Writing: Can a writer be too nice?

I live in the Midwest.  Last Monday, my husband and I drove to Shipshewana, Indiana to look for  a calendar.  I know.  A long drive to find one, right?  But we take our calendars seriously.  You have to look at the picture above the numbered boxes, counting down days, for an entire month.  We’d rather look at something we like.  Last year, my daughter, who doesn’t shop ahead like we do, ended up with a calendar of birds of prey.  I cringed every time I turned my head and accidentally saw talons, ready for a kill.  Besides, Monday was an absolutely beautiful day.  Sunlight gleamed on golden, crimson, and orange leaves. Farmers were working in their fields.   Best of all, Shipshewana is Amish territory.  We drove through Topeka and saw Amish laundry drying on clotheslines, stretched in side yards.  Horses grazed in pastures.  We had a wonderful day.

It was sunny enough that I needed my sunglasses.  I viewed the world through amber, not rose-colored glasses.  But the amber made everything brighter, more striking and dramatic.  That’s sort of the way I see the world when I write.  Everything’s amplified.  One of my friends teases me and tells me that I’m never mean enough to my characters.  That I’m too nice to them.  It’s possible, but I don’t need suffering and tragedy to keep me turning pages.   I just need enough tension and conflict to make me root for the protagonist to find the solutions he needs, characters that I care about, and a plot that twists and turns enough to hold my interest.

I thought about that as I worked on plot points for the Babet and Prosper that I’m writing on my webpage (I put up chapter 3, if you’re interested).  I started with a hook that wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote the damn thing.  I kept seeing Hatchet chaining his vampire/wife to the wall of his basement.  Hatchet’s devoted to Colleen, and she’s devoted to him.  So why in the world would he lock her in silver chains?  And then the answer came to me.  To help her.  Happy day!  I liked my hook.  And I liked my villains.  Worthy antagonists make for good stories.

Now, I’ve read over and over again that most authors state the book’s “big question,” on the first page, if not the first paragraph or even the first sentence.  Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I don’t, but it needs to be somewhere in the first chapter.  So I needed to decide what the big conflict in the book would be–what would the protagonists struggle with for the rest of the entire novel?  Once I had that, I concentrated on pacing, how I wanted to up the tension chapter by chapter.  And I was lucky enough to stumble upon K.M. Weiland’s seriously deep blog about the inciting incident and the first fourths of books.  She said–especially well–what I usually do (in a not so clear pattern).  She must divide her books into fourths, like I do.  Only she’s even better at it.  Take a read: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/your-books-inciting-event-its-not-what-you-think-it-is/

While plotting away, my wonderful editor–John Scognamiglio at Kensington–sent me the book cover for my very first romance novel that will come out next April.  I’m pretty excited about it, but April feels like it’s FOREVER away.  Some of my writer friends do awesome cover reveals, which I’ve never tried, so I’m trying to decide how to go about it.  No brilliant ideas yet:)  Anyway, last week was busy enough for me.  I wish you a Happy Halloween and a spectacular November!

Happy writing!

My webpage:  (chapter 3):  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/chapter-3.html

My author Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/JudithPostsurbanfantasy/

Catch me on twitter: @judypost

Writing: Are enneagrams right?

I’m beginning to play with ideas for a straight romance novel. No magic. No battles. No myths. I found a plot and subplot that intrigue me, characters I like, and a setting I love. I’m thinking of having my female protagonist run her own small business. I told my friend, Paula, about that and she immediately said, “I know a couple who just started their own vineyard. They did lots of research. You could get all kinds of practical advice if you ask them questions.” My response? “I’m not ready for that yet.” And then we both laughed at each other. There’s a story behind that:

Years ago, Paula and I flew all the way to San Diego to a writers’ conference that featured Elizabeth George as its keynote speaker–and she didn’t disappoint. But the other reason we were excited about the conference was because an expert was going to explain how to use enneagrams to develop characters in stories. In theory, enneagrams assign different personality types a number; and that number shows the strengths and weaknesses the person will have. For example, a type 1 personality is “The Reformer,” like Eleanor Roosevelt or Miss Marple–principled and self-controlled–a perfectionist. Their idea of how to get love depends upon if they do everything right, exactly right. Their sins if things go wrong? Anger or being too self-righteous.

There are 9 numbers for 9 different personality types. Paula and I took the quiz the speaker gave us, and I got a 5, the investigator–like Sherlock Holmes. Isolation can be good, to withdraw and think. In excess, some fives totally pull away from society, like the Uni-bomber–so you’ve been warned. Type fives’ typical resonse to something new is “Let me think about it.” Paula tested as a 7, the enthusiast, like James Bond. And she still loves new experiences. Sevens need high stimulus and want to keep their options open. One afternoon, we attended a panel that wasn’t what we’d expected it to be. Paula turned to me and said, “Let’s get out of here. We can drive into town and get some wine.” I said, “Let’s think about it.” And we looked at each other and laughed. We’d just verified our numbers. But Paula won, and we took off, and I was happy we did.

I used to use enneagrams to develop character wheels because the numbers made me think about both the strengths AND weaknesses of my characters, along with what they’d have been like as children. Since I plan to focus more on relationships in my new romance, I dug out my old book The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baran and Elizabeth Wagele to chart wheels again. I bought it a LONG time ago, and I found free downloads on the internet, but a few warned that they were unsafe–so I’m not adding a link. I don’t want anyone to catch a virus from my blog:) But they’re out there, if you’re tech savvie and stay safe. Anyway, if you’d like to find your number, you can try an online quiz: http://www.enneagramquiz.com/quiz.html. If you’re curious, there are a few different enneagram sources online. And who knows? Enneagrams might help you look at your characters in new and different ways.


FYI, My new novella bundle, Emerald Hills, is online now. 7 novellas in one collection-http://amzn.to/1oBHaNp. cover_40_thumb

Writing: starting up a new book

I have the first draft of Spinners of Fortune ready to give to my critique partners.  It’s as good as I can make it at the moment.  While they red ink it, it’s time for me to start plotting out my next book.  If I immerse my head in the third Enoch & Voronika story, it will give me enough distance from Spinners to look at it more objectively when I get my friends’ remarks back.  The added bonus is, if I get the plot lines and character wheels finished for the new book, I can let them noodle in my head while I do rewrites for Spinners.  Good for both books.

So, how do I start a book?  I just read Jayme Beddingfield’s writing process, and it’s pretty close to what I used to do when I wrote mysteries.  http://jaymebeddingfield.tumblr.com/post/61736583352/how-i-build-a-story#  This is one lengthy, thorough process of plotting.  For mysteries, it served me well.  In its own way, it gave me a great feeling of freedom.  I could do anything I wanted to bring each scene to life as long as I hit the vital plot points.  Characters still surprised me.  Things didn’t always go as planned on paper.  For urban fantasies, however, I have even more leeway and flexibility.  So my plotting’s changed.

I start with the kernel idea that brought the story alive for me.  I let it squirm in my mind until I sit down to write it.  Enoch met Voronika in the first book in the series, Fallen Angels, close to the same time that Danny and Maggie met.  In Blood Battles, Danny and Maggie get ready for their wedding, and Enoch wants a commitment from Voronika.  He won’t be happy until he gets one.  In the new book, Maggie’s going to be pregnant.  We already know that Voronika was pregnant when Vlad turned her into a vampire, and she lost the baby.  Maggie’s pregnancy is going to make Voronika yearn for what she can never have–a child of her own.  Vampires don’t birth babies, only more vampires.  Enoch, a fallen angel, doesn’t intend to father children either, so they need to find a way to resolve Voronika’s feelings of loss.  That’s the starting idea for the new book.  Now, I just need to figure out how to make that story happen.  Once I have the idea for the story and the starting incident and some idea where the story’s going, then I sit down to look at my characters.

For writing, I need something visual that I can glance at and “see” the person I’ve created. I started using character wheels when I went to a workshop given by Shirley Jump.  She gives awesome workshops, by the way, if you ever want to sign up for one of them.  She offers them online.  Over the years, I’ve kept the main concept she taught (along with much, much more), but I’ve made it my own.   I draw a 2″ circle in the center of a piece of typing paper.  In that circle, I write my character’s full name (and nickname, if he has one).  Under that, I put his age and physical description.  You’d be surprised how many times, after I’ve changed stories a few times and then go back to write the third book in a series, that I can’t remember if I gave someone brown eyes or amber.  What color was his hair?  One I glance at his wheel, though, I know.  From that wheel, I draw 7 lines–sort of like the sun’s rays.

The first “ray” is for info about his family.  What were his  mom and dad like?  What did they do?  Did he get along with them?  What about brothers and sisters?  Any aunts or uncles who were special to him in a good or bad way?  Cousins?  Etc.

The second “ray” is for education or training and his career.  Did he like school?  Barely pass?  Get a degree or certificate or join the military?  Each decision he makes tells me more about him.

The third “ray” is for where he lives and what he drives.  Does he rent an apartment or own a house?  Does he take care of it or is it a pigpen?  Is his car flashy or functional?  Or does he own a truck or a Jeep?  Where he lives and what he drives says a lot about him.

The fourth “ray” is for relationships–his past or current romances.  Did he fall in love in second grade and stay a romantic?  Is he player who dodges commitment?  How many women has he known/been serious about?

The fifth “ray” is for close friends (at least 2).  What’s their friendship like?  Easy?  Do they meet to play pool or work out at the gym?  Is my character a leader or a follower?  Does he put up with too much crap when he knows better?  Each of those traits is a line that connects with his ray.

I draw lines from the sixth ray for each of his quirks or hobbies.  Does he love to cook?  Go camping?  Go to a shooting range?

The seventh and last is for antagonists or enemies.  Has he rubbed some people the wrong way?  Is there someone he competes with who’d throw him under the bus to get ahead?  Is there a journalist who wants his story?  Or a cop who thinks he’s guilty when he’s not?

When I finish the wheel for that particular character and move to the next, I consciously try to make the new person different enough with a different agenda that the characters will have built-in conflict when they meet, even if they decide to work together.

Once I have my characters in mind, I can finish the main plot points for the story.  I won’t start a book until I have the book’s big question, the inciting incident, the turning point at the end of the first fourth of the book, the turning point for the middle of the book and then again at three-fourths point, and finally, how the book ends.  If I can fill in a couple of scenes for each fourth, so much the better.  That gives me a lot of flexibility.  But whatever you do, however you write, enjoy the process.  I do.  Bringing the book to life in your mind is a wondrous thing!

Emotion in Writing

I’ve started to really look forward to a fellow blogger’s posts.  She’s a bird enthusiast, like me, but she’s also a wonderful writer and captures lots of emotion in very few words.  (http://jmgoyder.com/author/jmgoyder/)

It’s made me think about my own writing.  I draw character wheels to get my characters’ hair and eye color right, to understand what motivates them.  I scribble down a sketchy map of plot points to keep the story going in the right direction.  I worry about word choice and commas.  But I belong to Goodreads, and the books that people love the most aren’t always perfectly written.  They’re the ones that elicit a strong emotional reaction.    If the language is lyrical and the twists and turns are exciting, that’s an added plus.  But the emotional impact is the payoff for all of the pages turned.

So how does a writer create emotion?  An often repeated piece of advice comes to mind.  The protagonist’s stakes have be high, almost impossible, to achieve.  He has to work hard and suffer many failures to try to achieve his goal.  And he should never give up.  The goal has to matter.

The characters should be sympathetic.  Not the same as nice or smart or good looking, even though in urban fantasy, that doesn’t hurt.  But come to think of it, protagonists aren’t always nice.  They can be stubborn, frustrating, and flawed.  That actually makes them much more fun to follow, but it’s hard to care about a character who’s petty, selfish, or mean.  I have a problem with whiners.  Or characters who are shallow.  Why would we care if he/she achieves what he wants or needs?  But he might SEEM petty or act selfish sometimes, etc., as long as we know he’s actually a decent human being at the core.

The characters need to feel real, not just some personality traits on paper who follow the author’s script and lead the plot from point A to point B.  They have to have their own wants and desires, their own hangups and habits.  And once in a while, their reactions have to be totally honest, not what the author or reader would expect, not the proper way to respond, but something that makes them seem human.  They need to be flawed, to make mistakes, and have regrets.

Anyway, I’ve read lots of articles on POV, pacing, and voice, along with all of the other tools a writer needs in her author belt.  But I think checking our scenes and chapters for emotional impact should be one of the things at the top of the list.  Some people do this naturally, like JMGoyder does.  Some emotions are built into the story conflict.  They come with the territory.  But if we can add emotion to a scene, it makes it stronger.  It’s something to think about.

What are some of your all-time favorite books?  What made you like them?  Remember them?