How they write, take 3 -- Nora Roberts


Written on Friday, May 29, 2009 by haleigh

Friday, May 29, 2009

For our last day of the "How they Write" series, we have the ultimate power house in writing, Ms. Nora Roberts herself. Also from the Crescent Blues e-mag. The whole interview has lots of great info on how romance publishing has changed since she started in the 1980's.

Crescent Blues: Do your characters ever surprise you by turning out very differently from who you thought they would be? Which character (or characters) surprised you the most?

Nora Roberts: My characters always surprise me. Once they've taken on a life in a book, it's wise to let them go their own ways. I can't remember ever having a character turn out precisely as I'd imagined them before I started the book. That's a good thing.

Crescent Blues: What are the differences you find in writing so many different types of books? Do you prepare for them differently? Do they require a different level of research?

Nora Roberts: I don't prepare for the actual writing any differently. Work is work. The research depends on the subject matter, not the type of book. But I have to know if this is a hardcover romantic suspense and craft the idea in that way. If it's a trilogy, what is the common thread, what binds these people together?

Crescent Blues: Where do you start when you write a book or a story? For example, do you start at the beginning and write through? Do you prefer to toy with character or plot?

Nora Roberts: I start at page one chapter one and write straight through, generally a fairly quick and loose first draft. Then I go back and do another draft from the beginning, fixing where I went off, fleshing out the characters (as I'll know them better by this point), seeing if the story holds. It'll take at least one more draft for polishing, maybe two. But I don't edit my work as I go. I like getting the story down first.

Wow, she starts over? I must say, I was surprised by this. As fast as she writes, I just assumed she only did one draft per book. Fascinating! And notice her direct contridiction to Mary Jo Putney's advice yesterday. LOL!

How the write, take 2 -- Mary Jo Putney


Written on Thursday, May 28, 2009 by haleigh

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Up today on our "How they write" series -- Mary Jo Putney. This is from an interview from the website Crescent Blues. The whole interview has tons of good info for anyone who's a fan of her characters!

How she writes:

Crescent Blues: How do you create characters whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other to achieve transformation? (Is it a conscious process, or does one character suggest its own complement?)

Mary Jo Putney: As you suggested, it's usually a matter of developing one character who is the natural complement of the other, so that it will be convincing that these two people are right for each other as no one else could be. Or if I start a book with a plot idea, the characters must be ones who will explore the potentials of that plot as well as suit each other.

Crescent Blues: Which comes first for you: the hero, the heroine or the plot?

Mary Jo Putney: It can be any of the three, though it's more likely to be the hero or the plot than the heroine.

Crescent Blues: How does the story grow from there? (Are you a linear writer, an outliner, a plug-n-play?)

Mary Jo Putney: I'm very linear. I start at the beginning and inch my way through to the end. If I don't know what happens next, I tread water and edit until I figure out how to proceed. I can't even imagine writing in pieces and stringing them together; to me, the writing process is organic, with each section growing out of what happened previously.

Crescent Blues: Do you decide the story's issue in advance or does it develop from your characters?

Mary Jo Putney: It's a combination of both. I suppose that if I start with a plot, I also have a sense of the issue. Whereas if I start with a character, the issue grows out of him.

Crescent Blues: Who's in control, you or your characters?

Mary Jo Putney: Me, without question. I think that anyone who says the characters took over really means that they didn't know them well enough at the beginning. Once you know them inside and out, they don't surprise you.

I find this interesting, especially the last part. My characters seem to come alive and take over part way through the book. I'm not sure if it's because I don't know them well enough before I start, or if I just need them on paper to really get a sense of them. What do you think?

How they write, take 1 -- JoAnn Ross


Written on Wednesday, May 27, 2009 by haleigh

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Up first this week on our "How they write" series, is JoAnn Ross, who writes romance and romantic suspense. See her whole interview on her website, which includes great info on publishing.

Her writing process:

Since I love writing, while it’s not always easy, it never feels like work. (It’s hard to complain about a job I get to do in my jammies.) I’ve written nearly every day since 1982, approximately eight hours during the week, usually less on weekends. I used to set goals of twenty pages a day for category, ten pages a day for single title. These days, because I tend to keep rewriting as I go along, it can get too demoralizing to set specific goals, so I just keep an eye on the calendar. Also, because I spend all that early time revising, by the last third of a book I pretty much have events set up and have a better idea of where I’m going, so the writing goes much faster.

I did character studies for a couple early books because I read in Writers Digest I was supposed to. They may work for other people, but they didn’t do a thing for me except waste time. I tend to think about my characters for a long time, sometimes years, so by the time I write their stories, I know them well enough to trust them to carry my story for me. Because I’ve often thought it would be nice to have a roadmap, I’ve tried, but simply cannot do outlines, although I usually have an idea of a pivotal scene somewhere toward the middle of a book, and a vague plan for the ending, which can, and usually does change.

I don’t necessarily recommend this method; as with everything else about writing, process is a very unique thing and we all have to find what works for us. My process has changed a lot since I began writing, and can often change during the course of writing a book.

Yesterday revealed a wide range of writing processes. Anybody write like this?

How they write


Written on Tuesday, May 26, 2009 by haleigh

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There are probably as many ways to write as there are ways to clean a house. Some people like to vacuum every day, some people iron their sheets, some are lucky if the dust balls don't eat them in their sleep. It's all a matter of comfort, preference, skills, ability, time etc.

Writing is the same way. How you write -- what system works best for you -- depends on your goals, your genre/sub-genre, your time constraints, and your financial constraints (contests bills add up, not to mention the maid and personal chef so I have more time to write. A girl can dream, right?). It also depends on your skills and abilities. The more we write, the better we get at spotting what's not working and knowing how to fix it.

Some people like to edit as they go, some need to vomit out the first draft and fix it later. Some plot, plot, plot, some fly by the seat of their pants. Some try to get it all down in one go, others write in layers.

So a short series this week: how to do they write? Lots of published authors talk about their system for writing and what works for them. So this week, I'll post some great interviews from romance authors.

But for today, how do you write? What's your system?

I'm a plotter, and a fairly fanatical one at that. If I don't know exactly where I'm going with each scene, and what the goals are for that scene, I freeze up. I've tried to pants it -- it always backfires for me.

So my system is to plot, plot, plot. Then I forget all about all of that and just write. I don't re-read it, don't fiddle with it, just write. The next day, I'll start my day by reading over yesterday's work, and fiddling with it then. I compare it to my plot - did I go where I meant to go, or just go off on a tangent. Did I show the necessary characterization? Did I show evocative emotions? I'll layer in more emotions, more plot, or a deeper POV. Then I start fresh on the next scene, forget all the rules and plotting, and just write. Tomorrow, I'll go over the stuff I wrote this morning.

But that's just me. Nicole Jordan, in an interview in April's Romance Writer's Report, said "There’s no point in doing scads of plotting or characterization prep unless it actually helps you write the story better and faster. For some writers, too much prep work is actually detrimental."

So what do you do? Are you a plotter or pantster? Do you write every day, or when inspiration strikes? Do you edit as you go, or come back later? Write in layers, or try to get it all down at once?

researching from fiction


Written on Friday, May 22, 2009 by haleigh

So I managed to pick several ambitious topics for my current WIP, which are going to require a lot of research. International gun running, cooperation between British and US intelligence agencies, the inner workings of terrorist organizations, etc.

I've got tons of books from the library. I have books on illicit smuggling rings, memoirs of CIA agents, books on intelligence gathering. But what I can not find, for the life of me, is good non-fiction books on the IRA, a Northern Irish terrorist organization. I found one book, but it was written in the 1960's. Good for background info, but not so current.

What I did find is three well-written suspense novels revolving around the IRA. So what do you think? In the absence of good info, go for fiction info? One of the authors is actually from N. Ireland, so he seems like he might know what he's talking about. And I'm working off my basic memory of Belfast and Derry from those two weeks I spent in N. Ireland five years ago.

Ever used other fiction novels for research? Do you think it's okay to go with the fiction cannon of something, if no good research exists? I think this happens a lot with historical fiction. Things become commonly accepted in fiction, so we go with it even if it's not quite historically accurate. After all, you don't want readers being pulled out of a story to go double check your facts, even if they are true.

So what do you do for research when you can't find the truth?

has everybody seen this?


Written on Thursday, May 21, 2009 by haleigh

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I'm a bit behind, after being buried in school work for so long (on a side note - I passed my first term! My prof said "Rarely have I seen characters so conflicted in every aspect of their lives" - which I'm pretty sure is a good thing. LOL!).

Brenda Novak is running her 5th annual auction to benefit diabetes research. As I was looking through the items up for auction, I stumbled upon TONS of critiques up for auction.

Here's critiques/readings being offered by acquiring editors. And here's critiques/readings being offered by agents. And finally, critiques/readings being offered by published authors. Also up for auction are writing craft books and classes (and of course, less writerly things like big screen TV's, laptops, etc.).

All very fun, and for a good cause!

whether to use the weather...


Written on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 by haleigh

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Ever used the weather to create a scene? I think most of us have, or will. I wrote a scene last week that was going fine until I realized it had no real setting, no mood. It was my hero and heroine taking a hike through a forest.

Uh, boring.

And I realized that I was missing this HUGE opportunity. Here they were, in the middle of a night, in an N. Irish forest, full of spooky noises and obstacles. There would have been drops of water falling from the canopy above them from an earlier rain storm. There'd be some stray, rolling thunder from the storm that had moved out over the ocean. Scurrying noises from little forest-dwelling creatures.

Now, I realize that's not all weather. But my point is that my characters wandering through the woods was boring. My characters picking their way through a spooky forest as thunder rolled above them rain splattered down is much more interesting. All because of the weather.

Ever seen a picture of weather that just put you there?
I stumbled across this picture when researching what kind of storms they get in N. Ireland. And it instantly put me in Belfast. The rain, the lone streetlight, the fence. There's undertones of something sinister in this picture, much like the city itself and (hopefully) my WIP.

Ever had to go back and add more description? More weather? Any types of weather that just put you in a certain mood or take you somewhere?

craft tip of the week


Written on Saturday, May 16, 2009 by haleigh

Saturday, May 16, 2009

So as most of you know, I have an unhealthy obsession with craft books. So I thought I'd start posting tips that have been helpful for me on here, in the hope they become helpful for someone else. If they're straight out of a book, I'll list the info so you can get the book for yourself (if you also have this obsession :)

This week's tip........showing vs. telling

Shocker, I know. Something none of you have ever heard of :) Clearly, we all know that it's important to show things instead of telling our readers. It creates more investment in the story, more empathy for the character, and overall, that brings that elusive dream of hearing a reader say "I just couldn't put it down."

And there are tricks galore for how to do this. But I inadvertently stumbled across a way that seems to be working well for me, so I thought I'd pass it along.

I have a secondary character named Josephine. I love this character, and adore writing her. It's become such a love that I'm toying with the idea of writing her story as a sequel. But because she's a secondary character, very few of my scenes are in her POV. Only one, so far, in 120 pages. And there will only be a couple more, I think.

So because I am never in her head, I don't really have the option to telling my readers anything about her. I'm forced into showing it. I have no thoughts, no internal emotions, nothing. Only her outward dialogue, facial expressions, and actions.

And those reading the MS got it. I was really surprised, but I kept getting comments about how much Josephine loved the main character, or how hardened she is, or how dedicated she is. All these little insights to her character, without me ever telling any of it. And frankly, I'm surprised just how well I've gotten to know Josephine, without ever going into her head.

So this has turned in to a trick for me. If you're having trouble getting to know your character, or showing things about them instead of telling, try writing a few of their scenes from another character's POV. How do they react, what do they say. What are those little, tiny micro-expressions and actions that give away what they're feeling deep down. What are the little things they do when they're trying to hide something?

For instance, I have this scene in my MC's POV. And he says something truly asinine to someone else. Josephine doesn't react, doesn't say anything. But she drops the box of cigars she's holding. And the cigars are rolling across the floor in this moment of sudden quiet after the crash of the box.

And that was it - there was no dialog, no frantic thoughts on Jo's part. Just the cigars. And those reading got it. If I'd been in Jo's POV, I would have been tempted to over explain it, to beat it to death to make sure reader's understood why she reacted the way she did. But because I didn't have that option, I was forced to leave it at just showing, and it worked.

Now clearly, I don't think we should stop writing in deep POV, but if you're struggling, this has been a way that's helped me really force myself to only show. One caveat thought - I will say that reader's interpreted Jo's reason for dropping the cigars very differently. Their view and understanding of Jo influenced what they took from that scene. But you know, those little nuances can be part of the fun of writing.

Anybody ever tried this to work on showing instead of telling? What other tips do you have for forcing yourself not to tell your readers what's happening?

action and reaction


Written on Thursday, May 07, 2009 by haleigh

Thursday, May 7, 2009

In continuing to look at Carolyn Wheat's How to write Killer Fiction, there was one other spot that stood out at me. Action and reaction.

This is a concept I've been thinking about a lot recently, on a kind of scene-by-scene macro scale (as in, who is doing the acting, and who is doing the reacting in this scene).

That doesn't make any sense, so let me explain. In suspense, someone is doing something. Acting. There's a plan, a plot, a conspiracy - someone is actively doing something. In False Move, my current WIP, there's a bad guy who is desperately trying to get his hands on a cache of weapons.

So my bad guy, he's acting, right? He set this whole chain of events into motion with the goal of getting these weapons. Which means my hero is reacting. He's caught in this sucky web of the bad guy. He needs to save himself and his daughter. He does not have the option of sitting by and watching this happen. He must react. So for the beginning, the bad guy is acting and the good guy is reacting.

But that can't sustain a whole novel, right? I mean, we don't want our hero's just signing to the tune of the bad guy. At some point, my hero has to get one step ahead of the bad guy. He needs to become the actor. Which means, at that point, my bad guy needs to react. His plan has been foiled by the hero. He has to salvage things -- react. But then he has to come up with a new plan, and destroy the hero. Once again, he becomes the actor and the hero is forced to react.

This concept has been exceedingly helpful to me in my plotting. Especially in this MS, where I have five characters, all with their own goals and plans and plots. At any given point, someone is acting, which forces others to react. Who's taking over next? Who starts acting? How are the others forced to react? Thinking through it this way makes sure that no one is relegated to the back stage, always reacting. And it keeps the stakes high.

So in Wheat's book (yes, I'm slowly getting back there), she talks about acting and reacting on a micro scale. As in each and every little tiny thing. There's a new show I adore, called Lie to Me, where they talk about micro-expressions. Tiny, half-second expressions that, given the right person noticing and paying attention, reveal what we really feel.

So this is like micro action/reaction. Hero says something. Heroine clenches her fist. Action -- reaction. Heroine refuses to answer or engage, hero gets pissy. Action -- reaction. Again, it goes back and forth. Something always follows from something else. Nothing comes out of the blue -- everything is the result of everything that came before it (karma lesson, anyone? :)

This is also a great way to cut out unnecesary scenes. Is this a reaction? Did it come out of nowhere? Are the right people acting and reacting? If not, chop it. Already, I can think off the top of my head in my last MS where I threw in scenes that weren't really a reaction to anything that came before, mostly because I didn't know what else to write (give me a break, it was my first try at a full novel). Those are the ones I'll be going back to cut.

the suspense genre....


Written on Wednesday, May 06, 2009 by haleigh

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My craft/how-to book for this semester is "How to Write Killer Fiction" by Carolyn Wheat. The book is focused on mystery and suspense novels - the first half focuses on mystery, the second half on suspense.

I found the history of the suspense genre interesting, because it was new information to me. Did anyone else know that Jane Eyre is essentially the first romantic suspense novel? I put Pride and Prejudice on my reading list for this semester; Jane Eyre is definitely going on my list for this coming semester. And if Georgette Heyer's Fredericka brought romance into the modern age, then Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca did the same for romantic suspense. Another book which will be on my reading list next semester.

In looking at the suspense genre as a whole (because I've never looked at it outside the "romantic suspense" sub-genre), the theme I'm seeing is characterization. Wheat's book goes into detail on all the different sub-genres of suspense, and the common thing that stands out to me between all these sub-genres is character (not really a huge surprise there, but still interesting).

"Woman in jeopardy" (or child or man or alien in jeopardy, etc) is a common theme in romantic suspense. According to Wheat, the protagonist is a normal person, required by circumstances outside their control to become somehow stronger, braver, and more heroic then they were at the beginning. It's David and Goliath. As readers, we identify with that, because we want to think that in the same set of circumstances, we would be just as brave, heroic, and strong.

In Spy fiction (what I write - I guess it's more "romantic spy fiction"), Wheat advises being careful of the big, international stakes. It's great the the fate of the free world rests on the hero's shoulders. But as readers, we still need someone to identify with, someone to root for, and someone to blame. Without knowing those characters, it's hard to get invested in the big save-the-world stakes, even if we all, at an intellectual level, want the world to be saved. It's hard to get impassioned about the world - it's easy to get impassioned about a well-drawn character.

There were other sub-genres, which I won't get into. I will say that Wheat's description of romantic suspense was nowhere near accurate. In her description, there is a heroine and two men -- one good, one mean. The good one turns out to be the one trying to kill her and the mean one turns out to the be the hero. I think I have read a Mary Higgins Clark book like that, but it's certainly not indicative of the entire genre. Of course, there are as many types of romantic suspense novels as there are romance and suspense novels, so no one could accurately sum it up in two paragraphs.

I realize that my new and exciting revelation that characterization is important isn't really new information. Every writer knows that. But there are some genres where it's more important than others - for instance, in straight mystery, the plot is often more important than the characters. It's the puzzle the readers invest in (not always, but it can be the case). The Da Vinci Code, as well, had very little characterization. It was about solving the clues.

But Da Vinci Code aside, for suspense, the stakes have to be constantly going up (see my little chart in last week's post :). For that to resonate with the reader, the stakes for the reader have to be going up too. Which brings us back full circle to characterization - that's the reader's stakes.

I'm going in circles here, I realize. But I have a point. Usually, when I write, I think of the romance side as the characterization and the suspense side as the plot. I think of them as almost two separate story arcs. I concentrate on one, then the other. But this is making me realize that characterization is just as important on the suspense side. Maybe they go more hand in hand than I thought.

Unlawful Contact by Pamela Clare


Written on Tuesday, May 05, 2009 by haleigh

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

This week, continuing on an analysis of novels, I’m looking at Pamela Clare’s Unlawful Contact, her most recent in the I-Team romantic suspense series. I’ll try not to leave any spoilers, for anyone who hasn’t read it (and if you haven’t, track it down, seriously).

There are two things which stood out to me while reading Unlawful Contact the first time, which I think bear closer examination: POV depth, and external conflict.

Because I don’t know how she achieved that amazing POV depth, I’m going to focus on the external conflict. In most romance novels, we talk about external conflict vs. internal conflict. I only recently realized this was exclusive to romance novels (when I was blabbing to a mystery author and her face got all scrunched up and she looked at me sideways).

But for romance, there are two things holding apart our hero and heroine – the external conflict (jobs, suspense, bad guys, etc) and the internal conflict (fear of intimacy, past trauma, trust issues, etc). And these often (or hopefully) collide all at the same time for the ultimate black moment/conclusion.

And now and then, you stumble upon a novel which breaks the rules. Now, I’m a sucker for internal conflict, as I love angst. I recently read Anna Campbell’s Tempt the Devil, which has almost all internal conflict and little external conflict. Because the focus was entirely internal, the emotional depth and angst was awesome.

In Unlawful Contact, Pamela Clare takes the opposite direction. The external conflict, rather than the internal conflict, is the primary thing holding Marc (our hero) and Sophie (our heroine) apart. Rather than having Sophie not trusting Marc, or Marc being scared of commitment, or any of the other internal issues that keep us all from having perfect relationships, they’re passionately in love.

I found this interesting, because it was the first time I’d seen it. There’s nothing internal holding them apart. They want to be together, they love each other, and they’re desperate to stay together. And yet they know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that they won’t be together beyond the few days they’ve stolen from real life.

The external conflict is so powerful that the readers, as well, are thinking “they’re never going to get out of this. Either Marc dies or goes to prison.” Marc himself says to Sophie, “There’s not going to be a happy ending for us.” There’s no lifetime of bliss in the future, no home and family, no happily ever after. Which makes their love and devotion to each other – that lack of internal conflict – all the sweeter (and of course, since this is romance, and there’s always a happy ending, it just makes the happy ending itself so much sweeter, since I for one, never saw it coming).

This also has interesting implications for the black moment. Usually the best black moments are the collision of the internal and external conflicts, especially in romantic suspense. The hero thinks he’s unworthy of love, so walks away from the heroine, only to have her kidnapped by the bad guy (yes, I’ve used that one – stop laughing now!). Or the heroine, can’t risk another failed relationship, so calls the paramedics to help the injured hero and slips out into the darkness.

But in Unlawful Contact, because there’s not the internal keeping them apart, the black moment is entirely external. And because you *know* how much Sophie loves Marc, you feel her anguish. She’s not holding anything back – and that comes across the reader. She loves him, she knows she’s losing him, and it’s devastating.

Now, I’m not trying to advocate dropping internal conflicts from romance novels. In fact, another book in the I-Team series, Hard Evidence, has phenomenal internal conflict between the hero/heroine.

But for Marc and Sophie, the primarily external plot worked, and worked brilliantly. I think it’s important, as writers, to examine our characters, and really think through conflicts – do these particular characters have primarily an external or internal conflict? Even split? What’s going to make the plot stronger (and the happily-ever-after sweeter)? It won’t be the same with every set of characters.

Any thoughts on the conflicts in Unlawful Contact? Any other books which use primarily internal or external rather than a mix? What do you tend to focus on in your own writing?