Blessed be! As of this writing, I’m up to my navel in edits for my fantasy romance. In general, the edits are going about as smoothly as I’d anticipated. I’ve added a lot more new material than I’d intended, but the actual changes themselves are shaping up just as I wanted them to. However.
Several things occurred to me as I was going through a scene that I’d tagged to dial up the heat in a little. First: I’ve never actually written a proper sex scene. Second: the character I was writing had never had sex. And third: there might be some gold to mine in that thar revelation.
- Stick tightly to your viewpoint character. This is easier in first-person, but probably even more crucial in third. Limit your perspective to what one character is feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Movie-camera or omniscient narration for something so intimate creates distance, and jumping between bodies involved can be confusing. Unless you’re doing one of those two things intentionally–to create the illusion of bad sex, for example–probably best not to.
- Keep it realistic. Most people can’t have sex for seven hours straight without some pretty severe repercussions. They also can’t, as a general rule, have a quickie in the cab of a 19th-century carriage while in full Victorian dress without her being extremely uncomfortable; corsets and petticoats limit just how handsy a beau can get.
- Voice, voice, voice! What does your character call their erogenous zones? Would they use clinical terms like vagina, penis, or anus, or is it their twat, cock, or ass? This is a great way to communicate not only your character’s attitude toward sex or their partner but also to set the tone of the scene. Just one word can mean the difference between a romantic wedding night and a dirty one-night stand.
- Please, no euphemisms. This may be entirely personal preference, but if a character is too naive or uncomfortable with sex to use the proper words for what’s going on, I really don’t want to read it. Now, there are exceptions. Done deliberately, this can be used to evoke atmosphere, as in a historical novel, or to create an awkwardness between characters that can be endearing.
More often, though, it just makes it sound like the author isn’t entirely comfortable with what’s being written. And that will pluck me out of a story.
- Fade to black. Now, sometimes there just doesn’t need to be an actual scene. Whether it’s because you’re uncomfortable writing it or because the event itself isn’t that important to the story, you don’t always have to write out the actual sex. There’s nothing wrong with employing a tasteful fade-out if it suits the character or the story.
Blessed be, all! You’ve probably heard it said that writers have to read. Myself, I never believed it until very recently. Intellectually, I suppose I’ve always known it’s true; the more quality materials you take in, the more quality work you can put out. Still, I never actually read. I enjoyed reading, sure. But I was so gods-damned picky that the books I would ingest suffered for it. One of my goals this year, though, is to expand my reading tastes so I can improve the stories that I write on both a sentence- and novel-level.
So! In no particular order (okay, that’s a lie, but I won’t tell if you don’t), here are the top five authors who have shaped my fiction in some way.
- Tamora Pierce. No list of mine would be complete without Tammy. When I look at my life as a reader, there’s not a single writer who has more history with me. I first picked up a Tammy book fifteen years ago, and I have read each and every novel she’s put out before or since. Tammy is the author who taught me that girls could be heroes, too, that you didn’t have to be strong like a boy to be worth having a story told, and–possibly most importantly–that I as a writer didn’t have to disguise my name for people to enjoy my work.
- J.K. Rowling. Again, what list could be complete? Harry Potter was my very first binge read. Five books had already been published by the time I picked them up, and I read them all in less than a week, blowing my senior year midterms to do it. Rowling gave me my love of the long game, of learning something in book one that would come back to be vital hundreds of thousands of words later. I think it’s also from her that I get my love of having the inciting event be something offscreen, a long time ago, that the protagonist has to slowly uncover along with the reader.
- Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games was one of those books that I couldn’t put down. I think it was largely because of when I first read it, the year I was graduating with my BA and moving into my MFA program. It was the first book I picked up for myself at that time and, probably not coincidentally, the first book that I found myself intentionally looking for the social commentary that she was making. It was a fantastic story even without seeing all the layers (I have a soft spot for prickly heroines) but this was the first time outside of school that I purposefully read deeper than the surface text.
- NK Jemisin. I will grant I’ve only just within the last month started reading her, so her inclusion on this list might be a little premature, but I don’t think it is. A book and a half into her works and I am absolutely hooked. These books are everything I didn’t know I wanted until I had it. POC characters in a variety of roles–check. Complex female protagonists–check. Non-medieval Europe fantasy setting; gray morality; beautiful prose–check, check, check. I am going to be reading, rereading, and studying the craft in these books for ages to come.
- JRR Tolkien. Of course the grandfather of the fantasy genre would find his way here eventually. But it’s probably not for the reasons most would think. I know lots of readers adore him: his worldbuilding; his attention to detail; his sprawling epic plot. But he’s on this list because The Lord of the Rings is everything I do not want to write. I don’t deny that the work was seminal in creating the booming genre that I now benefit from.
However, I find that much lore to be stifling when I’m trying to read or write and that the pacing suffers from trying to make room for it. But I never would have known I felt that way or tried to craft my own style against it if I hadn’t read him when I was younger.
Blessed be! Hope everyone’s had a great week so far. Me, I’m knee-deep in making notes on my historical fantasy so that I can go into the next round of edits with a road map. Among the changes I’m looking to make, I’ll be aiming to up the audience from YA to adult fiction. With that comes a ton of considerations, including but not limited to what my upper-end word count limit should be.
Authors, especially those working toward their debut novel, are often told to mind their word count. No more than 100k tends to be the standard advice and, in general, I find that to be pretty sound. But then, I don’t tend to like great gallumping books. I want the story in as lean a presentation as it would suit the story to tell it. But there is much more to it than just that.
This isn’t meant to be a hard and fast breakdown of what your book should be, but a tool by which to evaluate if your novel really needs to break the bank where length is concerned. Let’s have a look!
- Mind your genre. Not all genres have the same expectations when it comes to word count. Fantasy and sci-fi tend to be more forgiving of heftier books. Since the author has to build a brand-new world from scratch and immerse the reader in it with only their words, it makes sense. Historicals, too, often run longer than, say, a mystery or a thriller which tend to run lighter and swifter. Look at the books that are debuting in your genre and compare your story to it; that will give you a fair idea of how much leeway readers are prepared to give you.
- Check your audience and age group. There will always be exceptions but, in general, the younger the audience, the shorter the book. Consider both your audience’s attention span and possibly their available budget. Longer books tend to cost more to produce; think honestly about if your young adult audience is going to be willing or able to drop more money on your book when there’s a shorter one next to it for half the price.
- Consider the story itself. I’m sure you’ve experienced this at some point: you’re reading a book or watching a movie. It comes to a satisfying conclusion, and it’s time to move on to something else. And then you find out there’s another chapter. Or still another scene. Or, worse, a sequel. What? But it was over!
The thing is, not all books need to be as long as they are. Not all novels need to be series. Heck, not all stories even need to be novels! Some stories just lend themselves to being shorts or novellas, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Tell the story in as few words as will do the plot and characters justice. Don’t try to stretch it out for the purposes of meeting an arbitrary “sweet spot” like word count parameters. When the story is over, let it end.
- Look at comparable titles. If books are being released in a similar vein to yours, look at what those books are usually running in terms of length. Read them and compare. How does your manuscript line up in terms of pacing and density? How are the other titles performing relative to each other? You may have to make some adjustments if you find yourself way outside of the norms.
- Evaluate your word economy. If you’re still concerned with the length of your manuscript, ask yourself: is there anything you can leave out without negatively affecting your readers’ enjoyment or understanding? Are there characters or scenes you can excise or combine? Is your novel a work of precision?
If at the end of all these things your book still weighs in hefty, it might just be a big book. And that’s all right! If the writing and the story is sound enough, you don’t have anything to fear!
Blessed be! I hope everyone’s had a slightly smoother week than I have. It’s been one of those weeks that it seems, if it can happen, it will happen. Leaving aside the mundane so I can talk just about my writing life, my vampire history hit a huge speedbump.
There I was, moving along in my notes at a decent clip, when a terrible realization came crashing down on my head. In one of my climactic moments, one of my favorite scenes in the whole manuscript–indeed one of my favorite things I’ve ever written–I had overlooked something crucial. One small detail that changed the trajectory of the entire rest of the novel. I had broken my story.
I won’t lie. The very first thing I did was panic. I texted my crit partner and whined at my wife about the sheer amount of reworking I would have to do to get my story back in shipshape. It would take so much heavy surgery to fix it, assuming it could even be done without rewriting the entire end of the story. So much for my “quick” editing pass!
The next thing I did, once I’d calmed down, is to start making a plan. With so many drafts and so much work already invested in this story, there was no way I was about to let a bump in the road deter me, no matter how big a bump it was.
So, how did I work through it?
- Don’t panic! Okay, this one can’t really be avoided. It’s human nature. So perhaps the better way to say it is this: calm down. Get some distance from the problem for a few minutes. Take a walk or a hot shower. Come back to it with an open mind, ready to look for solutions.
- Brainstorm. Start throwing possible fixes out to see what works. Get a second set of eyes or ears on the problem. Especially if you have a beta reader, crit partner, or significant other who’s been helping you with your story. Once you’ve amassed a pile of possibilities, you can start whittling it down to things that will actually work.
The thing to remember, though, is you aren’t looking for a patch. A quick and easy surface fix is just that: a surface fix. To really heal your plothole, you’ll need to find the solution that gets you down to the root of the problem and address it there. It won’t be easy. But your story needs you to do it.
- Build a framework. Now that you know what your solution is, you need to start laying out the plan for how you’re going to get there. If you just jump into the manuscript slashing and stitching, you’ll make just as many problems as you solve. Go through your story with the solution in mind and tag things that will have to move or change. You may find that a lot of the things you already have can be repurposed for use elsewhere. Mark places where you’ll need to write something fresh to bridge gaps or replace cut scenes. This is the part of the process that I’m currently engaging in.
- Let it cool. Or marinate. Or percolate. However you’d like to describe it, the result is the same. Put the manuscript away and don’t touch it for at least a week, ideally longer if you have the time to spare. Let it turn over in the back of your mind; you may find details that you missed when you laid out your plan, and your story will thank you for taking the time to let them come to the surface.
- Take a deep breath and dive in. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way around this one. It’s time to dig into the dirty work and start with the big changes. Just like we talked about in the surgery part of the editing board series, you need to get the bathtub out of the kitchen. Treating it just like your very first editing pass, make it ugly. Move things around. Rip out the walls according to your blueprints. Make a mess if you must; don’t be afraid to get dirty!
Slowly, the dust will settle. You can begin to fix things at the scene or sentence level and clean up transitions. And before you know it, you’ll have a beautiful story, much stronger for you taking the time to heal it from the inside out!
Blessed be! With Valentine’s Day coming up, I’m going to be putting in a ton of hours at the day job. Which, naturally, means my body has decided it’s time to get sick. So, while I fight my way through this chest cold and the bottomless work hours ahead, here’s a list of literary ships that I’ll gladly sail on!
- Damen and Laurent, Captive Prince trilogy
This is a classic slow burn pairing. The two start off despising each other–with very good reason–but are forced through circumstances to work together. Grudging trust gradually turns to respect and then something more. It’s realistic, though, in that it’s not a straight line from loathing to forever. They both fight it for a long time, push each other away, and come back together again several times over the course of the story.
- Alanna and George, The Song of the Lioness quartet
This was one of my very first ships from waaaaay back in my high-school days. George and Alanna were cute to me even then, but I didn’t understand just how rare their relationship was in fiction until I was much older. They have a mutual respect almost from the start, and George helps Alanna chase her goal of being a knight with no expectation that she’ll ever pay him back for his kindness. Of the three potential romantic interests Tamora Pierce gives us for Alanna, George is the only one who doesn’t try to change her to fit his expectations of what his ideal partner should be.
- Lauren and Kit, A Summer to Remember
Remember when I said I generally don’t like romance novels? This seems to be the exception that proved the rule. When I was first working on my vampire historical, I picked up any book I could find that was set in roughly the same time period, including this one. And I absolutely hated the protagonists at first, both as people and as a couple. Lauren was rigid and unapproachable; Kit was brash and a downright cad. But they brought out the best in each other and, through the course of the story, I came to genuinely care for them even as they grew to love each other. I found myself fully invested in the pairing and crossing my fingers that they’d stay together in the end.
- Daja and Rizu, The Will of the Empress
Not all of my ships are happy ones. Even though they don’t get much screentime, this is the first time a relationship in a book has actually made me cry when it failed. The affection between them is so tangible and sweet, but circumstances just don’t let it work out in the end. Despite that, it’s not treated as either of them being in the wrong, which is rare in fiction.
- Seyonne and Aleksander, Rai-Kirah trilogy
Now, I haven’t finished the series yet, but I am completely invested in these two. I know nothing romantic will come of it, but I don’t care. The utter devotion between these men is enough to drive the narrative. Like Damen and Laurent, it’s a slow burn from indifference at best to hatred at the worst to being as close as two people can be. Even if nothing romantic or sexual comes from them, it’s a ship I will go down with.
Blessed be, all! Next week will be our final check-in for the month, but tonight’s topic comes from my favorite and most diligent research bug: my wife. She’s been up to her eyeballs in resources lately, compiling lists of herbal remedies and when and where they might have been available. Ah, the things you have to consider for historical fiction!
But wait, you say! You’re writing fantasy, so anything goes! Or the story you’re working on is far-future, and their technology is much more advanced than ours. Well, that may be so, but you still have to consider how health and medicine work in your world. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Magical/technological advancement. You’ve come to a point in your story where your character has taken a serious wound and you now have to find a way to save them. No matter what the injury, they’re generally going to have an easier time of surviving if you have more/better treatments available. If you’re writing in a world before the advent of antibiotics, you might have to worry about sepsis and infection.
- Availability. Let’s say your far-future dystopia has the capability to heal wounds with fresh-grown skin in minutes by applying this topical aerosol. The liquid binds to the wound and, through the wonder of medicine you’ve devised, the healing process is nearly instantaneous. That’s great!
But. Who has access to it? Is the spray tightly controlled by the government? Do the rebels have to make do with linen bandages? Do ordinary citizens, even, get to use it, or is it prohibitively expensive? Could they use it if they had it, but they’re in the middle of the woods and can’t get to a facility? Maybe you can only use it once or twice before it stops working, so you have to exercise discretion.
- Cultural stigmas and personal objections: Just because a character can be healed doesn’t always mean that they will be. Perhaps the culture has a deep-seated mistrust of this other group and won’t allow their sickness to be worked on by them, even if they’re the only healer around. Maybe they had an addiction to narcotics and won’t take painkillers for fear of relapse. These sort of scruples are a great way to add some tension to even a mundane injury like a broken arm.
- Recovery time and aftereffects. Your character will need time to heal completely from their injury. No matter their training, they probably won’t be running on that pulled hamstring. Be realistic in the amount of downtime your character will need to get over their injury or illness, and then see that they get it. Or, if they can’t, show how it’s still affecting them because it hasn’t properly healed. Even afterward, there may still be lingering signs: scars; weakness; loss of mobility. Don’t forget –and don’t let your reader forget–what the character has been through, or the conflict will fall flat.
- Mortality: Vim and vigor will only take your character so far; medicine and even magical healing shouldn’t be a miracle cure. Sometimes characters just won’t realistically survive. Don’t pull your characters back from the brink if it’s reasonable that they would go over. It will break the reader’s suspension of disbelief at best or make them feel cheated or emotionally manipulated.
Or, if you really must have the character survive, consider making the injury less severe. It can still be a close call, but pulling back on the scope can make all the difference for your reader.
Blessed be! This week, my wife and I went to see Moana at the theater. This was a good thing because it’s a brilliant movie and we enjoyed our night out. It’s a great thing because the music fed my creative side and got me excited to work on my story summore. Now, it’s a bad thing because it fed the wrong story. A number of the songs and themes put me more in the mind of my vampire history than my fantasy romance. Whoops.
So! While I fend off the termites trying to get me to cheat on my current project, here are my thoughts on listening to music while you work on your story.
- Set a mood. I write a lot about emotional resonance on the page. You want your reader, ideally, to feel the same way your protagonist feels or otherwise to have a visceral response to your work. The best way to do that is to make sure as you work that you’re feeling it, yourself. For me, the surest way to elicit emotion is to put on music. Something light and humorous, something sad, something dark or complicated or unresolved.
- Establish setting. I also find that music serves to transport my mind. Whether I’m working on my fantasy novel or my historical, listening to music that reminds me of the setting heightens my attention to the other senses. That helps me more clearly communicate my vision of the surroundings to the reader.
- Heighten character. Sometimes I hear a song and it just screams a character’s name at me. It evokes their voice or their motivations or struggles in my mind. Playing it will instantly put me in their mindset.
- Ritual. Turning on the playlist for a story is an important part of my writing ritual. It becomes a cue to my subconscious that it’s now writing time. Even when I’m not particularly in the mood at the start, I find that I can buckle down and get some quality words out just by getting myself into the right frame of mind.
- Focus. The sound of the first few notes sinks me into the narrative and lets me block out distractions. I don’t hear the phone; I stop clicking around on Facebook and messenger. With the music as a buffer, I’m free to funnel all of my attention into the work.
Blessed be, all! So since I looked at fear last week and what that can do for your characters and your story, I thought this time I’d flip the script and write about five things that lighter, less tense moments can bring to the table. I’m not looking at humor so much, though you certainly could take it that way. Also this is less about how to do it effectively and more about why it should be done. I want to focus on areas of hope or gentleness, where the reader can get a sense that good things are on the horizon.
- Give your protagonist (and your reader!) a breather. Unless you’re writing a full-force thriller or adventure, where the goal is all adrenaline all the time, you’re going to need to include places for your characters to catch their breath. Otherwise, the relentless rush uphill can become a drag rather than a race–you can only rachet up the tension so much before it feels like it levels out on its own. It’s much better, I feel, to build in those plateaus or even a gentle decline where you want it to be.
- Showcase character interactions. It’s sometimes difficult when you’re barrelling along in the plot to get an idea for chemistry and how character interactions build or change. Quiet moments let the reader focus just on the relationship, on the words and body language and how the characters have grown since the last down moment. Even if they’re not intentionally keeping score, the reader will notice if a relationship has warmed or cooled.
- Give a sense of progress. I mentioned already that, after so long upping the tension, the story can seem to level off. One of the side-effects of this is that it can feel as though the story is no nearer to a resolution, that the protagonist is just spinning their wheels. A moment of downtime gives the character and the reader both a chance to look back at the journey so far and how much progress they’ve made. It can also show a clear way forward, done right.
A caution to this one–you really do want this to be just a moment. If you spend too long recapping The Adventure Thus Far, you risk boring your reader. But if your protagonist finally accomplishes something they’ve been trying to do for ages (see last week’s try/fail cycle) there’s nothing wrong with them celebrating for a brief second or acknowledging that they never would have been able to a month ago. Something to that effect.
- Provide exposition. Quiet moments give you a chance to stop and smell the roses, figuratively or literally. It provides you a window of time to communicate important setting details to the reader or establish foreshadowing unobtrusively. Otherwise, things that are essential to the understanding of the story can be buried or overlooked.
- Advance sideplots. Last but certainly not least, quiet moments give you the opportunity to set aside the main pillar of the story and focus on something else. Whether that’s a romance, an internal conflict, or anything else moving below the surface of your novel is up to you, but it can bring a layer of depth and dimension to a work that otherwise may come across flat.
The idea for today’s Twin Thursday post actually came from my real outside-of-writing life. Be sure to follow the link at the top right to Chicken-Scratch Plot for Rachel’s take!
Confession time: I’m thirty years old and I’ve never had a driver’s license. I was fifteen, about to turn sixteen, and my mother signed me up for driver’s ed. Because of course. What budding teenager doesn’t want her own car? Apparently… this one. And I’m, hopefully, going to take this and roll it into a way to work fears and phobias into your protagonist.
- Where did the fear come from? While in real life, there may or may not be a reason you’ve always been afraid of geese, there should be a precipitating incident in your fiction. It doesn’t have to be a deep and paralyzing trauma, just so long as there is a reason that makes sense within your character’s psyche.
In my case, my driving instructor was a nightmare. He screamed at me constantly, nitpicked my every move. My mom was worse, always tense when I was behind the wheel, which made me panic.
This is a pretty extreme example, obviously. For your character, it could be something as minor as they grew up in the country, so the closeness and bustle of the big city makes them panic.
- How will the fear affect the story? It doesn’t do much good to give your protagonist a fear of heights if they never encounter it in the course of the narrative. They must, at some point, have to square with their fear. Either the fear itself or the avoidance of it should be a source of conflict for your main character.
You can probably see where not having a car has been detrimental to my adult life. Begging rides to work, dealing with the bus line. But the alternative is getting behind the wheel and dealing with the panic that accompanies it.
Find ways to force your characters to face their fears or slink away. It makes the fear believable and relatable.
- How does your character experience this particular phobia? I mean that physically as well as psychologically. The more visceral details you can put in (without crowding the narrative) the better.
For the longest time, getting behind the wheel was accompanied by mild panic attacks. I would get short of breath. My vision would narrow, my heart speed up. The more tense the person in the passenger seat became and the more corrections they offered, the worse I would get. Before long, I would be speeding or cutting turns too short just to get it over with quicker. Again, your character’s reaction doesn’t have to be quite so extreme. But it should be an actual impediment to their moving forward.
- The try/fail cycle. Your character should actually struggle with defeating their fear while making progress. If it’s just as easy as walking up to the first big dog they see and petting it and then they’re cured, that’s not terribly satisfying for the reader.
I’ve had driving permits before. I think I’ve been issued four or five of them over the last fifteen years, with varying degrees of success when it came to actually making myself drive. I–just today–took my very first ever road test. No, I didn’t pass. But I got closer than I ever have before, and I’ll get even closer the next time I do.
There’s no hard and fast rule to how many times a character should attempt and fall short of besting their fear, but three seems to be a sound poetic number. It gives you a sense of progress without feeling repetitive.
- It never goes away. Even after your character has “beaten” their fear, it should still on occasion rear its ugly head. Phobias are phobias for a reason; they come back even when there’s no logical reason for it.
In my case, even though I’m now comfortable behind the wheel, I still have to talk myself through new maneuvers. I pulled around a restaurant’s drive through for the first time today and had to convince myself it was no big deal.
Part of this is for character continuity. It makes your protagonist’s successes believable. The other part is that it shows growth. Both contribute a feeling of forward motion and make your story feel more dynamic.
Blessed be! Ordinarily, today would be a Twin Thursday, but I rather lost my head this week. I wouldn’t have even known what day it was were it not for my wife, who helpfully chirped at me that, “Isn’t it Thursday? Shouldn’t you be blogging?” So, sorry for the lateness and my lack of forethought.
Being that it’s also Thanksgiving, I thought I’d spend today giving a shoutout to the five people in my life that I’m most thankful for when it comes specifically to my craft.
- My wife, Mary. Whether I’m puttering on a story or forgetting what day it is, she always has my back and an encouraging word. Or a rebuke if I need it. Or both. She keeps me working when I’d rather bury my head. She’s also my unfailing research bug, doubly helpful since I’m working on historical fantasy right now.
- My critique partner, Jesse. There’s not a thing I’ve written that she hasn’t seen, and she’s been my sounding board for years. When I’m feeling lost in a story or stuck in the mire of “Do I have to?”, she helps get me back on track. She’s my go-to for technical issues and problems of craft as well as my sounding board for concepts.
- My writing kiddo and blog sister, Rachel. On top of being one of my best friends, Rachel is my very first writing kiddo. They say the best way to learn is to teach, so for the last few years, Rachel and I have been working on both her stories and mine. Her questions and astute observations often leave me looking at my work from a different angle.
- The Stonecoast MFA staff, faculty, and students. By the time I completed undergrad, I was wrung out on writing. I hated it. The Stonecoast program reignited my love of storytelling and gave me the tools and confidence to do it well.
- The agents who rejected my work. This one may sound strange, but hear me out. When I first started querying with my very first manuscript, it wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready. Even my second completed story was nowhere near mature enough to be on the shelf, and I wasn’t seasoned enough as a writer to even know it. I can look back on those days now and know that, even though it felt like the world was ending at the time, it really was the right decision for both me and my stories.