Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

By Susan Spann

Good fiction requires both male and female characters, and every author needs to learn to write both types convincingly in order to put a compelling cast on the page.

Few authors have experience living as both a male and a female. Most of us are only dealt one hand of gender-cards. The trick, as an author, is learning to how to peek at what the other side is holding (pun intended). Successful authors, like successful gamblers, often cheat.

My shinobi mysteries features dual protagonists, neither of whom is female. However, I was born with "indoor plumbing" -- facts which, taken together, create a conundrum:

How can a woman write a book from a man's perspective? And, for other authors...How can a man see life through a woman’s eyes?

Pervasive gender stereotypes and snide remarks aside, it’s not only possible to write from the other gender’s perspective … authors can do it very well, with a little time and practice.

Here are some tips for writing from the “other plumbing’s POV":

1.  Character first, gender second. Trying to write “like a man" or to "sound like a woman” will get you in hot water, no matter which direction the gender flip is rolling. Instead, consider your characters as if they were real people. Learn as much about them as you can—personality, backstory (most which doesn’t make it into the novel), likes/dislikes, phobias--everything a "real" person needs to become a unique individual. The more well-rounded your characters become, the more convincing they’ll be—regardless of gender.

2. "The Ability to Speak Does Not Make You Intelligent.” (Bonus points for those who can identify the quote.) Dialogue is key to gender differentiation. Men and women speak differently. Many of those differences relate more to personality than to gender, though gender also plays a role. Men and women both speak referentially, but references differ according to gender, personality, personal preferences, and experience. An athlete doesn't sound like a stripper, and neither of them will sound like a ballet dancer, male OR female.

Statistically speaking, more men than women will recognize the quote that leads this paragraph* because the “sci-fi/gamer” contingency contains more men than women. That said, many of my female friends would know the quote immediately. That's the circle in which I run...and it points out another important facet of gender-swap in writing: don't let your preconceptions about gender control your writing. Investigate how the other half really lives. 

3. Tell Me About Your Feelings. Men and women often express emotion differently. My ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, considers his feelings only rarely, and almost never discusses them. By contrast, many of my female characters express emotion with less reserve. (Ironically, the era in which I write--medieval Japan--results in far less emotional display by both genders than you might see in a modern novel--once again, research trumps preconception.) Beware of stereotypes, and individuals do differ, but as a rule men spend less time discussing emotions, especially when talking with other men. Women (again...as a rule) relate better to emotional topics and tend to discuss them in more detail.

4. Observe. Listen. Take Notes. And Share it on Social Media. OK, maybe not the last bit, but the rest of this is important. Listen to conversations in public places. Watch how people interact. Pay special attention to the "other gender," especially when the people in question are similar to the characters you're writing. Watch the way they stand, the way they gesture, the way they move. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm when they speak. People act most naturally when they don’t think anyone is watching, so try to observe without being noticed...or arrested. Note: STALKING IS BAD, MMMKAY? Police mug shots look really bad on the inside cover of novels.

5. Cheat. Find a beta reader and a critique partner of the opposite gender. (Note: that's two different people, not just one.) The beta reader should simply read, without editing the manuscript, and tell you whether the characters of his or her gender sound like "real" people. Critique partners should read and also offer edits or suggestions. Both are important, because they will notice different things. Tell them you want to know if anything sounds wrong or out of place … and then pay attention to what they tell you.

My now-adult son acts as my alpha reader for every novel, and I also have a male critique partner. Trust me when I tell you that nothing—NOTHING—critiques your work as bluntly as a college-age male. (My critique partner is far more polite about telling me something's amiss.) However, I can rely on them both, and if Hiro or Father Mateo says or does something "wrong" I can count on one or both of them telling me: “No guy in his position would say that. EVER.”

Note taken. Revision made.

One of the most difficult parts of writing gender-flipped characters is avoiding stereotyping (it’s hard to do, even--or maybe especially--in posts like this). Knowing what men like, and how they act, helps woman write the male POV, and the opposite is true for males writing inside a female mind. (To whom I say...God help you all.)

What helps you write from the other gender's perspective?

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, will release in July 2015. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

Whack the Cliché

By Mark Stevens

Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?

Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?

A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.

First, check this out:

The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)

In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it

A stereotype.

When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.

Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.

Sound like a novel you want to read?

A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?

These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:

The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?

Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!

There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too.  "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"

How do you keep the writing fresh, original?

Fill in the blank. As tough as _____.  As cool as a _____.

Go.

I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?

And, should it be?

Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?

Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

So there’s a standard for you.

Worth shooting for?

--

* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.

Writing Undercover … by Tina Ann Forkner

Recently I was cleaning out some electronic files and noticed an old draft of a novel I’d abandoned in favor of another manuscript. My hand hovered over the delete key. I was about to send it to the trash bin when I decided to give it a quick read. I’m glad I did. The draft was pretty long and was I surprised to find myself newly intrigued with the story. It was a good idea! I decided not to delete the draft, but instead to resurrect the story and work on it on the side.

Do you have a story idea, or a secret manuscript that you go to when you are stuck on your current Work in Progress? If not, then you might consider creating a file that you can go to when nothing else is working. Let it be a story that would surprise the socks off your friends. Let it be so “you” that at first, you would never dream of showing it to anyone. Let it be a place for your writing soul to escape.

In the past I had a private manuscript that nobody else knew about. It was just for fun and I wrote on it when I had so-called writer’s block or when I was bored with my current project. Even when I was writing under contract, I worked on that story. In most ways, the manuscript I escaped to was a lot different than what I was writing under contract for Random House. It had a completely different setting, a bigger cast of characters, and the best part was that I didn’t feel a need to censor myself in any way. Nobody was ever going to see it, right? In the end, I wrote a novel called Waking Up Joy that ultimately put me back in the driver’s seat of my writing career, but more importantly than that, writing it undercover gave me my mojo back.

Sometimes, when we are going through the publishing phase, or when we are busily writing and pitching proposals at writing conferences hoping to get published, we unwittingly start cheating ourselves by letting the business of writing pull us away from the writing zone. You know what I mean by ‘the writing zone’, right? It’s what happens when the world around you falls away and the writing flow pulls you down the river of inspiration. It’s hard to find the writing zone when you are trying to plan your story around current publishing trends or with the expectations of editors and agents judging it. So, my advice? Write something that nobody can touch. Write undercover. You might be surprised at how doing so frees the storyteller locked within.

The beauty of writing Waking Up Joy undercover was that 1) I remembered how to be true to myself no matter what I write, and 2) I gained the confidence to take greater chances in my manuscripts.

Additionally, the idea that I wasn’t going to pitch the novel to anyone, but was writing it for myself, allowed me to find the writing zone. At first I fully expected that I would never pitch the novel, and in all honesty that would have been okay. The whole point of writing undercover was to explore the craft and see what else I was capable of writing, but when I realized that my practice manuscript was a story I wanted to bring to my readers, I started showing the first fifty pages to agents and editors.

Now, even though I’m writing under contract for my new publisher, I know it’s time to go undercover again. I don’ t know if this secret manuscript will turn out to be something worth shopping, or if it will only be a manuscript that teaches me more about myself and writing, but I again feel a longing to go back to that secret place in my soul where I don’t write for anyone except Tina Ann Forkner.

If you find that like me, you sometimes freeze at the idea of writing something to show an editor or agent, let alone the world, start a secret manuscript and write something you’ve never written before. Write a story that flows out of your soul without the intention of ever showing it to anyone else, write a memoir, or write a story that might seem out of character to your friends, but that you know is all you. Whatever you do, start with the intention of writing it undercover.

It might end up that your secret manuscript is something you want to share, but don’t write it for that reason. Most likely your manuscript will be a learning tool that will give you a release from your regular writing projects, like going to the playground when you should be at work. Perhaps in the process you will reconnect with your muse and in the end become a better writer. This what I’m hoping will happen to me again as I dig back into that lost manuscript I unearthed when I was cleaning out my files. I’m going undercover. Ready?
Let’s go…

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

Tina Ann ForknerTina Ann Forkner writes Women’s Fiction and is the author of Waking Up Joy, Rose House, and Ruby Among Us. A southern girl at heart, she writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming where she lives with her husband and their three teens.

Learn more at www.tinaannforkner.com

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

By Jeanne C. Stein

How do you keep a reader engaged? Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Our goal as a writer is to entertain, and make the reader care about your story.

How do you do this? By creating and maintaining an emotional bond with the reader, by manipulating their emotions, by creating and maintaining suspense.

We’ve already decided that we want our books to be as thrilling as possible. That each chapter should end with a hook designed to grab our readers and not let ago until they’ve reached the last page.

Let’s look at some of the most popular ways authors accomplish that same idea throughout their books.

1. The ticking clock. The ticking bomb. This is probably the most often used. Our protag is up against a deadline. If she misses it, the world as she knows it will be changed forever.

2. The “fifth” character. Also called the “disposable” character. A character the reader has come to know and love. Our protag’s friend, sometimes, our protag’s mentor. As readers, we are invested in that character. We love him or her. Then in a startling development, that character is killed off. It ups the stakes for the protag and ratchets up the emotional impact for the reader.

3. Personal agendas. Giving our secondary characters motives unknown to our protag that make it more difficult for her to achieve her goal. This sets up anticipation in the reader who realizes a verbal or physical clash is bound to occur.

4. Red herrings. Should be used sparingly. It’s okay to create a couple of false leads, but peppering the book with a different one every chapter will frustrate the reader. The opposite of this, of course, is one we mentioned earlier: cheating. Don’t wait until the very last chapter and spring an antagonist on us we’ve never met before.

5. Greatest fear. Make our protag face what she fears most. Can be a physical or psychological or moral challenge. The important thing is that the result of failing that challenge means utter disaster.

Those are a few of the more common ways to create suspense. Now how we write it.

We mentioned Dwight Swain in the last lesson. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he shares the secret. They are called Motivation/Reaction Units. Or stimulus/response units. Here’s how they work.

The motivation is something our characters see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s a stimulus that results in a reaction or response. Motivation is external and objective—something happens. The reaction is internal and subjective—our character’s response.

Jack Bickham in his book The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to How to Avoid Them) puts it like this:

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty- gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Taking this one step further—the reaction/response must always occur in this order: feelings, reflex action, rational action. For example, our protag is attacked unexpectedly. First, she’s surprised (feeling), then she falls back (reflex action) next she gathers herself and responds to protect herself (rational action.)

Why do I say reaction MUST occur in this order? Because it’s logical. When the telephone rings, we answer it. Not the other way around. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s such a small thing, why should we pay much attention? Because a sentence constructed this way: I walked to the door when the bell rang, marks us as amateurs. Remember when I said editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading our submissions? This is a big one. Along with typos, improper manuscript presentation and improper grammar. We’ll hit more ways to shoot ourselves in the foot in Lesson Ten.

But back to writing the page-turner. What else do we need to make our books come alive? Action verbs. Sophie plunged head first into the water. She didn’t throw herself quickly or drop precipitously into the water. Use action verbs. Omit adverbs and adjectives. Keeps the writing fresh and taut.

Use all the senses. Use sensory details and internalizations to:

Make the reader buy into our world (by suspending disbelief).
Create empathy with our characters.
Modulate pacing and tension to keep the reader hooked.
Keep the reader oriented in the story.
Key the reader to the important plot points.

Sensory details place the reader in the story through:

Sight
Sound
Smell
Taste
Touch (sensations)

Here’s an example:

Sophie smelled brine and seaweed before the cold enveloped her. Salt water burned her throat as the darkness rushed up to meet her. There was no sound. Just immense silence followed by…nothing.

Of course, you’re not always going to use ALL five senses. But use more than one. Brings the action to life.

Don’t interrupt action with back-story. There’s nothing worse than being pulled from the NOW for a trip down memory lane. If your protag is fighting for her life, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be thinking about how she came to be in this predicament. She’s going to be concentrating on overcoming her opponent. It’s all the reader should be concerned with, too. Our aim is to create a powerful emotional experience.

Let’s review, then, how we construct a good novel. We use:

Scenes containing Goals, Conflicts, Disasters

Sometimes followed by Sequels: Reaction to the disaster presenting a Dilemma, which leads to a Decision (used sparingly)

And we write these scenes and sequels as a series of Motivation/Reaction Units

In every paragraph, motivation/reaction units should propel the action. Every paragraph. It won’t be easy at first. In fact, what I want you to do now is to look at a scene you’ve already written. Make it the best scene in your entire book.

Now rewrite it as a series of motivation/reaction units. Get rid of everything else. Make sure the sequence of your M/R units is correct: feelings, reflex action, rational action (including dialogue, by the way.)

Done right, you should have an action packed scene that leaves the reader breathless.

Here are some examples of the Good, Bad and Ugly of what we discussed:
The Good: Warren Hammond’s EX-COP:

She ran her hand across the rack’s surface and began fiddling with the shackle again. I found my eyes moving from one rack to another. She caught me in the act, and smiled naughtily, fully back into her kinky librarian persona. I felt a good kind of stirring in my stomach that made its way down into my pants. For the first time in forever, I felt intoxicated on something other than booze.

The Bad:

She left the bar, drink in hand, and headed back to her table. Oh no! Somebody bumped into her, knocking the drink out of her hand.

The Ugly:

Bryce turned to see Jackson, who had just tapped his shoulder. He shoved Jackson with two hands, the memory of what Jackson had done to him making it impossible to control his emotions. Bryce’s cheeks burned red with a rush of blood.

The Ugly Revised:

Bryce felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Jackson. The memory overwhelmed. Blood rushed into his heating cheeks, anger surging beyond his control. He shoved Jackson with two hands.

Remember, too, every stimulus deserves a proportional response.

Try these simple exercises:

Stimulus: The waitress whizzed by, dropping the bill on the table, a waft of perfume hitting my nose a moment later. I eyed the bill, the seven-digit number making me think those were some damn expensive eggs, until I realized I was looking at a hand-written phone number.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The growl echoed in the dog’s chest, ears pressed against her head, and she pulled her lips back. Incisors. Canines. Molars.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The guy came out of nowhere, shoved me back against the car. “Give me your wallet.”

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. The bank teller had given me too much. “I think there’s been a mistake, “ I began. She looked me right in the eye, “I never make a mistake,” she said.

What would be an appropriate response?

Next we have some fun: SEX—Do we need it (in our books, I mean ☺ )? How much do we need? How do we write it?

Remember, until next time: BICHOK—Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!! See you in May!

The Curse of the First Pancake … by Shannon Baker

Shannon Baker 2015There’s a piece of writing wisdom that says to hone your craft, you must first write one million words. Back in my early years, I’d read somewhere that it takes, on average, twelve years from beginning writer to published author. If you’re writing every day, those might amount to roughly the same. If that’s the case, I’m a below average writer. I don’t remember when I became serious about writing but I started slowly, articles, essays, short stories, before I launched into novels.

I took a few years off here and there for life crises, and eventually published my first novel in 2010. Although I loved that book—as it lives in my head—I’m afraid it’s a First Pancake affair.

You know about the first pancake. For some reason, it never turns out right. Parts of it burn and others are doughy. That’s the one the dog gets. But after that, they rise up to a golden brown, all fluffy and perfect. I’ve learned not to get impatient and gobble that first one. I’m better off to save belly space for the really good pancakes that follow.

I didn’t apply the same wisdom to my First Pancake book. I worked on that poor story for far too long. I knew the characters from their DNA out, why they acted as they did, nearly every day of their childhood. I understood the issues at stake, the technology, the history. I researched and read, dreamed and created. Tore down, rewrote, revised, regurgitated.

My critique groups saw so many versions they grew to hate it. Oh, they never said so, but I knew their inner groaning when I’d cheerfully announce, “I fixed it!” and handed out pages. I queried agents in the hundreds. And in between rejections, I’d rewrite according to the last skill I learned or the latest critique.

Baker_Tattered Legacy (1)I buried myself in that book, refusing to give it up. By the time I finally got a nano-press to accept it, I couldn’t tell you what I’d translated onto the page and what only survived in my head. It was a goulash of partially rewritten scenes, action changed to meet so many others’ ideas, styles and timelines. When I started writing the book, data was stored on CDs and used in desktop computers. When I published it, thumb drives and cell phones were common.

I probably shouldn’t have turned it out for public consumption but publishing seemed the only way for me to let it go and move on.

I can’t say the next book was perfect, but it did rise and cook evenly all the way through. And to follow this analogy to the ridiculous, every book since then has been full of better quality ingredients that just weren’t available for that first pancake. And now I’m thinking of clever ways to incorporate butter and syrup metaphors, layering pancake on pancake to create a towering stack of literature, but I’ll go ahead and give you all a break.

I’ve got my rights back to that book. And I still believe in the story, even after the disaster execution. Every now and then, I get the notion I should pull it out and with my new skills, rework it. Again. The premise is great. The concept is still valid.

So far, my wiser side has prevailed. (That and my friends and family get a rabid gleam in their eyes when I mention it.) I’ll let the dog enjoy that First Pancake book and happily introduce the third book in the stack called the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, Tattered Legacy.

It’s set in the iconic red rocks of Moab, UT. Working to solve the murder of her best friend, Nora uncovers an unlikely intersection of ancient Hopi legends, a secret polygamist sect and one of the world’s richest men. Will Nora put all the pieces together in time to prevent disaster?

I have a friend who declares his oldest step-child is a Pancake Child. What is a Pancake in your life?

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

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink. A fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder. Shannon is an itinerant writer, which is a nice way of saying she’s confused. She never knows what time zone she’s in, Timbuck-Three, Nebraska, or Denver, or Tucson. Nora Abbott has picked up that location schizophrenia and travels from Flagstaff in Tainted Mountain, to Boulder in Broken Trust and then to Moab in Tattered Legacy. Shannon is proud to have been chosen Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2014 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at her website.

While Tattered Legacy is available from your favorite online or bookstore, if you’d like to support indie bookstores, you’re welcome to contact Who Else Books at Broadway Book Mall.  Ron and Nina are the best! And they might have a signed copy to send.

Take A Little Trip

By Mark Stevens

Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.

The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.

The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.

Right?

Okay, let me back up a tad.

In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:

Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”

One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”

My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)

Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?

Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?

This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.

Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)

Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.

Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”

And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”

Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”

I’m not here with answers.

I’m not here with “ta da.”

I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.

If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.

And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.

So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.

Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.

kafka quote

That Fleeting Magic

By Colleen Oakes

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It happened last night, in the middle of a long day of writing, editing and brain-storming.  My writing buddy  and I had hunkered down for a five hour session of hammering out the problems in our respective novels. Seriously, it's such a perfect working relationship that it's a little scary.  This is how we do it: first, the good - then, the bad, which takes about five times longer than the good.  Peter's voice needs work. Damien needs feelings.  Comments range from "I LITERALLY hate your mountain range" to "I don't like or respect sexy aliens" Back and forth and back and forth it went.

At the end of our session, I was struggling with the ending of my current novel. It's a very complicated climax, with a lot of specific plot devices that have to happen just at the right time, in the right order and getting that order just right is terribly tripping me up at the moment.  I'm nowhere near the end, but I need to have my ducks in a row to proceed from this point on. I've arrived at a place in the story where I need to know origin stories - and the endgame.

So, we were at Udi's eating delicious pizza and humus when it happened.  At that point we had spent about 5 hours dissecting and editing and I was running over the plot for my novel out loud, in my head, and chasing down every thread that occurred.  To me sometimes, the best way to figure out where a story is going is just to push it down every possible dark alleyway and see what comes out. I was missing something from the climax.  I knew that something KEY was missing.  So we were running over scenarios, one by one and then I had it. A sliver of an idea.  A tiny sliver, a slip of a thing, a whisper of something big.

We discussed it.  Then, our voices rose, and started overlapping. We followed the string into the dark alley and kept following it. We started getting excited and then, we were yelling and high fiving and I'm pretty sure the table behind us thought we were totally drunk seeing how we were talking magic and pirates and musical instruments.

It was a moment, just a moment of pure creation.

Afterwards, even on the drive home as I recapped it minute by minute to my VERY lucky husband, I was still buzzing, my skin feeling like it was on fire, my brain alive and awake and flooded with adrenaline.  When you write with that kind of inspirational heat that is as rare as an eclipse, the story flows out of you like water, the best kind of drowning.

Sometimes people ask me why I write.  Most of the time, it's because I like sipping on a hot beverage and simultaneously trying not to bang my head against a keyboard. But when it's magic like this, it's a job that is so much more than a job. It's creating a living and breathing thing that can surprise, delight and frustrate you.  Honestly, it's a lot like parenting.

And when that inspirational lightning strikes, and your story falls into place like an elaborate puzzle, it's one of the best moments that a writer can have.

It might only happen once or twice a book, but when it does, it's pure, unfiltered ecstasy.

Magic.

Why was this scene cut?

By Janet Lane

I saw a terrific movie yesterday, An American Sniper. The director, Clint Eastwood, made a surprising decision that triggered thoughts about, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the mantra for story telling, and for good reason. Because we all write and read different genres, I’ll mention major movies. Imagine if the slaughtered horse head-in-a-bed scene had not been included in The Godfather. Or the nude sketch scene in Titanic. The shower scene in Psycho. Or when Dr. Zhivago sees Laura through the streetcar window and suffers a fatal heart attack before he can reach her?

All levels of writers know this principle, yet it can be difficult to master.

In Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham explains the purpose of scenes. His first three points:
1. The goal of each scene must relate to the story question.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be with another person, not internally, within oneself.

This is helpful when determining when to write a scene, and when narrative summary will be the best option.

Telling gives the reader essential knowledge that keeps the reader informed, and able to grasp the significance of the scene/s that immediately follow.

If the protagonist is to insult someone, the reader needs to know the stakes and penalties, so s/he can worry. Not an,“It was the best of times and the worst of times” sweeping global overview, but concise details specific to your story.

If the scene is affected by current conditions, it could be a capsule historical overview at the beginning of the story. Here’s an overview from my latest release, Traitor’s Moon: "Poor England was sliding into civil war as the Duke of York prepared to fight King Henry VI for the throne. Roads weren’t safe to travel, and this moonless night made them the more dangerous."

It could be situational, unique to the protagonist.
"Stephen’s family already had their feet to the fire with alliances unsavory to the crown."

Attempting to “show” either of these developments would take chapters, but it’s backstory. Sometimes an isolated piece of backstory is dramatized in a Prologue, but the key here is to avoid “isolated.” If backstory is introduced as a prologue, it must be brief and connected and vital to the protagonist, or the writer risks losing the reader in the first or second page.

Examples of prologues that worked: Beauty and the Beast, a compact narrative voice-over (telling) that explained details of the Beast’s past cruelty and how he deserved the subsequent curse. Contrast that with the decision James Cameron made in Titanic, when he chose to “show” and created “book ends” to frame the story. Book End number one launched the story, dramatizing the moment when an elderly Rose sees the nude portrait of herself as a young woman on a newscast. Rose’s backstory is then presented in a flashback—on a fascinating stage--when she arrives on the boat and we learn basic facts about her engagement and her family’s financial troubles.

Showing vs. telling engages the mind of the reader. Our job is to draw the reader into the story world. Second, it leaves an indelible stamp on the reader’s memory. When shown well, it’s as if we personally experienced the event. It creates a memorable story, always our goal.

It takes extra effort. Again from Traitor’s Moon, it’s easy to say,
"Nicole thought she was ugly."

That’s acceptable for a first draft, but to engage the reader, show, don’t tell.
"Katherine was flawless, a testament to all that women
strive to be, something Nicole could never be with all her
six feet of bones and angles, and lack of all things feminine."

There are mundane, uninteresting moments of life that should not be shown or told.
*When your protagonist is driving to the store during normal weather and traffic (detailed, distracting travelogue)
* When your protag is dressing normally (not strapping a bomb on his chest, of course).

These slice-of-life events have been coined “cigarette actions” because they bring to mind the predictable order of the process: taking a deep drag, exhaling it into rings, and tapping the ashes in to the ashtray.

Returning to the movie, An American Sniper, Eastwood avoided starting his movie with a “prologue.” He started it in real time, a life-and-death moment in which the protagonist has to make a horrifying decision. Only after he totally hooked the audience with this tense scene did he begin a prologue-type sequence of three quick scenes that economically established the origins of the protagonist’s deeply held beliefs. As discussed in Vogler’s The Writing Journey in the chapter on Ordinary World, Eastwood’s prologue didn’t take on an “ordinary” Ordinary World such as, “Born in Chicago, youngest of twelve, average student, had measles at nine, etc.” Eastwood only provided essential details unique to the protagonist--and directly related to his inner story—which showed what made him the man he was.

There was also a point in the movie where I was surprised that Eastwood omitted a very dramatic moment. This is not a spoiler! I’ll just say that a major scene was not dramatized.

Why?

Eastwood demonstrated his firm grasp of story by showing (foreshadowing) in the previous scene, the off-camera action that followed. Would the omitted scene have elicited deeper emotions than the penultimate scene? I welcome your comments, but please avoid including any spoiler information so others can view the film and see for themselves this unusual treatment of “show vs. tell."

Nailing Voice

By Robin D. Owens

I watched that reality show, The Voice. I especially like the blind auditions and observing how the coaches work with people – because I like seeing professionals practice their craft in other disciplines, and I wonder if I can use this or that technique in mine.

To be honest, though I LOVE music, and writing to music, I prefer no vocals to distract me. And though I've watched the show since it began and am learning the terminology for singing and the music business, I don't consider that I have a good ear. For singing.

But for writing? Yes, I can usually spot when someone has nailed their voice.

THE main thing in writing is also VOICE. It's that uniqueness that only you can bring to the page. The way you structure your words, the way you put together your sentences, the characters you swagger across the page . . . simply, the way your mind works.

And when it works, the reader knows it.

All our backgrounds are different, depending where and when we grew up, our social strata and how our parents and peers talked (for instance, I never heard my parents use the f-word – ever, and my father grew up lower class in Denver with three brothers). So the words you use will be different than even your best friend's. Your world view is your own, and with that view, you will craft the worlds, whether it is contemporary Denver, historical Mississippi, or Space Station Zebra, that you want to explore, and that you want others to explore.

Usually it takes a while to find your voice, to refine it, then to keep true to it. I know that mumbledy-mumble years ago, when I began seriously writing, the leader of my first critique group had me check out a packet from the RMFW library on Voice (yes, it was that long ago). This packet had a couple of books and conference lecture tapes (WAY long ago). At the time I was a little miffed, because I thought I'd found my voice. But after going home and writing a scene in my favorite author's style, I realized I wasn't quite there. So I read the books and listened to the tapes.

I also remember being scolded for using cliches. I once wrote "we were ships passing in the night." So, the next time critique group met, it was: "We were ships, passing in the night. But he was a nuclear sub and I was a clipper..."

Yes, you may start out writing robotic characters that fizzle, cliches that sound new but are so old that a reader never wants to see them again (like "strappy sandals"). Paragraphs strung together that might be found in any new writer's books, published or unpublished (my first manuscript is staying firmly in the drawer). But as you write and as you grow as a writer and as you READ, you will find that voice.

Even if your everyday voice isn't the one you use when you write, if you craft lyrical sentences, or you polish or pare down until the words on the page are closest to the images in your head (or the voices in your ears), you will find your original voice and use it, and that's what will keep the readers coming back.

And that's what I want to remind you of this month, that you have a voice that is only yours. Characters that only you can imagine, your plot that will twist this or that way.

Find your voice, let it grow and change as it needs to, and stay true to it, because that's why people will want to read YOUR stories.

May all your writing dreams come true.
Robin

You Need Critique

By Lesley L. Smith

Photo by Patricia Stoltey
Photo by Patricia Stoltey

There's a stereotype of the writer hammering away on her typewriter late into the night in a cold lonely garret in Paris. Okay, nowadays, she's stereotypically hammering on her computer keyboard. Maybe she's wearing those gloves with the fingertips missing. Maybe she's drinking bourbon or scotch or rye. In pretty much every scenario, however, she's writing alone. That part of the stereotype is true. (Why can't it be the Paris part?) Generally, writers write alone. That's why we need feedback. We need someone else to put his or her eyes on the page and tell us if what we've written makes sense (and to warn us about wandering body parts). Another word for feedback is critique.

Like many of you, I've been writing a long time. It wasn't until I became a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) and joined a critique group that my writing really started to improve. It's hard to see our own work objectively. Getting input from your significant other, your BFF, or your mom is not the same thing as getting input from another writer. Your friends support you by saying nice things. Your fellow writers support you by critiquing your work.

There are many reasons to join a critique group:

  • Get feedback on your writing. Find out what works and what doesn't work in your own pieces. Learn about the mechanics of writing. Learn about the art of writing.
  • Get to know other writers. Be part of the writing community. Help other writers become better writers.
  • Experience those "Ah ha!" moments. When you have to stop and think and explain to another writer why something works or doesn't work it often leads to an increased understanding about writing.
  • Meet writing deadlines. If I'm being honest, usually the only reason I finish my pages for the week is because they're due at critique group.
  • Your reason here. There are almost as many reasons to go to critique group as there are writers. Please share in the comments.

Of course, it's not all wine and roses. Sometimes you go to a critique group and it's not a good fit. But, if this is the case, there's an easy fix: leave the group and find another group.

Another thing to keep is mind is you don't have to change your work because of critique, it's your work, after all. Listen, consider, and then, do what you want.

How can you find this wonderful thing called critique?

  • Many local libraries and bookstores have critique groups.
  • There are a lot of critique groups online these days (search for "online writers critique groups"). Also check out Meet-ups.
  • I've met critique partners at local writers workshops and conferences.
  • Many local Writers Groups have critique groups. For example, RMFW has an entire critique webpage, including critique guidelines and listings of critique groups in the Denver metro area and online.

Please ask your questions about critique and critique groups in the comments.

Finally, I couldn't write a post about critique without including a shout-out to my many critique partners over the years. There have been a lot--and, no, I'm not reading anything into that. :) Thank you for all your help! Thank you Rebecca, Grayson, Jamie, Adrianne, Donna, John, Jim, Mary, Emily, Deb, Mike, Susan, Joseph, Monica, Barb, Nancy, Judy, Zuzana, Jill, Jordan, Dave, Betsy, Renata, Georgia and all the rest. I sincerely appreciate your help, support and insight! Maybe we should have our next meeting in Paris?

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

Lesley L. Smith has an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction, and her short
fiction has been published in various venues. She's an active member of
the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America and Rocky Mountain Fiction
Writers. You can find her on the web at www.lesleylsmith.com.