Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Plotting mischief

You know how sometimes the safest course of action is to admit when you don't know much about a thing? That's me and plotting. So if you're looking to learn plotting from a maven, you've got the wrong girl. I've taken scads of workshops and read even more craft books about how to properly plot a book, but I still do it all backwards.

By that I mean I typically start a book or story not with a plot but with the theme, the why. "Why am I even writing this story? What can I, and by extension my characters, learn form it? Why does it matter?" To mangle a Nietzche quote, if I know the why of a story, I feel like I can get away with a whole lot of absurdity in the how.

After figuring out how I want readers/characters/me to feel or what I want us to think about, my next priority is character arc. Because the best way of getting readers to think about or feel things is to put a character through some harrowing experiences, right?

And I ... guess that's plot? The experiences the characters have to endure?

In reality, I don't think too much about plot until a book is done. At that point, I lay structures over the top of my just-drafted mess -- I like Save the Cat and Michael Hauge's structures for this step, and Jami Gold has wonderful resources on her site for beat-sheeting these things -- and see how well my organically-grown series of hows fits. Usually they align fairly well. There are patterns in how Western folks tell stories, and we tend to follow those patterns even when we don't realize we're doing it.

After tweaking to make sure the story roughly fits a recognizable shape, I do a hunt for story promises. If I have a character behave one way at the beginning and a different way at the end, I need to make sure something plotty has happened to effect that transformation. Sometimes this step requires new scenes or scene rewrites or complete re-thinking of a whole section. Identifying and making sure to pay off story promises is my second layer of plotting, and it's probably the most important one for genre fiction. People on airplanes and beaches and up late at night don't read to be confused or dismayed, and if I promise them something, I for damn sure must deliver. (Can't say the same for students in literature classes, so the rules in literary fiction are very different.)

Finally, I have my poor critique partners read the story, and they almost always tell me my ending sucks. It's okay. The are of course right. You sort of expect endings to suck when they haven't been precision engineered by an expert plotter. But even at this point, when I'm trying to hit the final beats strong, it's still more about the why than the plot. I don't do a five-point finale for the sake of having five points. If the princess actually is the castle and the why of the story doesn't need a twist here, I won't add stuff just for the sake of tidy structure.

Here's what I never do: plan plot twists before I start writing. If a plot twist happens and it's right for the story why and the character arc and it passes all the structure and promises tests after the draft is done, that is the BEST MOMENT EVER. I love plot twists!

I just don't know how to craft them from outside the story. I gotta be in the trenches when those bombs land on me. And you know what? That's okay. Your process is not my process, and we all need to do this writing thing the best way for our unique brains.

My brain plots by flinging why-sauced spaghetti. And I own that.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How Complicated Is The Plot: Depends On Word Count

Oh, dear readers, complicated plots are my jam...and often jam me up. I love them. Simple storylines aren't fun for me to write. I don't believe characters live one-dimensional single-thread lives, so the plots cannot, by definition of having "well-rounded characters," be simple. And yet, feedback on my early works was often "this is too complicated."

~record scratch~

Wait. Wut? There's such a thing as too complicated?  Alas, yes. Yes, if you've: a) tried to pack too much in too short a work; b) haven't properly led the reader through the maze you've created; c) withheld crucial information in a mistaken attempt to create mystery.

Complicated plots and short stories aren't impossible, but they take a real master of the craft to pull off that combo well. Last week we talked about leveling up; penning a well-executed complex short would be my "11." Now, give me 250k words and I can spin some hairy scary complicated stuff. With that kind of word count, it's only natural that I'd find my favorite genre is fantasy, right? My high fantasy stuff is infinitely more complicated than my urban fantasy stuff because of word count. In high fantasy, I have the room to guide the readers along many paths, gotchas, and oh-no-they-didn't's. In UF, I have less than half that; at 90k I have to pare back the options and challenges my protag faces in order to keep the reader's head from exploding.

Knowing how much information to include/reveal and when is what separates the novices from the masters. Too often, we authors think we're being tricksy, sneaky, or slick by hiding information from the reader to make the Big Reveal surprising. Too often, we're just annoying the reader because what we're leaving out are the frickin' clues necessary to move to the next stage of the story. Not our best moments. Hopefully, our CPs and editors catch those "insert vital info here" gaffs before the book goes to press.

None of this is to say that I always strike the right balance of complications to chapters. It's a point of continual improvement for me--I always want to do more--but I've learned that it's better to remove a plot thread than to lose the reader.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Come Into My Parlor....

Spinning the Spiderweb of Complicated Plots.

I like Machiavellian maneuvers.

One of the things I've enjoyed most about writing fantasy is that the genre allows for that.

One of my absolute favorite things is hearing readers or reviewers comment that they did NOT see that coming.

How do you do it?

No Idea.

My suggestion is simply to remember that some people lie. SOme people lie a lot. And some people, the truly scary ones, remember all of their lies.

I can't get into details but I had a character do two full novels of lying to another character> I gave a few hints and then walked away and continued the story. When the reveal came, everyone was surprised. Well, everyone but me. I had already laid out the groundwork.

Yeah, I think that's the secret. Plant the seeds and walk away for a while. 

Sorry. I got nothing else.

I have finished the first draft of the last novel in my BLOOD RED series. On to new projects.

Keep smiling,


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction

The first book in my Chronicles of Dasnaria series, PRISONER OF THE CROWN, is up for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Book at Fresh Fiction! You can go there and vote for your favorites in multiple categories. I'm super delighted that this book was nominated. It's up against tough competition, so I don't expect it to win, but getting the nod is so gratifying. 

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is "Spinning the Spiderweb of Complicated Plots."

I'm finishing up a week at SFWA's Nebula Conference and running low on brainz at this point. But I also think that, on the best of days, I wouldn't have much to say about this topic. I don't really think in terms of plots, since I'm a character-driven writer. When I do think about my own plots, the spiderweb analogy doesn't work at all. Plots feel more linear to me than that. They go from beginning to end, with many threads weaving along the way.

The most complicated effort I ever dealt with was what I called a braided timeline. In THE PAGES OF THE MIND, THE EDGE OF THE BLADE, THE SNOWS OF WINDROVEN and THE SHIFT OF THE TIDE, events in each story co-occurred with events in other places with characters in the other books. Making sure they interfaced correctly gave me headaches.

But I don't have much more to say about it than that.

To assuage your thirst for great blog posts, however, here's one from Jaycee Jarvis: IN DEFENSE OF BETA HEROES. She mentions THE TALON OF THE HAWK and Harlan. Really wonderful words!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

My Levels Are Not Your Levels


This week’s topic:  "People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?"

Do people always say this?
Well, ok then…

Far be it from me to try to define levels for anyone but myself. Each author’s path is different, in my opinion, based on what they write, what they prioritize and care about, what they want to give their readers, their own goals, events happening in their real lives…so what I might think in terms of my own writing career is only applicable to me.

I’m pretty much content, actually, just writing away.

In the past, in 2010 I made a conscious effort to get a much better grasp on the craft itself (i.e. not ‘just’ be an unpublished storyteller who scribbled the story once and didn't edit or revise) and learn not to head hop, not to tell vs show, not to rely on lazy words (adverbs ending in –ly or the word ‘that’) etc. The result of that was my first published book, which sold in 2011.

Then I concentrated on getting another book released, this time as an independently published author, which required me to learn some new skills on the business side (getting a cover, having the formatting done, uploading to ebook seller sites, navigating production of a paperback and an audiobook…)

Simultaneously I was working on learning to write the second book in a connected series, not just standalones.

At that early stage of my career, I thought I could never write an actual SERIES, with the same characters recurring and advancing a series plot arc. I was in total awe of people who could do that. (Well, I still am! Jeffe, Nalini, Ilona…there are some authors who do it so well and with such richness of plot and world building…) As one who is pretty much a total pantster, I believed it was beyond me to do such a thing and keep my Muse interested in writing the books, because if I plan out a book too much in advance, the Muse clams up, dusts off her hands and says “We’re done with that book.” So how was I ever going to keep a series moving forward?

Well, now I’ve done that, with my award winning Badari Warriors scifi romance series (released the 8th book, more on that below)…

So my next self-challenge is to start a new series at the same time I’m continuing to write the Badari Warriors.

I don’t really know what other ‘levels’ I might want to tackle someday. I guess I’ll wait and see!

I just released CAMRON and here’s the blurb:
Dr. Gemma Madarian is far from her home in the human Sectors, kidnapped along with hundreds of other humans to be used for horrifying experiments conducted on a remote planet by alien scientists. 

She and another prisoner, Camron of the Badari, are the only survivors of a deadly crash landing. She’s paired up with the genetically engineered soldier by their mutual enemies and sent fleeing through rough country, hunted for pleasure by an enemy officer and his ferocious trackers.

The enemy wants a triumphant kill. Gemma and Camron want to survive.
Camron never dreamt of having a mate but Gemma shatters his preconceptions and makes him desperate to do everything in his power to save her life and claim her for his.

There’s no help or refuge to be had in the desert where they’re fleeing for their lives.

Or is there?

Will Camron and Gemma live to fight another day and explore the growing attraction between them, or will ancient secrets and bitter rivalries end their bid for freedom?

This is the eighth book in the Badari Warriors world (and the seventh book in the numbered series) and each novel has a satisfying Happy for Now ending for the hero and heroine, not a cliffhanger. Some overarching issues do remain unresolved in each book since this is an ongoing series but romance always wins the day in my novels!

Amazon     Apple Books     Nook     Kobo     Google

Friday, May 17, 2019

Leveling Up Ain't for Sissies

Ah, video game metaphors. I do love them so. 

Leveling up. Within geek culture it's accepted terminology for gaining new skills after time and effort spent integrating the last set of skills acquired. Toons get stronger. Fireballs crit more often. Mana pools deepen and armor gets better. I'd love for the same to be true for writers. 

If only.

The parallels are there. We add skills on top of skills, building our craft and customizing our 'build'. So why is there a photo of a bloody lioness in this post? Because when it comes to leveling up as a writer, it's a take no prisoners sport. 

Jeffe did a great job of breaking down the ways in which writers talk about leveling up. However. I will argue that the only meaningful way to level up as a writer is to keep your eye on what you can control. You. Your craft. How you do your job. You can absolutely set a financial goal and begin working toward it. But the fact of the matter is that you cannot force anyone to buy. You hope what you produce is compelling enough to bring all the readers to the bookstore. But, ultimately, what appeals to people is out of your control. (Yes. Even if you know your market and deliver reader expectation. Sometimes shit just happens.) But look. What can you control: 
1. comprehending your market and your readers
2. comprehending reader expectations and writing a story that delivers in spades
3. mastering your personal process
4. mastering boundaries both for yourself and for your loved ones and readers
5. setting and mastering craft goals that build one atop the other
6. accepting your current level rather than postponing writing because you're ulcerating for the next level

Last book, I went after telling words. Knew. Thought, Felt, Wondered, Saw. Heard. All the telling words. Next book, I'm going for murdering narrative and going for action attached to dialogue. These skills relate to one another and follow in logical order. I couldn't go for action without having put a stake through the heart of the telling words and finding better ways to talk about what my characters experience. Yeah, there are days I'm that lioness above - the blood I'm covered in is my own. In order to level up, I have to dig into my bad habits. I have to be brutal about my excuses and my own BS. There may be ice cream and chocolate occasionally involved. If I'm doing this right, if I really am leveling up, I should be providing my readers with better, more engaging books. Even if somedays are bloodbaths. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Next Projects, Next Level

My friends, I've been a bit radio silent the past few weeks, but it's because THINGS HAVE BEEN AFOOT.

Some of those things involve just doing the work.  At any given time, I'm drafting one thing (currently, PEOPLE OF THE CITY), expecting or working edits on another thing (THE FENMEREJOB) and copy-edits/final proofs on yet another (SHIELD OF THE PEOPLE). And if you've been paying attention to my blather, you might recall that PEOPLE OF THE CITY will mark the end of Phase I of the full Maradaine Saga, but also that it's the last thing I've got currently announced, and if things go to schedule (things are currently on schedule), the drafting of that will be done later this year.

So, I needed to have something to do next.

WELL GUESS WHAT.  I can now tell you a bit about that.  I have signed contracts for two more novels with the wonderful people at DAW Books: THE VELOCITY OF REVOLUTION and A CONSTABULARY OF ONE.

First, what these books are NOT.  They are not Phase II of Maradaine.  And not because I don't have EVERY INTENTION AND PLAN for Phase II-- I do, and I hope I've earned some good faith about delivering books in a timely manner.  BUT, I also feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before diving into Phase II.  But it is definitely on the agenda.

First, VELOCITY OF REVOLUTION.  This is going to be a standalone dieselpunk fantasy novel, in a brand-new secondary-world setting. In a post-war, post-colonization city, occupied by foreign administrators, rebellion is being sparked by a mysterious messiah figure, and an undercover cop of mixed heritage has to infiltrate the local cycle-racing rings to find his way to this leader.  


Second, A CONSTABULARY OF ONE.  This is not Maradaine, but it is set in the same world.  If you've read A PARLIAMENT OF BODIESthen you might have an idea of what this book is about.  Briefly, it follows one secondary character from the Maradaine Constabulary as she ends up stuck in a city on the other side of the world.  She'll have to navigate her way through the foreign culture, struggle to earn her way home, and fight for the new chosen family she forms there.

So, it's not part of the Maradaine Saga, strictly-- it's more or less standalone.  But with the comparisons of Maradaine to the MCU: This is the Guardians of the Galaxy of the world.

With both of these novels, I've set a new high bar for myself, taking on new challenges.  Both of them are going to be hard, but I think I'm ready.  I'm super excited about both of these books, which should be coming out in 2021.

(And then?  We'll get to Maradaine Phase II.  But let me get Phase I done first, and we'll talk.)

Back to work.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Writers: Level 11

clip from This is Spinal Tap
When I hear any type of creative say "I want to take my [art] to the next level," I inevitably think of the Rock Opera Album (ROA).

No, no, it's not the cold medicine having its way with me. 

The ROA is a one-off for a band who usually release 3-minute story bites in a collection of 10 or 12 songs. The ROA, on the other hand, is usually one dramatic story told over the course of multiple wall-of-sound 12-minute sagas that are more akin to orchestral works than 5-piece sets. The ROA never quite makes it to Broadway territory because the ROA is still performed by the same rock band through every song. A better way of saying it might be that Broadway brings you into the story and makes you a part of it; the ROA are bards regaling you with an epic saga. Classic "show vs tell," yeah? Naturally, all the "respected" critics commenting within a decade of the release date always hate the ROA, regardless of the band. "It's too too," is usually the review in a nutshell. However, 20 or 30 years later they change their tunes. Examples? Tommy, when it dropped, was panned as a self-indulgent, ego-stroking, drug-fueled-delusional flop. These days, it's iconic and often credited as launching the genre of rock opera. Pink Floyd's ROA The Wall is their second best-selling album.

Thus, to me, "taking it to the next level," means to push boundaries, try new things that break away from what the artist is best known for. The artist is itching to throw off the shackles of expectations--both consumer and record label/publisher/gallery--that have dictated previous works.

What's the "next level" in writing? Whatever pushes the author to let go of their formula and take a risk--be it the type of story they're telling or in how they're telling a story.

Level up, my friends, all the way to 11.