple discussion like mature adults, the issue would have been resolved. Of course, they also know that would have been the end of the conflict and the end of the story, but they were frustrated nonetheless.

To be honest, my first reaction when I see such complaints is to wonder if those readers have never, ever been in a situation where there was a misunderstanding that yes, could have been resolved with a single, simple conversation, yet that conversation never took place -- and how fortunate they are if that is so. Because I can think of several plausible explanations for not having such a conversation.

You believe you are right and the other person should apologize and speak first. If you speak first, it will be letting the person at fault think they were right, or that they've "gotten away" with something.

You realize you're wrong, but don't want to admit it, either because of pride, the belief the other person will gloat, or that to do so will make you seem vulnerable, weak or stupid.

You believe you're right and the other person is wrong, but don't want to try to convince the other person of their error because they will make your life even more miserable, even though you're right. Also, they may outrank you or have more credentials, so even if you're right, other people may not believe it.

You're really not sure who's right and who's wrong and don't want to find out, in case it's you who's wrong.

You don't want to risk inflaming the situation even more. The situation may not be good, but you don't want to make it worse.

You have no opportunity for such a conversation. There is no time, no privacy or you are far apart geographically.

Perhaps some of these reasons seem immature. No doubt they are.

My chronological age might suggest I should possess a certain wisdom or detachment, but when it comes to emotions? There are some issues on which I will likely never be older than ten and I doubt I'll ever be able to consider them with emotional maturity. I don't think I'm unique in that. I think most readers can relate to that, because they have deep emotional issues, too, based on what's happened in their lives, and will realize they may not always react maturely, either.

However, if the only reason presented for avoiding such a conversation seems to be simply stubbornness, annoyance, frustration, jealousy or selfishness, your characters will likely come across as childish and immature, rather than a character with sympathetic emotional issues based on their past. That is not good. That is what makes readers think they should have been able to resolve their conflict with a simple, single conversation.

The real fault here is what I call shallow characterization. The writer hasn't gone deep enough into the characters and given them solid, understandable, believable reasons for avoiding that clarifying conversation. If the writer does that, even a disagreement over the flavor of an ice cream cone can seem significant.

In other words, it's not the reader who's at fault. It's the writer.

But, cries the writer, I did think of that. I did go that deep.

Then somehow, the writer didn't manage to convey that knowledge and understanding and deeper motive to the reader.

To speak in the writer's defense, though, there are times when that information is there. In fact, there are times when the writer can point to a specific sentence or paragraph on a specific page that clearly spells out why the character(s) will not have that conversation, and an understandable, believable explanation it is, too.

In that case, the fault does lie with the reader. Maybe it was in the sort of scene they tend to skip (a love scene or a scene that's got a lot of description) -- and don't get me started on how frustrating it is for a writer to hear a reader declare, "Oh, I always skip X sort of scenes!"

Maybe they were jumping up to get off the train and lost their place and missed it. Maybe (and I fear this happens with some reviewers) they were reading too quickly, because they wanted/needed to finish ASAP. They rush right over the bit the author labored on for days trying to convey the character's deep emotional issues.

I hate to think that to avoid those disgruntled readers writers need to convey such information several times. I don't want to hammer the reader over the head, as if I think they're too dense to get it the first time. I honestly think once, twice at the most, should be enough, or your characters will wind up sounding like self-involved sad sacks.

So it often seems an author has a choice: repeat the reasons the misunderstanding can't be solved with one simple conversation and risk alienating your readers who do get it the first time and think you're beating them over the head with that information, or risk alienating readers who might miss the one explanation your characters won't sit down and discuss the situation.

It can be a tough call.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Keeping to a schedule

I started writing a new book this week. It's due mid-December.

I also had a few other things scheduled -- painters coming to work on the bathroom, a plumber replacing a faucet, and getting the living room upholstery cleaned. I'm having at least one side of the family for Christmas, possibly both (at different times), and I wanted to get these things done and out of the way in good time, so I wouldn't be rushing to a deadline AND trying to get my house all tiddly-boo. The painters are coming back to tackle another area of the house on October 29, so I chose that as my deadline for finishing the first draft.

So of course, life being what it is, things happened. I got proofreading to do, and there was a Family Crisis. Nothing serious or physical, like a car accident; just one of those Big Misunderstandings that some readers seem to find so unbelievable when they happen in stories.

Fortunately, I had set myself a goal of five pages a day, more if I'm able. Every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Not ten, which is normally quite doable for me, since writing is my job. I can even handle fifteen if I'm pressed -- provided absolutely nothing interferes with my writing. Five means I should be able to meet that goal even if I can only find an hour to write.

I'm really glad I chose this goal because it means that so far, even with everything that went on this week, I met it. I've even surpassed it a little. So instead of being all bent out of shape by all the unexpected and unwelcome surprises, I actually feel pretty good.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

How to get tense

Not in real life. Although I could tell ya stories....

No, today (and for another few blog posts) I'm going to be talking about putting dramatic tension into your stories. I'm going to break it down into three sections: characters, conflict and raising the stakes.

Today, I'm going to talk about characters.

First and foremost, unless your readers care about your characters, they aren't going to care what happens to them. You can come up with the most astonishing, creative plot twists and turns, but unless the reader sympathizes with and relates to the people these things are happening to, they won't care about the book. They'll stop reading, or be left dissatisfied at the end.

There are plenty of writing books out there that talk about creating compelling, interesting and sympathetic characters, so I'm not going to repeat those lessons. However, I do have a few points for you to ponder.

Don't think about your characters as characters. Think of them as people. You're telling a story about people. Not real people and yes, you are the master of their universe, but I think it helps if you yourself call them people.

There's also a reason writers are told not to load the front of the story with the characters' histories and motivations. If you do that, you're losing an opportunity to create dramatic tension. You want your reader asking questions. Why did he do that? What's her problem? If you give them all the answers in the beginning, they won't be anxious to find out more.

Now, there is a line between intriguing and frustrating. That's why one doles out the information. You give a little, not all. Answer one question, but raise another. The question/answer dance can provide a lot of tension.

You can give your characters a secret. You can reveal it fairly soon, so that the reader wonders, "When will the other characters find out and what will they do then?" Or you can reveal it slowly, in tiny steps, so that the complete secret isn't known to the reader until the end of the book. Either way works, and both will add tension.

Here's a really good suggestion from Novelists' Boot Camp by Todd Stone. Give your characters an audience. In other words, make their success or failure public. (I've done this -- trial by combat, for instance -- but I've never seen it articulated before.) This adds to the tension for the character and, therefore, the reader.

Of course, all these elements work best when your readers are invested in the character. Or should I say, your people.

One thing that doesn't work, and I've seen this a lot in unpublished romances, is that writers attempt to create sympathetic characters by loading them down with issues and a terrible childhood. Certainly, they can have all these things, but many a time I'm thinking, "Lighten up, Francis!"

Because there's also a line between sympathetic (and I really think "empathetic" is a better word for what the writer should be aiming for) and pathetic, which is how these characters can come across. If your character does have a lot of baggage, I don't want to hear every detail from the start. It's like being stuck at party listing to a stranger whine about his or her last relationship. No, thank you! And how many people do you meet who do that? (If it's a lot, you have my sympathy. And you must look like a kind-hearted person.)

Keep the reader wondering about your character's history and motives. Make them wait for information. Answer some questions while posing others. And above all, remember your goal is to make the reader see your characters are real people, and to make them care.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

This weeks' writing blog post will be....

about raising stakes. Increasing dramatic tension. Making your readers sweat (in a good way). But not today. Today time for blogging has been severely curtailed, because I really, really really want to stick to my goal of writing at least five pages a day and hopefully more until the first draft is finished.

But today I have to tidy for Darlin' Darla (my cleaning lady and one of the main reasons I like earning money), take a cat to the vet, prepare for the painters coming tomorrow and we've got company for dinner.

So the more in-depth blog post about writing will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Some Questions For You

I didn't intend to blog on the weekend. I was going to finish the drapes for two rooms, the Red Room o' Doom and, because it's beside the RROD, a bedroom. I decided to start on the BR drapes, as not as many people will see those, so if mistakes were to be made, that was the place to do them. I had purchased panels of drapes, and all I had to do was add some fabric to the bottom, and make tie-backs. Easy, right? Until I discovered one panel was, for some reason, a whole inch shorter than the others. After I'd added the fabric.

The Redecorating Gurus on TV never seem to have problems like this.

So while taking a break before getting the trusty seam ripper, I've come up with another September Resolution, and that's to get some feedback about this blog.

Are there any particular subjects you'd like me to address in my blog?

Any writing questions you might have?

Everybody has a unique path on the road to publication, so I'm wary of answering questions about publishing, but if you have some of those, I'll answer if I can.

Do you like short blog posts, perhaps dividing a subject up into chunks, or do you prefer them in one post?

I'm still going to blog about TV and non-writing-related activities because, well, I want to, but I'll be happy to devote Wednesday/Thursday blog time to answering questions about writing and publishing.