Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Wow. I am half way through Beastologist 2 already. How did that happen? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. That kind of progress is purely a gift from the muse, so I just hang on for the ride.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Publishing Envy

How does one keep the publishing envy at bay? One of my writing group members, Val Hobbs (seriously one of the best writers I know) asks this question in her blog this morning, and it got me to thinking. I haven’t been haunted by that particular monster for a while, and I’m trying to figure out why.

Part of it stems from the fact that I love writing what I write. I have fun with those books, I tear my heart out with these books, but I adore writing them. The thing is, I have written books I didn’t love as much, that weren’t a part of my own core writing drive, and those books are much, much harder.

About three years ago, in order to save my sanity, my writing focus shifted away from publishing and more to the process. Now, I realize that’s somewhat easier to say once one’s had the validity of being published, but being published isn’t the same as staying published, so there is still a huge risk involved. And at one point I had a huge epiphany: I realized I’d rather write this book my way and never sell it rather than write it some other way. That was a hugely anchoring moment and came after about eleven rejections on the book. As luck would have it, the twelfth editor bought it. Coincidence? I think not. I think sometimes that act of letting go is what sets things in motion—but I digress.

I’ve come to view all those reports of large, six figure deals as urban legends, publishing myths that have very little to do with my own reality. The other thing is that for as many of them that earn out that advance, a similar number do not, and that terrifies me; to have had some publisher pay that much money for one of my books then seriously underperform. ::shudder:: I seriously think that sort of pressure would crush my muse.

Now, just to be clear, I do get bitten by writing envy—someone’s voice just leaps off the page at me, or their sentences are lyrical and lush, or they get to a cherished idea before I do. But that strikes me as being somewhat healthy—something that motivates me to push my own boundaries.

So I guess I manage to avoid publishing envy at this stage in my career by a unique combination of denial, fear, and sheer stubbornness. Not sure that’s something to be recommended, but it’s working for now.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


So. I made it twenty-four hours before my hands were itching to get started on my next project. This is a good sign. I was supposed to have two full days off, but by Tuesday afternoon, I was digging through my books and Googling mythical beasts. I did make myself hold off on beginning any actual writing, however, feeling pleased at that small victory.

Part of the problem for me is that not only is writing my job, but it’s my passion and hobby as well, so when I’m done writing, for reset and relaxation I turn to . . . more writing. Although granted, R&R writing is often different than deadline writing. Usually it involves more of the fun parts of writing, building the world, playing with the characters, toying with what if scenarios, and brainstorming.

One of the things I usually end up doing is creating entire family histories for my books or characters, often involving genealogies (werewolf rising) or timelines of their past (Theodosia) or whatever. Part of this is because it seems to me that our roots inform so much of who we become—what the expectations for us are, and how we perceived the world—that I don’t know how to write a character without knowing this about them. Think about it, even names are loaded with our past; is it of German descent or French Canadian? And if it’s different from everyone elses, why is it different? Did the character’s mother or father have a fanciful streak? Saddled with a boring name and thus vowed to name her daughter with something more glamorous/original?

I think knowing this kind of stuff helps to create a sense of history and depth to the characters lives, to make the reader feel as if they have real pasts and lives that began before they showed up on paper.

For the first time, all this history is actually a part of the backstory of Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist. He comes from a long line of explorers, adventurers, and mapmakers. This family history is bound up in two hugely important volumes, Sir Mungo Fludd’s Map of the World, and The Fludd Book of Beasts. Since these both figure so prominently, I’m creating them so I can have them to refer to throughout the book and store my research on the various mythological beasts, etc. And that is definitely a fun thing; very much akin playing, if truth be told.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Twiddling My Thumbs

Wow, a free day. I’m not sure I know what to do with myself. It’s been so long since I’ve had one! Since I was restless yesterday after turning in my book, I ended up doing a lot of the chores on my list of things to get to, so I am totally clear today and tomorrow. One unanticipated chore I got done was cleaning out my closets. I have no idea what lit a fire under me to do that yesterday, but I now have three large bags of stuff to drop off at the Salvation army, as well as two bags of books to go to the friends of the library bookstore.

That always happens when I finish a book: I go on this kind of de-cluttering frenzy. Maybe it’s a way of cleansing my mental palate of the old project to make room for a new one. I’m not sure, but I feel it must have something to do with mental feng shui. Usually it’s a matter of cleaning off my two desks, which become totally buried during the course of finishing up a book. But for some reason (Thanksgiving) my desks didn’t require quite as much work as they normally do, or I had more energy than usual…something was different and I ended up with clean closets. Well, cleaner closets. They’re not perfect yet, not by a long shot.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Writing Shorter Books

So, I’ve emailed Theodosia and the Knights of Horus off to my editor. I’m giving myself a 48 hour break, then I have to dive into my next project, Beastologist 2, which is due to said editor on January 15. Luckily, I’ve already done a lot of work on this project. I have a pretty solid outline, a bunch of research notes, and the first fifteen pages already done.

One of the things that’s really difficult for me is resetting my internal clock from a 300 page manuscript with six subplots to a 70 page manuscript with maybe one tiny subplot. I imagine it’s like moving from a four bedroom ranch house in the suburbs to a studio apartment in the city. There’s no room for all the things you’re used to having!

A critical step that helps me with this resetting is structure. In order to help me make this transition, I have a structure template that I use. The one that I’m currently using for these shorter books is adapted from a template Blake Snyder features in his enormously helpful book SAVE THE CAT. (Which I highly recommend you add to your collection of plotting tools.)

So once I have a general idea what the elements of the story are going to be, I start plugging them into the template. That way, I know I have seven pages for a setup and that by page 9 the inciting incident needs to happen and that around page 18 I better be breaking into the second act. By focusing on what limited space I’m working with, it really helps both my conscious and subconscious mind focus on what the critical elements of the story and characters are. I don’t get distracted by extraneous details or unplanned side trips and cull the story down to its essence.

It’s kind of like taking a piece of 8 x 11 paper out to draw on versus a 24 x 36. I now understand where the edges are, what the limitations of space look like, and I can proceed accordingly.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Really and Truly Done--For Now

I started to write a post last week about the revision process. In fact, it started like this:
I adore revising, especially that first set of revisions after I’ve managed to nail down the plot and the mechanics of the novel and can focus on the more character heavy details.
That's as far as I got before things got all Thanksgiving-ey crazy. Then, when I had time to think about posting again, I was at the stage where I hated revision. Hated. It. My brain hurt and I was pretty sure everything I was writing was loathsome.

Which pretty much sums up the revision process.

Until two days ago when I reached the home stretch, and things began looking up; I had officially reached the Finish Frenzy, which is very much akin to the manic phase in bipolar disorder. Everything is go, go, go! And it's working! Oh yes it is! ::insert chortling right about here:: And then you nail in the last detail, finish filling in the last hole, and type The End.

And you collapse. Or jump up and scream and dance around the house, and then collapse. I have spent the day alternating between languishing on the sofa, feeling dazed, and zooming around the house cleaning out closets and drawers because I'm done!

Okay, I never claimed writers were sane.

But I am really and truly done. The book is as good as I can make it at this point in time, that last clause being the most important. If I had time, I'd put it aside for two months then give it another polish, but I don't. I am sure, however, when I look at it again in six weeks, all it's faults will be glaringly obvious.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Color Is Your Revision?

I’ve discovered a enormously helpful new revision tool. It’s probably something everyone else has known about for eons, but I’ve just stumbled upon it and it’s keeping me from feeling scattered to the four corners of the universe.

I’ve taken to printing different versions of the mss out on different colors of paper. So the rough draft was printed in white, the second draft was printed on yellow, and the third that I’m currently working on is on blue paper. The final version will be on buff colored paper. (Yes, I really am the queen of multiple drafts. I can NEVER get it in one.)

Such a simple, simple thing, and yet, it frees up just a little bit more of my mental hard drive so I don’t have to stop and think, okay, which is the newest version? I know some people print their version numbers as a footer on the mss, but I always forget about that, and this color thing just makes it so clear.

Plus, seeing the mss on a different colored paper is almost as effective as using a new font for making old typos easier to spot.

It is especially helpful when I’m weaving in bits from older drafts.

Not to mention that it’s pretty. It makes my desk look like a rainbow has exploded on it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Done, Done, DONE!

Yes, that screaming you hear is moi, thrilled to pieces that I've finally finished this wretched first draft. I've never contemplated Death By Unfinished Manuscript before, but this book about did me in.

I started the book on June 3, much later than I should have, but I was distracted by the new book I'd just written and sold, and I hadn't factored in new time management issues involving my PT job and boys home from college for the summer. So all in all, I learned a ton about my process and time management issues, so the agonizing did serve some practical purpose.

And, not only am I DONE! (done, done, done--such a happy word!) but I have ten whole days left for revision. Is life good or what?

And to celebrate, I cleaned the much neglected kitchen and did two loads of laundry. Oh, and made a pet food run. Ah, the glamorous life of an author...

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Someone nearby has gone and fertilized their field, and not with any, run-of-the-mill fertilizer. Oh no. This stuff reeks beyond the reekiest thing in your imagination (even my current writing!) It’s not a simple horse manure type stuff, but some ghastly, vile, fish guts and horrid chemical smell that burns the inside of one’s nostrils. Ugh.

Makes it very hard to concentrate on today’s pages.

Hmm...maybe I can pretend it’s the stench of the Thames and incorporate into today’s writing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Making My List And Checking It Twice

No, not my Christmas list, my reading list. For when I finish this Book That Will Not End. Well, that and the next book, but I only have six weeks to get that written so I’m sure that time will fly by. I have a whole list of books I can’t wait to read, but they’re too diverting—they’ll take my voice and story interests in a whole ‘nother direction and I can’t afford that. At least not until Jan 15, and then, watch out! I’m going to plant myself on the couch and read for two weeks straight!

Some on my list:

Ink Exchange
Kushiel’s Mercy
The Born Queen
Midnight Never Come
The Sugar Queen
The Immortal

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stuck in iSuck

Bleah. This is the hardest stage of the manuscript, the pure slogging stage, where I am sick unto death of this plot and these characters and whose idea was this anyway? Every word I write reeks of dreck and sewage.

Even worse, I added five pages of revision notes today, pleased that my page count would go up, bringing me ever close to The End. Except, I ended up removing just as many pages as I added. So not only am I stuck in iSuck, but I’m going nowhere too. I formally dub this The Book That Will Not End.

Double bleah.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scratching My Head

Every once and a while, it feels like I’ve completely forgotten how to write a novel. I can’t figure out where to start, or how to plow forward. So what do these people do, I whine to myself. What gets the plot moving, or worse, what is the frickin’ plot? That’s when the digging begins.

And for digging, I find the most useful tool is a large, 11x 17 or 17 x 21 sheet of graph paper. I take that big piece of paper and write the protagonist’s name and any other major players, along with any plot goals I may know of, for example, a quest for the emerald tablet. Then I just do that whole brainstorming thing where I try to fill in the following sentences:

Theodosia wants
Wigmere wants
Sticky Will wants
Stilton wants
Fagenbush wants
Awi Bubu wants

Somehow, seeing it visually helps my brain forge the connections and possibilities that merely listing them or thinking about them doesn’t.

Then once I have some vague goals for people, I begin fleshing out why they want it. Because I’ll have to show that in order for their goals to makes sense, so that gives me some great scene material.

Next, I find out what is in the way of their goals. If my muse is on top of her game, I find that many of the characters are standing in each others way, which means I have a nice big connected tangle of goals and conflict that all tie in to the major plot. Usually there are one or two dangling, like Will’s. Will wants to provide for his brothers and keep and earn Wigmere’s respect. However, in my current plot, that’s not really threatened or in any kind of danger. So now I have to brainstorm some action, plot thread, or layer that pulls that goal into the main story.

Plotting. Not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Of Bridge Conflicts and Withdrawn Protagonists

Well, I lied about the tomorrow part. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy week. And hot! Yowa. 92 degrees in the shade. And anything over 78 melts my brain.


Sometimes it can seem impossible to build a strong enough emotional connection between the character and the reader AND start the book when the trouble starts. Of course, in an ideal world, you could do both, but since many of us are not perfect writers, we have to find other ways to accomplish this end. For me, my own personal philosophy is, when in doubt to err on the side of connecting with the reader emotionally. What I sometimes use to do this is called a bridge conflict. Which simply means that in the beginning of the story, the protagonist is in conflict with something, but that something happens not to be the main plot element.

For example, in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos*, the inciting incident for the main plot is when Mum brings the majorly cursed Heart of Egypt home with her. The problem I ran in to was, if I started the book there, I’d have to shoehorn in too much backstory in order to make the reader understand about what Theo’s “normal” life looked like, because it was very, very different than the average normal life, either then or now. Plus if the reader had a chance to understand how on her own Theo was, her emotional isolation as she dealt with this major problem would be more vividly understood. Or that was my thinking at the time. (I do find that writing theories evolve over time, so who knows what I’ll think in five years!)

So the book opens with Theo in conflict with a cursed artifact that her mother has sent home ahead of the rest. This does a couple of things. Shows Theo’s Ordinary World. Gives clear parameters of what the magical rules are in the story world. Establishes Theo’s emotional isolation, as well as her plucky resourcefulness at dealing with it all. And shows how she ends up taking care of the adults around her. All in all, a nice micro encapsulation of the themes Theo will be struggling with on a grander scale throughout the course of the book. I was also able to get one of the bad guys in there in that first scene, although deeply hidden.

So Theo’s conflict with the Bastet statue was a bridge to the main conflict, giving the reader enough time to settle into the complex world of the story AND bond with Theo, so when this big bad nightmare of a problem fell in her lap, they would see how it was testing her beyond her normal coping strategies.

I think one of the things that determines whether or not bridge conflicts works is whether or not the story has enough plot layers. Which is really the subject of another post, but essentially plot layers are all the different areas of the protagonist’s life that the main plot impacts. The bridge conflict can’t be about something that never comes up again in the book. It needs to tie into the overall cohesive elements that form the various plot elements or lays the foundation.

Creating an emotional connection with a withdrawn or reserved protagonist.

Well, this was the problem I was whining about that started this whole series of posts. In my most recent book NATHANIEL FLUDD, BEASTOLOGIST, The book opens with Nate sitting in a lawyers office, receiving the bad news that his parents have been lost at sea. The scene ends with the lawyer hustling him off to the train station, where poor Nate departs for parts unknown, specifically his last remaining relative.

The good news was, I had indeed started the story when the trouble starts: finding out your parents are dead and being shipped off to the unknown is Trouble.

The bad news, Nate was unbelievably passive. As a child in an adult situation, all he could do was sit and take in information. Kiss of death, interest wise. Clearly he would be easy to sympathize with, him. But my challenge was to show HIS emotional scars and wounds so that the reader would care about him specifically and not just, oh, ho hum another orphan in children’s literature…

The emotional set up for his character was that Nate had been emotionally and physically abandoned by his parents into the care of his governess/nanny. And while she appeared very loving and to have his best interests at heart, she also managed to quash him in many ways; curiosity, any desire for adventure, etc. But how to show that or allude to that in the first scene without just telling a lot of backstory?

What I finally ended up doing was having him sit there, instructed by Miss Lumpton to draw while she talked with the lawyer, essentially to be seen and not heard. Then he hears the lawyer mention his parents and he stops drawing to listen, and Miss Lumpton exhorts him to keep drawing. But suddenly he has a goal, even if a very tiny goal. To understand what’s happened to his parents and by extension what will happen to him. This is also a nice way to get some dramatic action in what was a very physically static scene. The action of Nate’s drawing or stopping or fiddling with his pencil gave me some nice vehicles for showing his emotional state rather than telling.

Plus it is just the sort of thing that stupid adults say to kids, as if they can sit there and turn off their ears!! And by that one command, I (hopefully) was able to convey how much Miss Lumpton squelched his curiosity, his intelligence, and his place in the world, until he became merely an extension of her desires. Okay, maybe it doesn’t convey all that, but that’s what I wanted to convey and if it touches on some of that, I’ll be happy.

Which is a long way of trying to illustrate that even the most withdrawn protagonists who are afraid to react in their world, if you dig deep enough and long enough you can usually find some way to establish unique, empathetic characteristics as well as tiny little goals.

And now I simply must go finish up my lesson plans for the SBWC then get ready for work. If you have questions or need further clarification or examples, say so in the comments and I’ll address them next week!

* I’m not trying to be all about me by using examples from my own books, they are just the ones I understand the best.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pulling the Reader In – Part Deux

One caveat before I continue talking about story beginnings. We all have different reading tastes and will have different opinions on what makes a good story. Therefore, take my ramblings with a grain of salt. If you are someone who reads for plot, you may (quite validly) disagree with me. If you are all about the subtle character studies, my suggestions may seem too heavy-handed for you. And that’s fine. For me, as a reader and writer, I find myself drawn to stories where the plot and character are intertwined, with the plot being the physical vehicle through which the character effects meaningful personal growth or change. Your mileage may vary.

In fact, a really good exercise is to pull 10 of your favorite books off the shelf and read the first scene. What about that scene grabs you? At what point did you feel you were in the hands of a skilled, competent storyteller and decide you wanted to go along for the ride? That can be a good guide as you try to construct your own first scenes. Now, onward...

In order to show the emotional scar or wound in the first scenes of a book, that means you, the writer have to know quite a few things in order to pull that off.

You have to have a fairly firm grasp of both the internal and external character/plot arcs in your novel. If you don’t understand what is emotionally driving your characters’ actions, then you can’t show it to the reader. See, the thing is, people don’t set off to join the cheerleading squad, be the star of the soccer team, find out what’s inside that spooky house at the end of the street, or become queen bee of 4th grade just because. While those are excellent external plots—lots of pro-active actions a protagonist can take towards those goals—there are usually internal reasons that propel a person to pursue those goals, and that’s what I think can be missing in so many books, and more specifically, in so many openings.

We need to know why THIS scenario is so meaningful for THIS kid, above and beyond other kids who have found themselves in similar situations. Without seeing a glimpse of the emotional impetus that drives them—or at least seeing evidence that something is driving them emotionally, then even the most physically suspenseful, action-packed opening can feel flat and lifeless.

Think of all those women out there who aren’t big sports fans, would never spend a minute watching any sporting event on TV, yet if you put THEIR kid on the field, their emotional involvement is suddenly way up and they are rabidly involved in the game. You want your readers to have that same emotional connection with the characters in your story so that they care deeply about what happens to them

So one of the most helpful tools in getting all these elements on the page is the ol’ goal, motivation, and conflict trio. You should know both the internal and external GMC for your main character, and find ways to make sure you get it on the pate. You don’t need to have all those elements in the first scene—in fact that would be TMI. You want to seduce the reader along, raising questions, creating empathy, and making them curious enough that they keep turning the page.

Then try to couple that with compelling situations, such as…
Have the character be in undeserved trouble
Have the character do something nice
Have them be funny
Put the character in physical or emotional jeopardy
Show them as skilled or intelligent or plucky
Show them in conflict with someone or their surroundings

Some examples:

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Her goal in that first scene is to keep her father safe from whatever curses might be on the Bastet statue. This is a solid encapsulation of her larger goal of keeping her family safe in general. Her external motivation is also made clear, that she is the only one who can see these curses, therefore she is the only one who can deal with them. It also, hopefully, hints at her emotional scar or wound—she is left having to take care of the adults around her in very dangerous circumstances because no one would be inclined to believe her should she dare to explain about the curses. The scene (hopefully) also hints at her emotional abandonment by illustrating just how much she’s left on her own both physically and in a coping sense. Also, she’s in conflict with both her surroundings (curses) the adults around her, she’s in undeserved trouble for trying to protect her father from the curses, and she’s plucky and intelligent.

In Harry Potter, his initial goal is just to endure the Dursleys. Instead of seeing the emotional scars, we actually witness the actions that cause these scars, which is equally, if not more effective, but it can be very hard to do in a way that doesn’t load the opening of the book with backstory. So Harry’s grim circumstance is the motivation for his first goal, to find out what is in that mysterious letter that shows up and opens a whole new world to Harry, one the Dursleys don’t want him to explore. This is also where conflict is introduced. Harry defies the Dursleys and tries to get at the letter to discover this mystery about himself. Harry is shown in lots of undeserved trouble, he’s plucky, he’s in conflict with everyone in his family, he tries to do something nice for the snake at the zoo (commiserate) and clearly he’s in emotional jeopardy by living with these horrible people.

In My Big Sister is so Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book, Effie is shown in a wildly unfair power balance with her sister. Like Rowling, Herhsey does a good job of showing us the actions that cause Effie’s scar tissue, right in that first scene with her sister (motivation for the subsequent events). Even if Effie can’t articulate her goal, the reader can sense she needs to get out from under her sister’s thumb and get some justice. In fact, that whole first scene nicely sets up her internal goal: Get out from under Maxey’s overbearing ways, Motivation: because she’s steamrolling over Effie all the time, Conflict: Maxey’s got such a strong personality, and Effie doesn’t have the personal strength or fortitude—yet—to get her to back off. But Effie is funny, she’s in undeserved trouble with both her mother and her big sister, she’s waaaay plucky, plus there’s that big secret/lie thing she mentions, right up front.

Tomorrow – what to do if you can’t get the main external plot elements to start in that first scene, and how to make a quiet, mousy, withdrawn protagonist likeable, or at least empathetic.

Friday, June 13, 2008

By Request: Letting the Reader In

In the comments, Agent E said: I seem to encounter themes with writers now and then--lots of people struggling with similar issues--and right now it's a question of "how do you let the reader in without getting into too much navel-gazing?"

So I’m going to talk about that. Plus, since I’m gearing up for my teaching stint at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, I can use it there, too. Two birds, one stone, etc.

The short answer to Agent E’s question: In the very first scene, you show a glimpse (and just a glimpse, mind you) of the emotional hole the main character is trying to fill.

But you show it in such an off-hand way that it’s clear the character themselves are unaware of that emotional lack and how it affects them or drives their behavior. (And really, aren’t most of us unaware of the scars that drive us? That burgeoning awareness of our own behavior is part of the journey.)

Basically, you show the emotional scar tissue without explaining the wound.

What this does is three things:

  1. It creates empathy with the protagonist. Even an unsavory protagonist can be compelling if we get a hint of what emotional wounds are driving him.
  2. It raises our curiosity as to how those scars got there.
  3. It assures us that we are about to embark on an internal journey as well as an external journey; that this journey will have some emotional depth to it.

For example, think of the first Harry potter book. Would we care as much about Harry if we met him for the first time at Hogwarts? Probably not. It was his unrelentingly grim home life that first bonded us to Harry, not his magical skills. We felt emotionally for that kid who was stuck living under the stairs and made to be a slave to the highly distasteful Dursleys. And yet the plot of that book, the philospher’s stone, isn’t really introduced until Hagrid takes the mysterious packet out of the vault at Gringotts. But our emotional connection to Harry and compelling dramatic questions occur much earlier than that and capture our interest.

In the Black Book of Secrets, E. F. Higgens creates enormous empathy for a rather unsympathetic character—a pickpocket. Yet when we see his own parents trying to capture him so they can have his teeth pulled to pay for their gin, we suddenly understand him a little better, and have immediate empathy. Again, his subsequent journey wouldn’t be as meaningful if we didn’t see what sort of wretched beginnings he’d come from.

My Big Sister is So Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book by Mary Hershey uses humor and a grossly unfair power balance between Effie and her big sister to bond us immediately to Effie. She also shows us a dash of Effie's deeply buried yet still alive rebellious nature, so we don't have to worry that she's a total wet noodle. There's still some fight left in her.

Winn Dixie has heroine doing something nice—bringing home the dog. But it is also emotionally risky—her dad’s not much of one for reaching out or connecting emotionally, so we also see the big hole in her life left by both her father’s distance and her mother’s absence. It is instantly far more than just a stray dog that is at stake here.

Then the second thing you need to do is use the situation in which you introduce the character to raise dramatic questions about the plot or the world the character inhabits. The above openings do double duty and also raise dramatic questions.

Winn Dixie does it through dropping hints about the backstory; What did happen to India’s mother? Why is her dad like a turtle?

My Big Sister does this by making us wonder what lies were told and also by putting Effie in a hugely unfair situation with her big sister. Hershey also does a fabulous job of hinting at Effie’s true nature by showing she’s got ways of her own of fighting back.

Rowling, of course, does this with the world she creates. There are so many amazing things going on, letters insisting on being delivered, huge giants showing up on deserted islands, Diagon alley, all those tells us we have just entered a world of untold surprises and delights. That combined with our emotional connection with Harry fully suck us into the story.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But how do we do all that? In the first few pages, no less?

Tomorrow (hopefuly) I’ll talk more about the actual tools and techniques we can use for doing just that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bumps in the Path

Okay, so now that I warned you all that I'd be disappearing, I've become all chatty. How contrarian of me!

I wanted to talk about a couple of problems I ran into with my recent project, BEASTOLOGIST. For one, it was a chapter book, which is shorter than standard middle grade, coming in at around 15,000 words rather than the 25,000 to 45,000 of standard middle grade (not to mention the whopping 80,000 words the Theo books weigh in at.)

Writing short is hard ::she whined:: I think that’s one of the reasons the scope of chapter book stories tends to be smaller: a contest, a rivalry, a small conflict within the family. But I wanted to write a fantasy-adventure involving a complicated backstory. Not to mention needing to accomplish the basics; dimensional characters, plot layers, etc. Phew. Every word had to carry triple duty. If you think about it, not a bad exercise in seeing just how much you can cut down to the story bones and still have a (hopefully!) compelling tale.

Another issue I bumped into was that of The Withdrawn Protagonist, which is actually something I bump up against fairly often. I am attracted to quiet, reserved, sometimes even withdrawn protagonists. I like to explore the series of conditions and situations that force them out of their shell; that give them the courage to step out of their voluntary shelter and engage with life and begin recognizing their own personal power.

But in order to show this journey, I have to introduce the character while they are still withdrawn and somewhat timid and cautious.

Which also bumps into one of the endless craft questions: how much do we need to know and understand of the character before the main plot really takes off. Some people (with whom I argue much) say the physical action of the main plot needs to start immediately. As in that very first scene. However as a reader, I have found that I like to bond with a character first, to better understand their flaws and strengths and problems in their lives before bounding off on this big adventure.

If I’ve had a chance to bond with the character, I care more about what happens to him (or her.) Otherwise it’s extraordinarily easy for me to put the book down, even with a rollicking plot, because I simply don’t care enough or can’t feel the depth I need for a satisfying story.

As a writer, to overcome this, I find myself using bridge conflicts a lot. Which I’ll have to talk about in my next post because I have to go make dinner...

Monday, June 9, 2008


You know that saying, that when someone shivers it's because somebody just walked over their grave? Well, here's a new take on that old favorite.

Today, I got a Google Alert (all authors know about these, right?) for R. L. LaFevers on FIND A GRAVE! Yowza. Talk about shivers! So of course I had to go check it out. It's the grave of a young RL who lived from 1883-1885, poor little tyke. But still. Kind of creepy.

Friday, May 16, 2008


So right now I'm working on a story that has tons and tons of backstory. But backstory can be the kiss of death. Nothing slows the pacing like stopping the forward progression of the narrative to shoehorn in something that happened a long time ago. So this was my revelation about backstory:

Backstory should be like a striptease. You reveal just enough to make the reader want more. Then, when they're nearly frantic with their desire to know what happened, you can reveal all. Ideally, it should be at a moment when the backstory intersects in a dramatic way with the main plot.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts on Pacing

So, I'm putting together a day long workshop for my SCBWI Region called Architexture: A Multi-faceted Approach to Building the World of Your Novel.

Anyway, I've been working on it the last couple of days and one thing I had planned to cover, pacing tips, doesn't seem to fit gracefully into the overall flow, so I thought I'd post them here.

Write in scenes - I'm often surprised when I find a book that doesn't have scenes so much as a continuous flow encompassing every moment of the character's life, whether it is relevant to the story or not.

Cut in and out of scenes as tightly as possible - Start your scene as late as you can and have it still make sense, then get out as soon as the purpose of the scene has been accomplished.

Stay in the Now of your story - The Now of the story is the real time of your story. It's kind of the literary equivalent of living in the moment. It is very closely related to...

Avoid flashbacks and info dumps - As much as you can, anyway. Because the minute you have a flashback or info dump, you've stopped the forward momentum of your story cold. If you must have either one of them, have it as late in the book as possible and be sure you teased the reader with it so that they are dying to know that mysterious bit of information that you've adequately foreshadowed.

Include dramatic action, not any old action - Actions speak louder than words, so don't just have your character doing the dishes, but add subtext to the scene by having her dish washing convey something that is not stated. For example, is she practically scrubbing the pattern off the china because she's furious but can't say so? Or is she focusing on doing the dishes perfectly and precisely so she won't break down in tears in front of her entire family?

Avoid sitting and thinking scenes - Okay, they can't be avoided altogether, but if you add dramatic action, you give them some depth and layers that makes them more compelling.

In tense moments, use shorter sentences and paragraphs to convey that tenseness. Also consider shorter scene and chapter length