Wednesday, October 16, 2019

But writing good stuff IS the goal

You know that dream where you go to class only to discover that there's a test that you haven't prepared for, and when you read it you realize you don't even know enough to fake it? I used to have that dream all the time when I was in school, and for years after.

So when we talk about dreams and goals, take that as context. I started off in this writing career like many people: with tangible, measurable goals. Other people's goals, granted, but goals that were binary: I would either succeed or fail. Well, I failed. A lot. And you know what I learned? All that wishing, hoping, striving, and pushing myself too hard for the win are things that consistently break me, even in those rare instances when I don't fail. And at this point in my life, I refuse to allow writing, my secret haven and first love and the thing that makes me me, to break me.

So no, I don't have measurable career goals, big ones or little ones. I just write the thing. If you just write the thing and have no expectations, no hopes, you can't be disappointed. You can't fail. You can't flunk the test.

Instead, you are stuck in an endless loop of ...doing this thing you love, and nobody is there to tell you you're doing it wrong. Nobody cares if you're doing it wrong. Let me tell you, there are worse ways to live.

So, gossip about my lack of ambition or whatever. I don't care. I'm not going to take the class, buy the ad, watch the vid, fill in the planner, do the hustle, or knock myself out to reach some arbitrary word count goal, some bestseller list I have zero control over, or any other unrelated-to-the-writing measure of success.

My goal is not measurable. I want to write excellent fiction.

Nothing in that says I ever have to share it or sell it. I can succeed without chasing any of those failure opportunities, thanks.

This is my happy place.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wishing upon the Big Career Star

Big career goal to which I currently aspire?

To consistently earn six figures in annual sales, net and after taxes.  

Mercenary? No. Purely practical. How I get there? That's a long list. Some items I can control, some I can't. Attainable? Possibly. The "consistently" bit is trickier than a one-off, but not impossible...or so rumor has it. I have a long way to go before finding out.

Medium career goal I want to put out to the universe?

Sell a fantasy trilogy to NYC ...
     ...and have all three books actually make it to store shelves 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Career Goals for the Established Author - a Work in Progress

Here's a little tease of the cover of THE FIERY CROWN, sequel to THE ORCHID THRONE, and book two in the Forgotten Empires trilogy. The full cover will be revealed on Wednesday, October 16, at There will also be a sneak peek of the first chapter!

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is the big career goal to which we currently aspire.

It's an excellent question, particularly as phrased, because our career goals as authors do change over time. Recently a fairly new author concerned about their career trajectory implied that I shouldn't have concerns about my own career because I've "made it."

People, I wish I could count the number of times people have told me that I've "made it" in the last twenty-five years.

It's a common misperception that authors with an extensive backlist (which I do have), a loyal audience (thank you all!), and regular releases (which takes dedicated work) are somehow not reaching, even struggling. The vagaries of the publishing industry are kind to no one, and every author has their ups and downs. (As do agents and editors.) Not many of us have retired to Mediterranean villas to be waited upon by cabana boys while we pithily doodle out our next brilliant work.

So, it's an interesting question to pose to any author. What BIG goal do you aspire to RIGHT NOW? The answers may be surprising.

And note that we're specifying a big goal. It's tempting to say "finish this book I'm currently working on" - because that particular goal is all-consuming. In fact, we so often have our heads down, buried in finishing the current work, that we don't always pop our heads up to consider the big picture.

For me? I have a new book and series out on submission and I have a dollar figure advance in mind for it. If I get it, that will be a big, much-needed leap for me. A saltation in evolution, for those of you who know about those things. My other big goal is to hit a bestseller list, either USA Today or, ideally, New York Times. I never have and I'd really like to tag that particular brass ring. I'm hopeful that buzz for THE ORCHID THRONE - which has been really lovely and wonderful so far - will continue to build and that THE FIERY CROWN will have a shot at making those lists. It's looking more possible now that the NYT list added back mass market paperback

There, I've put those wishes out in the universe, which I rarely do publicly. Cross your fingers for me!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Research Was My Key to Writing the Fight Scenes

Our topic this week is writing fight scenes. My primary genre is science fiction romance and I’m mostly of the fighting-with-blasters school, or ships doing battle in space, rather than hand to hand combat, although my characters do get into some of that.

I’ll focus on one example of how I prepared to write the climactic battle in Star Survivor, where the hero, Khevan, is seeking to leave the D’nvannae Order to save his beloved’s life and to be free to have a future with her. The D’nvannae serve an alien goddess and are assassins or bodyguards depending on her whims.

I decided getting out of this religious order would end in hand to hand combat (there were other challenges in earlier rounds of this ritual), first with hand to hand combat and then with knives. I’m an ordinary housewife, who had one four hour self-defense class in college and thankfully no experience in fighting for my life except in nightmares but I wanted these scenes to ‘feel right’ to readers.

So I turned to youtube, where there are literally thousands of videos explaining techniques and tips for all kinds of scenarios. I concentrated on videos by former Special Forces operators, Krav Maga experts and the like and I started with very basic instructions. I took some notes as I went, of useful tips, positions, blows…I watched quite a few hours of this, immersing myself.  I not only made notes of the suggestions from the various instructors but also of how the movements unfolded in the mock combat encounters they demonstrated.

I inherited two hunting knives, one from my late father and the other from my late husband and I got those out and (very carefully) practiced some of the “do this”, “don’t do this” holds and movements to get the feel for the weapons as best I could. Any muscle memory I built up or any strategy I acquired during all this research has long since left me, especially because I never practiced opposite a real person, nor did I really train with a lot of repetition.

In the end I wrote a fight scene I was proud of, based on all the research and my synthesized view of what I'd learned. In earlier posts this week other authors discussed how their character focused on his or her adversaries during the fight, or how others were faring in the battle, but I wasn’t writing from Khevan’s POV here. The important character was Twilka, the woman he loves and her reactions. Here’s a portion of the scene:

Twilka gasped as the two men begin circling each other in a deadly ceremonial dance with precise steps, sizing each other up, jabbing and moving away with amazing speed. The sheer fluidity of the moves inspired awe. Constantly in motion, constantly testing each other. Both were protecting their ribs as much as possible and using the strength of their entire bodies as power behind the blows, especially those made with the legs. Khevan drew first blood, launching a kick whose impact rocked Harbin, although he fell away from the ferocity of the blow, somersaulted, and rose to retaliate with his own.

Khevan parried, slipping aside as Harbin’s flurry of strikes came at him, then grabbing his opponent and throwing him to the surface. Quick as a snake, Harbin whipped his legs and, even though Khevan danced aside, he fell as Harbin managed to trip him. Springing to his feet before his opponent could capitalize on the momentary weakness, Khevan settled into his fighting stance again. The two men danced around each other before Harbin struck. The next set of blows came, each man striking, bobbing and weaving so fast Twilka’s head spun. 

Harbin feinted and landed a solid blow on Khevan’s left ribcage. Although the impact looked and sounded terrifying to Twilka, Khevan danced away. The men engaged again in another sequence of blows. Khevan managed to catch the final strike and land his own blow at Harbin’s neck, although partially blocked, and followed with a three punch combination. Clearly, the Red Lady’s champion was shaken, dropping to one knee.

A gong sounded.

“Knives,” the Red Lady said.

Twilka recognized Khevan’s red handled, golden-bladed knives as the weapons materialized on the platform. Another set, which Harbin grabbed, cockily tossing one in the air and snatching it as it fell, were equally menacing. Khevan advanced on Harbin immediately, driving the other man toward the red line. He drew first blood, scoring a long slash across Harbin’s ribcage before his enemy mounted a belated defense and deflected the follow-up blow.

Twilka swallowed hard as the combat continued, the flurry of blows too fast to follow. After one encounter, blood flowed freely in a scarlet ribbon down Khevan’s side, and she realized Harbin must have penetrated his defenses at least once. Harbin appeared to her to be on the defensive, mostly using his weapons to keep Khevan from scoring hits, while getting in very few stabs or slashes of his own. Harbin’s features were set in a look of intense concentration, eyes narrowed, teeth clenched. Sweat glistened on his face and torso. Khevan’s face was serene and confident, his gaze locked onto Harbin as if assessing the other man and finding him sadly lacking. There was no denying the amount of energy this death match was consuming, but Khevan moved as fluidly as ever, showing no sign of weariness. Twilka herself was tense, body taut as a bowstring, hands fisted as she watched her lover fight for both of their lives.

Khevan danced in close and used the butt of one knife as an impact weapon, landing a blow to Harbin’s chin and stabbing him with the blade in the other hand. Harbin retreated to the far end of the rectangle, Khevan following, constantly jabbing and attacking, aiming at different parts of his opponent’s body. As the match went on, Twilka admired the way Khevan stayed in control, moving in sync with Harbin, who was clearly beginning to panic as he realized how overmatched he was.

Khevan was going to drive Harbin out of the rectangle and win without the necessity for killing the man in front of her. Twilka began to relax as the outcome of his strategy became obvious to her. He was within seconds of securing the victory when the Lady’s command and the sound of the gong startled her.
“Stand down!”

As the sound of the gong reverberated, Khevan took a final slash, aiming at Harbin’s neck. His opponent fell in a heap, one hand falling outside the red rectangle.

“I claim the victory,” Khevan said, wheeling to face the Lady. “I’ve won my freedom.”

VS: But the goddess basically says “Not so fast”….

The blurb: The survivors of a terrible wreck meet again—but this time only one can survive.
The long-awaited sequel to The Wreck of the Nebula Dream

They survived an iconic spaceship wreck together. She never expected to see him again … especially not armed to kill her.

Twilka Zabour is an interstellar celebrity. She built on her notoriety as a carefree Socialite who survived the terrible wreck of the Nebula Dream, and launched a successful design house. But now the man who gave meaning to her life, then left her, is back–this time for the worst of reasons. Will he kill her … or help her survive?

D’nvannae Brother Khevan survived the Nebula Dream in the company of a lovely, warm woman, only to be pulled away from her, back into his solitary life in the service of the Red Lady.  Now Twilka’s within his reach again–for all the wrong reasons. Khevan will do everything within his power to discover why Twilka has been targeted for assassination, and to save her.

But Khevan is not Twilka’s only pursuer. Will allies Nick and Mara Jameson arrive in time to aid the couple, or will Khevan and Twilka’s ingenuity be all that stands between them and death?

Buy Links:
iBooks      Amazon    Kobo       Barnes & Noble

Friday, October 11, 2019

Explosions as Plot Devices

Marcella stares hard at the gauntlet laying at her feet. She nods and picks it up. If you read Jeffe Kennedy's Sunday post, you may have noted that she mentioned I defend explosions as plot devices. It's true. I've said that often. It's my own lame attempt at a joke, as well as an attempt to give stuck writers (especially me) permission to escape what feels like a dead end story loop. Don't know how to resolve a scene/section of your book? Fine. Blow something up and move on. Give yourself that permission. Nine times out of ten, that random act of silliness will move you past boxed-in thinking and you'll get back to focusing on the narrative arc. Once that happens, you're likely to solve the plot/character arc problem that I suggested solving with the placeholder explosion. So there you are. Tacit permission to use fireballs as a means to distract yourself when you're stuck. This is by no means permission to light your entire manuscript on fire, however. The flames stay in the words you put on the page. Only rule.

I can't disguise the fact that I love blowing stuff up. In fiction. I don't think there's a book or story I've written yet where a hero or heroine doesn't bomb something. Thus the joke about explosions as plot devices. However, I'm a character driven writer rather than a plot driven writer. That means that plot comes from who my characters are, what their wounds and fears are, and what challenges they need to face in order to become better versions of themselves. If they're going to. So when I talk about explosions, whether literal or metaphorical, not only am I writing a fight scene, sex scene, political struggle scene, or sabotage scene that destroys an object or objects in a story, the action of the scene must also destroy my protagonist in some vital way. I'm either shattering arrogance or confidence or trust or defenses. Or possibly, I'm shattering a character's view of themselves as incompetent. Whatever it is. Every explosion has to have corpses. I'm just bloodthirsty enough that while there may be actual dead bodies on the ground or floating in space, there's also some aspect of the MC that dies at the same time.

A fight has to have a point and I'm happiest if that point skewers good guys and bad guys in some way all in one go. So in that regard, the only good explosion (plot device) is one that ends up with unforeseen collateral damage. I love walking my characters right up to what they imagine is their strong suit, having them deploy it to devastating effect, only to have them discover that their most prized weapon cut them in some vital way, too.

Damn it. I can't believe I'm sitting here effectively arguing for 'cost of magic' when the whole notion in fantasy offends me. But it is what I'm doing. Crap. 'Cost of magic' is the notion that every talent your protagonist possesses comes at a cost. Where does the energy for magic (or explosions or ability to pilot a spaceship) come from and how does that impact your MC and the people around them? It makes sense from a physics standpoint - every action having that equal and opposite reaction. It's just that in fiction, we get to widen our definition of equal and opposite reaction. In fact, I think we have to. I can write reams about the physics of recoil in space, but that's far less interesting than the recoil inside my characters or inside the structures they've built in their lives. It's far more interesting to me to have a character blow up a bad guy's hide out and discover she's also unwittingly blown up her rocky relationship with her dad.

So this is me, hugging my explosions tight, and saying, "Yeah, but EMOTIONS." I'm defending the right to blow things up. Just remember to scorch the eyebrows off whoever lit the fuse.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Writing the Punchy-Punchy-Stab-Stab

I'm probably the one here who does the most fight-scene heavy writing, as most of my books involve a fair amount of punches to the face or practical application of knives as problem-solving techniques for my characters.

Not that face-punching or stabbing are good solutions to problems, but these are fictional characters in a fantasy universe, so that's how it rolls.

But the point is: I write a lot of action scenes in my books, and I think a lot about how to make them effective.  It's a two-part process.

First: the external.  What happens, and showing it in a way that has clarity and engagement. This can be a challenge, especially when your characters are facing nameless thugs.  There's only so much "this guy and then the other guy and then the third guy" you can do before it gets confusing.  One trick I do is have the POV character make their own distinctions of the people they're fighting, and use that it keeping the situation clear.  Another aspect is keeping the geography of the fight clear.  Who is where, where they can go, how close they are to each other, so on.  Juggling that stuff canbe a challenge, but can make the difference between a fun, dynamic fight scene and a confusing, muddled one.

More importantly is the internal: What does your character feel during the fight?  Terrified?  Exhilarated?  Bored?  What do they want? What are the stakes of winning or losing the fight?  How does continuing the fight cost them?  Give thought to all that.

Now: take those elements, shake them up, and let 'er rip.  Like this bit from Parliament of Bodies where Satrine is rescuing a boy from a room filled with gang members, four floors up in a building controlled by that gang.

Satrine took a moment to catch her breath, and pushed through the pain to pull little Yetter with her to the stairs. 
A doorway in front of her burst open, and Short Hair came out, knives drawn. Satrine glanced behind her, and Hatchets had come out of the apartment she had just come from. Obviously the rooms up here were connected. And it wouldn’t be too long before the rest of them recovered enough to get out here. 
“Back to the wall, kid,” she said, drawing out her handstick. 
Short Hair and Hatchets both leaped at her at the same time. Short Hair pounced like a cat, knives first, while Hatchets swung in tight circles—not enough space in this hallway to really go wide. Satrine stepped to the side—to keep Yetter between her and the wall—knocking one of Short Hair’s blades with the handstick before pivoting and sweeping the stick at Hatchets’ tight swings. 
She caught the handstick against the hatchet handles, below the blades, and pushed hard to throw him off balance into the wall. Short Hair came up with another swipe, which Satrine pulled back from. She could feel the blade pass by as it barely missed the tip of her nose. She kicked at Short Hair’s knee, while bringing the handstick into the girl’s sternum. 
Both Short Hair and Hatchets reeled for a moment, and Satrine pushed Yetter toward the stairs. “Run!” He went like a crossbow bolt down the hallway, and Satrine tried to shove past Short Hair to do the same. Instead something yanked at her leg and Satrine fell to the floor. 
She flipped herself over to land on her back, just in time to get her handstick up to block the two knives coming at her chest. She tried to pull up her leg, jam a knee into Short Hair’s side, but Face Scar was on the ground with her, holding on to her boot. 
Satrine kicked, knocking Face Scar in the nose while holding back Short Hair’s desperate press to bury her knives into Satrine’s heart. Satrine kicked again, and this time her leg was free—as her foot had come completely out of her boot. She kicked Face Scar again, pushing the girl into Hatchets, who fell on top of Short Hair’s legs. 
That distracted Short Hair enough for Satrine to jerk the knives to the side. Short Hair tried to push harder, but just jammed her knives into the floor. Satrine gave her two quick jabs to the face and scrambled out from under the girl. 
She was on her feet at the same time as Hatchets, and he just looked annoyed. Satrine was already bruised and winded, a gash on her arm that she only now noticed, one leg aching and the other one with a bare foot. 
He came at her with arms like windmills, hatchets spinning, screaming like he was on fire. It would be bad business for Satrine, but he brought the hatchets down in a predictable rhythm that was easy to block. He was swinging too wide, so Face Scar and Short Hair were stuck behind him. Satrine knocked his hatchet blows away as she stumbled back. Quickly he caught on to what she was doing, and tried to switch up his method. He did a fancy spin that looked impressive, but left his back unguarded. She slammed her handstick into his spine, grabbed his shoulder and hurled him into the wall. Both his hatchets got stuck in the wall. 
She wasted no more time getting to the stairs, even though she she could only hobble on her uneven feet. 
“Someone get that lousy stick!” she heard screamed from behind. As she tried to catch up to Yetter, she could hear plenty of bruisers giving chase, and even more brawling below her.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Fight me (in a scene)

True confession time: most fight scenes in books and movies bore me. You know how a lot (all?) James Bond movies start with an action scene or chase sequence, and it's supposed to be thrilling but it isn't really related to the rest of the story and is mostly about Daniel Craig being pretty people jumping off buildings and somehow never breaking their legs? Yeeeah, that's my popcorn-buying break.

As a consumer of entertainment, I really only like action scenes -- and sex scenes are absolutely action scenes -- that somehow affect the protagonist's internal arc. Not affect as in physically wounding the characters or other plotty nonsense, but as in revealing something critical about them. Happily for me, there are lots of ways a storyteller can add that crucial layer to a fight sequence to grab and hold my interest.

How do they fight?

I haven't read it in a really long time, but I remember being blown away with the aikido fights in Steven Gould's Helm. I mean, there were lots of fascinating things about that book (hello, mind control and ambitious youngest-child not-chosen-ones), but the journey of the protagonist, Leland, is bound up with his embrace of aikido, so how he fights -- the stances and centering and balance -- is a reflection of how much he has grown and learned as the story progresses.

Who do they fight?

Sometimes the reveal is who the protag is fighting. If anyone hasn't seen The Last Jedi, skip to the next section, 'cause I'm about to spoil something here. Gone? Okay. So that throne room fight sequence was so freaking amazing. Not just because of the choreography and fancy lightsaber work -- we have seen plenty of lightsaber fights, not all of which were interesting. This particular fight sees a dramatic shift in allegiances, and when Rey and Kylo end up fighting back-to-back together against Snoke and his red minions, the whole Force is in balance. Damn skippy I didn't go get popcorn during that.

Where is their attention during a fight?

I recently read The Magnolia Sword, Sherry Thomas's retelling of the Ballad of Mulan, and I adored all of the action scenes, especially the really, really long one at the end. Now, you might think that a fight-weary reader like me would have gotten bored quickly, but I wasn't. Weird, huh? So of course I had to re-read several times and try to figure out why. I think part of it was the staging, which was beautiful, but also important was where Mulan's attention was during the fight. She is constantly checking off where her opponents are (I mean, duh that), but she's also always hyper aware of where her allies are, what they are doing, how vulnerable they are, and how close they are to losing. She shifts her own tactics and position to better aid them, and in the process her anxiety became my anxiety in the best possible way.

How do they see this all going down?

And by that, I mean the planning. For instance, in Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart, David is the kid with the plan. He has a plan for everything, especially and including his personal revenge. So in every action scene, there is an accompanying thought of "how well is that plan working out for him?" The difference between David's plan and what actually happens, and how he deals with those differences on the fly, reveals a lot about where he is in his personal vengeance quest, not to mention character development.

So what you're saying is layer other stuff in because we are all really more interested in that stuff than in people kicking each other?

Yep. Because a story about people beating each other up for no good reason is dull, and if a scene is a micro-story with beginning, middle, end, and motivation, then there have to be layers and character development shown within the fight. Otherwise, you're gonna bore your reader.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

10 Tips for Fight Scenes

Fight! Fight! Fight!

I write fight scenes way more often than I write sex scenes. Matter of fact, my published books don't have sex scenes--unless the protag walks in on an intimate moment. A kiss here and there, sure. My stories do, however, have fight scenes. Lots of fight scenes but not too many; I'm not writing the Expendables. ~rimshot~ Plus, kicking ass is exhausting and characters need time to recover.

10 Rules of Fight Club Scenes
(Okay, they're not rules; they're tips)
  1. The types of fights should escalate over the course of the story. Don't deploy the full arsenal early unless your story is about what comes after the fight (aka apocalyptic aftermath).
  2. Bigger isn't always better. The climactic battle doesn't have to be El Cid's army charging down the mountains. Sometimes it's two gals in a doorway and only one knife. 
  3. The protag's ultimate goal is what matters in the fight. The question isn't who's the better combatant; it's can the protag get what they're after.
  4. Fights should reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Physical, emotional. Privileges, biases, even caste/class if that's part of your world.
  5. Weaknesses should absolutely be used against the characters until they become strengths.
  6. Consequences must happen, both personal and environmental. Something changes within the character and in those around them. That ought to include negative consequences. 
  7. The costs are way more interesting than the celebrations. Personal costs and mission costs.
  8. The hero cannot always win.
  9. Winning leads to bigger problems.
  10. Don't punch down.
There you have it, my 10 Tips for Fight Scenes. If your challenge is visualizing the conflict and putting it into words, then turn on the TV. Find a few shows that have scenes similar to what you think you want to write, and describe out loud the blow-by-blow action happening on the screen. Start with the set, then the staging, then the attire, then the action, then the actor's reactions. Don't forget the smell that's probably there even though Smell-O-Vision hasn't happened yet. Every detail, you put into words. Definitely want to do that writing exercise at home, alone, with the remote in hand. Feel free to get up an reenact what you see. Yes, it's hard to put into words what we see and hear coming from our entertainment centers. 

Good luck!