Tag Archives: Kym O’Connell-Todd

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Three)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the third in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner as well as examples of how that plays out in practice. In the second, we started to explore how plots and characters develop from a weird shared writing space. This time, we’re going to talk about how stories – and especially characters – turn into something we never expected and lead to some unexpected collaborators.

And we like it.

Characters that authors like can turn a good story into one that’s great – especially for readers. But that doesn’t mean those characters have to be nice “people.”

Grady O’Grady from our Silverville Saga series is a character we especially like. There’s a little bit of all the ranchers we’ve ever known in him. Not too surprising since we’ve both lived in rural America most of our lives (Kym in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana, Mark in New Mexico and Texas, and both of us for the past twenty-plus years in western Colorado). So Grady’s take on things was easy to capture. Right before the first Little Greed Men hit local bookstores, we worried about how our neighbors would react to the way we portrayed the ranching lifestyle. But our daughter laughed at us, saying something like, “If a book doesn’t have pictures, they’re not going to read it!” She was joking, of course, but we bravely laughed along with her and waited for the novel to circulate. Several of our neighbors did read the book, and whew! they liked the way we’d described Grady. Kym had a real knack for capturing his style of speech, but she’s always had a penchant for old ranchers. So Kym took the last word, literally, on what he said – and what he didn’t.

Grady also rides a horse we know very well, ‘Ole Moss. We modeled the mare after one we used to own named Belle. She was a bitch from the day she was born in our barn. At three weeks, she almost broke a neighbor’s knee with a well-aimed kick, and when we turned her over to a professional trainer at age two, she charged her new teacher with bared teeth and flattened ears. We include in the story one of Belle’s real antics when ‘Ole Moss strikes out repeatedly at a hot wire fence once it shocks her. Belle would have been the perfect fit for Grady and she made it into our cast.

In the sequel, All Plucked Up, Mark took a shine to a character named Maurice LeVieux, a by-product who emerged from Mark’s pretentious professor side, and Kym let him run with it. Maurice is the octogenarian arch nemesis of that story’s protagonist, Pleasance. He’s stuffy, pompous, and fastidious:

Maurice surveyed the row of tidily arranged ascots that filled the upper compartment of his suitcase. He selected one with just a blush of apricot to match his socks. He chuckled at his propitious talent to once again outmaneuver Pleasance. How careless of her to repeat Grady’s name over the phone that fateful day he overheard her conversation. Poor child. Had she learned nothing from his example? By the time he had arranged to travel to Silverville, he already had Mr. O’Grady’s phone number and address in his pocket.

He adjusted the ascot, tucking it neatly inside his collar and around his papery throat. He sat on the bed and reached over to snap the garters to his socks.

From the very beginning, we knew Maurice was going to be a fun character to work with. But you’ll have to read the story to find out that he’s not a typical anal-retentive guy. We hope he has quirks that catch readers off guard.

Even though characters help authors turn good stories into great ones, some characters have their own ideas about what’s going to happen next – regardless of what the authors’ story outline says.

Case in point: April Schaures, a personality in the third novel of the Silverville Saga series, The Magicke Outhouse. Created as an afterthought to complement the story’s protagonist, April pushed her way into the plot as one of the most colorful characters who’s ever visited Silverville. It was creepy, like she was waiting in the wings for a casting call. Creepy because she “possessed” us both at the same time, with surprising flair that seemed to come from nowhere. April really challenges our notion of where we thought characters originate. Even stranger, neither of us has ever known a character like April. But there she was on the page. In the passage below, she’s shining her new supervisor:

April climbed the stairs and opened the heavy door of the Silverville Public Library.

An older woman standing behind the circulation desk looked up. Had to be Miss Brumbelow, head librarian. The woman smiled and said, “Can I help you with anything?”

April marched to the desk and thrust out her hand. “I’m April.”

The smile melted into a frown. “Your internship started yesterday.”

“Didn’t you get my message?” The one I never sent.

“No, I don’t recall any messages from you.”

April forced a cough and drew a tissue from her pocket. “Really? You didn’t get my note about my recent relapse?”

Miss B appeared to wait for more of an explanation, which April was happy to provide.

“The Uruguayan Flying Worm Syndrome. It flared up again.”

“Excuse me? Uruguay? I understood you were from Placer City.”

“That’s where I grew up, after a traveling circus brought me into the United States and my parents adopted me.” April blew her nose long and hard into the tissue. “I caught the worm before that, when I was only six. Most people die from it. I was lucky.”

The librarian’s eyes narrowed. “Is it contagious?”

“Not once the worms work their way out of your system. Mine have.” April offered a long-suffering shrug. “But once you get it, it stays with you the rest of your life.”

“Is that why your pupils are so … so pink?”

April bent her head and plucked a small disk from one eye and held it up on her finger for the woman to inspect. “Colored contacts.”

While April replaced the theatrical lens, Miss B heaved a disappointed sigh and retrieved a sheet of paper from under the desk. “Here are the responsibilities I’ve typed up for you.” She handed it to her new intern and motioned her to follow.

We didn’t write April’s dialog; she did. In fact, she just sort of grabbed the reins and ran. We often find that a particular character will determine the direction of a plot. Characters tell us what they need, what they have to say, and where they will and will not go. Unlike April, most of our characters need fleshing out, but once we get to know them, we trust them to guide us to the end of the story. All three novels in the Silverville Saga have taken various twists and turns we hadn’t anticipated as the characters took on lives of their own. We almost felt like spectators rather than writers, our job merely to record what was going on in their universe.

Sometimes characters tell us what their names are. More often than not, surnames pop out about the same time a character shows up in a story. Last names occasionally stem from ones we’ve heard in our past or they’ll relate to the personality – or the just the opposite. In Little Greed Men, Howard Beacon isn’t exactly a bright light, Billy Noble is anything but, whereas money preoccupies Buford Price. Same thing in All Plucked Up: Madame Pompeii is as disastrous as her namesake, Maurice LeVieux plays an old geezer (“LeVieux” is French for that), and the “three fools” are our hat tip to Moe, Larry, and Curly. Whether or not readers catch our wordplay, the name puns are amusing to us. In The Magicke Outhouse, we named our protagonist Micah Musil because it sounds funny, its accentual syllabics imitate the corresponding anti-diuretic we’re punning, and it fits a person who encounters visceral turbulence – in a black-comedy sort of way.

In the long run we discovered that, for us, collaborative writing is about the give and take of authors in synch enough to be willing to trade off on who takes the lead. But a lot of the collaboration comes from the page itself — allowing our characters to contribute an active voice to the writing conversation. And that’s a kind of collaboration any author can have, regardless of how many actual eyes are looking at the screen.

At the beginning of this three-part series, we asserted that collaborative writing is like good sex. Do any of our projects lead to hot rendezvous in bed? Ha! We’ll never tell. Like we said before, we can’t write love scenes, which might seem a bit ironic. Let’s just say our passion is private except when it comes to crafting good tales together.

* * *

KYM
We’re still a sentence or two away from finishing this article.

They stare at the screen, rereading the last paragraph, looking for any momentum they can use.

MARK
(sighing)
Boy, I sure can’t think of anything else to say. Can you?

KYM
Nope.

FADE OUT

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Two)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the second in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner. In this part, we’ll explore examples of how that plays out in practice.

Duo-writing isn’t for everyone, but one clear advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did when we wrote our paranormal comedy-adventure series, the Silverville Saga. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. As you’ll recall at the end of the previous post, we cited an example of a scene where sheriff investigators and coroners from adjoining counties come together at the county line to decide who has to take possession of a decomposed corpse. That event – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, many of the situations in our first and second books from the series happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, in the first book, Little Greed Men, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.

The other scene from that same book we cited last time – the one in the embalming room – draws authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business. But writers contribute more than real-life experiences to a collaborative project. In our case, Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

Kym has a keen ear for dialog: she can hear the way different characters should talk, and the result is a distinct voice for each. Mark’s characters all tend to talk just like Mark. But Mark bravely jumps right into a scene while Kym endlessly stares at the screen waiting for the right words to come. Kym constantly plays devil’s advocate when it comes to defending the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If she can’t buy it, she won’t let it happen. Mark, on the other hand, happily plows through a scenario with little regard to where it comes from or where it’s going. That has its advantages, though. Mark, being a college professor and natural nerd, is  never at a loss for how to phrase things. But he tends to embellish, sometimes inserting too much literary texture (that’s the poet in him coming through). Kym champions a more nonintrusive voice, constantly reminding Mark of the kinds of books we both like to read.

Above all else, we prefer escapism – mysteries by John Sanford, Sarah Paretsky, Greg Iles, and Val McDermid; thrillers by Preston and Child, of course, but also those by John Case, Andrew Klavan, Dan Brown, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Crichton; warped fantasies (no dragons or elves) by Jonathan Carroll, Christopher Moore, Mario Acevedo, and Ramsey Campbell; sci-fi by Connie Willis, Charles Sheffield, Cordwainer Smith, John Barnes, Orson Scott Card, and Cory Doctorow. These lists could go on and on.

Okay, we do sometimes read something a little more high-brow. We like Laurie Wagner Buyer, Annie Proulx, Anita Diamant, Sara Gruen, Stacy Richter, Lorrie Moore. And yes, we even read the Pushcarts to keep our pulse on up-and-coming authors.

We read a lot because we think it helps our writing. And we’re shameless when it comes to stealing techniques that impress us. John Case gave The Genesis Code a twist in the final sentence of the book. We liked it so well that we added a final-sentence twist to Little Greed Men – or we thought we had, until the editors read it. Days before our novel went to press, we ate lunch with the publishers to pitch them the sequel. When the conversation came back to the first book, they asked if we planned to reveal the hidden identity of one of the major characters. We thought we had through implied exposition along the way as well as in our original final sentence. They didn’t get it. We rushed home and rewrote the last two paragraphs and final sentence, making that character’s identity unmistakable. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted, and almost all of our readers tell us they didn’t expect that ending. “Oh yeah,” one reader told us, “there were hints throughout the book. I just didn’t put it together until the end.”

Here’s a perfect example of what rigid writing can do to the quality of a story. We just knew the ambiguity at the end of Little Greed Men was enough to clue in our readers. We were wrong. We’ve been wrong about lots of things in our co-writing endeavors
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Several years ago, we wanted to tell an alternate history about Ankh-sen-amun, the wife of King Tut. We read lots of books, did tons of research, and then sat down to outline the story arc. We wrote extensive summaries for twenty-two carefully crafted chapters, and thought to ourselves, “Man, this book is going to write itself!” While this may work for some writers, the strategy completely killed our passion for the project. We remained steadfast and followed our outline to every detail. By six chapters, we’d gotten pretty bored. We hadn’t allowed the characters any voice in where the story was going. We all became miserable, and that manuscript still sits in a drawer at Chapter Six.

What’s become more workable for us is to create a broad-stroke outline that gives us the flexibility to still listen to our characters along the way. They may not always want to go where we had originally planned, and we’ve discovered we’d best listen to them.

We loved the movie, Romancing the Stone, about an author (played by Kathleen Turner) in search of a relationship that could match her novel series’ protagonist. Eventually she found her love (Played by Michael Douglass – gee, imagine that), but falling in love wasn’t easy.

We both tend to fall in love with our mouthiest, out most opinionated and pushy characters, but we don’t always relate to them in the same way. And certainly not like Kathleen Turner’s character did. And the process of encountering characters who take over our stories has really challenged Mark’s notion of how characters come about from the unconscious.

Our experience has produced characters who seem to have emerged at the same time for us both. Take Denton Fine in The Silverville Swindle. He was a nice enough guy from the start – so nice we got bored with him. Originally, we’d tagged Denton as our protagonist, but he turned out to be a little too white-bread for our taste. Same with our real-life friends. If they’re not quirky and eccentric, they don’t make our lunch-date list for long.

Pleasance Pantiwycke, from All Plucked Up, on the other hand, always makes our A-list for lunch. She’s a risk-taker and a slob, a black-marketeer and former female professional wrestler. Who wouldn’t enjoy her conversation? It only took a few pages for her to take over the sequel and become our protagonist.

Switch gears to Skippy from our first novel. She’s the only prominent female in the story, and one would think that Kym would empathize with her personality. Not so. Kym didn’t like spending time with her at all. Getting inside a woman’s head has always been more difficult for Kym, who finds it much easier to relate to men. Ironically, Mark got along with her just fine. This character serves as the main love interest for Billy, the story’s protagonist. We talked at length about how far their intimacy should go and decided, in the end, that it wouldn’t go far at all.

Here’s why: Several years ago, we’d bought a book on how to write erotica, hoping to make scads of money on the romance book wagon. We sat down and drafted out a torrid love scene, but it was simply too embarrassing to put into words. At least our words. “Love shaft” and “hot tunnel of passion” seemed like ridiculous and corny expressions that readers of the genre expected. We know it sells; we just couldn’t do it. When it came to shaping the relationship between Skippy and Billy, we offered a lukewarm story arc, and our editors cried foul. Either consummate that relationship or back it off, they said. We backed off and left it up to the imagination of the readers. For two authors that insist that co-writing is like good sex, we still can’t figure out why we can’t pen erotica.

Billy, don’t ask us why, turned into a protagonist that readers tend to like. We made him a cheat and a conman, and neither one of us really cared much for him. He was central, as the story unfolded, and we got stuck with him. He was also a cast member whose characteristics came from a sleazy guy we both knew years ago. We’re not naming names, but he always used to hit on Kym. Which brings us to where we find our characters. Most are composites of personality types of people everyone knows: Grady, the curmudgeon rancher; Buford, the self-interested town promoter; Howard, the endearing village simpleton – all Silverville Swindle cast members. Maybe it’s telling that we were most attached to Howard and easily crawled inside his head:

Howard liked to pedal. He didn’t have to think about anything else – just push the right foot down and then push the left foot down. Sometimes he went so slow that his bike would wobble, but then he’d stand up on his pedals and pump until he sped up fast enough that it felt like flying.

In some ways, it reminded him of massaging limbs. Whenever he helped Mr. Fine embalm bodies, Howard’s job was to squeeze the arms and legs so the blood could come out and the embalming fluid could go in. At least, that’s what Mr. Fine said it was for. First the right leg, and then the left leg. Just like pedaling.

Howard looks at the world in a very simple way that makes sense to the child in all of us, and it was soothing to write from his perspective, taking everything at face value.

Buford is modeled after a specific person, but again we’re not naming names. It’s been interesting to us to watch our community try to guess his real identity. No one ever has, and probably won’t. Buford and all of our characters emerge from some weird shared consciousness where we meet and get to know the folks who live within the city limits of Silverville and the environs.

But that’s not the strangest part of co-writing. Next time we’ll talk about those characters we didn’t know could exist when you’re a writing duo – those that somehow mysteriously leap from our collective minds and take over our stories…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddFor us, successful collaborative writing is like good sex.

First comes foreplay: we begin to brainstorm, teasing out seductive story lines to see if there’s something that we both want to spend time developing. And we’ve been doing this long enough that we already have a pretty good idea of what turns on our partner. As the passion for our story builds, we become excited as character and plot flesh out. We then get into the rhythm of storytelling, thrusting ideas from our sweaty little brains deep into the body of our tale. The heat finally culminates in an orgasmic release when we write the words “The End.”

But before you rush out to find a co-writer, remember that not everyone is going to be a willing (or a satisfactory) partner. The chemistry has to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find someone who’s good in bed, but rather someone who possesses similar mental, emotional, and professional writing compatibilities. One of the greatest advantages to co-writing is that two minds are always better than one when it comes to solving problems and bouncing ideas off one another. One person can temper the other. A plot point may not sound as workable when it’s verbalized to a co-author.

Of course, everyone engages in some level of co-writing to get that story into print. Even adamant solitary writers. Agents, editors, and publishers are all going to give their two cents’ worth, and you’re going to want to listen to at least some of it. Once your work reaches the hands of readers, and you develop an audience, you’ll want to consider what works for them so they continue to support your habit. That doesn’t mean that you sacrifice the integrity of your writing, but you’ll want to tailor your books to sell. A good friend of ours had a collection of short stories accepted by a university press, but after they insisted on drastic changes, he withdrew the collection. In this case, the two failed to strike a satisfactory partnership. When he finally found the right press for his words, did they suggest changes? Sure, but they were ones he thought improved the overall work.

In yet another situation, a publisher paired a different friend of ours, a well-published science fiction author, with an aeronautics specialist. The specialist focused meticulously on the science while our friend just wanted to tell a good tale. Inflated egos weighed heavily on the whole project, and we listened to our friend complain for a year as the book trudged toward publication.

As in all forms of co-writing, ego has to go out the window. No drama queens or kings allowed. If you’re going to partner up with another author for that next book, you both must feel free to offer ideas the other can shoot down or spin in a different direction. Ideally, neither party takes offense. Both authors must possess similar work ethics, demonstrate a willingness to meet deadlines, and stay on task. Think of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the writing duo who created The Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and multiple other page-turning thrillers. And they live half a continent apart.

How do they do it? You’ll have to ask them. But we suspect they use an electronic version of “transom writing.” Transoms are those windows over doors that open for ventilation. You’ve seen them; they’re in virtually every schoolhouse across the nation. In transom writing, each author writes a passage and then passes it on to the co-writer, who then takes responsibility for writing the next section. They exchange drafts back and forth like circulating air through a transom. It’s a kind of turn writing. Preston and Child co-author some books and individually author others. And they do it all well. Still, in their collaborative projects, we can spot now and then a subtle change of voices among chapters – a shift in favorite vocabulary and rhythms of syntax. That’s what tells us they’re turn writing.

We don’t do that.

We’re a lot more intimate in our approach.

Our readers tell us they can’t detect any shift in voice in our writing. That’s because there isn’t any:

FADE IN:
Kym and Mark sit on the bed, crouched over a laptop. Mark types as they talk.

KYM
(dictating)
Pleasance stood atop the Pyramid of Kukulcán, hoping to –

MARK
(interrupting)
– escape the sticky mid-summer –

KYM
(interrupting)
– swelter.

MARK
Yeah, I like that. And then how ‘bout, Trying to ignore the sweat that pooled at her bosom.

KYM
No, change that to between her breasts.

Mark deletes and retypes.

KYM (CONT’D)
And we need to describe the jungle before we get to the sweaty breasts.

Mark moves the cursor to the end of the first sentence.

MARK
(typing)
The Yucatán jungle stretched in all directions, islands of –

KYM
– stone ruins occasionally interrupting the monotonous green –

MARK
– of dwarfed cedar and chakah trees.

They give each other a high five.
FADE OUT

Okay, that may not have been exactly the way we wrote that particular passage from our novel, All Plucked Up, but it’s how we co-author – one of us starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Plus, Mark is dyslexic and Kym catches misspellings as we go along. (We’re doing it right now as we type this article.) In our case, Mark is the typist because Kym can’t use the touch pad on the laptop. It’s all pretty efficient except when one of our six house cats jumps on the keyboard. There’s nothing transom-like in the way we compose at the sentence level. And this technique allows us to test out loud as we go along just how naturally the words flow on the page.

We’d be the first to admit that this is probably not the fastest way to write for most people. But it works for us because we like to write together, and we decide up front on a project that we both feel passionate about. The biggest challenge, of course, is to find or block out regular periods of time when we’re both available. Kym is an early-morning person (she’s up before the sun) while Mark isn’t even coherent until 11 a.m. Our best compromise falls mid day, and we plan accordingly.

Todd_finalgreedIt also helps that we both have equally twisted senses of humor. In our first novel for the same Silverville Saga Series, Little Greed Men, we have a scene where the sheriffs of two counties meet to decide jurisdiction over unidentified human remains found more or less straddling the line:

“It’s not Silver County’s problem,” Carl said at last.

“Wait a minute!” the other sheriff objected. “You guys found as many bones on your side as we did.”

“C’mon, Andy, you’ve got the skull,” Carl said. “That officially gives you more bone mass than we have.”

“Yeah, but you guys have the teeth.”

“We don’t know for sure those dentures are that fellow’s teeth. Maybe somebody was out here hiking and dropped them.” Carl looked pretty satisfied with his deduction.

“Oh man, that ain’t right. We had to bury one earlier this spring. You haven’t had one in a couple of years.”

They argued back and forth for several minutes . . .

To us, this scene was a howl to write, and we were having too much fun to worry much about whether or not readers would agree. We enjoy this type of book, and we hoped the same kind of readers would discover our novel. More important to us was writing true to what we thought was funny.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did with the Silverville Saga Series. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. The scene above – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, nearly all of the situations in our book happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.

Another scene in the book has a real sense of authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business:

Buford gawked at the open shelves neatly stacked with rows of embalming fluid bottles, instruments, and linens. He’d never been in the room long enough before to get a close look at the mysterious equipment kept there. Picking up a cardboard box, he plucked out a small pink disc that was shaped like half a hollow marble.

“What are these?”

Howard dropped his towel into a hamper. “They’re eye cups. We stick them under the eyelids after someone dies.” Then he added, “So the eyes won’t sink.”

Buford took two of the little cups and raised them to his own eyes, squinting to hold them in place like two plastic monocles. “Like this?”

He heard the door open behind him and turned, blindly, in that direction.

“Buford, what are you doing in here?”

Opening his eyes, Buford felt the cups slide down his cheeks toward the floor. Denton stood with his hands on his hips, and he didn’t look pleased.

Of course, Mark never played with eye caps. (At least he never got caught.)

The advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses. Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Todd_outhouse_final_cover(sm)Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

The Blank Spaces In Our Stories: The Messages Writers Send Readers Between the Words

 

By Kym-n-Mark Todd

As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?

Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.

Part 3 – The Blank Spaces between Books: Why we break or conclude a stand-alone story or conclude one arc as a book in a multi-book series

We’ve all seen them. They populate Amazon’s best-selling lists, or the host of suggestions on Goodreads, or the rankings in Publishers Weekly.

Series are an ever increasing trend, and not just the three-book deal. Try five books, or ten, or more.

And it’s the spaces between the suffixed listings of “#1,” “#2,” #3,” ad infinitum that add to the story – or rather, the promise of a premise much larger than a single story can contain.

When we wrote the first Silverville Saga book, Little Greed Men, we intended our story as a one-off, a stand-alone. And we maintain there’s nothing wrong with an autonomous tale. The space after a stand-alone – literal and implied – that follows the terminal announcement of “The End” tells its own message: The story arc is done, the world expressed, the characters sufficient unto a single novel.

When a reader picks up such a novel from the book or library shelf, noticing no sequels rest in slots on either side, there’s a certain writer-reader contractual understanding that announces, “All bets are off.” The protagonist may perish or the world end. The blank space at the end is reserved to ponder the reading just finished, perhaps to wonder what might happen next, but in any event preserving the reader’s prerogative to interpret the close of the story however that reader wants. The author doesn’t usurp the reader’s forward-imagining suppositions with a sequel.

But sequels – and prequels – offer the cadre of a story’s fans an undeniable opportunity to reenter a cherished world, to revisit character-friends, and to experience some of the things readers best liked about the previous tale.

Our first Silverville book went through two successful editions, and each time the small-press publisher urged us to consider a sequel. But we were wary. We didn’t want to write a same-song/second verse follow-up to the original, and we felt we’d said what we wanted to say the first time. It wasn’t until that press closed its operation and gave us back the book that we reconsidered – and then only because the new press who bid for the book wanted a sequel.

Our solution? We finally realized that one of the most important characters of that book was the fictitious setting – the town of Silverville itself, a seemingly ordinary place that punched holes in the mundane reality of its inhabitants and visitors. And if we’d told one version of what that place could do to a particular set of characters, we could create other scenarios for characters with different agendas. We locked in on the words that now appear on the covers of all the books: “Silverville, where anything is possible.”

We’d discovered the promise of a premise that could sustain a muti-novel series.

In our case, we feel we haven’t abandoned the blank space at the end of each story because we still write each book as a stand-alone. But we’ve also compromised a bit, allowing certain larger story arcs to overlap from book to book or bringing back certain characters we like or even love to hate.

If Silverville Saga (now dubbed) #1 considers the possibility of interaction with extraterrestrials, then Silverville Saga #2 All Plucked Up delves into a curse, Silverville #3 The Magicke Outhouse explores the consequences of time-travel, and Silverville Saga #4 Colorado Boo(m) Town brings on the chaos of inter-dimensional ghosts.

The blank spaces between the separate novels let a reader drop into our “Silververse” between any ending and any beginning of any story, but the anything-is-possible premise is our implied promise for the entire series.

We’ve tried to do the same with this three-part blog series: The overarching premise is blank spaces around the ever larger blocks of words that we and all writers assemble. But each of the parts requires a different approach since each has distinctive implications.

The next time you write a sentence, a section, a chapter, a book, or a series, remember to think about the messages you send your readers when you place blank spaces outside your word

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By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State College University’s MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.

 

The Blank Spaces in our Stories: The Messages Writers Send Readers Between The Words

 

By Kym-n-Mark Todd

As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?

Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.
Part 2 – Why we break to new scenes or new chapters: The blank spaces between narrative sections

Poets know all about blank space. Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and a fine poet in his own “write,” defines poetry as “writing where the right-hand margin matters.” He’s talking, of course, about controlling the empty space in the margins as a way to draw attention to what’s important in the words.

Authors use this strategy as well to signal important transitions by using what are called ellipses or space-jumps – the insertion of extra space or a cluster of asterisks between one block of paragraphs and a consecutive block of paragraphs within a chapter.

The implied contract between writer and reader concerning ellipses usually specifies one or more of the following:

  • a change in narrator
  • a change in place
  • a change in time

We personally love this little manipulation of blank space. It’s purely our own preference, but we use this transition to set up mini-cliffhangers, interrupting key sequences with other subplots designed (we hope) to keep readers from going to bed at night. (By the way, we hate it when our favorite authors do this to us, and you only have to look at the dark circles under our eyes to see how effective we find this technique.)

We also adhere to the other unwritten law of maintaining a single point of view within a section between ellipses. Following this practice helps readers see who’s important within a section, but it also allows for a bit of creative irony.

For example, in Silverville Saga, #1, Little Greed Men, we use ellipses to set up an important misunderstanding between protagonist Bill Noble, a minor con artist who’s come to town, and the local woman who wins his heart, Skippy Price. Billy idealizes her, not knowing she has her own shady past. When we’re in Billy’s head, readers see how he views Skippy; when we shift to Skippy’s head, readers find out more than Billy will ever know. That’s called dramatic irony, and it’s the ellipses that let readers in on important insights neither character finds out.

The blank space between scenes also lets the reader move to new places or different times without having to walk through the implied, mundane progression of the story. And who wants to read – let along write – scenes that are boring? These snap-your-fingers-and-poof transitions accustom readers to accept sudden changes, and even sequences that alter the order of linear events without resorting to cumbersome signal words such as “but before that,” or “much later than that.”

Thinking about transitions brings us to the larger ellipses embedded in most novels called chapter breaks, divisions which hold a lot of implied fine print in the writer-reader contract.

We doubt readers expect all authors to handle chapter breaks the same way (we’re don’t when we wear our reader hats, and we bet you don’t either). Nevertheless, it helps readers sort out what this bigger use of white space means if authors break for new chapters using some internally consistent rationale. It’s akin to expecting a good fantasy world to adhere to internally consistent magic.

We don’t use the same strategy in every novel we write but, unless something alternative seems to fit the story better, we do have a default: plotted episodes. We’ll use a chapter – though sometimes we use a larger division, the so-called “part”  – like a playwright or screenwriter builds tension through different acts (with the scenes inside each act divided by ellipses). Of course, we also interlace the scenes within chapters, interrupting one with the next to create those mini-cliffhangers we mentioned above.

Sometimes we’ve let chapters tell cohesive subplots, letting the space between chapters signal that what follows will all deal with the same thread within the story. And other times we’ve allowed chapters to be faithful to just one narrator for each chapter.

So long as the various divisions – those blank spaces between the words – are consistent and help guide readers through the story, it doesn’t really matter what the sections signal. So long as YOU know what it means when you decide to insert extra space.

But does the end of the novel mean the end of the story? The biggest implied space may exist between books – the subject of the third and final part of this series.

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By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State Colorado University’s MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.

 

The Blank Spaces in Our Stories: The Messages Writers Send Readers Between The Words

 

By Kym-n-Mark Todd

Kym-n-Mark give a Silverville Saga reading in Kreuzberg, Germany, alongside Berliner novelist/screenwriter Knut Kohr. The bar for the reading was 100 yards from the largest drug drop in Berlin.)

Kym-n-Mark give a Silverville Saga reading in Kreuzberg, Germany, alongside Berliner novelist/screenwriter Knut Kohr. The bar for the reading was 100 yards from the largest drug drop in Berlin.)

As writers, we all spend lots of time thinking about narrative craft – plot, character, setting, dialog – but what about the blank spaces between all those words?

Readers don’t give much thought to those spaces – unless they’re missing. So it’s up to writers to fill the blanks with implied meaning. And it’s part of the unwritten “contract” we create every time we ask a reader to invest storytime with us.

Over the next three posts, we’ll remind fellow writers of the messages they intuitively (and, we hope, intentionally) include in the blank spaces of any good story. It starts at the sentence and paragraph levels, but it builds as we accumulate the sections and chapters of a good tale, and it even plays a role if we decide to expand our universe into multi-book series.

Part 1 – “Half-Halts and Full-Stops”: Why we add the breaks between sentences and paragraphs

As a part of writerly trade, we all know that every conversation – and especially every sequence of constructed dialog – tells as much or more through the subtext rather than the spoken exchanges. On the street, we express important information beyond our words by the way we gesture, inflect tone, screw up our facial muscles. On the page, we do something similar by how we use blank spaces, communicating important information that readers sense at a metatextual level.

It’s kind of like the subtle cues a good rider uses when “talking” to a horse. All our lives, we’ve bred, raised, and trained horses, and we’ve never cared for the term “horse whisperer” – that’s way too loud to characterize what takes place in the conversation between rider and ridden.

If performed correctly, that’s why the art of dressage is boring to watch from the sidelines because nothing seems to happen. There’s no slapping or spurring or yipping; but there’s a constant, subtle conversation occurring nonetheless, one expressed with a two-ounce pressure on the reins, a slight shift in the seat, a quarter-inch drop in the heels. These quiet cues, call “half-halts,” tell the horse important information is about to come, and then one slightly more assertive “statement” signals the next executed movement.

Similarly, the tiny breaks in the forward motion of our writing prepare readers for how to read our words. When we elect to fill our sentences with commas, we’ve slowed the pace, signaled the reader that important little packets of information are arriving, and each needs its own moment. But when our sentences roll on in long and flowing streams of words, we give readers the sense that the gush of ideas should speed up the reading pace to keep in step with our lengthening strides.

Same thing for the short, single-sentence or -phrase paragraph.

It’s that empty space at the end that signals to readers the importance of a single, stand-alone statement. Kinda of like a “full-stop” for a horse, telling the mount to think on what just happened for a moment before continuing. Our paragraph breaks function much the same way.

Of course, the spaces that punctuate breaks between sentences and paragraphs are part writer’s style and part style guide. For example, journalism tends towards very short paragraphs because newspaper articles flow down narrow column widths, and long paragraphs make a column look too gray and uninviting. Book-width pages can pack more in, but a leaf without paragraph breaks still looks daunting, and maybe the reason short, snappy exchanges of dialog can “open up” a page, encouraging readers forward.

Pages dense with type signal readers by the lack of blank space, telling them to take a deep breath, to slow down and pay attention. In this sense, writers carry on conversations with readers even before readers’ eyes focus on words and phrases.

Nothing inherently wrong with dense passages, of course, if that’s the message a writer intends to send. But blank spaces – or their lack – signal readers about what’s ahead and how they should approach the reading.

Less subtle are the larger blocks of blank space separating one section or one chapter from another, where a completely different sort of meaning takes place. Readers recognize these blank spaces say something important, and the audience assumes writers know how to use that space to set up what follows next – the topic of the next posting.

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By day, Kym is a graphic designer, Mark a writing teacher and director of Western State Colorado University’s MFA program in Creative Writing; by night, they’re caped crusa – er, writers. They collaborate on the paranormal adventure-comedy Silverville Saga series, including Little Greed Men, All Plucked Up, The Magicke Outhouse (forthcoming next month), and Colorado Boo(m) Town (forthcoming in late 2014) – all published by Raspberry Creek Books. Mark is also author of the SF novel, Strange Attractors – A Story about Roswell, and two collections of poetry, Wire Song and Tamped, But Loose Enough to Breathe.