Five editing tips to save a sinking story


October 7, 2019  •  No Comments

Editing advice is depressingly easy to come by, especially when our work in progress is circling the drain. That’s when the armchair editors come out to play, usually with a sympathetic shrug and sad eyes. Then they gingerly toe our story as if it were a roadkill raccoon.

Once we get past the impulse to bash those know-it-alls over the head, we are at the point of autopsy. That’s when we survey the wreckage with an ache in our chests, wondering whether to draw the sheet over our darling, or make one last heroic attempt at rescue.

I’ve had my fair share of emergency room moments. Deciding whether or not a book is salvageable is tough, but I’ve come up with a diagnostic test I use when I get to about the five-chapter mark, then half way, and then again at the end. This doesn’t cover every possible scenario (I’m always finding new ways to make a mess) but it does hit the probable pitfalls.

Consider these issues before you pronounce time of deletion. Everything here can be fixed in a thorough edit.

One: Are your characters acting like real people?

I’ve read books where characters seem to experience a story in isolated episodes, as if they’ve had a brain wipe between page turns. It’s hard for the reader to engage with a protagonist in this detached state. Characters should come across as individuals with complete interior lives.

Take a moment and think about what it would be like to be your protagonist, an ordinary person, shoved into an exciting adventure. Imagine going through events as the chapter progresses as if it were happening to you. What does your character feel? Where in your body does that emotion show up? A clenched jaw? An aching stomach? How does your protagonist continue to function despite those emotions? Now put those Coffee cupfeelings on top of the feelings from the last chapter, and the one before that. A writer needs the cumulative impact of all those layers to make character change realistic. It’s okay (and probably useful) for your protagonist to cope badly from time to time.

This is one of many reasons that it’s useful to construct a plot timeline. If your character’s parent is hit by a truck on Monday, they will still be reacting to the incident on Tuesday. It doesn’t hurt, when starting a fresh chapter, to make a few notes about the character’s state of mind going in. This is especially helpful if there are breaks between writing sessions and the material isn’t fresh in your mind.

Two:  Are you keeping secrets?

This is related to the point above. I have occasionally questioned one writer or another about why a character does XYZ and been given a long monologue about the character’s thoughts, feelings, family dynamics, ambitions, grade school experience, etc. Note to author: it doesn’t count if I can’t read it on the page.

Check when you are revealing information, especially where it reinforces motivation. I know we’re all afraid of the infodump, but being coy is just as harmful. It annoys and confuses readers and frequently makes the characters appear to require strong psychiatric medication.

The Ubiquitous Plot Bunny

Three:  Do you have the right amount of story for the length of your work?

A well-written story can come in any length, but sometimes that short story we think we’re writing turns out to be a surprise novel. That’s okay, as long as we don’t try to squish it back into a short story-sized container.

To figure out if your story is too short or too long for your chosen format, here are some questions to ask:

  • Does every section (chapter, scene, or whatever unit you’re using) relate to the main conflict in terms of action, character, or theme?
  • Does every section contain enough of its own conflict to be interesting?
  • If you left the section out, would it matter to the overall story?
  • Are any important events happening off stage? Does the event take more than two sentences to explain? If so, cut it out or …
  • Would it raise the tension in the story to show those events on stage in real time?
  • Can any other exposition be turned into action or at least a conversation?
  • Is there enough rising action and setbacks to make us doubt the outcome of the story?
  • Are all important character traits/relationships demonstrated on screen?

Four:  Is your climax in the right place? Are the right people participating in it?

Go ahead, think about the sexual double entendre. It fits.

We all know the big finale should happen close to the end of the book. Romance has a climax for the exterior action (the villain is stopped) and then one for the interior conflict

High points need to come in the right place

(the romance receives its final test). I would argue that most character-driven work has this double climax in which the action resolves and then the protagonist(s) gain final insight. It’s the best way to iron in a satisfying character arc. Although there are always exceptions, to put these peaks too soon or in the wrong order can make for a less than satisfying end.

Also, please ensure the main character is a participant in the climax. Not an observer. Not hearing about it from a friend. Not using a peephole. They need to personally impact the outcome of events or the reader feels cheated for spending so much time with someone who clearly doesn’t matter.

Five:  Do you have too much beginning?

This tends to be an issue with bigger books or series, but it can happen with short ones as well. This is a good moment to consider whether the overall work is the right size (see above) because the beginning sets the expectation of how the whole story will be paced. If you whitter on at a leisurely trot and then sprint through the last half, the book feels lopsided.

If you’re already at novel length but need five chapters of exposition to get out of the gate, the best advice I can give is to start with a corner of your universe and build out as you go. Give us ONLY what we need to make it through the first scene. Show us the mud, the castle, the village cow. We don’t actually need the name of the town to know what kind of place we’re in. If you need to add a little something for scene number two, then dribble it in when we get there, and so on. Consider that your character doesn’t think about his or her environment all at once. They’re dealing with what’s in front of them, just like we do when we walk out the front door.

Think about the reader experience like vacation travel. Once we’ve checked our luggage, seen the hotel room, and had something to eat, we’re ready to see the sights. That’s when it’s okay to start giving more detail, because the reader has some way to relate it to what they already know.

Good luck!

 


Creating Unforgettable Characters


September 30, 2019  •  No Comments

A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox.  They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.

As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.

How Do We Create a Character?

There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.

Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.

Character is conflict

What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.

Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.

Let’s build on this idea some more:

One arc or two or three?

How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.

Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:

  1. There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
  2. Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
  3. In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.

The Third Arc

I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.

Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.

While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.

Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.

To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.

 


Superior Procrastination Techniques


September 23, 2019  •  No Comments

Most of us experience procrastination at some point in our lives. I’m guilty of some very late night submissions, study blitzes, and (ahem) blog posts that barely slide under the wire. But rather than focus on the less attractive aspects of dilly-dallying, why not embrace the creative potential? Don’t settle for any old delay—go for the procrastination gold!

 


Character portrait: Cormac from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
August 8, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Stokes from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 31, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Tessa from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 30, 2019  •  No Comments


Scorpion Dawn – Cover Copy

Emma Jane Holloway
July 1, 2019  •  No Comments

I’m still tweaking this slightly, but here is the first glimpse of Scorpion Dawn. It’s in the upcoming Rogue Skies box set and is the prequel novella to the Hellion House series.

 

When the prey becomes the hunter

Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.

When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the gates aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s protectors—claim. Despite the danger, it’s a secret the mages fiercely guard. When Miranda and her brother learn too much, the price of the family’s survival is silence.

 No one is foolhardy enough to defy the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. But when tragedy shatters her home, breaking apart bonds of blood and affection, Miranda refuses to turn the other cheek.

Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.

 


Researching Worlds That Don’t Exist


June 6, 2019  •  No Comments

 

So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?

Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.

This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”

While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.

The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.

Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.

How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.

That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.

As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.

 


Writing Strong Women in Historically-Based Fiction


June 3, 2019  •  No Comments

What do you do when your assassin is supposed to sneak across the rooftops wearing a corset, a bustle, and high heeled boots? Setting stories in historical (or historical-like) settings opens the door to any number of head-scratching issues, and wardrobing is just the start.

Since I’m a history nerd, I want to understand the era I’m drawing from both in terms of events and how people saw the world. The characters who walk through our stories are individuals, but individuals are shaped by the world around them. At the same time, a storyteller needs to find their particular sweet spot between an authentic historical setting and a tale that thrills modern readers. When it comes to creating a strong female protagonist, bridging that gap takes some finesse.

Finding role models for our heroines takes a bit of homework, but it’s possible to find female painters, composers, explorers, scientists, activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everything else in most time periods. All the same, despite some exceptional examples (Anne Bonney, anyone? Elizabeth Tudor? Joan of Arc?) women in past centuries were frequently banished to a supporting domestic role.

In Western European history—I use this as an example as I’m most familiar with it, but it is far from the only source material available—females were legally under the control of their husband or closest male relative, with little agency of their own. Even worse for the novelist, unmarried women of respectable families were not allowed to be alone with a man who was not a relative—certainly not behind closed doors—and never stirred out of the house without a chaperone. This makes it desperately difficult to have your protagonist spy, sneak, or otherwise get up to mischief. There is a reason widows are common in fiction—it was one circumstance that gave women a degree of freedom. Depending on the marriage contract, a widow might inherit an independent income and property of her own. For the first time in her life, she openly enjoyed a degree of self-determination—but only if she had money. Otherwise, marrying again was better than the alternatives. According to some scholars, during the Georgian era one in five women were in the sex trade just to feed themselves.

Find out what challenges a woman would face in a particular time period and to make good use of those barriers. Showing a heroine navigating constraints builds tension and demonstrates how clever she can be. Whether she outwits Society’s gatekeepers, crushes the opposition, or intentionally blows off convention, pushing back against the world around her will show her character. If there are serious consequences for failure, so much the better for the story.

I’ll add one safety tip: when pitting a protagonist against the conventions of her time, zero in on the exact decade if possible. The definition of socially acceptable behavior changed over time, and sometimes more rapidly than one assumes.  Most associate the nineteenth century with an elderly and unamused queen, but the 1800s stretched from the Napoleonic era with its see-through gowns and ribald Prince Regent through the corseted and moralizing mid-century and onward to those shocking Edwardian suffragettes. The differences are as acute as those between Carolyn Lamb, Charlotte Bronte, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Masked balls went from scandalous affairs to something holiday-makers did for fun. This all makes sense—we have different attitudes than our great-grandparents, after all. We would expect someone looking back on our own century to know the difference between generations, and so would our protagonists.

Once the time period is nailed down, the next question is how faithfully a story will stick to it. A fast-paced adventure will undoubtedly take the heroine out of the drawing room, possibly with a loaded weapon.  How the story world is portrayed is entirely up to the author. If the desire is to paint an environment that grants females more agency than was the historical norm, go for it as long as it makes sense with the rest of the society and culture in the book. If this is historical fantasy, are we talking dragons, dirigibles, or full on wizardry? How action-oriented will our heroine need to be? What are the rules of engagement? Is she alone, or are all the cool girls shooting zombies? These factors become the new normal for the heroine and need to be treated just like every other element of setting and backstory. People are shaped by their environments, their circle of loved ones, and the ideas they’ve absorbed over their lives. No maidenly miss is going to wake up one morning and think, “Yeah, I’m going to go kill people” without a LOT of context. But given the right approach, we’ll believe in her.

A really good example comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Brienne of Tarth is a female knight and utterly at odds with her culture’s concept of womanhood. She’s physically capable of combat, trains hard, and walks the talk. But however competent she is, she is ridiculed. Her dream comes at a cost and it’s hard. One reason she works so well as a character because we fully understand what’s expected from her, how she’s departed from that, and what it’s cost her. Although she’s unique, she is entirely consistent with the historical setting Martin has created. As with many of his female characters, Brienne believably checks all the action-adventure boxes, but it’s a bumpy road.

To recap, when writing a heroine who is going against the norms of her historical period, tell us why she’s doing it, what the consequences are, and how she justifies her behavior to herself and others. Most of all, be consistent with her background. If she picks up a steam-powered aether gun, how does she know how to use it? Why does she think it’s okay? Has she done it before and will she do it again?  How does she feel about the episode afterward?  Is she forced to redefine who she is once the adventure begins? Most of all, tell us her story with as much emotional truth as you can. Then stand back and let her shine.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Keep a curious mind


February 17, 2019  •  No Comments

Ever have one of those dreams where you wake up back in high school about to write a math test? You think you should know how to do the problems—and clearly the teacher does—but it’s all a bunch of squiggles on the page?

My first forays into indie publishing felt like that at first. I’d been traditionally published for a lot of years, but did that help me self-publish books? The answer is: some times more than others.

Even late adopters have been forced to respond to the changing face of publishing. Everyone has to be largely self-sufficient when it comes to marketing their work. Even if publishers want to do a good job promoting a book, they may not have the resources, agility, or access to the right tools. These days, it’s up to the author—however their book got published—to attract an audience.

But unless you’ve been taught to market, how do you know what to do? The same goes for formatting, finding covers, hiring editors, and all the myriad steps involved in putting a book out on your own. Remember that dream about an algebra exam?

I had to approach everything with the curiosity of a raw beginner, and I think I’ll keep that mindset for a long time. Wherever an author is along their publishing journey, it’s impossible to know everything because there are so many constantly moving parts. If I have any advice for someone transition from trad publishing to indie, it’s this: Be open, be willing, seek advice, and give yourself permission to push your boundaries. Above all, remember to have fun!