Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Accountability Buddies and Feral Cats

 This Week's Topic: Writing Partners (not collaborators) and Accountability Buddies 

I'm having flashbacks to my Girl Scout days and the Buddy System. Good times. Lots of mischief. Usually got my buddy in trouble. That's probably when my deeply ingrained rebellion against having someone else be accountable for my actions (or lack thereof) formed. Whether it was quitting smoking, exercising, making word count, or any other personal motivation initiative, I haven't found the co-accountability approach to be helpful. It's a me thing. Totally. I get all itchy and hissy at the notion of someone behaving like my parent. I love my parents. I love my friends. I don't want to ruin relationships because of my angry feral-cat-like resistance to authority. 

That's not to say I can't do teamwork. That's an entirely different beast. However, asking a peer or loved one to co-own the responsibility for me hitting my goals? Nah. I don't respond well to that motivational method. 

Now, the money gods paying me to hit my milestones...that'd do it. 💰🤑💰


Huge Disclaimer: I understand why and how other people find the co-accountability method helpful. If you're someone for whom the agreement works, good on you. Glad you have something that pushes you in a way you find comfortable. Please don't allow my orneriness to make you feel a single tremor of disquiet. You do you. Seriously. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Starting Off Right

 You've had excellent advice from those who've written about starting stories so far. I second everything they've said. I'm coming at beginnings from a slightly different angle because for me, a beginning need do only one thing: Make me care.

I want to care. It's why I pick up a book with hope in my heart. I want to care about the story. I want to care about the characters. Making me care is a a three step process folded into the beginning of your story.

First tell me the goals. What does the character want? Even if they're wrong about what they think they want in the beginning of the book, what is that? The sooner I know what that is, the sooner I can identify with that character. I don't need to like the character. The character doesn't even have to be human. I just need to appreciate what they want. Usually there's some truth or universality to whatever this character wants or needs and that's enough to hook me in if you're communicating it via that character's unique voice.

Second, tell me the stakes. I need to know very quickly what's at stake in a story both internally for the character and externally for the character and the world of the story. What does this character stand to lose? This sounds like the answer should be 'well, they either get their goal or they don't' and I assure you that is NOT the answer. The answer is deeper than that. It's connected to a core wound in the character - whatever this character lacks inside themselves that makes them want what they want. It's connected to this character's faulty belief systems. The hard part is that at the beginning of the story, characters don't know they have wounds of any kind, much less faulty belief systems. Still, in the beginning of a story, I need the faintest whiff of what the character lacks. Maybe she's the sole survivor of a space ship wreck. It's been awhile. No one's coming to save her. S'okay, though. She's carved out a means of survival. Lonely? Sure. Sure. But, you know. She wasn't the the type to be belle of anyone's ball so it didn't much matter. This was peaceful. Lots of time for figuring out how to make paint from local resources and painting anything that stands still long enough - oh, hey. Is that a shooting star? Or -- holy shit. A ship. What's at stake for this character? Loneliness. Isolation. Companionship. Belonging. Possibly, if it's a romance, what's at stake is being proven wrong about not being the type to be the belle of anyone's ball.

Finally, tie is all up in a bow and tell me why. Why do the goals and the stakes matter? This is where promises are made. I won't say kept, because promises made at the beginning of a book are rarely kept through to the end of the book - at least, not those about plot or character or goals or even stakes. Word to the wise, though. You might want to keep your genre promises. The why gives me a hint about how the goals and the stakes are going to start generating conflict. Painter girl from above has lots of potential stakes. It's possible she had a goal before the shipwreck - get an important secret somewhere to stop a war. Without a ship and without rescue, that goal is null and void. She had to switch to a single goal: survival. Once that was secured, she could expand to becoming the greatest painter in the world which, notably, only she inhabits. Another ship coming in long after she'd given up ever getting off the rock, opens the door for you, the author, to tell me just how screwed our poor, cast away heroine is. Either that ship is crashing, too, and she's just going to bury more bodies but maybe she can repair the ship, or they land, leap out and shout, "Millions have died! You had one job! Where's the secret thing??" or it's some renegade band running from the law, trying to repair their ship, and they are not happy to see her, nor do they have any intention of getting her off world, or . . . I realize this may feel like the end of the beginning of a story. It isn't. It's the end of the inciting incident.

Which leads me to bonus points. Bonus points for starting on action. I may get hate for this. Or, possibly, you've clucked your tongue, rolled your eyes, and said, 'not every genre can do that'. Yes, my friend. They can. Action, when we speak of story, isn't all about guns and car chases and explosions or ships falling from the sky. Action is about collision. Character in stasis (normal life) + inciting incident (whatever sideswipes them) = action.

In this case, character with goal + stakes (why that goal matters to them) + inciting incident (ship falling from sky) = mental, emotional, and physical chaos.

I'm here for it. Bring it. The faster I can scoop that up like ice cream, the happier I am.

Beginnings of stories must do a bunch of things all at once, yes. Your dawning awareness that there are far more than just three things that beginnings must do is - yeah. Beginnings are tough and you may be shocked to find that ton of authors leave until last. No joke. There's a lot of pressure on your beginning and on you. Some of the best advice I ever had was to start a story where I knew what was happening. Sometimes that's the middle. Sometimes the end. Occasionally, it's the beginning. But, when I don't know a beginning, I can figure out what it needs to be based on how the story ends. So. Never be afraid to say 'I don't know' about a beginning. Get to the end. See where everyone ends. Then you can work backward to a starting point for your characters. You'll have their change arc already in place.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Write Those Opening Feels

Alexia's nightstand with a cream box in the lower left, a stack of books with white, gold, pink, purple, black and blue spines, and a dark blue water bottle with DNA designs in the lower right

So far this week we’ve got a top three thing going. KAK gave us her top three mistakes in crafting a compelling opening and Jeffe gave us her (top) three principles for crafting a beginning

Do I have three things I can pinpoint about beginnings? 

Honestly, I’m not a craft writer. I didn’t take writing classes, I’m a Medical Scientist. I didn’t study plays or story structure, I studied biology textbooks. But the one thing I did do, and continue to do multiple times a week: read. 

My writing buddy and I took a break from our writing sprints and ended up talking about our first novel. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing, but we’d read so many books and had started to feel like we were running out of things to read when we sat down to try our hand at creating one. We weren’t aware of three act structures or hooks. We just knew what it felt like to pick up a good book and not want to put it down. So that was our goal. Write an opening that will make it difficult to put it down.

Yes, it’s infinitely easier to read a list and attempt to check each point off. Jeffe’s list is a really good one. But don’t stress about jamming so much into your first sentence that you lose the feels. I don’t have a list, but I can tell you about the feels. 

When you pick up a historical fiction you know right off the bat that it’s historical because of the old-timey feels. When you pick up a mystery you’re immediately enveloped in the story’s unsure feels. When you pick up a science fiction your brain goes right into technology feels. 

Think about the last few books that you’ve read. The good ones bring out the feelings associated with what type of book it is. The not so good ones…I know I’ve recently hit some that took a couple pages to give me a sense of story and guess what, I DNF’d those. 

Who else out there writes with the feels instead of a list? Just jump in and go—giddy up! 

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Jeffe's 3 Principles for Crafting a Beginning

This week at the SFF Seven, we're talking about beginnings and our principles for crafting them.

But first, I want to tell you all a little story.

A few years back, I was involved in a local writers group where, as a fundraiser for the group, I volunteered - along with several other experienced authors - to read and critique works from others in the group. On one submission, another author (much more successful and famous than I) and I agreed that the book started in the wrong place, and we offered thoughtful feedback on what beginning might work more effectively. There was pushback from that author and the group, a feeling that we had been much too critical, and several people were upset that we had suggested the book had started in the wrong place. One person said to us that the author in question had already been published, implying how dare we suggest they didn't know how to begin the book.

We were both taken aback by this protest because, and I retell this tale because I think this is so important:


Both my fellow critiquer and I revisit the openings of every book we write many, many times. Getting that opening right is key. It's also not easy.

So, what are my principles for crafting a beginning? I think a beginning should do three things.

  1. Establish genre
  2. Pose a question
  3. Create sympathy for the protagonist

Establish genre

This one might sound like a no-brainer, but I only learned to do this deliberately, after writing many books. The opening lines of the book or story should ground the reader in what kind of story this will be. This grounding is more important than many authors might think. Sometimes we, especially as newer writers, have this impulse to play coy, as if keeping the reader guessing in this way will intrigue them. Trust me: it doesn't. Think of your favorite books and their opening lines; I bet you they all tell you what kind of story you're about to read.

Example: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Look at how much you learn about the story to come from this one sentence.

Pose a question

THIS is where you intrigue the reader! Some writing teachers refer to this aspect as the "hook," but I think a lot of us have trouble understanding what a hook is supposed to be. Instead I think of this as posing a question. It doesn't have to be THE central question(s) of the entire story, but it should connect in some way. Suggest that there's a secret. Pose a conundrum. Put something in there to make the reader wonder - and to keep reading to find out the answer.

Example: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found. In fact, we hadn't hidden it at all but simply left it where it fell in the hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone noticed he was missing." The Secret History, Donna Tartt.

I skipped a bit there for efficiency's sake - but the whole opening prologue is worth studying! - but see how she introduces the core mystery and poses a number of questions? 

Create sympathy for the protagonist

I'm not saying your characters have to be likable, or even that the protagonist has to appear in the first few pages, or that there even has to be a single, identifiable protagonist. What I am saying is, whatever characters do appear at the beginning, the reader needs a reason to want to be in their heads, to take this journey with them. If there's nothing interesting or appealing about the characters in the story's opening, why should the reader keep going?

Example: "It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn't that dumb. There hadn't been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life." Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Feel that instant interest in the character, the clarity of the voice, and how there's a sense of feeling for the person, whoever it may be? 


Really, all of these examples serve in all three principles. There's lots that goes into a good beginning, but these three are key. Beginnings are a challenge and take time and effort to get right. And totally worth it. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Top 3 Mistakes in Crafting a Compelling Opening

 This Week's Topic: Beginnings--What are my principles for crafting them?

Regular readers of this blog know that the beginning of the book is the hardest part for me for many reasons that can be summarized best as "still getting acquainted with my characters and my world."  I've been making the same mistakes long enough that I know when I'm doing them, and I know that I have to go back and fix them once I get through the first arc. Committing the transgressions is just part of my process now. I confess these sins in hopes that you, dear reader, don't develop similar bad habits.

Top 3 Mistakes in Crafting a Compelling Opening:

  1. TMI -- Info dumps are deadly to opening chapters. Be they about the history of the world or the backstory of a character, big chunks of Telling prevent the reader from smoothly transitioning into the world and the story. 
    • Alas, as a writer I need to write the TMI so I know what shapes the Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, and Weaknesses (GMCW) of the characters. Yes, that includes the characters of Setting and Magic System. No, this doesn't mean that TMI survives through first-round edits.
    • What is the minimum the reader must know to understand the scene? -- This is the question I ask myself once I complete the first arc and am ready to exorcise the info dumps from the beginning. 
    • There's a lot that gets cut in the first edit and is either never mentioned again or is distilled down to one or two sentences. That which gets cut gets pasted into my "extras" file to be used as reference points throughout drafting. On the rare occasion that I cut too much and my CP or editor tells me they need more info {manic cackle}, I've got the answers ready to go.
  2. Vague Notion of What The Protagonist Wants -- Sure, I know the gist of the book before I start writing the beginning (I'm a skeletal plotter), but that doesn't mean I can concisely state what my protagonist (initially) wants, how they (initially) plan to achieve it, what the obstacle to success is, and what the consequence of failure is. To ensure reader buy-in to the adventure, I must clearly and simply convey the stakes, and I must do it within the first chapter. 
    • I save myself from endless agonies when I craft a simple statement of Goals, Actions, and Obstacles. I revise this statement often throughout the book as a touchstone of progress and a plot reminder to the reader. 
      • For any writer who tends to indulge in tangents, adding this progress-revised statement at the end of each notable sequence will keep you focused on your plot. 
    • The simple, concise statement of stakes can and should be used in crafting a query/short synopsis as well as marketing promos. It is, for all intents and purposes, the Hook.
  3. Being Too Coy -- Once upon a time, DongWon Song, a very talented agent of fantasy novels (and more) posted the most helpful and yet obvious piece of advice (which I will paraphrase because I can't find the link to their original post): Writers often confuse withholding information as creating mystery in their story; when, in fact, they're annoying the reader. We all want to compose a story with a bit of thrill, a bit of intrigue, and a lot of anticipation for what will happen next. We want to craft a page-turner (not a wallbanger). When we fail, it's often due to not understanding our own plot development and pacing. The first book I published proves this point to a (painful) T. 
    1. Part of improving as a writer is honing when and how to reveal key information and misdirects. Much of that is knowing when and how to pose the questions, which is a facet of story structure and plot development. 
    2. Beginnings and sagging middles are usually where we fall victim to our wannabe-tricksy-ness. Because I know I have this weakness, I developed the habit of building a bare-bones outline before I begin writing. When penning the beginning, if I find myself getting too close to revealing a Big Suprise that shouldn't happen until much later, I compare my outline to my WiP to find where I asked the wrong question or laid a faulty foundation. Getting ahead of myself happens, that's why an outline is helpful.
    3. Another aspect of Being Too Coy is when we make a reveal but it's unnecessarily complex. There's a huge chasm between being compelling and confounding. If in doubt, KISS or JUST SAY IT, DAMN IT.
There you have 'em, dear readers, my Top 3 Mistakes in Crafting a Compelling Opening. May you avoid 'em.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Jeffe's Favorite Love Interest

 It's been a tumultuous week in my world, so I missed posting on Wednesday, my usual day. Fortunately, I'm able to catch up today! 

For those who don't listen to my podcast or otherwise follow me on social media, this week a good friend came to visit bearing a life-changing gift. Mary Robinette Kowal, fabulous author and even better friend (which is saying something), spent a week here with us in Santa Fe. Like my husband, David, her mom had Parkinson's Disease and, now that her mom passed away, Mary Robinette brought us her mom's stability service dog, Captain. She spent the week teaching David (and me) how to work with Captain and helping us all assimilate to a new phase of life. It was a surprising amount of work and emotionally exhausting in a way I didn't predict. But things are smoothing out now and we're so grateful for this tremendous gift.

Our actual topic at the SFF Seven this week is our favorite hero that we didn't write. The other contributors have offered terrific, thoughtful takes on their favorite, with a satisfying range of genders/inclinations, romance and otherwise. That gives me room to go super-traditional with my alpha-male, cis-het favorite: Roarke, from J.D. Robb's In Death books

Roarke has been my favorite since the first book, Naked in Death, came out in 1995 and he continues to thrill me today. Yes, I absolutely read the latest in the series, book #57, Payback in Death, the moment it released earlier this month. Yes, I've read the entire series and re-read it, more than once. (Though, to be fair, there were only 40-odd books when I did my most recent re-read.)

Roarke is the love interest I wish I'd written. He's the perfect combination of powerful and sensitive. With a traumatic background, he's a reformed bad boy who hits all my buttons. Sexy, charming, wealthy, nurturing - he's the perfect man. My first and enduring fictional love. 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Who is my favorite fictional hero (that’s not mine) and why?


The problem with picking a favourite hero is that all the rest will feel neglected. It’s a bit like having a favourite child - parents pretend they don’t have them but secretly they probably do. But if you won’t tell the others, I guess I can share.

Honestly, my favourite hero trope is the heart of gold and outside of glitter. The self-assured hero who knows absolutely that he is the god's gift to the whole wide world and isn’t afraid to flaunt it, preferably with an acerbic wit to match and possibly a love interest who completely flummoxes him. But deep underneath that acid and the flashy exterior, he’s probably hiding wounds of his own.

For that reason, there was only one hero that immediately came to mind. Rakken Tempestren, prince of the Court of Ten Thousand Spires, from A Rake of His Own by AJ Lancaster. We first meet him in the main series (Stariel) and I loved every scene that involved him, but it is in his own novel that he really gets the chance to shine. 

Rakken is a fae prince, one of the most talented living Fae sorcerers, and also a bit of a playboy. But underneath his attitude, he is unflinchingly loyal, and as the series and his own book progresses, we learn how much of his public persona is for show and that Rakken absolutely counts on people underestimating him because of it. He makes people believe he is the frivolous one so that he can be the weapon in the shadows.

But Rakken is absolutely at his best as a character when he meets his opposite. In this case, Marius Valstar, the nerdy botanist, whose bookish ways, immunity to Rakken’s powers and willingness to say no (something I doubt Rakken hears much) combine to put a big dent in Rakken’s armor. Sparks fly and Rakken finds himself drawn to Marius like a moth to the flame. We get to see him learning to care for mortals that he previously considered mostly interesting curiosities, and for the first time, being vulnerable with someone. 

Along the way, we see the pieces of Rakken that he hides - his sense of duty (to family, to those less powerful than him), and we see how no matter how much he wants to pretend to be aloof, Rake can’t help but let Marius into his heart. I love how Lancaster unfolds the story of Rakken like that, unveiling new hidden depths over time.

Rakken also shakes Marius up - makes him come out of his shell and breaks away pieces of his emotional armor. They change each other for the better, and call me sentimental, but that is my favourite part of a good romance hero.

Zack Bel writes about fairies, gothic fantasy and breathtaking romances. Based in far south Australia, they concoct their fantastical stories with occasional input from a menagerie of pets and house plants. Their debut novel The Nightingale Prince released in 2023. You can find them at https://zackbel.com/ 

Friday, September 22, 2023

Fallin' for the Hero

 I'll be honest and admit I'm on an anti-romance kick at the moment. Not that I dislike romance as a genre, I LOVE the genre. It's just not for me at the moment. So when we speak in terms of book boyfriends, I have a reflexive ick response. Don't worry. It's just a phase. It happens from time to time. I still read romance. I still write romance - though I'm not, right now. I'm just not in the emotional headspace (or maybe heartspace) for romance right now. That doesn't mean I don't have a favorite hero, though. I do.

The award for my favorite hero that I did not write goes to: 


Hush. No one said my fav had to be entirely or even remotely human. Gotta like me a hero of few words who's logical, effective, and efficient while suffering a long-term, major existential crisis. How can you not love someone who says: 

"Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency."

Murderbot is my people. Even if I'm lacking the weaponry. And computer interfaces. And armor. 

Now. If we want to talk about favorite TV heroes, come chat with me about gay pirates.