Must Read Monday: Finally, a Writing Book for Pantsers!

 

*I put a sticky tab on any page with a point I wanted to type into my notes. Look at that rainbow, people.

I know I usually tackle fiction when doing a Must Read Monday, but I read a writing craft book this weekend that was just so fabulous that I wanted to pass it along to those of you who are writers.

As most of you know, I'm a bit addicted to reading books about the craft of writing. (Yes, I'm an unrepentant nerd.) But most of the time, those books are all about different ways to plot your book. And I like learning those techniques because I'm a pantser with plotter envy. Writing without an outline can be an anxiety-ridden process, writer's block can pop up often, and the unknown is freaking scary (especially when you're writing under a deadline.) But no matter how hard I've tried to alter my process, I can't seem to get away from my pantsing (writing by the seat of my pants) ways.

And a little part of me has always been afraid that if I was successful at plotting ahead and outlining that I would lose some of the "magic" of my writing process. Like two weeks ago, this happened when I was happily writing a story. I had a general direction in mind and then got hit with a big twist that I had never ever considered or planned. It changes what the rest of the book will look like, but I think it's the correct (and much more interesting) way to go. If I had been writing to an outline, would that had ever come to me? And if it had, would I have been willing to ditch the whole second half of the outline to go in this new direction?

That kind of "a-ha" discovery happens with every book. The big twist in Crash Into You that most people have told me they never saw coming? That was because *I* didn't know it was coming until I was 70% of the way through writing the book. The big thing that happens in Kade's backstory in Need You Tonight that explains so much about who he is now? I didn't know about it until I was halfway through the book and it hit me--wait, THAT'S what happened!

So let me tell you, it was hella refreshing to finally come across a book that doesn't just tolerate pantsing as a way for people to write but actually recommends it. AND gives tips on how to overcome some of the struggles, anxieties and pitfalls of writing without an outline. Because, Lord, I would love to be less neurotic during my writing process.

So here's the book and my review from Goodreads. Pantsers, go forth and enjoy!

Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James

 

My Review from Goodreads:

Finally, a book for pantsers! And not just one that mentions pantsing but validates the process as a legitimate (he even ventures to say superior) process of writing. I have long been a pantser with plotter envy because it seems like every book on writing I read talks about "organic" writing as the immature/impatient process and plotting as the panacea, the "professional" way. Of course, that always makes plotting sound like this lovely method that is going to take away the constant anxiety of working in the unknown and the pitfalls that come along with that (writer's block, chasing bunny trails, rereading your previous pages constantly to get back into the mindset, etc.). But after reading this, I feel like I can take a deep breath and find a place of acceptance with my pantsing ways. Yes, my method causes me anxiety, but it's also been a successful one for me, so why am I always trying to change it?

And with this book, there are methods that may even help with the anxiety involved in "flying into the mist" when writing. There are questions to ask when you get stuck or come across a plot problem. There are guidelines on what needs to be clear in each scene and how to keep the tension up. There are pointers on how to include twists. And some of the character stuff--questions to ask about their secrets, shame, fears, etc--was brilliant.

I have five pages of notes from the book and put sticky flags on way too many pages because there was too much great stuff to hold in my head all at once. I'm kind of a junkie when it comes to book on writing and can be hard to please, but I have no qualms giving this one five stars. I know I'll be referencing it often.


*I was not asked to give this review. I bought this book on my own.

A Writing Book Worth Adding To Your Library

 

So it's no secret that I'm kind of a glutton for writing tips, techniques, and insight. It's one of the reasons I maintained a blog for writers for over two years and still have the occasional post on writing here. There's always more to discover. I can never learn enough about this thing that I do for a living. (And maybe secretly I'm hoping to run across that tip that makes this whole crazy writing process easier. Ha! See, I'm delusional as well.) 

So even though I have a shelf full of books on craft already, I do occasionally let myself wander to the writing section at the local Barnes and Noble. This usually results in hours sitting on the floor in front of that section, skimming the books until I find the ones that I can't put down. This past weekend, I had a little time and went on a bit of a shopping spree, buying three new writing books. (I was supposed to be shopping for clothes. That didn't go so well.)

I've only made it through one of the three pictured above so far, but I wanted to share that one with you.

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises

Blurb:

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel is often like fighting a series of battles. You not only have to work hard to shape memorable characters, develop gripping plots, and craft dazzling dialogue, but you also have to fight against self-doubts and fears. And then there's the challenge of learning to navigate the ever-changing publishing industry.

That's why best-selling novelist James Scott Bell, author of the Write Great Fiction staples Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing, came up with the ultimate novel-writing battle plan: The Art of War for Writers.

You'll find tactics and strategies for idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with unrealistic expectations, and much more.

With timeless, innovative, and concise writing reflections and techniques, The Art of War for Writers is your roadmap to victory.

This was a quick read but it was full of wisdom for both new and experienced writers. Like I said in my review below, I pretty much love everything James Scott Bell has to say. If you're not following him on The Kill Zone, fix that now. : )

Here's my Goodreads review...

The Art of War for WritersThe Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm discovering that I just kind of love everything James Scott Bell has to say about writing. His advice is always to the point and eminently practical, and he gives great examples to boot. This is an easy, fast read but it's filled with great nuggets of wisdom. The last section is more focused on writers who are still aspiring to publication. But I found the first two parts, especially the section focused on craft to be chock full of tips I wanted to write on index cards and pin up around my office. A great addition to any writer's craft library.

View all my reviews

 

For other suggestions on some of my favorite craft books, check out this post:  Twelve Writer Woes and the Books to Cure Them 

 

What's your favorite book on writing? Or which craft book have you gotten invaluable information from?

Testing Your Opening Scene - 5 Steps #atozchallenge

Photo by Tawheed Manzoor (click photo for link)This weekend I had the privilege of critiquing a few opening pages for two friends (along with revising my own opening scene). And as I was critting/revising, I was reminded just how hard it is to work everything you need to in that crucial opening scene without weighing it down with things like backstory.

It's a very delicate dance, getting that opening scene just right. And it's an important one because those first 5-10 pages may be all you have to impress an agent...or later on, a reader. So even though every page of your book deserves a critical eye, the opening needs to be honed and molded to near perfection.

One of my favorite writing books is Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan Rosenfeld (If you don't have it, get it. The book breaks down the elements of a scene and also goes over types of scenes--dramatic/contemplative/action/flashback etc.) Anyway, the book also has a great litmus test for what needs to be present in an opening scene.

This doesn't cover everything like what NOT to put in an opening scene (loads of backstory, endless setting descriptions, having your character wake up for the day, having your character looking in the mirror to describe herself, etc.)

But below are the basic components. 

 

Litmus Test for Your Novel's Opening

I'll put my novella, STILL INTO YOU (releases June 3), to the test as an example.

1. A challenge to your protagonist's status quo.

My hero realizes that he and his wife skipped their usual, unstated appointment to make love. (They've been married, have children, and have settled into a routine of a certain night once a week.) Instead of being with each other, they'd chosen to watch Letterman and he hadn't even noticed until the next morning

 

2. An antagonist for your character to encounter. (Doesn't have to be THE antagonist.)

Though there is a human antagonist eventually in the story, the real antagonist in the opening scene is the looming threat of the marriage failing.

 

3. Introduce your protagonist's immediate intentions.

My hero intends to do everything in his power to keep his marriage together. He still loves his wife and is going to prove that he's still the man for her. 

 

4. A glimpse into your MC's history/personality/motivation.

I always try to open with a "glimpse into ordinary life". A BRIEF glimpse. In this case, we see the couple getting ready for work--talking, but it's stilted, routine, distant. You see the hero trying to get his wife to talk about the previous night but she's on autopilot trying to get out the door.

 

5. The protagonist makes a decision that leads immediately to more complications.

Seth, the hero, decides he's going to show his wife that there is still something between them besides mutual respect. He's going to go to his brother-in-law, Jace (from CRASH), for help. Seth's initial plan is pretty mild, but it's going to lead to something much bigger (and of course, more complications.)

 

Therefore, even though my opening scene is only the jumping off point of the story and doesn't introduce the broader hook, it's the setup of the plot and enough conflict and action to whet the appetite to keep turning the page (hopefully!) to see how much more complicated things are going to get. 

These five points can't also be recycled and used to test out your Act 1 (or the first 1/3 of your book). Act 1 mimics this structure on a broader level. 

And once you embed this structure in your brain, it will eventually come naturally without even thinking about it.

So what do you think? Are these components a good summary of what you like to read/write in an opening scene? Think back to your favorite books or movies, do they follow these guidelines? Can you think of any other "must haves" in an opening?

*This is a revamped post from 2011

Man Up: Writing Male POV #atozchallenge

Photo by Mizrak (cc)One of my favorite things about reading and writing romance is the use of both the hero and heroine's POV.  There's something about getting to see inside the guy's head that makes the story so much more interesting to me.  

But writing the male POV (if you're a woman) can be a bit of a challenge (and vice versa for guys writing women).  Men and women have different thought patterns and different ways of being in the world, so if we're truly going to get inside the head of the opposite sex, we need to be aware of those differences.

I personally find male characters fun and almost easier to write than my female characters.  But that may be because in life, I've always been more comfortable around guys (well, when it comes to being friends, once I was romantically interested in a guy, I turned into an awkward mess).  So, I've spent a lot of time with groups of guy friends, have seen how they interact, and of course, I'm married to one, so that helps.  :)

 But what are the differences?  Author Keri Arthur outlined a number of points to be aware of.  (article here)

 

Men...


Are action-oriented.  Do instead of think about it.

--They aren't going to agonize over whether or not they should kiss the woman, they do it, then deal with the consequences afterward (unless your character is a teen boy, then the insecurity may cause some agonizing and indecision.)

--Ever watch a man shop?  They don't browse and wander.  They know the item they want, go to that particular store, purchase it, leave.


They tend to be less patient.

--This goes back to the action thing.  Sitting around waiting for something to happen or waiting in line is uncomfortable.


They like to be in charge.

--Whether it's cultural or biologically ingrained, men like being the alpha.


Are more visual.  

--This is why Playboy works for men, but Playgirl doesn't interest many women.  This is a very important distinction particularly if you're writing romantic interactions or love scenes from the guy's POV.

--I'm reading Lauren Dane's Coming Undone right now and she had a scene where the hero was looking at the heroine on his bed and thinking about how he felt about her.  But then he stops his thoughts, something to the effect of...he would have delved deeper into (whatever the thought was), but Hello, naked.  The line made me laugh because it was just how I imagine a guy would think.

--So when writing your guy, make sure he takes in the things he can see about his heroine.  Your heroine, on the other hand will be much more about tactile, scents, and emotional cues.  (Women need a plot--that's why romance novels are so popular.)

 

Are problem solvers

--When I vent to my husband, he starts dishing out advice.  That's now what I want.  I just wanted him to listen.  Men don't get the point of that.  They see a problem, they want to fix it.


Present a confident front

--They try to avoid asking for advice or permission, admitting to being wrong, or hedging ("I'm not sure", "This will work, right?")


Say what they mean

--They won't share every thought they have, but when they do say something it is typically straightforward.

--They don't use euphemisms or flowery adjectives.  Their language (especially if we're in internal thoughts) is going to be more coarse and blunt.

--Don't say things in a passive way.  Instead of "Are you hungry?" he'll just say, "I'm hungry."


Think about sex more than women and see if differently

--According to stats, 60% of men say they think about sex at least once a day, whereas 25% of women do

--"Sex is simpler and more straightforward for them.  That does not mean that men do not seek intimacy, love, and connection in a relationship, just as women do. They just view the role of sex differently. Women want to talk first, connect first, then have sex.  For men, sex is the connection. Sex is the language men use to express their tender loving vulnerable side. It is their language of intimacy." (from WebMD)


See conversations as a means to exchange information

--venting and small talk are not preferred.  This is why when guys hang out together, there is usually an activity involved, whereas women can just get together and chat for the sake of chatting.


Emotion, except for anger, is usually kept under wraps or repressed altogether.

--This is why it's so satisfying in a story when the guy finally breaks down and accepts how he's feeling about the heroine.

--Guys rarely cry.  If your hero is going to cry, save that moment and use it for maximum impact.

 

Alright, so I know a lot of these sound stereotypical, and not every guy is going to fall into that.  But stereotypes do exist for a reason.  Hope this at least gets you started. 

So have you written in the POV of the opposite sex?  If so, do you find it difficult or fun?  Do you enjoy reading books that offer both perspectives?

*This is a re-post from my Fiction Groupie blog 2010. 

Like Me! - How to Create Sympathetic Characters #atozchallenge

Picture via George Eastman House (The Commons on Flickr)Have you ever read a book that had a protagonist you just didn't like? Did you keep reading? 

For me this is a tough one to answer. I read books for characters. Sure, there are the occasional situations where a story is all plot and still hooks me in (these are usually blockbuster action movies, for the record), but for the most part, I want to connect with the people. So when I start reading a book and don't really like the characters, it can be a challenge for me to stick with it. 

Which got me to thinking, what makes a character sympathetic? And do we necessarily have to like a character in order to enjoy the book? Scarlett O'Hara, Anne Rice's Lestat, Severus Snape in Harry Potter, Eric in the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books, Damon in Vampire Diaries, and Sue in Glee aren't very nice people usually, yet somehow stand out as great characters that are hard not to be drawn to. Why?

Because somewhere along the way we find ourselves sympathizing or understanding them. In Glee, Sue is ruthless, vindictive, bigoted, and mean to children. Yet, in one episode we see her fall for a co-worker then get her heart broken, showing that she is capable of love and is probably extremely lonely. It isn't enough to completely redeem her, but it gives the viewer a sign that there are reasons why she is the way she is--her motivation.

And therein lies the key. If your character is going to act in a way that isn't very likable, you have to eventually clue the reader in as to why they act that way. 

Along with creating proper motivation, there are some things you want to avoid in creating sympathetic characters...

Do not make your character perfect

--A character who is totally pure of heart, volunteers with children, donates all her money to charity, wakes up looking beautiful, and is always kind to animals does not a sympathetic character make. Readers can't connect to perfect.


Keep whining to a mimimum

--A protagonist who complains and whines and constantly plays victim is just plain annoying. Readers will root for her execution instead of her success.

 

A do-nothing

--A hero/heroine no matter how flawed must take action. If the character lets everything happen and doesn't try to do something, then the reader will not be very sympathetic. We like to read about those who are willing to help themselves.

 

Tread carefully with snobbery or bitchiness

--You can have a bitchy character (i.e. Scarlett O'Hara) but it has to be worked carefully. There has to be that motivation of why they are so abrasive. And no matter what the motivation, if you MC is a shrew all the time, the reader will be turned off.

 

Beware the cliched sympathy tricks

--Showing your tough as nails hero being kind to children, elderly, and small animals is not adequate. And don't have other characters talk about how wonderful your character is to develop sympathy. Your readers will see through those tired ploys.

 

Don't throw in some "aren't I awesomely good?" scene that isn't related to the story

--Don't put your MC volunteering at the homeless shelter to show their soft side unless something is going to happen at that shelter to forward the plot

 

Make the backstory believable

--Don't tack on a whole bunch of awful events just to create sympathy. The backstory, like everything else, needs to be an organic, integrated part of the book. In my opinion, you should not be able to write the book without already knowing your character's backstory upfront. Their history is who they are and will affect every aspect of how they interact in the book. If you write the whole book, then go back and throw in a child abuse backstory to help explain the character's shortcomings, it will show.

 

Be careful waiting until page 150 to start developing the sympathetic side of your character.

--If you don't offer some morsel for your reader to hold onto, many will give up the book before they get to the "good part". Like I mentioned above, the current book I'm reading has me hanging on because of some foreshadowing and few redeeming moments, but without those ,I probably would have moved on to another book.

 

So how about you? Have you ever read a book that you just couldn't sympathize with the protagonist? Did you keep reading? Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes (can't help but like them even though they are far from great people)?

*This is a Fiction Groupie repost from 2010. This week I am re-posting because I am at the RT Convention. The normal Friday links round up will return next week. :)

How To Dish Out Backstory In Digestible Bites #atozchallenge

 

How To Dish Out Backstory In Digestible Bites

Photo by Ken WilcoxIt's that time of the year again--contest judging. I've talked about it one here before, but I think volunteering to judge contests is (beyond being a nice thing to do) one of the greatest exercises a writer can go through. Looking for specific things in other works often helps us develop a more critical eye for our own work. I know it's definitely helped me.

Now when I'm judging, I usually see a little bit of everything--some spectacular things, some really beginner efforts, and everything in between. But as I go through the entries this year for my local RWA's chapter contest, one of the trends I'm seeing is the dreaded backstory dump.

We've probably all made this mistake at one time or another. This is why a lot of people suggest writing your book, then cutting the first three chapters because it's probably all backstory. Now, that's a little drastic, but I think there is a nugget of truth in that.

So today I'm going to cover how to share that history and backstory with the reader without choking them.  Think of backstory like a big steak--you can't swallow the whole thing at once, it must be cut up and devoured in small, juicy bites.  Ideally, these bites will blend so well with the rest of the story, that the reader will barely notice that you've slipped it in on them.

So first let's look at some choking hazards:

Prologue--These are notorious for being solely backstory, which is probably why they've developed a bit of a bad reputation.  Make sure what you have in your prologue (if you have one) can't be sprinkled in somewhere  else instead.

First Chapters--This is where it's most tempting to put in big blocks of backstory.  Resist!  Your story should start in the middle of things.  Readers don't have to know all the background yet, get them to the action so you can hook them.  Pay particular attention to chapters 1-3 in your first draft.  Many times it's where we as writers are working out the story for ourselves (which is fine as long as you go back and cut them during revision).

 

Alright, now for some ways to blend in that backstory...

Dialogue

This is an easy and obvious way to reveal information to your reader.  However, watch out for the traps with this.

--Make sure that the conversation is realistic and that there is a reason for it to be happening besides slipping in backstory to the reader.

   NOT "I can't believe you cheated on me six months ago with someone half my age." (the guy would already know that)

   INSTEAD "How's your new bimbo? Has she graduated high school yet?"

--Make sure the conversation comes up naturally and not out of the blue.  Something needs to trigger that discussion.

--Use action to break up the dialogue so it doesn't start sounding like an info dump.

 

Flashback

Where your character relives in their head a past event as it happened.  Unlike a memory, they don't filter the events through their current point of view.

--Be very careful with this one.  Many people advise against flashbacks.  But I think if used correctly and sparingly they can work.

--Something has to trigger the flashback. That memory needs to be brought to mind by some object, situation, person, etc.

--Make it clear that it is a flashback so your reader doesn't get confused.  Some people use italics to help with this.

 

Memory

Similar to flashback, but the memory is seen through the person's current POV.

--Sprinkle this in.  Like everything else, large chunks of prose on a memory will get tedious.

--Just like the others, the memory must be triggered by something.  Don't have your MC vacuuming and just suddenly think of how her father died (unless it was death by vacuum).

--Can build and foreshadow throughout the story, not revealing everything up front.  For instance, in my category romance, my MC goes to a concert and for a moment she's reminded of a tragic night years ago.  But all I show is that she has a sick feeling and that she remembers to the day how long it's been since she's seen a concert--which lets us know something important happened back then, but I don't say anything about what it is specifically, just foreshadow.

--Ex.) He smiled at her, and for a moment, she was reminded of the boy he used to be, the one she used to love.  (See, that tells us they had a previous relationship and that something changed along the way.  Just enough to whet the reader's appetite.)

 

Thoughts

Using direct thoughts instead of narrative.

--This doesn't have to be a specific memory, but can let us know that there is something there behind the thought.

--i.e. "Don't you just let go and have fun sometimes?" he asked.  She shook her head and averted her eyes.  "No." Not anymore.

 

Action

Sometimes you can use some event in your story to relay past events.

--i.e.  A news story comes on TV talking about a cold case murder that relates to your MC.

 

The easiest way for me to figure out how to put in backstory is to think like a screenwriter.  They cannot tell you things in a movie, they have to show it all.  So how would I convey this information if it were a movie?

Alright, so those are my tips, what are some of yours?  How do you sneak in your backstory?  And do you put down a book if it's pages and pages of backstory to start?

*This week I will be re-running some of my top posts from my former Fiction Groupie site because I am in Chicago for the RT Convention. Hope you enjoy!