Tuesday, June 25, 2019

On My Mind: Concept Fermentation

On my mind this week is the time an idea needs to stew before it is ready to become a compelling story. It's such an ambiguous yet necessary part of my process that refuses to be predictable or rushed. The most recent books in my Immortal Spy series I attempted to write on a schedule that allowed two weeks for concept fermentation. Two weeks. That should've been enough, right? Plenty of time for pondering and playing what-if. I already had the top-level concepts for all books in the series long before I released the first book.

So why wasn't two weeks enough to hash out a story?

Yet two weeks wasn't even close to enough time. We're talking months before the concepts really blossomed into something that resembled a layered plot that could carry a novel. Thank the Powers That Be that I'm not contractually obligated to deliver a completed book to a publisher on a set date; I'd be royally screwed. I'd be in breach, and I'd be persona non grata in the industry (deservedly so). As it is, I've earned no fair regard from my readers for the delay, which I truly regret.

Just this past week, the fog surrounding the fifth and sixth books finally faded. I'm 85% clear on how the characters will develop, what specific challenges they will fail and what challenges they'll ace, who will bear the brunt of which consequences and how that will manifest. I'm also clear on which tertiary characters will move them from beginning to end and which open threads from the previous books will be resolved as the series approaches the seventh and final book.

I have thirteen (incomplete) versions of the current WiP saved; thirteen versions of a story I tried to force into existence. Thirteen versions that petered out in the second arc because the concept wasn't fully baked. I tried to "write my way to right," to stimulate my imagination to conceive on the fly, to convince myself that what I had was workable, redeemable, fixable in edits, [insert platitude here]. I have months of arguably wasted effort sitting on my hard drive as some sort reassurance that because I wrote something I'm still working, I'm still a writer.

Being the sort of person who likes a plan and who thrives on ticking checkboxes on a list as a means of reinforcing my personal discipline, I find the unpredictability of how long it will take for a concept to fully ferment utterly aggravating. Once the story becomes clear, once I have jotted down all the pertinent points from beginning to end and completed something vaguely resembling an outline, I celebrate. I celebrate more at that moment than I do upon releasing the book.

Yes, I'm aware everybody has their own process, their own schedule, and their own methods of making it to The End. Yes, for this reason and so many others, it's sage advice to not compare your process or yourself to others as means of measuring success in a creative field. Still, I could do without the frustrations of waiting on a concept to fully ferment.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Do You Need a Critique Group - Or Something ELSE?

Yesterday I cooked brunch for writer friends Jim Sorenson and Sage Walker. (That's me in my Orchid Throne apron that the amazingly talented Minerva Spencer made for me. Isn't it awesome??)

We sat in the grape arbor, listened to the bluebirds feed their nestlings, and talked all things writing. Sage and Jim are in the Santa Fe crit group I used to attend. I stopped going last fall because... It just didn't feel worth my time. In fact, it sometimes felt counter-productive as a few of the guys in the group always took pains to mention that they weren't my readers. Fair enough - but then how is their critique useful to me? I stuck with it for quite a while (two years or so), because I thought it MIGHT be useful to me, to get feedback from different quarters. When I was first asked to join, several of my friends gave me the head tilt and said, "But do you need a critique group?"

I thought maybe I did, but it turns out I mostly wanted to talk about writing with other writers.

I liked that aspect, I really did! And I believe in critique. I've been in other critique groups and I've had many critique partners over the years. I cannot emphasize how much those relationships have helped me to develop my craft. (I touched on this in my blog post the other day Silly Writer! Reviews Aren’t for Craft.) But one key skill in being a career author is learning what critique to listen to and what to discard. It's not always easy to get past the emotional flinch at someone criticizing your work - so you have to learn to look past emotion and rationally evaluate the feedback - but you also have to be aware of when that feedback is actually damaging.

For me, I noticed that I came away from the critique sessions feeling bad about my work. Not from everyone. Some in the group found flaws and problems, but that feedback had me fired up to fix it. A few other people... well, I just felt bruised. The big test was when I, weeks later, pulled out some written notes they'd made, and the negative impact just slammed into me.

Ouch. And this was on a draft of The Orchid Throne, which St. Martin's liked enough to buy for decent money.

I mention these specifics to add helpful details, because I know it can be really difficult to parse the flinch from the injury. I'm not casting blame at all, because sometimes that's just how it goes. Not everyone who gives you critique is the right person to do it. (Sometimes jealousy factors in and people are mean for no more reason than that, but usually they mean well and are simply not a good fit for your thing.)

What I've found at this point in my writing career is that I really like - and sometimes need - to talk through story stuff, but not necessarily the full critique drill. With Sage and Jim yesterday, we talked about this world I'm building in this New Shiny book/series. They're both super smart about SF and we argued some of the finer points of how this world would work. That was awesome! I liked that they got me to defend my choices, and they suggested a great solution to a conundrum. It was super helpful and fun. Sage has also sent me some thoughts on what I've written so far. I also asked Marcella Burnard - our Friday poster on the SFF Seven - to take a gander at my opening chapters. She had no context or previous exposure coming into the story, so she was able to give me useful thoughts on what information she needed.

So, all of this is by way of saying that there's lots of ways to get feedback from other authors on our work - and also to give it. Knowing what will be helpful to another author whose work you're reading is a skill worth building, too. (And, to touch back on the reviews thing, that is NOT something a reviewer needs to know how to do. They need to know how to give useful information about a book to other readers, so they can decided if the book might be for them.)

What's most important is to do what's right for the work.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Rules Are Not the Boss of Me


Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: That one "rule" that you gloriously, ecstatically love to break.

I’m assuming this is rules relating to grammar and writing and story structure…we’re not discussing speed limits or anything like that, right?

Okay then…

Somewhere along the way I apparently absorbed a lot of rules of grammar which I apply faithfully and don’t really think about. I do remember as a child being scornful of poet e.e. cummings for not using capital letters, an affectation which my elementary-school self apparently found highly annoying and unnecessary. I’m not much for poetry anyway, as it happens (with some exceptions), so I guess that artistic rule breaking choice of his took me completely out of the mood to read anything by him. Ever.

I’ve had editors take me to task for committing split infinitives, which don’t bother me at ALL, I must admit. Here’s the definition from The Grammarist website:  “A split infinitive is created by placing an adverb or adverbial phrase between the to and the verb—for example, to boldly go, to casually walk, to gently push. Although split infinitives have been widely condemned in grade-school classrooms, they're common in writing of all kinds.”

 I think I might split mine even more dramatically than most people do but my grasp of the subject is tenuous so we’ll move on…

I had one editor assist me in conquering a bad habit of capitalizing a lot of words, like an over emphatic, breathless Regency Miss writing her best friend about a duke-filled night at Almacks perhaps. This was especially a problem when writing my ancient Egyptian paranormal novels. It would have made sense to readers from 1550 BCE – well, if I wrote the novel in hieroglyphics maybe - but was kind of annoying to modern day people. I probably still do that in the Egyptian books more than most writers would, but it does fit for certain titles. “She Who Was Not Born of Any”, for a certain goddess for example. (Which the Egyptians came up with as a title in the first place, not me...)

I also have a love for exclamation marks so I’ve tried to tone that down in my fiction writing because I think it makes the prose too breathless and I’d rather save the emphasis for where it’s genuinely required. (But if you ever get an e mail from me, you’ve been forewarned!)

I loathe semi colons and never use them unless forced to 'give a few' to my editor – does that count?

I’m really wracking my brain here for a rule I gleefully break. It’s just not something I worry about, frankly. I write what I what I write and my ‘voice’ as an author is what it is.

I do have utter disregard, however, for the ridiculous stricture on ending a sentence with a preposition. I so do not care about that one.

Maybe if I was writing fiction for traditional publishers, who have their internal style manuals and editors to implement those rules, I might feel differently.

CAMRON has a HFN ending...
I can’t think of any rules I gleefully break as regards story either. I try not to head hop, I do my best to show not tell…one of my editors mutters mysteriously from time to time that she’s “learned I’m going to do what I want to do no matter what so she doesn’t bother to point it out anymore” but since she painstakingly and very helpfully points out a LOT of stuff I’ve done, on every manuscript she sees, I can’t imagine what she’s letting me skate by with. <= See my preposition at the end of the sentence?!

I LOVE my Editor, who is wonderful and so helpful!!!

The one rule I’ll NEVER break as a romance author? There will always be a Happy Ever After or good solid Happy For Now ending in every one of my books. Guaranteed.

Rules? Eeeh. Sometimes.

It's not a week unless there's a new foster. This little dude is Perceval, a silver tabby boy. He's about 5 months old. He's at that stage where his body is bigger than his head. He looks like he was made up out of mismatching cat parts. His adult teeth are coming in, so at the moment, he has a double set of fangs as his baby teeth are still in place. He has yet to be neutered, so we'll be taking care of that soon. 

The other foster cat, Murphy, went to a perfect forever home on Thursday. 

Life is good. But hey! Folks in Florida and surrounding environs. Anyone looking for a sweet, handsome kitten?? Let me hook you up.

Yeah, I guess I follow a few. I might even be pedantic about a some of them. Ask anyone who's asked me to critique a manuscript before. I can't claim that certain rules are dumb - they have their uses and their reasons for being. But you know, if the purpose of the written word is to communicate exquisitely - not perfectly, not always precisely - but to convey voice and tone and meaning all in one twist of phrase? Ah, then the rules cannot contain us. We're serving a higher master.

If you read through my post, you'll be able to guess which rule I most enjoy flouting. It's starting a sentence with a conjunction word. And. But. I annoy my editors with it, yet when a book gets published, a couple of them remain. To this day, I see one of my English teachers glowering at me over it. Thing is, in extremity, how many of us think in perfectly grammatical sentences? We don't. At least, *I* don't. Actually, I never do, but that's another rant. I like saving starting sentences with and or but for high frustration moments. It's a bit of character revelation. You know something about a character who rolls her eyes and thinks, "And that's me out of ammo. Fuck." You know something different about another character who shouts, "But you're wrong." at someone. Sure, in a draft I go overboard. Waaaay overboard. I try to dial it back in edits. But yeah. I'll argue that breaking the rules is all kinds of valid so long as it's being plied consciously to achieve a specific effect. Furthering characterization/character voice. Or to convey a specific image or emotion. So. If you want to break the rules, go for it. I'll stand by your decision to do so. 

(The observant among you will also note I have a thing for sentence fragments. It's true. Oh, look. It's Mrs. Briedenbach. Frowning at me again.)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Silliest "Rule" I Ever Heard!

Every fledgling writer hears all sorts of "dos and don'ts", rules that you NEED to follow if you want to have ANY CHANCE of getting published.  Most of these things are nonsense, essentially trying to quantify something that is more gut-feeling than hard and fast rule. 

Years ago, I was at a conference, where in the opening pages agent-author seminar, the agents stopped reading a participant's opener as soon as they hit an exclamation point, and stressed that shows lazy writing. There must be some other way to show the emphasis, or else don't emphasize the point where it is used.

I have to admit, this one, in particular, strikes me as especially arbitrary. Exclamation points show lazy writing? Incorrect usage of exclamation points can certainly be problematic, but to exclude their usage altogether? Absurd. I'll say again with emphasis: Absurd! (Especially considering one of the events at that conference was titled, "The Power of Positive Writing!” Yes, with the exclamation point.)

But more to the point, there are only three punctuation marks that can end a sentence.  Why avoid one-third of them completely?  How is that lazy writing? I don't know.  It's a fundamental part of punctuation.  It would be as if someone said, "I never like seeing quotation marks.  There must be some other way to show a character is speaking."

The advice, as a reading rule itself, I find almost obscene.  It's a step away from saying, "If I see a sentence with two words that start with a 'k', I stop reading." I shudder to think of fledgling writers running to their manuscripts and slashing out exclamation points. Because THEY! MUST! GO!
I'm so glad neither my agent nor my editor follow such a silly rule.*

*- The first sentence of Thorn of Dentonhill is "Thief!"

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Rule-breaking regrets

I used to be a rule-breaker. When I turned in a manuscript with a prologue and flashbacks and a slew of other thou-shalt-nots, those were in fact my editor's words: "You're quite the rule-breaker" and with a chuckle. At the time I thought, Heck yeah I break all the rules! Rules are meant to be broken.

Here's the thing though, they aren't. Rules exist for a reason.

Can't tell you how many reviews have said that book would have been better without the flashbacks. That the pacing was off, the story was confusing, the characters were not relatable. Was all of that due exclusively to the rule-breaking? Probably not. Probably I did other stupid things well within the boundaries of proper writing craft.

But would the story have been sleeker, more welcoming, a better read if I'd followed the rules? Maybe. At least it would have had a better chance.

I guess, sure, break as many rules as you want. But do not then argue with reviews, even silently in your own mind, when folks tell you it was a mistake.

Now, on the far side of that book and the one that followed it, I'm going back and re-learning the rules. Most of them make sense. And I don't have the audacity anymore to imagine that I'm better than those rules, or that I'm skilled enough to break them and still turn out a good book.

Now and for a while at least, I aim to behave.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Adverbs Are Your Friends (Damnit)

Oh, The Rules of Writing, or How To Appease Your MFA Professor. ~snicker~ There are many rules of grammar with which the ardent pedant will attempt to flog a novelist; however, we wield the mighty shield of Creative License. Genre authors, in particular, have a field day running riot over the grammar police who are armed with a Stunk & White from 1918 while the rules have evolved with the language over the last century. ~Dangling Prepositions in Infinitive Phrases, it's you I'm looking at.~

Grammar rules, however, are only one part of the Writers Rules penned by ~queue Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance~ Every Author Who Has Gone Before. ~record scratch~ The more famous the author, the more likely they've written a book on HOW TO WRITE GOOD [sic]. Psychophants pluck choice soundbites, etch them into tablets, post them to webinars, and tout them at conferences as THE RULES OF WRITING--FLOUT AT YOUR OWN UNPUBLISHED PERIL.


Steven King, in On Writing, famously wrote, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." As a result, novelists, poets, and lyricists eschew the helpful adverb...or, rather, they try. In some child-like skirting of the NEW RULE, they dropped the "ly" from adverbs that answer the question "how" in an attempt to disguise it as an adjective; thus giving rise to the issues of "bad vs badly," "slow vs slowly," "soft vs softly" etc.

Dear readers, it's not pedantry to insist that adverbs be embraced for what they are:
 Adverbs are modifiers of verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs that answer the questions when, where, how, how much, how long, or how often. 
How badly do I wish writers would embrace a necessary adverb? Occasionally, I will boldly deface a book to fix that shit. I frequently will proudly scream the corrected lyric in the middle of rush-hour traffic with all the windows down. Yes, I usually will go so far as to petulantly refuse to buy a product if its advert castrates an adverb.

When do "ly" adverbs work particularly well? When they're tools of contrast. Example: "whispered loudly," "stumbled gracefully," "slowly ran."

As in all things, moderation is recommended. An absolute erasure is not.

Don't fear the adverb. It is your friend.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Rules Schmules

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: That one "rule" that you gloriously, ecstatically love to break.

Now, I’m an iconoclast by nature. While I’m stubborn on issues of integrity and my own system of right and wrong, I’m not much for Rules. My usual response to most Rules is “Why is that a Rule?” Which really annoys those who love Rules.

Newbie writers look for rules. It’s understandable. Writing is a nebulous art with few restrictions and no discernible career ladder. Though there are some opportunities to learn – writing workshops, MFA programs, various courses – for the most part it’s self-taught. You learn to write by doing a LOT of writing.

It’s natural to look for the Rules of Writing. After a while, though, we learn that those early Rules we clung to? Those are there to be broken!

So, what Rule do I gloriously, ecstatically love to break?

I’m going to make up my own fucking words, and you can’t stop me.

I figure, this is the privilege of being a writer. Language is my medium and I will twist, tweak, massage, contort, redefine, and invent words. I am the bane and despair of copy editors. Most of the people who’ve edited me long-term have given up on several hills where I have proudly planted my flag.

Yes, I’m going to use “suicide” as a verb. I stand by my use of slurk. I don’t care if it’s archaic or British, I like “dreamt” and “leapt” way better than “dreamed” or “leaped.” Don’t tell me to use “sneaked” instead of the compact and powerful “snuck.”

Yes, I’m going to use metaphorical language. A person’s face can be sere. Someone can feel a susurrus of emotion. Inanimate objects absolutely can appear sad or lonely.

And yes, worldbuilding is one word. So is wordcount. I defy you to stop me.