Writing: Sprinters and marathons

It’s been a long time since I sat down to write original pages for a book.  I was so far ahead for a while, my agent couldn’t keep up.  So I started writing novellas so that I’d have new things to post online.  Now, things have changed.  I have 5 books online, I’m getting feedback on them, and people are asking, “When will the second or third book be available?”

When I wrote the books, they were sort of an experiment to see which things readers liked most.  I wrote the novellas for short, quick fun.  Maybe not the best idea.  It suddenly occurred to me, I can’t possibly keep all of the series afloat.  It’s time to narrow my ambitions.  With that in mind, I created four gargoyles (one for each corner of a cathedral) in my Ally/Dante series, and when I found the right supernatural creature for the last gargoyle, I considered that series finished.  Next, I wrapped up the Death & Loralei series and thought long and hard about a novella to bring it to a happy, upbeat conclusion.  Two series down, three more to go.

Sigh.  Three more novella series is no easy feat.  And I enjoy writing all of them.  But I know I’m not being realistic.  I currently have three novel series to work on, too.  I’m not a fast writer.  True, I can build up word count faster when I work on novellas.  Not because the words flow more quickly, but because I can see a goal in sight, and I race toward it.  Often, I write more hours a day, push myself harder.  It’s a sprint to the finish, and then I can relax.  Working on a novel is more like a marathon.  I pace myself, think of scenes instead of the whole story, and inch toward the final battle one step at a time.  I don’t write as many hours a day so that my brain actually works when I sit in front of my computer the next morning, and the one after that, and the one…..  You get the idea.

It sort of surprises me that I didn’t think of how I meant to balance everything when I started so many books and novellas.  But I was experimenting.  Did readers like medieval stories with witches and Harpies?  It doesn’t seem like it.  They’re my worst selling stories, but they’re also one of my favorite to write.  Who knew I’d get hooked on Christian and Brina?  And then there’s Emerald Hills, where I finally learned how to write a little bit of romance.  If I pat myself too much on the back about that, one of my romance writer friends will put me in my place:)    It’s easy for me to stay humble.  That’s what my friends and family are for.  And then there’s Babet and Prosper.  My absolute favorites.  I can’t stop writing them.  I like them too much.  And that’s just the novellas.

Aargh.  There are only so many hours a day that my brain will work.  I can only write so much.  So heed my advice.  Think before you write.  How many stories do you have time to make into a series?  People get impatient.  If they like book one, they might buy book two, and if they like that, when will book three come out?

I like balance in my life.  I’m not so fond of juggling.  So think before you write.  Hit your computer keys responsibly.  For your sake and others’.

http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

P.S.  If anyone has any questions or topics they’re interested in, I’d be happy to give them a go.  Just let me know.

Writing–where do you get your ideas?

My good news is that my Death & Loralei novellas bundle went online last week, and I think it’s beautiful to behold.  The cover shows all FOUR covers for the four novellas inside the collection.  I’m biased, because I searched through lots of images before I found ones that felt right.  And then Michael took them and made them wonderful.  Thanks, Michael!

The bad news?  I finished drafts for three more novellas to post off and on for the rest of the year while I work on a novel.  I have them “in waiting.”  And since they’re written, that gave me an excuse to do another massive cover search, scrolling through hundreds of images, to find ones that spoke to me.  I’m beginning to worry that I’m an image junkie.  And the thing is, I don’t just save the ones that might work for the stories I have ready.  I find ones that inspire other ideas for other stories, so I save those, too, with notes for what I might do with them.  More ideas for stories than I’ll probably ever be able to write.

One of my friends gets ideas for stories when she reads news articles.  She writes mysteries, so when she reads about a unique crime, she cuts out the article and then plays with the idea.  What if someone else committed the murder for a different reason?  What would motivate him to stab Mr. X fifteen times?  What was the backstory that led to the fury?  And when she’s done, the crime is the same, but the story’s completely unique.   A friend of mine who writes romance asks herself what could make a really wonderful girl and an absolutely terrific guy meet, have instant chemistry, and then do everything in their power to run away from each other?  What traits would pull them together AND push them apart?

I get inspired by lots of things.  I might want a small character I used in one novella to have a bigger role in the next one.  So I ask myself, what is there about this character that could bring her grief?  It’s almost always in her backstory–which the reader might only get glimpses of, it’s only important to me–and then I do what I can to make her life miserable until she resolves her conflicts (inner and outer).   BUT the other thing that inspires me is an awesome image.

I found– cover_mockup_17 — this image when I was searching through ideas for covers one day.  And the mood of the image made me think of all sorts of story ideas.  The moon and girl suggested a witch story.  But the girl’s not on a broomstick, so what if people just THOUGHT she was a witch?  And for some reason, the colors and shadows made me think bittersweet, a tragedy of some sort.  There’s a tree.  People used to hang witches, didn’t they?  The birds made me think of Death’s ravens, that travel with him.  So I decided to make it a Death & Loralei novella.  My imagination took off from there.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of tidbits and places.  One of my friends uses music to inspire her.  Another reads a novel that she loves and asks herself What could I do with the book’s big question that would be completely different?  How could I take that character flaw and go in a totally different direction?  Another friend loves research and Regencies, so asked herself what kind of Regency romance she’d like to read, and then wrote it.  A newspaper article, a stray conversation–ideas for stories are everywhere.   May you find your inspiration, and may the Muse fill in the rest…with lots of elbow grease from you.

http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/series-of-novellas.html

Writing & Creativity

I’ve been reading a lot of posts about creativity lately.  A few of them claim that if a writer plots ahead and doesn’t follow his/her muse, he stifles his creative juices and forces them to go somewhere they might otherwise avoid.  I usually stay out of the pantsers/plotters debate.  I think every writer has to find what works for him.  We all tap into our creative juices and sweat-and-blood, putting-words-on paper in our own ways.  But a couple of comments here and there have made me feel the need to defend my need for plotting.

For me, plotting is NOT plodding.  That term applies to the late middle of any novel I’ve ever written–it feels like it will never end.  And plotting doesn’t ruin my creativity when I’m not constantly surprised by what my characters might come up.  I don’t make elaborate, detailed plots anymore–even though I did when I wrote mysteries–but the plot points were always just dots on a map.  I start at point A, travel to point B, take a left at C, follow a winding road to D, and finally end up at point E..or F…or wherever the end of the book lands.   Plots are destination points, and my characters almost always suprise me on how they decide to get to each of them.  The points make sure I don’t take any detours that  lead nowhere, but the actual journey is still an adventure.

Plot points actually FREE UP my creativity.  I’m not sitting, looking at a blank page each time I finish a scene, wondering what I should write next, because I have a next bus stop in mind.  All I have to ask myself is how am going to get from here to there?  And what kinds of flat tires, accidents, and bumps in the road can happen along the way?

That said, when I find a blogger who explains writing better than I do, I like to share their post with you.  It’s no secret that I love Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series.  A fan asked her how she wrote her query for the first Kate Daniels book, Magic Bites, and she generously took the time to give a brilliant answer and then a second blog describing what’s crucial to make a good book.  Both would make good, pre-writing scribbles for what to decide on BEFORE you start a book.  You don’t have to agree.  But plot points work for me.

http://www.ilona-andrews.com/category/business-of-writing

http://www.ilona-andrews.com/business-of-writing/queries-common-issues

 

Writing–What’s your theme?

My friend, Paula, from Scribes flew with me to San Diego years ago for a writers’ conference that featured Elizabeth George.  We’re both huge fans of her writing.  Her  presentation was well worth the flight, but one of the things that stood out for me was her idea that each writer repeats a theme over and over again in each novel they write.  There might be a “topic” theme that’s unique for each book–and she said she doesn’t know what hers is until the book’s finished–but authors have a personal take on the world that sneaks into their work.

I thought about that when I switched from the mystery genre to urban fantasy.  Did that mean my life theme had changed?  I don’t think so.  I couldn’t figure mine out for a while until I attended a lecture where the speaker broke down what attracted readers to different genres and sub-genres.  I fell into the “good vs. evil and good wins” camp.  In my stories and novels, I do what many mystery writers do–I make sure that crime, ultimately, does NOT pay, and good conquers evil and restores the world to its natural order, even if my protagonist has to break a few rules to make that happen.  That’s why I can’t really write horror.  In horror, evil CAN win and sometimes does.  My evil might win a few battles, but it always loses the war.

Another friend, who writes noir (Les Edgerton–and he does it exceptionally well–you should check him out if noir’s your thing) wrote that monsters can’t scare him in fiction, because he knows there’s no such thing.  He can’t suspend disbelief and worry that the vampire will drain poor Miss Marple.  To frighten him, the threat has to be distinctly human in the making–because that, he can believe might happen.  I, on the other hand, can easily be more frightened by a supernatural threat than a mortal one.  Why?  For me, it’s not about the actual event.  It’s about the struggle of “good vs. evil.”  Mostly, it’s about how hard a person will cling to his morals/beliefs in the face of almost sure defeat, how hard he’ll strive to be his idea of “good” or “worthy.”

My author friends who write romance don’t just like “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy must win girl” type stories.  They write romance because they believe in and value the concept that love is a unique, important value that can change a person’s life and world.  They love the idea of love.

When a writer creates a plot, peopled by characters, his most basic beliefs color the world he creates, and that, maybe, becomes his own personal theme.  Every planet and orbit revolves around it, because at his core, that’s how he sees the world, what drives him.   What seeps into your stories?  When you play creator, what rules drive your characters and the decisions they must make?

(Just a note:  my novel, Fallen Angels, is free for Kindles through May 21st: http://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Angels-ebook/dp/B0079MLWSQ/ref=sr_1_13?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1369065362&sr=1-13&keywords=Judith+Post)

Also, later this week, the author Kyra Jacobs interviews me on her blog, Indiana Wonderer.  http://indianawonderer.wordpress.com/

Writing Backwards

When I wrote mysteries, I always started with an idea that hooked me.  Some odd thought would snag my imagination, and it wouldn’t let go until I built scenes around it.  The scenes told me what type of character I was going to follow through that particular story.  Sometimes, I’d get so gung-ho, I’d rush into writing.  At that stage of my craft, rushing was a mistake.  Almost every story I started, when I didn’t have an ending in mind, lacked the tension and punch my stories–with endings in mind–had.  I’ve written for so long now, I don’t need to plot as hard as I once did–at least, not on paper.  Because now, the rhythm and twists are so internalized, they’re just part of the process.

A friend read some of my stories and said, “I could never write these.  How do you come up with so many ideas?”  “But it’s easy,” I told her, “if you know the end and write backwards.”  And it’s true.  You have a beginning, and if you know the end, you just need to figure out how to get there.  If it’s a mystery, you can sprinkle in clues and red herrings along the way, because you know which things ARE clues.  You know who did it and why.  Same holds true for most stories you write.  But middles can still be muddles, so that’s why I fiddled around until I found what works for me.

I spelled out my plotting technique in an earlier blog, but basically, I divide  a story (whatever it’s length) into four parts.  And I know how the story will end, so….

The first fourth is set-up:

1.  One heck of a hook–whatever grabs the reader and pulls him in.  (It doesn’t have to be in-your-face to do this).

2.  Introduce the main & minor characters through action–not back story.

3.  The inciting incident and big story question (both external and internal).

3.  The setting has to contribute to that particular story’s tone/mood/plot.  Show it through the protagonist’s POV, what it means to him.

4.  For novels, I introduce 1 or 2 subplots that deal with the same theme as the main plot.

5.  A direction the protagonist goes in, thinking he’ll resolve his problem and make his world right again.

6.  At the end of the set-up, he discovers his solution won’t work or that his problem’s bigger than he ever thought.

After the set-up, I think of at least 2 more plot twists and try to put the first twist in the middle of the story and the next twist close to the 3/4 mark.  Then for the last fourth of the story, I tie things up and finish what I already put in place–rushing toward my ending.

This technique took something unwieldy (writing an entire novel) and broke it into smaller pieces that make it easier for my brain to hold.  Until, that is, I got bored doing the same-old, same-old.  And I decided to write a novel where I knew the beginning and I knew the end, but my goal for myself after the set-up was to try to put my protagonist in as much trouble as I could get her in, scene after scene, and then get her out of trouble by asking myself, “What would the reader never expect to happen here?”

I wrote the book.  A friend read it.  A small publisher even took it and then went out of business.  (Not my book’s fault.  Lack of money).  And my friend said, “Hmmm, my daughter loved it, but it sure isn’t your usual writing, is it?”  Not a compliment, but I had to laugh.  No, it wasn’t my usual writing, and that was the point.  I learned a lot from that book (not that I recommend writing books to experiment with unless you really don’t care if it’s published or not.  At that point in my life, writing was still a hobby to me, my “me” time.  I wrote and sent books, but wasn’t really surprised if no one took them).  But that book gave me a wonderful sense of freedom.

Before, I tried really hard to write like my favorite authors wrote, to do as they did.  When I gave myself permission to ask, “What do I want to do now?” and it could be anything, I came up with plot twists and scenes I’d never considered before.  Not that it made for a great book, but it made for a fun one.  So now, I make a habit of using the Rule of Three.  (I’ve heard Shirley Jump on panels and in workshops, and she uses the Rule of Six.  If I’d have heard her first, maybe I’d have tried harder, but she’s smarter than I am, or maybe I’m lazier, so three works for me).  Anyway, when I come to a culmination scene now (where I’ve laid the ground work for it and, hopefully, the reader’s waiting to see what happens), I try NOT to go with my first idea–the obvious.  I try to think of a second and a third result that’s feasible, but unexpected, and I go with that.

So my technique now?  I still use the four part strategy for stories, but I give myself more wiggle room.  I try to suprise myself more often.  My advice to new writers?  Find what works for you and have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting the Writing Juices Flowing Again

I woke up this morning with thoughts of meatloaf and a novella running through my head.  The meatloaf, because I’m hungry for it.  Hungry enough that I’ll make it for supper tonight.  The novella, because the juices are stewing again.  My story is taking on life.

I’ve been away from writing for a while.  I worked on serious rewrites before the holidays.  That’s a form of writing, and one I usually enjoy.  This time, though, it was the third time through a manuscript I’ve lost all perspective on, I’ve looked at it so much.  But rewrites are different than sitting in front of a blank computer screen and asking myself, How do I bring this story to life?

The first time I asked myself that question, I only got a sorry, “this might work,” nothing that excited me solution.  If it didn’t excite me, it sure wasn’t going to entice a reader.  The second time, I didn’t fare much better.  Had my creativity flown the coop?  Taken a vacation?  I always panic for a minute and wonder if my writing skills are infinite or finite.  Can I use them up?  I could have wrestled some ideas to make them work, but more often than not, that shows.  It’s a bare-boned attempt, driven by plot points with not enough flesh or emotion.  The spark never really clicks, and the scene falls as flat as the lack of inspiration.

My brain wasn’t built to go from zero miles an hour to ninety.  It was just warming up.  That’s when I give it more time to play.  This was the third story in a series that I based on the setting in Fabric of Life, one of my novels.  So I thought back to the characters I’d created.  Usually, when I think about them–how they interact, what they want, what they’re doing in their world–ideas start percolating.   I know the main plot of the story before I ever start, but the journey from point A to point Z is driven by my characters and the decisions they make.  And this morning, before I opened my eyes, I could see Sheri getting ready to play her keyboard at the Fourth of July celebration in Emerald Hills.  Her nephew and his wife are saving her a spot on their blanket to watch the fireworks.  She’s looking forward to seeing old friends and having a picnic, but I know Fate has lots more in store for her.  She’s in for lots more than she bargained for.  And now, I can’t wait to start writing.

(Here’s a link for the first Emerald Hills novella, More Than Bonbons: it’s available at amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, smashwords, and more)

http://www.amazon.com/Bonbons-Emerald-Hills-Novella-ebook/dp/B009WEJ2FY/ref=sr_1_14?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1358782402&sr=1-14&keywords=Judith+Postcover_11_thumb (1)

Writing a Series

I’ve been told that, for marketing, it’s smart to write a series instead of stand-alone novels.  If people like the characters in your first novel, they’ll want more stories about them.  They’ll want to see them grow and change.  Adding a romance helps.  The protagonist and his/her romantic interest can butt heads for a book or two, get together in the third or fourth, and become a team after that, with the usual complications that come with coupledom.  I have to admit, my favorite mysteries are almost all series.  I loved Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain, even though the author finally moved on to someone else.  Elizabeth George has shamed Thomas Lynley, married him, killed his wife, and emotionally beaten him up.  Once in a while, I wonder if she still likes him.  Same with Martha Grimes and Richard Jury.  It must be hard to come up with book after book with the same characters. Maybe sometimes, you’re just irritated with them.  But look at J.D. Robb or Sue Grafton.  Series characters are done all the time, and as readers, we like going into a world we know with characters we like.

My favorite urban fantasy authors write series.  A few of them write more than one.  Maybe that’s a good thing–when you’ve had it up to here with one protagonist, you can switch to a different one.  For urban fantasy, not only do the characters grow in each successive book, with more intense relationships in more complex arrangements, but the world they inhabit becomes more detailed and real too.  With each book, I learn more about Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock and how she and her puma share the same body, but I also learn about vampires and their society, the politics of “others” who dwell in the same city, and the origins of how vampires started.  The paranormal becomes more real the more books the author writes.

When I decided to write my novellas, I kept those things in mind.  I wanted to write at least four stories for each series.  But I wanted to use more than just settings to distinguish them from one another.  I wanted a different focus for each series too.  So, I put a strong detective slant to the Babet/Prosper stories and gave them Agatha Christie-type plots.  For One Less Warlock, I wrote a locked room mystery–with witches. For A Different Undead, I wanted to write about a person who’d died and suddenly appeared on the streets again–but instead of faking his/her death, I wanted to put a magic twist on the tale.  For Magrat’s Dagger, I wanted a stolen, prized relic, like the Maltese Falcon.

I won’t bore you–I hope–with too many details for each series, but I wanted the Loralei and Death series to have more of a poignant feel, while I tried to focus more on light and quirky romance, with a smidgeon of magic, in the Emerald Hills series.  For Dante and Ally, I made an effort to incorporate more mythology into the plots, but I let the medieval castles set the tone for the Christian and Brina stories.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you sit down to write, it doesn’t hurt to have a series in mind.  And settings help define a series, yes, but most have the same tone of voice too.  Is it humorous?  Dark?  Melancholy?  Or adventurous?  And they not only have the same character or characters, they often have a similar, underlying theme or feel.  Minor characters can grow into bigger parts.  So leave yourself some wiggle room.  At the end of your book, which is a big enough feat to accomplish in and of itself, what else could happen to those same characters in that same world?  Because you might have to live with them for a while.

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.

Write What You Know

One of the early rules I learned about writing was “write what you know.”  Tricky.  My vast stores of knowledge weren’t that inspiring.  I taught for six years.  Did I want to have an elementary school teacher as a heroine?  Not really.  I love to cook, but lots of authors already do books that revolve around catering or food.  I’m not an expert at anything, so what did I know?

I know emotions.  We all do.  We’ve all been happy, sad, furious, silly.   I’ve never murdered anyone, but I can sure understand the feeling.  I’ve been jealous, felt betrayed, suffered through failures and frustrations–all the things that bring a story to life.  And there are emotions I’m not attuned to.  A long time ago, when I first started to write short stories, I sent many of them off to Cemetary Dance, a horror magazine.  The editor, bless his heart, commented on every rejection and offered encouragement.  Finally, being the kind man he was, he mentioned that it might be possible that I didn’t have a dark enough view of the world and the humans who live in it to really write anything dark enough to work for his magazine.  And he was right.  Horror isn’t my strong suit.

So I turned to mysteries–the morality plays of our time.  Good conquers evil.  Logic prevails.  I’d been an Agatha Christie fan for years, loved amateur sleuths, and enjoyed wading through red herrings.  Mysteries kept me happily hitting the computer keys for years.  Until I discovered urban fantasy.

Here was a genre I could embrace.  I’ve loved myths since I studied four years of Latin in high school.  Fickle gods and goddesses, flawed heroes–everything a girl could want.  And superhuman, to boot.  Witches cast spells.  Vampires bit necks, and werewolves howled in the night.  What wasn’t to love?  Plus, the rules of our world were blurred.  What matters is emotions, loyalties, strengths, and weaknesses.  Good versus bad takes on a whole, new dimension.  Finding Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series sealed the deal.  I was hooked.

The thing is write what you know took on a whole new meaning.  I’ve never met a werewolf and don’t expect to.  But I can imagine how he might feel–if he gets a rush with his newfound powers or struggles to contain them.  How can a white witch defeat a witch who’s succumbed to the dark arts?  How can a vampire like himself?  With more power comes more responsibility, more options, and more temptations.  I love that.  It gives me more freedom to explore the whys of the characters I create.  In many ways, I can relate more to them than “real” characters, if they’re done well.  But any good writer, no matter what genre or type of tale they tell, can reel me in with a character I find intriguing.  And that’s the real trick of writing what you know.  You get inside that character’s mind and make him real–whether he’s mortal or not.