Friday, June 30, 2023

Exploiting Emotion

Jeffe told the perfect Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier story earlier this week. I'm happy to report the incident DID happen, according to Dustin Hoffman

Riffing off of what Jeffe talked about, I've come to say the story gives us a glimpse into the two distinct acting traditions these two men came from. Hoffman is a Method actor. It's a very American (by way of Russia) way to approach veracity in acting. The short theory behind it is that only honesty reaches through the divide between actor and audience. The actor must feel whatever the character feels or else the character won't read as true to the audience. Olivier came from the British acting tradition which, based as it is, so firmly in Shakespeare, focuses on technique. Another infamous Olivier quote goes something like "It isn't my job to feel anything. It's my job to make you feel what I want you to feel.' This one likely is apocryphal, but I can't prove that as a search for it took me straight to one of those 'hi-jack your box attempt' websites. It was just a story that got told at acting school. Since it shores up the technique (I don't feel) versus Method (I feel everything) acting arguments, we'll accept it. The theory to technique is that by mastering text, subtext, vocal range, and physicality, a technical actor can evoke emotional reaction in an audience.

The different schools are about establishing honesty. Modern audiences don't want to see actors acting, very much like readers don't generally want author intrusion in stories. In both cases, viewers and readers long to be swept up in the story as if they were standing in the protagonist's shoes themselves. To bring viewers and readers  as close to the work as humanly possible, actors and writers must play on some deep-seated psychological truths about humans.

Humans are deeply empathetic creatures. Whether we want to be or not, we are social animals. Our survival as a species relies on our ability to unconsciously and universally identify emotion from the faintest shifting of an expression or body language. This skill is available to us as infants. It's that important. More interestingly, for a brief moment, when we identify an emotion in someone else, we mirror it as if by trying on the expression we see in someone else confirms for us what feeling is associated with it.  Performers of all kinds learn to leverage it.

Can you see where Method and technique come at exploiting human emotional hot buttons from different directions? Method makes you mirror the feeling you see the actor experiencing. A technical actor has the physical, vocal, and body language skills so well rehearsed that they can choreograph the exact sequence of techniques to hit so as to elicit the emotions they want from an audience.

This is a lot of words to come at how I approach emotion in a novel. My only goal is to make emotion clear, clean, and cutting. If my character is laughing, I want you smiling along with her. If she's terrified, I want you looking over your shoulder. Method - me feeling the feelings  and then jotting them down is fast and easy. However, it's also easier to muddy the emotions and it's easy to get lost in the emo. Also, it's  a tough lesson, but just because I feel the fear, it doesn't mean I'm going to do a good job of communicating it to readers. Actors have faces and bodies for audiences to read. Writers have to build those things before readers can be impacted by them. Technique - word choices, paring complex emotion stacks down to bare bones, describing clear physical cues, sentence length, and white space - offers a tool kit that helps me manipulate readers into feeling what I need them to feel.

It will be no surprise to you that I feel like both are necessary. The trick with Method work is to use it to call up a reminder of a feeling. Technique then catalogues the details. Where do I feel that in the body. What does it feel like? What's my breath doing? What's the sensation? Where? What happens if it heightens? What does it feel like as it drains away? It's interesting to me that every human on earth may experience fear in personal and specific ways, but the experience is so recognizable, that even our 6 month old infants can identify and mirror it. That means I can give you my personal experience of emotion in a story and you will experience your version of that emotion - not mine. And I don't care. My job is not to make you feel what I feel. My job is to trigger you to experience your own emotions with the story I'm telling. My emotions will ring hollow to anyone but me. A story only comes to life if the emotion I write accesses your emotions. That's the only way a book can read as true to a broad audience.

So the answer is both. Both is good. I do need to feel. Some. I need to not feel enough that I can remain critical and objective enough to leverage solid technique.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

To Feel or Not To Feel

book cover of Mindwalker by Kate Dylan in bright pink and black of a woman in sci-fi armor holding a gun and the print in white

I just finished a well-written sci-fi thriller, Mindwalker by Kate Dylan. While reading you’ll feel the main characters confusion, tension, brief moments of relief, and hunger for rightness. If you hadn’t guessed, I highly recommend this read! 

The inverse of tapping into all those character’s emotions as a reader is our topic of the week: do you have to feel the exact emotion you’re writing? 

I’d love to do a mini study on this and interview authors of books that I emotionally connected to as well as authors of books whose plot sucked me in. I’m curious to see if there’s any correlation to their writing process and my connection to the book. Of course, any study done by anyone on this would be skewed by the scientists’ views and personal preferences. Still, it would be interesting. 

I’ll put that idea on the back burner, but for now I can look at my own writing and compare to what readers have told me.

Step 1: Looking back at the books that I’ve written, my most emotional scenes do trigger the same emotions my characters are feeling. I do experience the anguish, the nervousness, the heart palpating fear—albeit to a lesser extent. And maybe that’s why writing is emotionally draining and I’m tired afterwards! 

Step 2: Review comments provided by readers (listeners for TMS and feedback on my other manuscripts). Interestingly, the readers/listeners experienced grief, and some tears, during the major loss scenes. Readers/listeners also reported sharing sweaty palms and pounding heart with the intense action scenes. And, yesssss, they were swept into the romantic moments with one listener saying “now I understand why people read these books”. 

Step 3: Comparison: My readers/listeners shared the deep emotion scenes with my characters, which correlates to the emotions I felt while I was writing those scenes. 

Conclusion: For me, I do experience emotions as I am writing. I put myself into my characters shoes because I want to feel what they’re feeling and be able to sense my way through the scene. Is it necessary? No, there have been plenty of times I write with a more technical goal in mind…and I bet you can pick those parts out. 

Maybe I don’t need to do a study on authors and emotions since I know for myself I will experience an echo of my characters emotions as I write. I believe it makes my stories better, but then again, I’m an emotional reader and want to be sucked in that way over the plotting. 

Are any of you, dear readers, like me in this? Do you also need some yoga and/or meditation after a good writing session?

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Writing Emotion and Owning Your Process

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is writing emotion and whether you as the author have to feel the exact emotion you're writing.

There's this tale about acting that's been making the rounds for ages - it's possibly apocryphal - about Dustin Hoffman being a method actor. (Oooh, Marcella found it!) That method asks actors to find the emotions within themselves to play the character, to find essentially their alternate self who would be that person and feel that way. The story goes that Hoffman spent an hour getting into that character's skin and Sir Laurence Olivier strolled in, did his bit, and left again, saying, "My dear boy, it's called acting."

The point of this (again, possibly apocryphal) tale is twofold: the first that you can create the appearance of emotion without feeling it, and the second that everyone does things their own way.

You all should know by now that my primary mantra is this: figure out what your process is and own it.

People like that story because they can smirk at poor Dustin Hoffman doing things the American way, the overly-complicated way, the fancy way, but... is he wrong? Hoffman has an amazing acting career. He's widely acknowledged as a brilliant actor. Clearly his approach isn't "wrong."

Is Olivier wrong in this story? Clearly not, for the same reasons as above. There is no wrong. There is no right. Both things can be true. Both processes work for those performers.

So, do I have to feel the emotion I'm writing in order to put it on the page? Nope. Do I sometimes? Sure, though it depends. Do other writers need to feel the emotion to write it? I've heard they do.

And it's all good. Both things can be true.


Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Writing Emotion: The General Emo Vicinity

 This Week's Topic: Emotion -- Do I have to feel the exact emotion I'm writing?

Have to? Nah. Probably shouldn't, to be frank. It's hell on my health. Murderous rage? I try not to wind myself up that tightly since it's bad for the ol' ticker...and inanimate bystanders (I got a bit of Berserker in me and a large supply of smashables). Stark terror? I carry my stress in my digestive system, and I don't like wearing adult diapers. So turned on a lamp post is lookin' good? I gotta do a hard pass on the arrest warrant in this era of diminishing "reasonable expectations of privacy." 

Now, that's not to say I don't mentally get in the general vicinity of the feeeeels of what my character(s) is going through. The gist of joy and distress. The recollection of the highs and lows. I do that quite often. There are many scenes where my emotional investment is critical to wring the emo of the moment, but there's a line between investment and mimicry. Empathy doesn't require us to endure the physical or mental tumult; it's empathy that is the key to showing the reader my character's actions and reactions, rather than flatly telling the reader what to feel. That's how we--authors--leave enough room for reader interpretation. 

Admittedly, there are scenes when my head forgets to consult my heart, which results in my mss coming back from the editor with lots of "insert emo here" comments. That's when I stare at the scene and ask myself, "What would my protag be feeling here?" That's when empathy knocks on the ol' memory tomb and checks to see if we have anything in the emotionally comparable neighborhood.

I've never gotten in a street fight with dragons, but I did get in a catfight with my sister once. I lost fistfuls of hair and she wound up with a dislocated knee. Then the cops showed up. 

General emo vicinity, folks. General emo vicinity. 

Saturday, June 24, 2023

My Greatest Writing Challenge and How I Manage It

I have always struggled with getting started - with everything in life, not just writing. My head is always full of ideas and plans that I want to try out and accomplish in a small amount of time, but instead of it being a facilitating factor, it is actually an annoying setback.

Numerous questions are always swarming around in my mind. Where do I start? Which storyline to choose? Do I go with my gut feeling or do I listen to the masses? The easiest thing would be to give in, go with the flow. Why chose the harder path by being different when it would be much simpler to write the same old story that has proven to be a sure win with readers?

The answer is very simple.

Because I want to stand out from the crowd. I want readers to recognize me for my own unique stories and the unique writing style that brings these stories to life. Yes, it takes more work to write a complex fantasy plot, especially one that is fresh and readers aren’t used to it (and don’t get me even started on the neverending hours that you will spend on research). Yes, you are going to have moments when you are grabbing your head and cursing the day that you decided to write this intricate plot overflowing with symbolism and hidden meanings. But you know what? In the end, when you are holding your book in your hands, you will realize that the countless sleepless nights and piled up stacks of papers were all worth it.

Now, once you’ve decided what the general plot is going to be, where to actually start? How to pull in the reader enough to keep him turning the pages?

The cycle of doubt begins anew, and I found that in overcoming this next burden, it helps me to physically step away from my laptop and literally go somewhere in nature – whether it’s a walk in the park, or just sitting on a bench somewhere and observing people. Such a simple notion, yet so effective – you would be surprised how fresh air and an increased amount of oxygen works wonders on the brain! And if you still have uncertainties when you return to your desk, take a piece of paper and jot down every idea that pops into your head. If the book was to start off with the main character speaking, what would he say? Where would he be? How would that single line weave in with the rest of the book? Would it be better if it wasn’t the main character speaking right away, but rather some side character that will act as a narrator? Or if the opening lines were to be an illustration of some grand event that will later be pivotal for the actual storyline, how revealing should it be? How much is too much?

Don’t get discouraged if you have three sheets of papers with random scribbles all over - my own notes sometimes resemble complex confidential battle plans rather than neat and organized author pages. Once you’ve jotted all of your ideas down, go over them, one by one. If it doesn’t feel right, scratch it out; it might be a great idea but maybe it’s not the right time for it, and that’s absolutely fine. Eventually you will be left with two or three starting points that you will deliberate over until your eyes fall out, and this is where my secret weapon comes in – my intuition. Don’t be afraid of taking a risk. Listen to your gut feeling – it will never steer you wrong!

Isabella Khalidi (pen name) is an adult dark fantasy & romance writer. Her novels are deep and complex, filled with scorching romance that leaves the reader breathless and yearning for more.

She is currently residing in a small town in Europe where she is finishing up her medical studies while simultaneously helping out in her local family owned shop. From an early age she has shown love for ancient lore and mythology, igniting her dream of one day becoming a successful author.

The Snows of Nissa is her first published novel, with the Forgotten Kingdom Chronicles as her debut adult fantasy series. You can find it on KU and Amazon. Follow her on Instagram @isabellakhalidiauthor.


Friday, June 23, 2023

The Biggest Problem is Between the Keyboard and the Chair


My greatest writing challenge. Hmm. How much time do you have? I've been through a list in my head. I thought about saying 'drafting' which is true, but it's a symptom. Not the root cause. Okay. So then I thought about claiming that carving time out to write was my greatest challenge but that leads to the fact that I'm stupidly slow to write. Which again, is a symptom, not the root cause. All of these lead back to one single factor and that's me. I'm the problem.

My brain is addicted to getting it right. No. I don't know what 'it' is. But my brain is wired to believe that there's  a Right and a Wrong way to put a story together. Can we all agree there are a million ways to tell the same story and none of them is wrong or right? Can we tell my brain? My head believes I'm a terrible person and will be haunted for the rest of my life if I get my story wrong. I wrote all that and I know it's not a rational way to live life. But there it is. My single greatest writing challenge: spending an hour over a single paragraph trying to get the words  and the feeling of it just right.

To top this nonsense off, I add in a day job, a house perpetually full of too many people, and a deeply introverted nature that gets zero true alone time. It's a recipe for a great big mess. Which is an apt description of the situation.

It did take some time for me to realize that writing requires me to unmask. I can't give over brain space to characters and conflict and still maintain a pleasant expression. Can't do it. I need to be able to be completely unmask the autism while I write and the utter lack of expression (or what gets taken as a mean expression) makes the fam SUPER uncomfortable.

I almost highlighted and deleted this whole blog post because my brain is telling me that this isn't what anyone wanted to know or read. I should just write a light, surface piece about how I find drafting to be difficult and what steps I take to work through it. I'm resisting that voice. Maybe what I'm posting is wrong. Or dull. Or too random or whiny or whatever else these synapses and electrical currents are trying to get me to buy. Fine. I'll be all those things.

To address the situation, I'm building fences around writing time - time when I can close and lock a door and everyone else can adult while I write. The next step is to close out distractions - for one hour of writing time, I have the work computer on, too, and that is not at all an ideal situation. That needs to be handled. I've made a bargain with myself to free write scenes a couple of different ways so I can pick the bits that hit just right from all of them. It's still slow - but it's faster than agonizing word by word and sentence by sentence. I'm slowly working for speed again. It'll take a bit before I actually talk about speed but at least there's a plan and a framework. I'm also working on allowing myself to feel my way through a scene rather than worrying about how it sounds. I have a long term goal of kicking the day job to the curb. It's barely a shine of a rising star on the horizon, but it is there. Step by step. Word by word. I'm following that star.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

To Nap or Not To Nap

Ullr, black and white Siberian husky, is stretched out belly towards a grey couch, front paws curled into his chest as he sleeps

It’s fully summertime with its 90 degree Fahrenheit heat and activities! So it’s quite fortuitous that our topic of the week is to identify our greatest writing challenge. Are you aware of yours?

Do you struggle to get writing done during certain seasons or holidays? I know many authors who take off around the winter holidays—too much egg nog and twinkling lights to ignore! And I know some authors, like myself, who have kids home in the summer—which is a time demand to work around. 

The warmest season of the year is a tricky for me to carve out writing time, but I’ve come to rely on practices or tournaments that allow me to find a patio or bench for me and my laptop. But it’s not my greatest writing challenge. Energy is. 

I have a chronic disease and depending on where my iron levels are at, my energy tends to tank in the afternoons. Not merely a little run down, but a full on brain e-break stop. 

Energy dips are a known thing for me and if I’m going to be productive, for anything, I need to plan around my physical capabilities and make sure I’m eating and drinking what my body needs to ride that rollercoaster back up to the top. Some days my challenge wins out, and that’s okay. Because I know that there’ll be inverse days where I’m able to get more done than anticipated.

Having a writing challenge doesn’t have to mean you stop. Yes, it can be very difficult, but allow yourself grace and time to figure out how to work with it. 

May your weekend be filled with words!

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Trusting the Creative Process

 Happy Summer Solstice, all!

This week at the SFF Seven, we're talking about our greatest writing challenge and how we manage it.

In some ways, this is a moving target for me, because it seems that - like clockwork - each book presents its own challenge. With 64 published titles under my belt, I feel like I should have this process down and there shouldn't be surprises.

No such luck.

What I have to constantly remind myself is that the creative process is its own creature. It's this connection to something beyond ourselves and thus is not within our control. Particularly for a writer like myself - I am incapable of pre-plotting and write for discovery, relying entirely on intuition - letting go of that desire to control is critical. It can also be difficult, especially when I'm trying to write to a particular idea or market.

For example, I recently wrote one-hundred pages of a book for my agent, according to a very particular comp. Let's call it Ghost meets Out of Africa. (That is NOT it, but that's one of my all-time favorite fictional comps. Points if you can name the movie it's from.) In thinking about this project, I consulted my friend, Melinda Snodgrass, incredibly talented novelist and screenwriter who counts among her credits the Star Trek: Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man. I asked her how closely I should follow the beats of Ghost, if at all. She gave me an incredulous look and asked why, when I had a hugely successful story blueprint right there, I would do anything but follow those beats?

So, I tried.

Turns out that, not only am I incapable of pre-plotting, I also can't follow an outline to save my life. I struggled to write that book. Having the story laid out in essence should have made it easier. Instead it made it 1,000x worse. For me. Because that's not my process. Once I abandoned that outline (sorry, Melinda) and followed my intuition, the words began flowing.

That's the major challenge for me: remembering to trust the process. Particulars change with every book. This principle endures.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Beginnings: The Hardest Necessity

 This Week's Topic: What is my greatest writing challenge and how do I manage it?

My greatest writing challenge, eh? {Ponders long list of difficulties and I-don't-wanna-have-to-do-its} Uhm. Hmm. For me, the hardest part of writing has to be...


Yep, you read that right. The beginning of the story damn near defeats me every time. Ya know, that really necessary, can't possibly be skipped, gotta-hunker-down-write-it start of the tale? Yep. That's my biggest challenge. Occasionally, the torment only lasts through Chapter One; but, more often than not, the entire first arc is a cluster of TMI fuckery. I'm info dumping, introducing more characters than died at the Red Wedding, blathering backstory blargle, and extending a 3k-5k chapter into 10k+ diatribe. Phil Collins is screaming about the Land of Confusion as I manically repeat, "just get the words on the page, you can fix this disastrophy later."

Word vomit. That's how I manage to overcome my biggest challenge. Pretty image, innit? Alas, there is nothing pretty--much less redeemable--in the early attempts of any of my stories' beginnings. I keep writing and rewriting them until I've become familiar enough with my characters and their GMCs to concisely tell--make that show--the reader the bare minimum of what they need to know to advance to the next chapter. Okay, okay, okay. "Bare minimum" is subjective, and viewed through the lens of my now thoroughly immersed experience of the fantastical world I'm creating. 

That's the catch. That's the root of the problem and the only way to address it. I have to become completely immersed in the world as seen through the POV character's mind in order to sift out the extraneous until I'm left with the salient. Only then am I certain of where, when, and how their journey starts. 

My opening chapters are in a constant state of revision until I've finished drafting the book. Making it to The End is how I know the evolution of my characters as shaped by the world I've created. Once I've experienced the protagonist's full story, I'm finally capable of extending a hand to the reader and asking them to come along on our adventure. 

For me, the first chapter written is the last chapter completed. 

Beginnings are hard. 

Friday, June 16, 2023

Pinch Points - Force of Change


Two nights ago, one of my cats alerted me to an interloper in our backyard. I caught a glimpse of this youngster at left. I grabbed my trap and had him within the hour. He's cute and terrified. He went into foster care today with someone who has no other pets and who doesn't have a day job, a book to write, and ill parents to tend. (The past two weeks have been a lot.) This guy - oh, yes. He's male. No doubt about that or the fact that he's intact - made up for some of the stress. He's a teenaged cat at that point where he looks like he's made from mismatched spare parts. His head is too big for his body. His legs are too long and skinny for the rest of him. It makes him adorable and a little comical at the same time. He will be looking for home the southeast region once I have him neutered and vaxxed.
On to the business of the blog! This week, you'll be able to divide us into two camps - the plotters and the pantsers - just based on our response to the Pinch Point question. As if you didn't already know.

Pinch Points are a structural device that gives an author an opportunity to bring an antagonist into direct opposition to the protagonist with the sole intent of showing up the protagonist's short comings. If we think about story and character arc forcing a protagonist to change, the pinch point is the place where the protagonist finds out *why* change is necessary: Throughout most of our novels, the protagonist doesn't have the skills to overcome the antagonist. If they did, we'd write mighty short stories. Our heroes need to grow into their roles. They need to become something more in order to best whatever obstacles are arrayed against them. Yet our heroes will fight stepping up at every turn.

Humans are weird animals. You'd think we'd be all about change given that adaptation and flexibility confers evolutionary advantage. If we can't adapt, we die. Yet we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to change. Our characters are no different. They must be forced to change. Pinch Points are one of the ways an author can force a character to transform in some way. 

All of this to say that no. I don't consciously use them, much less plan them. It depends entirely on what a story needs. Some stories are about the inevitable march of a character's choices and actions leading them, step by inexorable step into the climax of the story. There's a Sarah McLachlan song with a line that says "Where every step I took in faith betrayed me." I used that as my plotting device for a couple of books because it interested me - could I have characters who made the absolute right choices in the moment only to have those choices rip them to shreds?

Right now, in the current WIP, Pinch Points fell by accident into my lap. The antagonists have POVs, and in those cases, they do act as catalysts to my protagonists. So I guess those are a kind of Pinch Point? I suspect they are Pinch Points by the letter of the law rather than in the spirit of it. Long way of saying if I have Pinch Points in this book, it's a freaking accident, but after the fact if you ask me, I'll totally claim I meant to do that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Pinch Points: WTF Are They??

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: Pinch Points or small turning points. We're asking each other if we plan them, use them as foreshadowing, or just let the story flow?

So, I read KAK's excellent post from yesterday explaining WTF "Pinch Points" are and how she uses them. Spoiler: yes, she plans them out.

Cannot possibly be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about me: No, I plan them, I might use them? 


I swear, I need to start adding topics like "when you're intuitively letting the story flow, how do you.... " Except then I get stuck because there's just not a whole hell of a lot to say about writing intuitively. Yep, here I am, letting things flow. Still flowing. How will it end? I have no idea!


Amusingly enough, however, what KAK explained in her detailed analytical post is pretty much the exact scene I wrote yesterday in my current manuscript: ONEIRA.

(If you haven't been following the podcast, ONEIRA is a Totally New Thing - new world, new magic system, unrelated to anything I've written so far. I've been calling it the book I'm not supposed to be writing - it fell on me from out of the sky and insisted on being written - but all of my friends have finally convinced me that clearly I am supposed to be writing it, so I'm trying not to say that anymore.)

It's almost eerie, how the scene I wrote yesterday matches exactly what KAK says the pinch point with the villain is supposed to do. But I didn't plan it at all. In fact, this scene introduced a new POV character and a new plot element, totally unexpected. But this is how I write and how I write this book in particular. It's insisting on doing all sorts of things that I haven't done before and don't expect and I've just surrendered and am going with it. Which actually makes this project really fun, because I'm just letting it be whatever it is and not worrying about reader expectations or where it will fit in the marketplace.

All of this is to say that we all have our own process. My mantra: figure out what your process is and own it. 

KAK loves to geek out on analysis, minutely controlling her stories down to pinches.

My stories just go their own way and I try to cling to the saddle. 

It's all good.

(Except sometimes I end up writing something I'm not supposed to be writing....)

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Pinch Points: Villains Being Villainous

This Week's Topic: Pinch Points 
Do I plan them/use them as foreshadowing, or do I just let the story flow?

Hello, skeletal plotter here. Do I plan Pinch Points? Ayup. Why? Let's start with defining Pinch Points in story structure (as opposed to engineering constructs that intentionally cause traffic jams anywhere there is a flow of people or processes). 

Pinch Points are scenes that show the antagonist being an obstacle to the hero's ultimate goal or demonstrating how they are the oppositional entity. A Pinch Point makes the reader feel the horribleness of the antagonistic force before the nefariousness directly affects the hero. That's right, the flexibility with a Pinch Point is the villain doesn't need to abuse the hero or someone hero-adjacent to serve its purpose. The antagonist can absolutely be wretched to their own minion or to a completely unknown person, place, or ideal. A really good Pinch Point will show either the villain's strength that will be used to defeat the hero at the Bleak Moment or the antagonist's weakness that will be used to defeat them in the Final Conflict. Yes, that means strong Pinch Points will foreshadow the pivotal conflicts. 

Example: The king is a despot. He's got an itchy, burning sitch below the waist. The imperial physician tells him he has an STD, but no worries, it's easily treated. What the king hears is that he can't get it up (which the physician never says), so the tyrant beheads the physician on the spot. The king then orders his wife, daughters, and all the palace maids to be executed immediately. The reaction of the courtiers to this behavior is a reflection of privileged sentiment that may or may not align with the hero's perception of the king, but it is important to allude to potential allies or further complications. 

Note: The hero isn't one of the women of the palace, neither are their kith/kin. This moment isn't the cliché of sacrificing female family to motivate the hero. In this example, the king's behavior doesn't directly affect the hero, but it does demonstrate the king's strengths (unquestioned power that will be used to subdue the hero at the Bleak Moment) and the king's weaknesses (there are a lot in that example that can be used to fell the despot in the Final Conflict).

The Pinch Point doesn't have to be complex nor require a large chunk of word count; however, it does need to be a moment that evokes an emotional response from the reader. There's assorted story structure guidance out there that recommends two Pinch Points per story, one around the 30% mark and another at the 75% mark. The Pinch Points come halfway-ish to the Mid-Story Crisis and again halfway between the Mid-Story Crisis and the Final Confrontation. 

Okay, now that we know that Pinch Points are more than engineering Fuck Yous, how do I use them when plotting and in the story? Beyond showing the antagonist flexing their villainy, I use Pinch Points to:

  • Remind the reader of the price of the hero's failure
  • Prevent the story's pacing from dragging
  • Stop me from detouring down a plot-irrelevant tangent
Pinch Points are wonderful structural aspects that can help you, as the author, fight against saggy middles and lost plot threads while enhancing a reader's love-to-hate-the-villian investment in the story. 

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Managing My Word Count

Over the years, my habits for managing my word count have changed. What works one season doesn't always work another. But, even so, there are a few things I keep in mind to keep myself on track.

Micro Goal

Writing every day is a part of my routine and part of what brings me calm. I also like the idea of having an easy win. It gets me in a good mood. And, even if it's a high pain day or a day when everything has gone wrong, I can count on getting this little bit of success.

That micro goal is just 200 words. 

If I get 200 words done, it counts as a win. 

Those 200 words can be on anything I want as long as I am writing. Most of the time, it's the story that I am most excited to write (which is rarely the story I am actually writing). If I'm feeling especially stagnant, I'll write by hand in one of my beautiful notebooks. 

The other advantage of these 200 words is that they give me a way to warm up. Most of the time, I work on this first thing in the morning over a cup of tea or coffee. 

Project Targets

I am always working on multiple projects. One is usually in editing and another is in drafting, at a minimum. I set aside time for both, and for the drafting, I decide how many words I need by looking at the target word count for my project and the number of days I have left before I need the draft done for revisions and editing. 

Now, because I am a planster (I plan but also change things as I go), I'm not always so good at knowing an accurate word count. This means that sometimes I have to adjust as I go along, and the needed word count goes up or down. 

At the end of each day, I see how many words I have drafted overall. I then break that down into the words that will be usable in the final draft versus those that wound up being more useful for understanding characters or might go into a future story (I don't always write chronologically). Then I look at my running total and compare it to where I need to be to figure out how much I need to write the following day. 

Sprinting for the Win

Perhaps one of the most helpful things in getting in the words is sprinting with friends. I absolutely love it, and it's so easy. You find a group, pick a time when at least one other person can show up, and you sprint for a time.

During this segment, your goal is to get the words down. No editing or critiquing. Just drafting.

At the end of your time, you all report in your word counts. Then, if you like, you go again. I have a couple friends I sprint with now almost every weekday. Sometimes for a couple hours at a time. It makes the drafting less lonely, and it also instills an added level of accountability. 

Ideal length of time varies. For me, 15 minutes is best. Anything longer than that, and I get antsy and need to stretch or move around.

Have Understanding for Delays and When Things Go Wrong

No matter what your goals are, make sure to give yourself some compassion in this journey. Don't chain yourself to those numbers, whatever they are. Yes, you may be in a time of tight deadlines in which you have to burn the candle at both ends and even in the middle. But that is not sustainable.

I know because I've been there and narrowly scraped through. And then it takes a long time to recover. 

So when making my plans for managing word counts, I now allow for things to go wrong. A friend loves to remind me that we never have to plan for things to go ideally. I'm still not certain how to factor delays in as well as I could because I am learning. But I try to only count on weekdays for writing (even though I do write on weekends) and lately I have been leaving at least two extra weeks for whatever needs to be done. 

The combination of micro and project goals allows me to meet the various deadlines, some of which are of my own creation and some of which are with other people. And they also help me to do it in a way that is sustainable and healthy while allowing me to reach my goals. 

What about you? How do you like to manage your word count and project goals?

Jessica M. Butler is a USA Today bestselling romantic fantasy author who never outgrew her love for telling stories and playing in imaginary worlds. She lives with her husband and law partner, James Fry, in rural Indiana where they are quite happy with their two cats and all of the wildlife and trees.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Word Count, Chapters, and Structure

 The very last thing I worry about when drafting is structure. I suppose I've learned that a story starts out with a character thinking that their goal is one thing only to have a twist or decision point at the 1/4 mark that uncovers the true goal. Because they pursue that goal and believe they're making progress, at about the half way point, everything is going to go to hell in a hand basket because the character runs up against the main challenge of the book and yet the character hasn't yet changed enough overcome that challenge. So they run face first into it. WHAM. Fail. Fall. And have to wander off to lick their wounds. And they have to make another decision. Either give up or double down. So on and so forth. 

The problem for me is that I have to throw all of that to the wind when I draft. This is because drafting is slow and difficult for me and I want nothing analytical to pull me out of whatever tenuous drafting space I can achieve. Numbers and divisions and did this decision point happen in the right spot are all worries for a much later date. So I start a draft. No chapters. Just words. Get to The End.

NOW I put on the analytical hat. Now I start looking at over all structure. I go through and arbitrarily assign chapters roughly every ten pages. I'm looking for a natural scene break or place to end on a hook. Some chapters are ten pages, some eight, some twelve. Until rewrites.

As I go through my own dev edits and work through punching up emotion and language and scenes, my arbitrary chapters begin to tell me what they need to look like. Some book keep the ten page chapter convention without issue - most of the SFRs do that (it's easier with only one or two POV characters.) The current WIP, however, has some super short chapters, and one or two long ones. The chapters follow POV shifts because there's an extended cast with several points of view. The book is supposed to be fast, but full of sensory detail and the turned out that the best way to put a reader into a scene was to invite them into each character's world.

Long way of saying that I don't maintain a word count list for scenes or for chapters or for turning points. Structure is a wire frame in my head, yes, but as the Pirates of the Caribbean would say that's, ". . .more guidelines than actual rules." Do I check out that my first decision point happens within the first 25k of a 100k novel? Absolutely. Usually, the earlier the better for me and for my reader. I can get right to the action. Spreadsheets can be great things. Word counts can be great things. But depending on who you are and what your process looks like, they can completely shut you down. The only way to find out is to try them and judge the results. If you are someone who wants to keep things vague and open and full of possibility, consider this your permission slip to learn what structure works for you, store that structure in your muscle memory, and then just draft. Impose logical structure in your editing phase.

We'll be the Ghost Busters of writing: Don't cross the creative/drafting and analytical/editing streams. It would be bad.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Writing for a Word Count

a lined, wire bound notebook with the three acts of a story written along the side with markings for climactic points

Oh the things you don’t think about when you’re reading, are those things you should think about when you’re writing. And one of those things is our topic of the week: do you rewrite to hit a certain word count for the manuscript and/or each chapter or scene?

Jeffe’s post had me laughing. Our birthdays are pretty close and though I’ve never heard of the Leo/Virgo cusp—it makes sense! I’m a little closer to the Virgo and have to plot my books. But while Jeffe and I both love spreadsheets, she writes for discovery. Leo/Virgo cusp!

Sometimes you just need to write. Get the words out of your head and onto ‘paper’. Then, once the dust settles, you can step back and check for what I like to call the package details. Writing a book is the first step, and formatting it and putting it together as a real book is the second step.

Along with plotting out each scene, I list a word count for each chapter. Mind you, each of those have to add up to the projected final pages, so a chapter a little short gives up pages to a longer one. I’m talking about 1-3 pages difference. Bigger differences in chapter lengths, 7 pages vs. 15, depend on what genre I’m writing. 

How did I come up with this? 

This goes back to genre expectations. A fantasy reader will pick up a book and expect (hope for) at least 300 pages. A commercial reader who consumes a few books a year will expect around 250 pages. To go with that final word count, the chapter lengths will also be different. That fantasy reader will expect longer chapters where they can really be immersed. The commercial reader will want short chapters with strong hooks that fit into quicker reading times. 

There you go. One more thing to keep in the back of your mind as you plug away at your WIP! 

Let me know if you have a different method of tracking word counts!

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Chapters and Scenes: Determining How Long They Should Be

 This week at the SFF Seven, we're talking about Managing Word Count. Do we rewrite to hit a certain number? Do we have a chapter/scene word allotment?

So, a lot of you know that one of my nicknames is the Meticulous Volcano. This comes from me being born on the Leo/Virgo cusp, which a friend informed me makes me a meticulous volcano and they're not wrong. I really am half and half - and this shows up in many ways. Yes, I have the passionate Leo nature, but I'm also the detail-oriented lover of spreadsheets. In my writing, this manifests in my total, far-end gardener/pantser/write for discovery process, which I track down to the tiniest detail, with charts. 

Do I have a chapter/scene word allotment? Yes, I do. It varies from book to book - something I land on intuitively - with some books and series running to longer chapters and some to shorter. The shortest chapters, which creates a brisker pace, are generally about 6-7 pages long, or about 1,700 words. Longer chapters give a more epic feel, a more luxurious pace, and can be as long as 23 pages (my record) and about 7K words long. On average, however, I keep longer chapters to around 16 pages or 4,500 words.  

For scenes, I follow the 3-Act 8-scene structure, which looks like this:

Mostly I use this structure as a series of guideposts, to know where I am as I write the book, which is always linear, from beginning to end. And this helps me to predict when I'll finish. Once I have Scene 1 complete, I can predict the final word count (8 times the word count of Scene 1). This number is solidified once I have Act 1 in place. Generally my books are 85K - 120K words long, so how long the individual segments are varies from about 11K to 15K words. 

In truth, "segment" is probably a better word than "scene," as applies to my novels. This structure is from screenwriting, so scenes can be more or less a single sequence. For me, a scene in this context is a contiguous segment of the story, one where a particular mini-arc is begun and completed. 

As for rewriting to tighten the shape? Sometimes I do that. Usually not. I often worry that some segment will bulge out and need trimming, but it usually is fine by the end. Sometimes I break up chapters or trim parts that go on too long. Mostly I let the numbers be a loose guideline and I decided intuitively how to edit. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Accountability Goals: Words vs Chapters

 This Week's Topic: Managing Word Count
Do I write to hit a certain number?
Do I have a chapter/scene word allotment?

I have daily goals for word count in the drafting phase. Please note the absence of the phrase "net word count." Expecting consistently to add to the total tally sets me up for failure. Often, during the next day's re-read of the previous day's work, "What did I mean? That makes no sense!" and "That is some impressive plotless bunk, Krantz," cause my net word count to be negative. D'oh! Don't worry, rewrites don't equal a trip to the guilt guillotine for me. Certainly not in the drafting phase. I'd rather fix what's broken during drafting than during the editing phase. It saves LOTS of time in the long run.  

I have daily chapter goals in the editing phase. Some chapters don't need much revision while others have to be overhauled. I have a general sense of which arcs I can breeze through and which need a lot of work by the time I finish the first draft. My daily chapter goals reflect that. Note: this is in my editing phase, not the "professional editors have returned the marked-up mss" phase. 

When the professional editors return the marked-up mss to me, I attack that by type of revisions: the easy word tweaks vs character refinement vs plot thread redevelopment. My daily goals are based on the Level of Effort, not chapters or word count.

As for chapter/scene word allotments, they tie back to chapter word limits. I have limits because I can prattle with the best of them. /jk, sort of. Truly, it's to ensure I'm not info-dumping and killing the pace of the story. Also, reader expectations are different by subgenre. UF chapters tend to be shorter at ~2500wpc while HF chapters are ~5000wpc. Word count length on the chapters naturally influences any goals based on chapters. Theoretically, I can get through UF chapters faster because they're shorter than HF chapters. Theoretically...because a screwed-up UF chapter is going to take longer to fix than a clean HF chapter.

Now, you'll notice I didn't give numbers for each of the goals. It's not because I don't want to confess I'm a slow writer (long-time readers of this blog are well aware of that); rather, it's because the word/chapter count goals vary by book. Some stories are hard to write, while others are wham-bam-all-done-ma'am. Also, real-life obligations impact the goals. For example, I need to spend more time with my flesh-and-blood family and friends over the winter holiday season than with my fictional family and friends. I don't fight that, I plan for it. All my creative goals reflect that. 

Remember, goals should not be pathways to guilt. Reasonable expectations lead to reasonable goals.  Give yourself wiggle room. Overestimate the time it will take to hit milestones. If you finish early, you can reward yourself. The same thing applies if you hit your personal due date. If you don't hit your goals, then learn from the causes and apply the lessons to the next round of goal-setting. Don't beat yourself up. That will never help you.

My daily goals are my method of holding myself accountable for actually...working. Since I alone control my deadlines as a self-published author, I'm allowed this flexibility. If I fart around and don't accomplish what I've set out to do by the dates I've set out to have them done, then the one most hurt by that is me. I'm no dummy. I don't like to hurt. 

I'm too damn old for that kink. 

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Dragons, Vampires, or Aliens? Genre Expectations and How to Analyze Them


Why do you need to care?

You want people to read your book, right? In the indie book publishing world, there are over 2 million books being published every year, according to Berrett-Koehler Publishing. Readers won't just stumble onto your book on Kindle and buy it in droves, you need to work at it. If you're traditionally published, your agent and publisher will need you to identify comparative titles and tropes to help them market your book.

You can write your book for yourself, the way you want it. But when you put it out into the world and you're looking for readers, you need to fit your book into current trends and ideas. 

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book. Think of how writers pitch a tv show or movie: "I read this book series, Game of Thrones. It's like The Tudors mixed with LOTR." "How about a High School Drama, but with Vampires? She's Buffy the Vampire Slayer." 

If you're J.R.R. Tolkien or Tamora Pierce or Octavia Butler, you can be a pioneer, but even then they are building on what has come before. Although the belief in a tortured genius who is misunderstood in their own time is a powerful dream, it disregards the hard work authors put in to understand their craft and to communicate through their work with their audience. It's also elitist patriarchal malarkey.

What can you do?

So how do you find your genre expectations and incorporate them into your work?

Read, read, read

All the posts this week reiterate the most important point. Kristine focuses on reading in your genre and adjacent ones, reading reviews, finding reader comments online. Alexia puts it succinctly: "Don't forget to read." 

“Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.” – Neil Gaiman 

The more you read, the more you will learn, and the better you will write.

What are the bestsellers in your genre? Search Amazon and Goodreads if you don't know and read them. Read as much as you can and start to notice the similarities. Is there always a Gandalf or Dumbledore who helps along the way? Does a mysterious warrior save the day? Are the aliens misunderstood? How is the coming-of-age character described as insufficient (or shy or unaware of their power) at the start and how do they develop throughout the story? Ask questions and be observant.

Study, study, study

 I am an obsessive plotter and pre-writer. The longer I can sit with the ideas and imagine my story before I write a first draft, the more confident I feel about the characters and narrative. 

Jeffe, in her post, reminds us that writers start as readers--and we can't take shortcuts in learning our craft.

As part of my pre-writing, I love reading about plot frameworks and researching craft advice by more experienced authors. Find the big writing books in your field, read them, and take notes. Inspire yourself by reading blogs and reviewing story beat templates. 
Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Story Grid is such a helpful framework, if overwhelming for beginning writers. You don't need to follow it slavishly, but their studies of major novels and movies helps you to see the patterns at work.
  • The Hero's Journey and Save the Cat are two helpful outlining/beat tools. There are many others out there--look around and see which ones appeal to you.
  • Wonderbook is a feast for the eyes and a great way to push your thinking about setting and creating world outside of the box.
  • KM Weiland is one of many bloggers and writers who are worth following.

Look at tropes lists

When I first started writing, I thought I only needed to have some good characters and a solid sense of the beats. Tropes were too cliche. Now I see that tropes are a short-hand to help readers find SFF stories they like. Some fantasy romance readers love enemies-to-lovers, while others champion friends-to-lovers. In YA dystopian fiction and Urban Fantasy, the bad-ass female warrior never seems to go out of style, but her appearance and personality change with time. Alien relationships have changed forever thanks to Ice Planet Barbarians--and readers can't get enough of them.

As a writer, you will have your favourites, so lean into those and have fun with them. Do you like the Archie-Veronica-Betty triangle? Gender swap and put them in a world governed by strict class and geographical boundaries and make it life or death (aka The Hunger Games). Do you love a good seduction and abandonment story? Make it vampires and set it in New Orleans (aka The Vampire Lestat). There are so many possibilities!

You can find some fun tropes lists here:

And everyone should listen to this podcast to be responsible in their representations of indigenous peoples in SFF:

Join reader groups

In her post this week, Marcella describes her experiences listening to fandom readers talk about what matters to them. Writers have amazing opportunities to hear from readers today and to learn what expectations they have. Scroll through Goodreads, join some Facebook groups or watch videos from Booktok. This research will help you understand your audience and what they want.

Remember that everything you read, study, and hear goes into the simmering pot of your story. You have to find the sweet spot between genre expectations and the book inside of you. But ignore genre expectations at your peril!

“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.” – Lisa See 

Until next time, Mimi