Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Romance Writers of America Conference, 2009

Good News (If Any)

Got a few leads to check out (one thanks to writer Monica Burns). Saw many, many friends that I don't get to see very often. All of my critique partners have "hit it big" and are doing exceptionally well--I was so pleased to see them: Monica Burns, Kristi Cook, Charlotte Featherstone, and Jenna Black.

Also got my covers from the art department for my paranormal.

What I'm Reading Now

I'm actually not reading anything at the moment—I'm rather overwhelmed with work. J

What I'm Writing Now

Post-conference, I'm revising my contemporary mystery. My editor will shortly be sending me my first edits for my paranormal, Vampire Protector, so I expect I'll be busy with that soon, too. I'm also considering changing around a few things. I may start offering short pastiches, or short stories, as free reads, first from my newsletter and then perhaps also as PDF-formatted downloads. I've always considered this to be bad—if you are a professional and trying to earn a living, you actually need to earn money for your work and not give it away for free. However, perhaps it would serve as self-promotion, so I could feed my capitalist, "I actually need money to live on streak," with the balm that I'm not really writing for nothing if it works as shameless self-promotion.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

Went to a bunch of different workshops at the RWA conference. Learned some new techniques (and was again awed by the sheer ego of some writers—I mean even if you are a best-seller, do you really, really think other writers must read you if they are serious about becoming better writers? Of course it could be true and maybe the fact that I don't read most best-selling authors is a terrible flaw that will keep me forever off the NY Times Bestsellers list. It is an interesting notion.)

Found the following information interesting and helpful. It also made me realize that I'm at a slight disadvantage, never having taken a single writing class in my entire life. I'm hoping the conference workshops do qualify, however, as some sort of training.

Jennifer Crusie

Went to a workshop held by Crusie on turning points to solidify the concepts of turning points in a novel and beats in a scene. She did a great job and has indicated she will be posting the information in her blog, with a link from her website at

In a nutshell, some of the information that resonated with me included:

  1. You need about 5 turning points, realizing that the beginning and ending themselves are turning points 1 and 5. Turning points are those events that happen in the novel that take the plot into an unexpected direction and worsen things for the protagonist. If it's a great turning point, the reader will react with "Wow, I never saw that coming!"
    1. One is the turning point that thrusts the protagonist into the action of the novel at the beginning. It should preferably occur on page 1.
    2. Two is first time you twist the action into an unexpected direction and worsen it for your protagonist.
    3. Three is the classic "point of no return" where the protagonist has changed so much through all that has happened so far that even if s/he could miraculously return to her life on page one, she would not be the same person.
    4. Four is the darkest moment for the protagonist. S/he will fact the antagonist and lose everything that she holds dear—for the moment. But the protagonist will make one more super-human effort to overcome and her efforts will lead to turning point five…
    5. Five is the final metamorphosis, the conclusion of the character's arc/change, and the resolution of the story. The detective unmasks the killer. The guy gets the girl.
  2. As you go through the story, the turning points need to come closer together. This gives the reader a sensation of things getting rapidly worse for the protagonist, heightens the tension, and makes the book a "page turner" where you can't put it down because things are moving so quickly. For example, in a 100,000 word novel, you might have the turning points at the following places:
    1. One (of course) goes on page 1, e.g. at 150 words. I'm giving you 150 words to "set the stage" J for the turning point.
    2. Two could then be placed between pages 140 – 180 or between 35,000 – 45, 000 words. (+35,000 from TP 1)
    3. Three could be placed between pages 240 – 280 or between 60,000 – 70,000 words. (+20,000 from TP 2)
    4. Four could be placed between pages 300 – 340 or between 75,000 – 85,000 words. (+15,000 from TP 3)
    5. Five could be placed between pages 340 - 380 or between 85,000 – 95,000 words. (+10,000 from TP 4)

      Of course those page number/gaps between the turning points are just "made up" to give you a feel for how the distribution of turning points *could* be arranged.
  3. When planning a novel, it can often work best to just write the first draft, i.e. the writer's draft, that lets you get it out on paper and work through the characters. Then remove the first three chapters. This is really true in my case. The first three chapters are frequently used by the writer to get to know the protagonist before really thrusting her into the action and many times, these chapters can be safely removed. In fact, their removal helps the story by moving the first turning point (Call to Action) onto page one where it belongs.
  4. Then, once the writer's draft is done and the first three chapters deleted J, you can begin the real work of identifying the turning points and cutting/editing/rearranging them so that they occur at closer intervals to speed up the action and increase tension toward the end.
  5. BEATS in a scene are rather like turning points in miniature. They are the turning points in an individual scene that change the direction of things, reveal new information, etc. Jennifer illustrated it as a conversation between a married couple, as follows:
    1. Man and woman are arguing about a coffee table. So the first Beat is the start of the argument: "You never liked that coffee table," the wife said. Then they argue about the relative merits of the table, until…
    2. 2nd Beat: The conversation has a turning point when the wife says, "You don't like it because my mother gave it to me." Then, they start arguing about the relationship of the mother-in-law to the husband and wife…
    3. 3rd Beat: The next turning point occurs when the husband says, "This has nothing to do with your mother or the table. I just don't like you. I want a divorce."
  6. You'll notice that beats, like turning points, move from bad to worse to worst within a scene.

So Crusie's talk gave me another tool to try in my editing arsenal. I had not thought about marking out the turning points physically and then ensuring they fall at closer and closer intervals as they move toward the book's conclusion. And same with beats. I think it is incredibly useful to highlight both beats and turning points to improve tension and make sure you are carrying the reader along swiftly.

Donald Maas

Went to a workshop held by Maas on creating a breakout (bestseller) novel. In short, it revolves around characterization and creating deep/deeply flawed and yet heroic characters who fascinate readers. The material mostly came from his book/workbook on writing a breakout novel, but it was very, very useful to sit down and write out your antagonist and protagonist's flaws, good qualities, and identify where you are showing these things. Worth noting: antagonists (villains) have to have good qualities, too, you know, to give them depth. And in a romance, the protagonist and antagonist are often the hero and heroine, and they switch roles depending upon point of view as they lock horns in their conflict.

If you have not read Maas' stuff, I recommend the workbook. The value in his information comes in the doing—not the reading of his writing (good though it might be)—so the workbook will actually make you do the writing exercises he presented in class. Applying it to your novels makes for some interesting, "Oh, shoot—I can't believe I didn't do this before" moments.

Characterization is important. If you can't grab the reader and get that emotional investment in the characters, you're going to have a hard time selling the story. Or making anyone read it past page 1.

Other Workshops

I attended several other workshops, including one on High Concept and developing a novel from a High Concept (or identifying the High Concept in your novel). That was very, very useful and interesting. A High Concept is that brilliant idea you can summarize in 25 words or less that people instantly grasp and gravitate to, e.g. "I see dead people." That's the classic High Concept. You need to be able to identify the essence and theme of your story and summarize it in a brief sentence to sell it. Whether you like it or not, after you've spent four or more years writing your opus, you still have to find an editor or agent and sell that darn thing. And that's where it is critical that you come up with a way to grab the attention of these busy, overwhelmed people.

It is an art to come up with these things. I am not good at it, but it's something I intend to work on.

Finally, many of the authors repeated the same notion in different ways. That notion was: Identify your theme(s). This will help you identify which genre(s) will work best for you and allow you to write both to your strengths and your interests. For me, recurring themes in my books are always: redemption and acceptance into society—or at least making peace with your fellow man and yourself. And finding justice. Those themes resonate with me and underpin everything I write—which is why so much of what I write is either a mystery or has a mystery subplot. Often, especially in the case of someone falsely accused, finding justice also means redemption and acceptance back into society. I believe the writer Charles Todd also plays with those themes in his Rutledge mysteries. For Rutledge, solving a murder and fighting for justice is redemption for him, both mentally and career-wise.

There was a lot more I learned, but that was at least a taste. It was a fascinating three days.


Angela said...

This was a fascinating article, especially for someone like me who did not attend.

Anonymous said...

This is really useful and thank you for a great summary of Turning Points and Beats.

Olivia said...

Nice post which may start offering short pastiches, or short stories, as free reads, first from my newsletter and then perhaps also as PDF-formatted downloads. I've always considered this to be bad—if you are a professional and trying to earn a living, you actually need to earn money for your work and not give it away for free. Thanks a lot for posting this article.