Category Archives: Writing

Writing: Music as Inspiration

Okay, so when it comes to music and writing, there are a lot of different “camps” as it were. Some people listen to music as they write because it helps them focus, while others find it to be a distraction. Some writers make playlists for their stories, either before they start writing or after. Some only touch music if they have a dancer or singer or whatever as part of the story and need music for that reason.

I’m sort of in an odd camp. I can’t listen to music as I write most of the time, because it inevitably distracts me. I do have to have some sort of noise, which is why I have YouTube or the TV on with some sort of background nonsense, be it a series that I have seen almost all of the episodes of multiple times (Criminal Minds or Law and Order: SVU), or a movie I’ve also watched several times (with exceptions, Marvel movies don’t work), or video game let’s plays. But I do use music for writing.

See, sometimes when I listen to a song, I will peg it as a background song or an inspiration song for a scene, and listening to it always reminds me of how the song will go. This was particularly prominent in writing Ten, because several of the scenes (some of which got cut) came to exist because of listening to particular songs. I even ended up using songs as chapter titles as a result. When I got stuck writing something because it was giving me issues for whatever reason, I’d go listen to the song I’d assigned to that chapter to help my brain get in the mood and emotions of that particular scene. In my case, I built my play list both before and as I was writing, because I plotted an arc, wrote it, and then plotted the next arc. It helped the story shape itself organically, and the music helped me set the tone for each chapter and the book as a whole.

The trick with using music as inspiration is to not to be extremely literal with it. Problem one with that is because if you are literally including lyrics as dialogue in the text, you are going to run into copyright issues. Problem two, most music has the same topic, they just have different phrases and tones. For me, I listen to what the rhythm and words are telling me. Songs of defiance or even upset at an ex turn into fight music for me, because of the speed and the anger that they emote. Break up songs can sometimes be about families or friends rather than loved ones. Love songs can apply to someone that the main character is interacting with that doesn’t necessarily mean romance between them, just wanting a relationship, platonic or otherwise.

Music appeals to people on different levels, and you really have to figure out which camp you belong to on your own. I can’t tell you to turn off the music if it helps you put words to a page, and really if someone tries to tell you how to handle music with your writing and acts like they know it all, well, they are lying. To paraphrase Mercedes Lackey books, there is no one true way. I will say, don’t get stuck in a rut with it. If you are struggling, the first thing I would suggest changing up is your sound environment. If you listen to music, stop for a while and see if it helps, or do what I do and change to a non-music sort of background noise. As you age, your preference will probably change, so just keep an open mind to trying different things to see if they help you when you get stuck.


Writing: Stimulus/Response

Okay, I am going to be frank here. I suck at this aspect of writing. Fanfiction ruined me. So poor Chester had to try and fix the mess I’d made of my own writing style. I’ve gotten to where I catch it as I’m writing half the time, and the other time I catch it during edits. I figure I had better explain a bit about what it is so it helps other people who might have the same problem.

Stimulus response is making sure that for every action, there is a reaction from the characters impacted by it. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just a sign to show that the other character heard. Eye rolls, nods, shakes of the head, all count as a reaction, as does a character saying something in response (which in turn requires another response). It’s a giant game of tag, in a way.

There are a few cues that can tell you if you have a stimulus and response problem. For example, if you’ve got two characters present and you haven’t written any sort of action or dialogue from the second in two or three paragraphs, you’ve got an issue. Too much time has passed, they had to have had some sort of reaction to whatever the main character just did or said. Huge swatches of dialogue can also show you an issue. Think about how long you can stand to listen to one person yammer at you before you interrupt, and then time how long it takes you to say whatever the huge bit of dialogue is. If it goes beyond that time limit, guess what? You’ve missed a reaction.

There are also a set of keywords to keep in mind. If you use once, before, after, and some uses of as, then you’ve got an issue with your order. A reader wants to read things in the order that they happened. (Or so I’m told.) Sometimes those words are fine. But I recommend running a search for those words, so you can look at those paragraphs and making sure that things are going in the right order. Even though I think that I’ve caught myself using them, I know I’ve had times when either I’m tired, just trying to force the scene out, or putting words to the page to get unstuck where I slip back into the habit of mixing things around in an attempt to keep from sounding repetitive. There are better ways of doing it than just restructuring the sentence so you’re going backwards.

Another part of stimulus/response is the order of the reaction. The way I was taught was it goes emotion, thought, action, dialogue. You’re going to feel something from a stimulus, first and foremost. Sometimes a character will completely skip the thought step because the emotional response is so strong, and that’s fine. There are exceptions to this order, but if you think of it all in terms of a response, it helps make more sense. When a characters cuts their own dialogue off with an action such as throwing their  hands up in the air or huffing their breath, it’s their response to their own words which is frustrating them. (I know this seems like nonsense, but it does help your scenes flow better.)

Most writers don’t pay attention to their structure, and there’s two reasons behind it. One is writers are under the assumption that their agent and their editor at the publishing house is going to fix everything for them. This is a lie. It used to be yes, they were there to help you out. But at this point in the business, most agents are retired editors who left the publishing houses to make better money, and while they’ll put in some work for you, they aren’t going to help you out that much. And when they lost those editors, the publishing houses didn’t replace them. So what editors they do have are overworked and overwhelmed. They are going to do a pure spelling and grammar check on your work, and that’s it. The second reason why people don’t worry about their structure is they don’t believe it’s important anymore. Stories and how to tell them are always evolving, and for many writers, stimulus/response and reaction order are old-school tools that aren’t needed anymore.

I’m sort of an inbetween on the second one. On one hand, I am not going to kill myself to structure a story in a particular way, and I am certainly not going to follow old pulp-fiction tropes about how my stories are supposed to go. On the other hand, I respect that keeping these old-fashioned structure rules in mind does two things for your story. The first, it helps cut down on your word count. You would not believe the number of words it takes you to mess the order up. While you do add words with missed responses, if you need to keep that scene below a certain order, you can eliminate some fluff wording elsewhere to make room for five words. The second, it helps the flow of the story and the scene. While you know what order actions take, your reader only has the words on the page to go off of. It can be a nightmare to keep track of what happened when with the stimulus response order all out of whack.

It’s helpful sometimes to think of things like a movie, in my experience. Trying to play a scene out like a film in your head can help keep the order straight, and keep track of the various responses. Focus on one-on-one situations first, since group settings can be a b-word in my experience, and build on them with more characters to practice. And if you flub it up, don’t sweat it too much. It takes work and practice to write, and we’re all works-in-progress.


Writing: Genres Part 3

Coming back from being lost in illnesses/fair induced stress and then injuries/wrapping up the print version of Ten with an update to my genre writing series. Now, this one is considered the easiest genre to write and break into as a new writer…I could argue about it being easy to write, but it is easier to get into but for different reasons than people think: Romance.

Romance books have their cliche images: the bodice ripper, sex scene heavy books with half-naked characters on the cover that is sold for about six bucks at the grocery store. However, if you go into the actual romance section at a book store, you’ll find a little more variance on the price, but the bodice rippers will be accompanied by some less provocative look books that still center around a romance, just with another genre as a side dish. Usually fantasy or action/thriller, some are also mysteries or something in that vein.

Here’s the reason why these books are the easiest to get published…if you do your homework. These publishing houses have contracts and lists where they send out so many new titles a month–more than any other genre. They make their money through quantity, not quality, and by appealing to a very specific formula. By keeping things within a certain parameter, they are able to produce the books cheaply, keeping actual costs down so they can sneak into as many sellers as possible. They don’t pay as well as other genres, but you also have a higher chance of paying back your advance and getting royalties. And if you can pick up the rhythm, there are writers who make their living just by turning out a new book every month or so.

These books have to be within a certain range of word count/print pages (varying a bit by publisher, so be prepared to add fluff or cut it away if you have to bounce between them), they have to have a certain number of beats to them, and obviously need to focus on the romance and have a happy ending for the couple involved. Most create a common enemy to bring these two people together, others just put two people into a situation where they have to work together to achieve a goal–whether or not its a common goal is up to the writer, but either way they have to work together to achieve it. There is a heavy focus on the characters being in their twenties to thirties–rarely do they cross over any older than that, despite the main readership for these books being in their forties and fifties, but I digress.

The really tricky part when it comes to writing romances is what you have to keep in mind–no matter what, your primary antagonists…are your protagonists. I know this is weird, so hear me out. The formulas mean that publishers are looking for the main conflict to be between the hero and the heroine. Whether its because they are constantly fighting with each other, one side of the equation is trying to fight the urge to be together, or there are circumstances keeping them apart a la Romeo and Juliet, the central conflict needs to be what is keeping your couple apart.

That said, your characters still have to be likeable. Ever wonder why the characters are so simple, cardboard cut out like? It’s because this way, the writer can easily flip them from being a jerk to being the nicest guy ever without seeming to contradict themselves. The girl can go from a whiny crybaby to the bravest woman in the world, and its waved away as character growth. There are some writers who are good at making this work for them, for creating a strong character and showing real growth. But those who are milking the system for money only, well, they use the formula and go with it.

There are a few beats that are particularly important for a story. You’re going to have to write a sex scene, unless you are in a subset aimed for younger readers or ultra-conservatives. Sometimes you’ll end up writing more than one, if your plot goes that way. There’s going to be a big-bad-break-up fight at least once. Sometimes there are multiples, but if so each one is bigger and worse than the one before it. (I never said this genre showed healthy relationships, did I? Cause it really doesn’t.) And then the last one is going to depend on what sort of story you are dealing with. If you are writing something with outside forces, this is where they seem to get the upper hand and the two have to come together to finally overcome it/solve the problem/whatever. If you are focused purely on internal conflicts between the couple, whoever was the biggest butt is going to “see the light” and save the other character from their misery without their other half.

If you want to write just for making money, don’t turn your nose up at romance novels. They are the easiest to make money and live off of, and they do pay well in the long run if that’s what you are after. However, if this happens to be the genre that you just want to write it, stay away from the ones who are famous for publishing in romance because you aren’t likely to fit their patterns. Really work on fleshing out your characters, and if you play with what the audience wants from the tropes and give them a good story besides, you’ll appeal to both the long-standing members and those like me who just browse the section of the book store occasionally.

Recommended romance novels (because I actually read these things): The Goddess Rising series by PC Cast, The Accidental Werewolf by Dakota Cassidy


Writing: My Process

(Also, some vacation pics next week!)

So, as my news announcement a while back said, I finished the first draft of my book, Sun’s Guard: Ten. Now, every writer has a different process for their editing, for how they get the book read to go out to query, and even how they go about getting a query list started. Here is a look into mine as an example. Do you have to follow it? Hell no. But it can be a beginning guide if you are looking at your finished draft going, “Now what do I do?”

Step 1: Walk Away

I know, this sounds insane. But it really does help. Take some time away from your first draft, celebrate the fact you finished it! I somewhat deliberately lined mine up with some major holidays and a big vacation that has been planned for months. And honestly, I didn’t even write much (as my absence on this blog can testify), whether it’s blogging, fanfic, or even RP. Around the holidays, I managed to write some RP/Fanfic for presents (because I’m poor like that), but I firmly kept my mind off my book as much as possible.

I read books, I watched movies, I played video games, I sewed, I panicked when I couldn’t find fabric for my medfair costume… It’s a way of recharging your mental batteries for the work that’s coming up, and reconnecting with the life that you admittedly put on the shelf to finish that last bit of your draft.

Step 2: Rewrite/Additions

This is where you do a reread of your draft and go, “What doesn’t make sense? What scene doesn’t go anywhere or just reveals repetitive information? Where does the dialogue sound completely stilted?” Depending on how clunky things feel, you have to add sections or move them around. You might find huge plot holes and have to do some moving around or slashing huge sections and rewriting. Don’t fuss about grammar, typos, or paragraph structure too much at this point. You are looking at your story and making sure it is as tight as possible. Why? Well…

Step 3: Get a beta (or two)

Now you are about to let your work leave your own, dragon-like hoarding hands, and pass it off to someone else, or two someone else’s, depending on your paranoia level. This isn’t your mom or whoever, a person who will tell you it’s great no matter who it is. This is your best friend, this is the person who is going to call you to the carpet if you do something stupid or don’t have a good reason for something obvious not happening. Ideally, this is a person who reads a lot or watches a lot of movies, either works. These people know how to spot the flaws in story and world building, with or without a fancy degree. But this is also someone you trust not to steal your work, so don’t give it to some stranger off the street either unless they have a spotless reputation.

They aren’t as close to your characters, so they will call someone out as a jerk who isn’t likable, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on who the character is in the long run. They will ask questions, important questions, that you need to either answer or at least figure out for yourself. If they can’t remember your character’s physical appearance, you need to make sure they are more memorable. If they can’t tell you the character’s main goal, you’re plot has gotten muddled. This is your litmus test.

Why involve a second reader? Well, this is if you aren’t sure the story is suiting for whoever your target audience is. For example, I write young adult fantasy. Ginny is not a YA person. She can tell me if the story is good, if it works, if it sounds like a teenager. But she can’t tell me if it’s going to click with YA readers because she doesn’t know what they read for. So your options are giving it to someone who does read it, or someone in your target audience and confirming if it works like you are hoping it does.

Step 4: Be thinking on your next project.

I don’t mean the sequel to your current book (pro tip from my professors: never get too far ahead of your book counts in a series before you have an agent, they won’t pick you up). I mean take a break from this world/characters, and be thinking on what you want to do next. In my case, I am going to work on something very strange for me, an unrealistic realistic fiction type thing. I’m fleshing out characters in my head, getting a very rough idea of the story. But beyond making notes while waiting on Ginny, I haven’t started plotting yet or writing.

Why? Because getting to work on this story is my reward for finishing Sun’s Guard: Ten. To earn that reward, I have to finish the rest of the steps, at least until the last one. It’s fuel to keep you going, since this is all the hard work part where you just want to be done already.

Step 5: Rewrite/Additions (Part 2)

Now that you have beta feedback, you need to apply it to your draft. This hopefully won’t include as much hacking and adding as the first time around, but it very well could depending on what your beta found. You could also be adjusting elements to make it suite your target audience better, if it was found that you were too mature or too young for what you were aiming for, or completely alienating. If you haven’t already, also look at your first page. That’s the first thing a reader sees after the summary, so make sure there is something there to catch their attention.

(In my case of beta found things, it’s trying to figure out how to apply character tags without offending anybody by comparing skin or eye color to a particular food, which is the first thing that crossed my mind when I think of this color, but I want to be respectful, and just…sigh… And then making sure there is enough emotional impact at the end.)

Step 6: The Nitty-Gritty

This is the part where I have to print out a copy of the draft. My eye skims over spelling errors online. Yep, that dreaded time. Line-editing.

Not only are you looking at your spelling and general grammar, you are also watching your stimulus/response reactions to make sure that everything is included there. There is also a specific order to how a character is supposed to react. These last two are the ones that fanfiction has ruined me for, and I have no inner sense of how things are supposed to go anymore. So I have to sit there and manually review the whole thing for these itty bitty details.

Step 7: QUERY!

This step is sort of its own huge process that I will do a sequel post about, but at this point, you’ve hit the end of what you can do on your own. You now need someone in the industry to tell you what parts of your story need fleshing out, if this plot line doesn’t work, and if something is inappropriate or plain clunky. This person is going to be your agent–publishers do not accept blind requests, and editors are becoming a thing of the past except for very basic line editing.

Most agents, however, are retired editors from the days where you actually had an editor to work on your story after you sold it. Finding an agent is like finding a spouse: time consuming, ridiculous in the processes needed, and things still might not work out. Many agents aren’t even accepting new works right now, making things especially difficult.

I am currently at Step 5, technically (I just got my stuff back). Ginny found most of my issues, now I need to poke at them this week before I start my line-editing process. I got delayed several times due to personal drama and illness, but I haven’t given up yet. Soon I’ll be looking for an agent, and if that doesn’t work… Well, I’ll self publish this one too and you’ll having something to look forward to!


AN EPILOGUE AND TEN IS DONE!

…or rather, the first complete draft of the book is done, I have I think three or four partials where I realized my plot was wrong for whatever reason and had to restart. Now I’m putting it away for a month, focusing on other projects that need my attention in some manner or other and take my mind off of it.

Then begins the wonderous process of going back and doing ANOTHER draft to fix problems I find in scenes (my plot feels solid?). Then I submit myself to Ginny for punishment and hope she doesn’t find any giant logic gaps/plot holes/ boring spots, because sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees and there are a lot of details, a.k.a. trees, for me to keep in my head. (Yes, she’s reading mostly for entertainment value check, but she’s the kind of reader that if you have massive plot problems, it kills her enjoyment. She’s HANDY like that.) Then I fix any problems she DOES find, so there’s another draft.

Then I print the WHOLE THING out, go through and check the stimulus/response order, the reaction-order (it should go feeling, thought, action, dialogue. And if it can’t and still make sense, your stimulus/response order is wrong), fix all of THAT…. then print it off AGAIN and do a grammar/typo check.

I don’t expect my s/r or r-o to be perfect, I just want it to be at a level that Deborah Chester, my grad school committee head, won’t read it and bow her head in shame.

And with all that work… Still should be writing query letters by the end of January. (I hope.)


Writing: Tumblr Mythbusting

So, despite the fact it isn’t linked to my WordPress website (for good reason), I do have a tumblr that I use, mostly to follow some fanfic writers. Some are pretty honest about themselves. They write fanfic to relax, or to take a break from their original fiction. It’s the latter ones that can sometimes post some pretty protentious crap, most of it things that I know are wrong.

First things first: what works for someone else may not work for you in terms of the writing process. There are outliners, there are pantsers, there are a combo (me!). I recommend everyone keep notes, even if you are a pantser, so you can keep track of what you’ve done and have something to look at. But here is why some of the most common advice that I see floating around are such really bad ideas, I (almost) have no words. I kept myself at five, or else I would be here all night. If you want my opinion on others though, feel free to shoot me an e-mail or make a comment and I might do a sequel post if I get four more (Ginny already suggested one).

Don’t use descriptions such as “the short one” or “the blonde” in place of pronouns or names, it’s demeaning/lazy/childish/etc.

Okay, no. There’s this thing in writing called tags, which are physical traits of the character that, when you put all the tags together, help you put a mental picture of the character’s appearance together and make them more than, as Deborah Chester puts it, “talking heads.” So using those are important ways to sneak tags in, because the reader eventually sort of skims over things, but their subconscious acknowledges this tag and knows who is speaking without using a pronoun or a name. And more importantly? Sometimes you have two characters that identify as the same gender in a scene. Using their names back and forth is just annoying, so you need other ways of referring to them, and using pronouns can get really confusing depending on paragraph and sentence structure.

Don’t use *insert type of language here, from made up names for artificial hair colors to she/he/they variations*, it’s not how grammar works!

I have an English degree. You know what I spent four years learning? Language evolves, and changes. Especially in story telling mediums, and double especially with the English language because ours is the language that bastardizes every language it encounters. Most languages don’t have words for someone with pink hair, so writers make it up, using words like pinkette, rosette, etc. Riders of horses know some of the strange noises/actions horses make that can’t be classified in usual language, so they make up a word to describe it. And let’s not go into how gender-specific pronouns is having to rapidly change to keep up with our new comfort in having people’s gender identity confirmed. Get off your damn high horse.

Don’t reread your stuff as you’re writing it, it will just stall you out as you spend all your time editing the same five pages!

To a certain degree, I agree. You gotta let the red pen go as your writing. But I also stand by that sometimes you need to walk away from your book. See how long it’s taken me to do Ten? That’s because at the halfway point I reread, realized my plot was getting sidetracked, and had to do some serious gutting to get back on track for the second half. If you reread every, oh, five or so chapters, it will help you see if you need to re-outline, or if you need to redo what you’ve done because the stupid thing has gone down a weird-ass road that is just all sorts of wrong. Also, you may find that a character revealed something important, and you need to make sure to make a note of it so it’s important. (Forgot Violet was afraid of horses, thank God I caught it this last time…)

Get stuck? Kill a character, it causes emotional impact and is a great way to raise the stakes!

Do you want to know why it takes so long for G.R.R. Martin to get the next Song of Ice and Fire book out? Because the dumbass (no offense, dude, this is just how much I hate this habit of yours) keeps killing off characters, gets 2/3rd of the way through the next book, writes himself into corners that only those now-dead characters could get him out of, and he has to scrap it and start over. I would die, just die, if I kept having this easily preventable problem. You want to kill off characters, fine. But if you are going to cause that kind of drama, you cannot do it just for shock value. We have to love this character, they have to mean something to us. And then when they die, there has to be a reason for it. Now, I don’t mean the person killing them has to have a good reason. I mean this needs to do something, set a fire under her pants, give him a reason to step up to the plate, give a necessary clue, something.

Have an ending in mind and stick to it, no matter what!

I agree with having an ending in mind, in the sense of your character needs to have a goal. But that goal can change depending on circumstances, on how your characters reacts to the types of pressures you put on them. If your antagonists have a plan, it may change depending on what your protagonists do. Be open to your ending needing to change as the story develops. Your main couple may not get the happily ever after if it turns out your heroine has more chemistry with this other guy. The antagonist might not get caught, just found out, which is great sequel bait. Just be open because characters and thus their stories have ways of taking on lives of their own.


Writing: Creating Characters of All Types

For me, a story starts with the characters. When I’m writing, reading, watching. If I’m not connected with the character, then I will never get invested in the story. But this begs the question on what makes a good character, and that tends to have a whole lot that goes into it.

First, what kind of character are we talking about here? Are we talking about the main character, be it the protagonist or the antagonist? A party member (meaning someone who works with the main character frequently so they aren’t minor but they aren’t the main character either)? The love interest? Or just Background Pleb Number 32? What goes into each of these characters is different, and it also depends somewhat on taste and genre.

When creating a main character, I like to make a full bio, so I don’t forget any details. Name, nicknames, family make-up, hair color and preferred style and length, eye color and make-up preferences, clothes style. I think about how all these things impact the character. Are they an only child, or are they lost among siblings and how do they cope? Is their hair style functional or is it a time-consuming process? What do their clothes say about them? Popular, trying to be popular, fashionable, or that person in the back of the class who doesn’t care? I make notes of all of that, so I can keep them in mind as I then set out to the hard part. What is their personality like? Are they snarky, or are they sweet? Are they both? What is their temper like? What are their biggest flaws?

Caley is my prime example in all of this. Little facets really reveal a lot about her. Her wardrobe is the epitome of mix-and-match durability, and it all fits into one bag. Her hair is worn long, with little styling, and she doesn’t even own make-up. I have a full map of her family break down, including who lives where, who is married or dating, and who has how many kids. From all this, it can be inferred one of the big parts of Caley’s past history. She’s bounced around between family members her whole life, and has to be ready to leave in a moment’s notice. She hasn’t set down roots anywhere, and doesn’t see any point in trying to impress anyone other than herself. Which as you can imagine, mean her manners are not the best when dealing with other people.

See what I mean? It’s the little details that do a lot to help you figure out the character, or at least for me. You could also do the reverse and start with a particular personality in mind and figure out the physical from there. I’ve done this with party members.

Speaking of party members… Once you have your main character figured out, you now have to figure out what skills they are lacking, and thus get another character who does have those skills added to their friends. Why? Because while a guaranteed way to cause conflict in a book is to give a character a challenge they have no hope of defeating, they need to at least figure out a way around it, and usually this means getting help. For me, party members start with figuring out what that skill is, and expanding upon them based off of what that skill tells me about the character, adding other elements as I go along. While your party members don’t need to be as complex as your main character–and in fact shouldn’t, or else they will start to compete for attention–they do need to have their positives and negatives.

Caley’s got two primary party members, and both serve similar but different functions. Rather than expound on Moonshine (I’ll save him for a magical creature building post next month along with a few others), I’m going to focus on the other human who serves as a sort of foil for Caley: Violet. I haven’t mentioned her much, but Violet was the school outcast before Caley, and on top of being much better at getting along with people, Violet has a better understanding of the mystic side of things. Why? Because Violet is a Wiccan witch, her powers primarily in stone craft. This means that unlike Caley, she can directly impact her surroundings and foes with her powers, and knows some of their weaknesses (see, skills). Personality wise, she is sweeter and far more excitable, and is the definition of Bohemian geek. (Seriously, her dog is named after a cartoon character.) She serves as a foil for Caley, showing where Caley is lacking so she doesn’t come across as boring but also helping serve as a marker of growth, making it easier to see how the girls both change over the course of the series.

Now comes a trickier beast. The love interest. How you go about building the love interest is going to depend a lot on what kind of book you are writing. If you are writing something that is heavy on the romance, the love interest needs treated just as powerfully as the protagonist and the antagonist, because they have to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the other person. If you are doing a love triangle or your romance is very much a subplot for various reasons, you need to create your love interest like you would a party member. (Especially because usually this means your love interest is a party member to begin with.) Just keep in mind some of your favorite relationships in things you’ve seen in books or movies. What worked, what didn’t work, what kind of personality meshes well with your main character.

….Caley’s and Violet’s love interests are unnecessarily complicated by their own shenanigans, and because Ginny says no spoiling, I can’t spotlight either of them. I will say that when I was sorting out personalities and such, I relied a lot on (believe it or not) horoscope books. There are books detailing which signs work best together, and in my case I splurged and bought two books that expound upon the signs in relation to male and female, and even on hetero and homosexual couples. It can give you a nice building block to work off of.

Minor characters should be tropes. Cardboard cutouts. If you add more than a trait or two and some physical tags, they start approaching party members, not background characters. The only time I make exceptions to this is if they are going to be important in later books that you have already planned out. Then you can flesh them out a little bit more, add a couple of more traits and focus to them to get your audience wondering what it is about them that’s important. The important thing is don’t name someone unless they are important. Names are the sign of needing to remember them to the reader. If you add too much detail, it starts distracting from the protagonist and their conflict, as well as distracting the reader.

I might flesh this out more later, but there’s a bit of my character building process.


Writing: Helpful (and not) Review Ettiquette

So, have we established enough that I’m blunt when I review something? Because I’m blunt. If there is anything wrong, I am going to call you on it. If there’s anything amazing, I’m going to gush. They are two sides of the same coin, and both can tell the writers/creators (if they ever read this blog, which would mortify me) some of what they are doing right, and some of what they are doing wrong, and it would all be my opinion. But reviewing is hard, and nail-biting, and before you start, you just have to know what you are getting into.

Let’s start with that two sides of the coin thing. The negative is going to hurt. A lot. I don’t like hearing it either, and I had to defend my book to three different people as part of my masters program. How can you make it sting less? Make sure it doesn’t get personal. Even I struggle with that, mostly because insults are sometimes terms of affection with me but I know that doesn’t always translate well in a blogging format. But try not to insult the author when reviewing. If you must imply something is wrong creatively, whether the idea is overused or wasn’t explained well or whatever, make sure you state that’s the problem with it and offer ways to fix it.

This is especially difficult when you are passionate about something. I mean, you all have seen me. I get up in arms over female characters and other concepts that are near-and-dear to my heart. And I will lash out over them. But again, try to find a positive in there somewhere, because the positive gives the writer/person you are giving critique to something to build off of. If you give them that kernel, they can look at everything else you said to try and build around that positive. It also keeps them from completely skim reading the paragraph in question and ignoring the problem all together.

The good is the easy (and the hard) part. It’s both because sometimes finding the good is easy. You fall in love with the characters, or the concept, or the story itself and just need to gush. All that takes is pulling it in so you don’t oversell the subject to your readers. But sometimes a bad element is so overshadowing, you forget what you did like about the book/movie/whatever. Then you have to try and remember how you felt before the outrage, and that can be extremely difficult. This is partly why I don’t write a review the same day as I finished reading/watching the subject. If I’m in love, giving it a couple days helps me figure out the parts that did irk me so the review can be balanced. Similarly, it helps cool my frustration over the ick so that I will remember the elements I did like and the writer/creator can have something to expand on and take pride in.

Doing any sort of negative review, btw, is apparently odd or considered rude by members of the writing community. I learned this at a workshop I attended last week, and it just…boggled me. If you can’t find any positive whatsoever in the book, I agree, don’t review it. But otherwise, shouldn’t you be giving the readers a head’s up? I mean, there is so much literature out there now, most people read recommended titles from friends or reviewers. If I list here are the good, here are the bad, this is my opinion, well, that gives you something to base your decision off of. If you aren’t big on something that is my major hang up, you can go, “Okay, duly noted, the rest sounds great, let’s go!” But at least you know going into to it that the characters are flat or the plot doesn’t climax properly or whatever the problem may be.

Also, negative critiques are how we grow, provided they are done properly. I’m not saying rip people apart, or be trolls about it. I’m saying point out the weak parts of the book/movie/show, and offer suggestions on what could be done to help build them up without writing the story for them. So if the plot is weak, suggest showing more of this or that element that wasn’t completely explained. If a character is badly written and flat, ask questions about the character, likes and dislikes and history. And again, point out what is good about it.

And above all, remember that a review is just an opinion. What one person likes, another person could hate. I have a friggin’ masters in professional writing, loads of experience as a reader, and my opinion is still just an opinion. I just write things out in a way that pokes at the actual story elements instead of going, “I hate it,” or “I love it.” Ginny has more experience than me, less formal education, but her opinion is just as valuable for that reason. And we still don’t agree on things! (Most things, yes, but we have our points of difference.) Just if multiple people are telling you there’s a character problem, start digging for those kernels and look at what they are saying is wrong so you can examine your own writing and improve.


Writing: Genres Part 2

Wow, it’s been awhile since my first genre post, where I talked about scifi and touched on fantasy. Well, here’s another stab at, this time with my second less favorite genre: horror.

I have nothing against horror, except that I’m a scardey cat with an all-too-vivid imagination. (Seriously, I’ve agreed to go see Crimson Peak at about the time this is being published, why did I agree to go see Crimson Peak, seriously?!) It’s a long standing genre, however, since a lot of people enjoy being scared. That being said, there are two different kinds of fear–shock fear, and actual psychological fear. Most modern movies rely on the shock fear, rather than building up the terror and the tension the long way. And honestly, I can’t say which is worst. I mean, on one hand, shock fear leaves me jumpy for a little while afterwards, but I eventually relax. Psychological I’m less freaked out until the nightmares stop. Both have their places, and it really just depends on the story you are writing.

There’s also the different kind of creepy/scary factor. For example, do you go the route of the completely and utterly gross, gore fest? I mean, you’ll get my gag reflex going, and I’ll be freaked out, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily scary. The Underworld franchise tends to be rather gory and involves Hollywood monster types, but it doesn’t scare me in the slightest. Do you go the route of the plausible supernatural, such as ghosts and bad luck curses, witchcraft and pacts with demons? Paranormal Activity franchise has been doing well that route, though they’ve angered some people recently with their marketing plans. But some people look down their noses at it, calling it pure shock scares with no substance, which isn’t entertaining for them.

The general consensus seems to be to balance the shock scares with the actual terror. So yes, have things jump around corners and grab the protagonist. But also have elements of things that inspire true terror–choices between bad and worse, the protagonist being put in a tight place in other ways, struggling with what has happened and what they need to do. I don’t really have an opinion on happy endings or not, it really depends on the story. Sometimes, just surviving is a happy enough ending. I will say that horror films, at least, are really bad about sequel hook endings. Mostly because, if the first one is good, you can usually milk second, third, and maybe even a fourth out of it. This only irks me when they break the rules of their world in order to make the sequels work.

And now, I offer the biggest piece of advise I can in my limited horror-writing experience (and I had a lot of help to get to that point). Keep your monsters, ghosts, killers, whatever you may be using, hidden as long as possible. My short story, Saving Emily, is primarily shock horror, with some deeper moments with worry about what is happening to Emily. And if I could go back, I would keep my monsters hidden longer. The scariest moments in the story are about them, and by the time I get to their source, it’s no longer quite as scary because it’s dragged on too long. Also, the human mind will make something much scarier with a lack of details than they will if you show them exactly what the monster looks like.

For example, I’m currently submitting myself to something that has a black, creepy hand grabbing the female protagonist and I’m scared of finding out what it IS.


Writing: Cliffhanger vs Hook and Responsibility

I had vague plans of talking about something else this week. And then Ginny went poking around and discovered that Sly Cooper 5 wasn’t even being worked on and…nerd rage happened, and this post suddenly became a whole lot more necessary for my sanity.

Most readers, movie and anime watchers, and video gamers know what the universal consensus of a cliffhanger is. It’s where there is a completely unresolved ending to a chapter/episode/game, usually a very obvious sequel plug. Readers/watchers/players hate them, because they are driven to move on to the next whatever it may be, even if they may not have the time to put down the book/watch another episode/play another hour. Fanfiction readers in particular hate them because, unless the fic is completed, you may be waiting months for the next chapter. And everyone hates them at the ending, because then you have to cross your fingers and pray the developers/writer get to do the sequel or else you have unresolved questions.

But there is actually a tool that writers use called a hook that is commonly misconstrued as being a cliffhanger. The difference is where exactly the two are placed. If it’s at the end of a chapter or an episode that is not the last one, it is actually a hook, meant to keep you reading or watching. This is an important tool, actually, because writers are dependent on getting you through the entire book/movie/TV series without growing bored. If you get bored, you won’t have anything better than “eh” feelings about it, and then you may not read/watch another. Game developers have less of this problem because most gamers are A-personalities who will want to get all of it anyway unless it’s a really bad game, but it’s still a factor.

Hooks are necessary. If you don’t have a hook after almost every chapter/episode, you aren’t going to keep your reader/watcher interested, and you are sunk. But cliffhangers, which are the unresolved endings, are another story. I had a professor who said she always ended her books with an unresolved question, which made me just cringe. It was sequel bait, she admitted to it being sequel bait, but unless I had the contract for the next book, I would not be doing it. It isn’t fair to those who love the book if you never think up enough ideas for a sequel or can’t get it to sell. There’s also the factor that at minimum, a new book in a series will come out once a year, sometimes more, especially if you weren’t contracted for it to begin with. That’s a hard wait on fans.

I’m not saying cliffhangers don’t have their places or uses. If you have the contract and you know the book will be out in a year, I say go for it. It will jack up your sales as fans are desperate to know what happened. This worked for Garth Nix and John Flanagan, who got me to rather hurriedly buy the next books in The Seventh Tower and Ranger’s Apprentice series (respectively) as soon as they came out. It makes churning up publicity for the next book bigger, which means more sales. Sadly, publishing houses have gotten savvy and actually check to see how your last book sold before they will buy your next book or decide how big of an advance to give you. The first month or so will be your biggest sales on a new release, and then they will go down fast, meaning you need to sell as many as possible that first month for the sake of future books. Also, you don’t make royalties until you pay back that advance (which, given the percentage you get of sales, can take a while).

This is a double-edged sword. It won’t take long for word to get out that the book/movie ends on a cliffhanger in this day and age (unless you are like me, I tend to pick up books and forget to fact check). However, if I do fact check and know there’s a cliffhanger, I will wait until the next book or until the series is finished before I will touch it, since I don’t want to waste my emotional investment in something that might not see completion. (Which is why I have not read or watched Game of Thrones, btw.) So you cut some of your sales off at the knee until the next book comes out and resolves the cliffhanger, when you’ll probably see a higher spike in sales of both books. It’s a long-term game rather than a short-term, which some publishers can’t see.

Now, why am I nerd-raging over the Sly Cooper games? Because they have become the perfect example of how not to do a cliffhanger ending. When Sucker Punch finished the first three, they were fairly resolved and self-contained. While there were openings that could be fun to play with, fans could also be fairly content with where it had left off, so if nothing else ever happened, we’d be okay. Then Sony and Sanzaru Games got a hold of the property. It took eight years (I think) for Sly Cooper 4: Thieves in Time to come out. And it seemed to be worth the wait. Cut scenes were now animated, there was a lot more depth to the 3-D renderings. Story-wise, it was sort of lacking and when it came to game play, a lot of old moves/gadgets had gotten left behind, but it was a good first start for a series.

(Okay, I was disappointed that all the ancestors were basically skins for Sly, and had all the same moves with a specialty one or two. Because chronologically, some of the characters shouldn’t have had access to moves that had been invented by other ancestors yet! Okay, and they can’t decide which eye Henrietta “One-Eye” Cooper lost. That’s annoying.)

The problem was, there was a “secret” ending that showed that Sly had gotten lost in Ancient Egypt when the time machine exploded. Which is where the original enemy of the series, Clockwerk, and the Cooper line’s rivalry started, and the Cooper line started period. One of the villains, Penelope, had escaped from prison in the epilogue. And even if you hadn’t unlocked the secret ending, Sly was lost in time and space! It’s a giant, giant sequel hook…and they aren’t going to do a thing with it, supposedly at this time, which means it might be another eight years and another developer switch before we see it. If we see it, since they are set on rehashing the first games in movies now (with awful character designs, don’t get me started).

If you use cliffhangers, please understand the responsibility that you are getting into with your readers/watchers/players. You are leaving them with huge unresolved questions and feelings. It can help your sales considerably…until you fail to follow through. And then it ruins your credibility with them, and you will never get that back. They will start waiting until something is completely finished before investing their time and energy, which means while you’ll see huge spikes at the end of a project, you’re early sales will be bad and this will make your publisher/developer be leery of giving you green lights on new projects in the future. So be careful with your evilness. It could be your career’s downfall.