Writing: Are Middles Like The 7-year Itch?

My writer friend, Kathy, has trouble starting books. She’s a perfectionist. Things have to be RIGHT. She writes and rewrites her first chapters. And by golly, when she’s done, they’re GOOD. Me? I probably jump in before I should. I can’t wait to “see” and “hear” my characters, can’t wait to plop them into trouble to see what they do. After I write a few chapters, THEN I go back and fill in the blank spaces, finish my character wheels and fill out plot points. And as I go along, I write that stupid, first chapter over and over again. First chapters are hard, but they don’t intimidate me. They’re exciting, daring me to see what my characters do, what decisions they make. No one gets off easy in writing, though. Middles are my bugaboos.

I’m in the middle of my second romance now. Appropriate, actually, since the beginning of a book, to me, feels like a romance. At first, everything’s new and exciting. It’s the stage of attraction where you only see the good, the positive. Your ideas spill so fast, your fingers can’t keep up. The middle of a book, though, is more like the 7-year itch. The newness has worn off. You notice the flaws. No, you LIVE with the flaws. You thought for sure that your second subplot would spur ideas for a few more scenes. Are there enough sparks flying between your main characters? Are they sympathetic/charismatic enough? You grumble about them, but they’re worth it, right? In marriage, you’ve probably had a kid or two, and you’re too tired to get frisky by the time you can catch a few zzz’s. Reality has set in–big time. Same with books. You’re wearing down, and you’d rather take a nap or start writing something new, even though you have plenty of ideas and lots of goals and plot points. They just don’t sparkle quite as much–you’ve lost some of your energy, some of your enthusiasm. How many more pages do you have to write? What was that minor character’s name you introduced in chapter three? Where has he been for the last fifty pages? You can see the links from beginning to middle, and from middle to end. But it’s like that long leg of a trip that seems to take forever. You’re headed in the right direction, you know. And someday, you’ll reach your destination, so you plug away.

And then, the miracle happens. Momentum gathers for the last fourth of the storyline, subplots start winding up. Tension escalates to the big, black moment, and everything falls into place. In life, the kid graduates from high school. He gets a job. He meets a girl. Once again, you can’t write fast enough. The end is in sight.

I know the pattern. I’ve been there/done that. I know my book isn’t going to fizzle and die on page 161. It just feels like it. I’m in the middle of the middle. Once I cross this hump, the world will look better. This happens to me every time I write a book. I expect it. But I’ll be happy when I’m past it.

Hope your writing’s better than mine right now:)

P.S. I put a new short-short on my webpage at the end of each month, so Damian’s Story just went up. Hope you enjoy it: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

P.P.S. My friend, Mary Lou Rigdon, posted an awesomely wonderful post on my blog last week, but a lot of people were busy over Memorial Day and missed it. In case you were one of them, here’s the link. I loved it: https://writingmusings.com/2015/05/24/writing-historical-and-malefemale-povs/

Kathy’s blog (since I mentioned her..and kind of like her): https://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/

Writers’ Groups

I read a blog post a few weeks ago, and the writer gave reasons why she thought writers’ groups weren’t very helpful. I happen to love mine. Not only have I learned a lot from the comments people give there–for my work, as well other peoples’ pages–I also come home recharged, ready to dig into my manuscript. Just being around fellow writers, talking nuts and bolts, shared successes and disappointments, news and markets, gets me excited about pounding the keys again. Some people join our group and stay. Some people join our group and run. It’s not for everyone. It’s HARD to read your work for 15 minutes and then get critiqued. After all these years, I still get nervous when I share my stuff there. Everyone works hard to give positive, helpful feedback, but we tend to be honest about what could be better. After all, that’s why we share, right? To find our flaws and make them better. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It took me a long time to learn to listen–really listen–to their feedback without getting defensive. Writing is personal. We pour our minds and passions into our words. It’s no fun to hear that we messed up, but I’ve finally learned that if I just leave my friends’ comments alone for a few days and let them stew, then I can look at them and decide what works for me and what doesn’t.

The blogger who found writers’ groups lacking stated that readers only share a small number of pages with each other at a time, that it’s too hard to determine story and character arcs, to feel if the pacing works. I suppose some of that depends on how often a writer gets to share. In our group, writers read consistently enough for the rest of us to remember how the chapters flow. But the blogger’s right. Reading a work in its entirety is a different thing than hearing chunks of pages at a time. But who says we have to choose between a writers’ group or critique partners? Not so. Most of us break off into smaller groups to trade manuscripts. We rely on Scribes to catch trouble spots and brainstorm ideas to make them better. And then we have critique partners who look at the entire manuscript.

Not every group is like ours. Ours is dedicated to encouraging writers and trying to make their works better, to make them publishable. So, what can we offer each other? What exactly do we look for?

1. Opening hooks. Did we start the story/novel/article at the right place? Or is there a spot 2 or 20 pages farther into the book where the story really starts?

2. Will the first chapter grab and keep a reader, or did we introduce so many characters at once, we drowned the reader and left him confused? Did we bury the book’s big question under backstory? Are we grounded in the story’s setting? Do we know what type of book it is in the first chapter, and what it’s about? Do we know what the protagonist’s problem is and how he might try to solve it?

3. Did we show, don’t tell? Did we use active verbs? Were we careful with word choice? Our group REALLY notices word choice. Did the ideas flow? Did the characters grab us? Do we CARE about them? Did the characters feel REAL? Did the dialogue feel real? Did all of the characters sound the same?

4. Did the tension build as the chapters flow and keep building all the way to the end, or did we go off on a tangent somewhere? Did the story sag? Did each scene move the story? Did each scene have tension? Did we use the right POV to tell the story or that particular scene? Did the characters stay true to themselves, or did the author try to force them to do something to move the story along?

5. And the biggie: Did the pages WORK? Did they have the right tone/mood/style for their genre? Did the tone stay consistent from one chapter to the next? Each genre implies a promise to its readers. A mystery has a crime that needs to be solved. A romance has boy meets girl and a happy ending. Did we deliver?

Our group is pretty eclectic. We write different things–YA, fantasy, Regency, espionage, mystery, urban fantasy, and literary. We even have a memoir writer and a nature writer, who specializes in articles on birding. We don’t always read each others’ genres, and we admit that, but we know what’s expected from them. So we focus on if they’re well-written, not if they’re something we’d read.

Do I value my group? That’s a big, resounding yes. Quite a few of the people who’ve moved away, though, tell me that they can’t find another group like ours, so I know that not every writers’ group is created equal. I value our group’s feedback. If you can’t find a good group, though, I recommend Victory Crayne’s advice on critiques. He gives a good, solid list of things to look at in writing.

I added a flash fiction story to my webpage. Not a “nice” story. It’s early times in River City.
There’s a reason the voodoo spirit Manette has downturned lips. http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Michael finished the cover for my third Wolf’s Bane novel. I love it! Sharon’s formatting it this week, so it will be up soon. In the meantime, here’s the cover for you to see:
cover_mockup_48_1 (1)

Writing: 7 things about myself

I think I got lucky this time. I’ve spent so much time worrying about getting the elements right in a romance, I finally just sat down and wrote the first chapter. Then I played with it more the next day. I printed it out so that I could scribble in the margins, and my daughter came over for a visit. She picked it up and read it and liked it. That never happens. My first chapters are always a struggle for me. Then I took it to my writers’ club, Scribes, and read it, and THEY liked it, too. Miracles do happen:) Anyway, this is a perfect way to lead into 7 things about myself.

Number 1, my first chapters usually stink. I rewrite them, off and on, the entire time I write my books. The farther I get in my stories and the more I know my characters, the better handle I have on them. My opening hooks usually stay the same–they’re what made me excited about writing the stories in the first place, but the dance of introducing the main characters, the settings, and the books’ big questions get tweaked endlessly while I trudge through plot points.

Number 2, I make tons and tons of goals, and life never agrees with them. But I still cling to making my lists and crossing things off when I finish them. It gives an illusion of control that brings me comfort.

Number 3, I love to cook. I own more cookbooks than any person should have, and I get two cooking magazines delivered to our house each month. I get bored making the same things, so the magazines keep me inspired with fresh recipes and takes on ingredients. My daughter and grandsons lived with us for years, and the boys went through a Chinese phase. I have so many Chinese oils and flavorings on the top shelf of my cupboard, I’m lucky I didn’t need a new kitchen.

Number 4, I have a thing for British period pieces and stories. On our honeymoon, John and I had to stop whatever we were doing to watch The Wives of Henry VIII. John said he should have taken that as a sign. He was right.

Number 5, I take in strays. I only chose the first kitten we ever got. The rest have all found their way to our house. Our chihuahua is a stray. I have a gray kitten in my living room right now. The mother cat ditched him, and he’s looking pretty darned cute.

Number 6, I love bungalows. We live in one. There’s something about that period–the early 1900’s– that I like. The woodwork. The arches. The one-and-a-half storied ones. Cozy. I like cozy.

Number 7, I love people, but I need my alone time. I’m only social to a point. And I like small groups better than big groups. I get uptight and grumpy when I’m overwhelmed with too many people. But that might be typical of most writers. That’s why I like my keyboard time. It’s me, myself, and whatever characters I create:)

The 10 Commandments of Writing

A friend of mine–a while ago–asked me for writing advice.  She’d fiddled with writing, but had never done anything serious.  She wasn’t quite in the mood for full writer throttle, so I wanted to do something fun for her.  This is what I came up with–and we all know it’s scratching the surface.

I.  Thou shalt not start “At the Beginning.”  Okay, a little play on words, but it’s true.  A novel starts with a hook.  Not with back story.  Back story is for flashbacks, here and there, later in the plot.  The hook is what pulls readers into the story–the event that plunges the character into the event that turns his life upside down, topsy turvy.  It introduces the book’s big question and why the protagonist has to take it on.  If he doesn’t, he’ll never restore order to his life.  If he does, he’ll be a changed person.  His choice.  And usually, he avoids dealing with it as long as he can—or until the first fourth of the book is written.  The hook pulls the reader in and the first fourth of the book provides the set-up for the story.  (Les Edgerton has a great book on the topic:  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/index.html)

II.  Thou shalt plot Thy book with no holes or soggy middles.  Okay, this admittedly, takes some skill and balance.  You don’t want your plot to move too fast or too slow.  It’s all about conflict.  Plot is the result of cause and effect.  The protagonist wants this…. needs that….and decides this idea will solve his problem….   Except it doesn’t.  No, whatever he tries, makes it worse.   For a novel, I’ve never been able to come up with enough to fill the vast, yawning middle of a book without subplots.  Every plot is character driven.  So are subplots.  If you come up with strong, main characters whose goals/problems mirror the protagonist’s, you can weave in and out of the different scenes like a juggler who keeps all of his balls in the air.  Victory Crayne says, “Conflict is ‘The mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims.’  It is the unsolved problems that form the chain of promises that keeps the reader interested.’–Ben Bova.  Les Edgerton, by the way, has a great blog post on plotting, too:  http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/12/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html    And:  http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/04/outlining.html.  Actually, his entire blog is worth reading.

III.  Thy pacing shall keep readers turning the pages.  Every scene in every novel has to have tension and purpose.  If a scene doesn’t advance the story in some way, it shouldn’t be there.  Something has to be at stake in EVERY scene.  And repetition–of any kind–KILLS tension.

IV.  Thy writing shall have emotional impact.  If the protagonist doesn’t react–reel with horror, laugh with joy, worry and pace with frustration–neither will the reader.  The reader lives these events through the characters.  He wants to EXPERIENCE these events through the characters.  The writer can use internal dialogue or visceral responses to react, but the reader wants to feel what the character feels.  And actions sometimes speak louder than words.  No one wants to read about a protagonist who only reacts.  We want the protagonist to dig into the problem, make plans, suffer when they fail, and pick himself up and try again.  The reader wants a happy ending to be earned, not given to the protagonist.  Or, if the protagonist tries and fails, we want to suffer the pain of defeat along with him.

V.  Thou shalt create interesting, memorable characters.  Readers want their characters to feel real–like living, breathing people.  They want to know what the character wants and why.  What will he do to get it?  He has to have a name that fits his age and personality.  He has to have Goal, Motivation, Conflict.  If different characters have different goals and motivations, that creates conflict.  Every novel needs different type of characters: the protagonist, maybe a mentor, a romantic interest, a friend or reflector, a villain and hopefully an antagonist–different from a villain, but someone who keeps getting in the protagonist’s way, and maybe an opponent, someone who’s competing with the protagonist.  Dialogue, dress, and actions have to be consistent with who the character is.  The characters drive the story.  I’m plot oriented, but no writer can make a character walk through a story and do what he’s supposed to for the plot without making the character a cardboard stick figure who’s not interesting.

VI.  Thou shalt use dialogue to advance the plot, not to fill space.  Dialogue can reveal character, create tension, and foreshadow coming events.  Be careful of tags.  “He said,” “she said,” are fine, but action tags work even better.  Fancy tags are rarely needed–“he proclaimed,” “he insisted.”  Dialogue should fit each character, and it should “feel” real.  It’s not real–not even close–but it can FEEL real if the writer avoids flowery dialogue.  People sometimes use broken sentences.  They usually don’t go on and on.  When they do, that says something about a character.  Les Edgerton has a blog post on dialogue, too, that’s pretty dang good: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2013/04/guest-post-at-kristen-lambs-blog-on.html

VII.  Thou shalt choose Thy setting well.  Settings are the backdrops for stories.  Some stories work better in big cities and some work better in small towns or in seclusion.  The setting needs to fit the tone of the story.  If a small town is hiding a serial killer, the town may appear innocent and inviting, but the writer gives clues that evil lurks under its surface.  Settings need to fleshed out.  They’re the foundation that helps hold the story together.   It’s the world the reader’s going to live in from page one to the the last word of the novel.  The reader needs to see the setting, to smell its scents, to know its people.

VIII.  Choose Thy POV carefully.  The character whom the reader follows should be the one who has the most at stake in the scene or story.  First person POV is more immediate.  Everything’s filtered through that character’s eyes and mind.  Third person limited creates more distance, but with internal dialogue can share insights, too, and the writer doesn’t have to try to avoid the word “I.” Multiple POV can create more tension, because the protagonist doesn’t always know what other characters are doing.

IX.  Thy voice and tone shalt suit Thy story.  Voice is a nebulous thing that’s individual to each author.  It reflects our attitudes and our take on the world.  But tone should be individual to each story.  Tone sets the mood.  If the story is humorous, every single word the author chooses should be light or lend itself to funny.  If the story’s dark, every word choice should be forbidding or brooding.   For a scary setting, the author wouldn’t describe a forest with birds chirping and squirrels scampering.  Instead, the trees’ branches should look like gnarled fingers, twisting to ensnare someone or to snag them.  It’s all about word choice.

X.  Thou shalt dedicate Thyself to good, strong writing.  A writer has to master the basics.  Sentence lengths should vary.  Word choice should be specific, not generic.  He should use active verbs, not passive.  Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, opting for strong verbs and nouns instead.  Spelling and grammar should be right.  Wording should be original and unique.

We all know that keeping every commandment is hard.  So is good writing.  And I’ve probably left out a point or two, but this is a start.  The fun’s in the striving.  Enjoy!


Writing: The Great and Wonderful What-Ifs

My grandson came to spend the night on Tuesday, and he asked me if I could help him write a story.  Nate’s 16, and when he’s serious about something, he delves into it.  I have no idea if he’ll follow through or not, but he was in the mood to get answers.  “What do I do first?” he asked.

“What kind of story do you want to write?” I asked.

And he gave me an in depth idea he’d been playing with–a guy who could call back any of his ancestors in time to pick their minds.  Pretty interesting.  He knew the setting.  He knew what each ancestor did in their previous lives, and he wanted lots of atmosphere.  All good, and it would make a great opening hook, but it wasn’t a story.

“Why not?” he asked.  Every detail was vivid in his mind.

“What does the hero want?” I asked.

“To talk to his ancestors.”

“Why?” I persisted.

He didn’t have a clue.

“Every story starts when some event knocks your protagonist off course, changes his life for the worse, and he has to DO something to fix it, to get his life back to normal.  Your protagonist needs a problem, a problem big enough that he can’t ignore it.  That’s called the inciting incident.”

Nate thought about that.  He decided that his hero should like a girl, but she didn’t like him.

“Not good enough,” I said.  “Like isn’t a strong enough passion.  The more the protagonist cares about the problem, the more it affects him, the stronger the emotional impact when he can’t have it and the harder he’ll try to achieve it.  The stakes have to be high, almost impossible.”

“Okay, maybe he loves the girl and something’s keeping them apart if his ancestors can’t give him a way of keeping her.”

“Great,” I said.  “What’s keeping them apart?”

Again, no idea.  So we played the game of “What if?”

Finally Nate said, “What if she catches some disease and one of the ancestors was an alchemist and might know how to cure her?”

Aaah, now that could work.  But there had to be more, or this would be a very short story.  “How could this go wrong?” I asked him.  “You never want to make it easy for the protagonist to achieve his goal.  What if he tried calling the ancestor, but something messed  up?”

“I know!  What if he called the wrong one?  What if one of his ancestors was a bad guy, and when Andre (we were making progress-he had a name for the guy) brings him back, he doesn’t want to return to the grave?”

Now, we were talking.  The protagonist has more problems than he knows what to do with.  Nate had the beginnings for a story.  He had enough ideas percolating for the opening hook, the inciting incident, the internal motivation, and the first story twist.  A good beginning.  Enough to get him through the first fourth of his pages.  Where he goes from that, I don’t know.  We’ll have to play another game of “What ifs.”  But along with that, “What can go wrong?” is another useful tool when you’re stuck for ideas.

I hope your protagonist finds an almost insurmountable problem that drives him all the way to the end of your story or novel.  But if he doesn’t, ask yourself, “What if?” and “What can go wrong?” and have fun.

Beginnings or my love/hate relationship with first chapters

When the idea hits, I usually ignore it.  Just like the plants in my flower beds, it has to want to survive.  It has to be strong enough to withstand drought and heat.  When I first started writing, I was afraid I’d lose ideas that flashed into mind if I didn’t write them down.  Now, I snub them.  I tell them I’m busy.  But if one keeps pestering me, wiggling around in my subconscious, starting to take life, hefting on muscle and substance until I can’t ignore it, then it might be big enough to amount to something.  That’s when I jot down its basics on paper.  Then I put it away.

I won’t start a new book until I’ve finished the one I’m working on.  By then, the novel I’m half or three-fourths of the way through isn’t the fun thing it started out to be.  Subplots have piled up.  Minor characters have voiced their opinions, and major characters are cussing me for all the crap I’ve put them through.  The new book, the blank page, beckons.  “Start me and leave those folks behind.  Think of the new things you can do on my pages.”  The lure of the unknown looks good, but it’s just a trick.  Once I’m halfway through its pages, another new idea will call to me.  And if I succumb, I’d never finish a book.  So I write down the idea that won’t go away and push it aside.

Not until I dot my last i and cross my last t, and I’m thoroughly sick of rewrites and polishes on the novel I’ve finally finished, do I pull out my whiz bang idea and let it blossom in my  mind.  Not that it hasn’t been trying on its own.  Random plot points pop into my head at odd times.  Sometimes, I write them down.  Sometimes, I don’t.  How much do they want to be on paper?  Christian, the protagonist of my story, wants more magical powers.  He wants to control fire.  Okay, I can live with that.  Brina, the girl he trips over on the cobblestone street, has a bit of an attitude.  Do I like that?  Yes, she’s started to grow on me.  What really surprises me is that I even like one of the “good” vampires, so now he wants a bigger role.  Will that work?  Sure, why not?  He can be a subplot.  But they all have to hit their cues, once I figure them out.  And that’s the fun part.

I start the first chapter with apprehension and excitement.  Ideas are pinging from all directions.  I know the story’s setting.  I know the inciting incident and the story’s big problem.  I have enough plot points to get from beginning to end.  So I’m ready.  And then the real work starts.  How to bring the story to life?

My writing friends would gladly tell you that I beat first chapters to death.  They’re hard to write.  You have to hook the reader in the first paragraph with….something.  It can be a character.  Your voice.  An incident.  But something has to draw the reader into your imaginary world.  And you have to let the reader know what the book’s big question is, what drives it, pretty early on.  The sooner, the better.  All while creating interesting characters and establishing the book’s setting and tone.  I never get it right the first time…or the second.  I finally get what’s needed on paper and then write on.  Then I go back to it after half a dozen chapters are on paper.  I try again.  I either make it better or worse.  I can never tell.  I write another half dozen chapters and tinker with it again.  I hit three-fourths of the book and realize it’s still not right.  And the whole novel is ready to be wrapped up, and it’s been more work than it promised to be.  For Christian and Brina, more witches crept into the story than I expected.  But I like them.  How do I juggle them with the vampires who showed up and keep them distinct?  Christian’s mother–so nice and so nurturing–works as an anchor.  When did that happen?  Not sure, but it works.  Even Cook wormed her way into the plot.  Not expected, but they all pitch in to solve the book’s big problem, so they can stay.  If I can figure out how to weave them into the book’s big finale.  And that’s when a new idea hits me.  Something wonderful and untried, something that won’t get complicated and give me gray hairs.  But it has to wait its turn.  This story needs finished.  So Christian, Brina, witches, and vampires battle to victory on the final page.  And I look at my problem, first chapter one last time…and of course, it’s not quite right.

For me, that’s the deal with first chapters.  They entice me to write them, insist on coming to life, then give me grief until I finally call the book quits.  First chapters are tricky, slippery things.  But this new one, the one that’s calling to me…that might be a whole, different story.