Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why Regency?

When you're a writer, you often get asked questions which make you think about your creative process. This can be a good thing because it forces you to be conscious of the decisions you are making. Recently, someone asked me why I had chosen the Regency period for my books. Like many of my decisions, there are multiple reasons and going through them all helps me understand my choices and do a better job writing within my chosen framework.

So…why did I choose the Regency?

First and foremost: I love Georgette Heyer. Maybe that wasn't clear. I love Georgette Heyer. I wish I could write like Georgette Heyer. In fact, if I had never read a single book by her, I'm not sure I would have wanted to be a writer. Hmmm. That may be too strong a statement. I might still have wanted to write, but I'm not sure I would have wanted it so badly. Between Heyer, Saki, and Wodehouse, I had no choice but to become a writer.

Oh, wait. I didn't even tell you what the Regency is. It's a time period: the early years of the 19th century, from around 1811 to 1820, when King George III of England was not quite competent and a Regent in the form of his son, George IV, sort of ruled in his stead. Most books set during the Regency period are also set somewhere in the United Kingdom. Such books are also commonly referred to as "Regencies" with a sort of artificial division between traditional Regencies and Regency historicals. Regency historicals focus very intensely on the romantic relationship between a man and a woman and are generally very sensual (hot). Traditional Regencies—while still romances—often are less intensely focused on the romantic relationship and include a "broader view" of Society in general or other elements such as suspense, mystery, or adventure. Georgette Heyer, for example, would be considered to write traditional Regencies. As far as publishers are concerned, the Regency period is somewhat extended to include from the late 18th century through about 1825 or so, and the focus has shifted toward Regency historicals and away from traditional Regencies.

For my purposes as a writer, I was interested in this period for several reasons (Heyer not withstanding).

I knew I wanted to move into writing mysteries: romantic mysteries with a bit of adventure. The Regency period was right before true law enforcement agencies as we know them today existed, so you could have private citizens and inquiry agents assist in, or conduct an investigation into a murder without some of the convoluted reasoning authors need for contemporary mysteries which don't have a law enforcement person as the main investigator. Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary in England in 1822, and he is the one who helped rework many of the existing British laws and created the Metropolitan Police Force in London in 1829 (hence, London police earned the nickname of "peelers"). If I set stories before 1829, I have a lot more freedom in terms of conducting a murder investigation (or rather, my characters have more latitude in conducting a murder investigation). There was also the lovely organization known as the Bow Street Runners, which through the mists of time has assumed an attractive patina of romance.

As a gardener, the first half of the 19th century brought about absolutely amazing developments in horticulture, particularly rose hybridization, which is another love of mine (hence, my first book entitled "Smuggled Rose"). All the explorers running around brought back plants from all over the world and experts were busy creating new hybrids… I won't bore you by going on about this, but it was a truly remarkable period of time. Science was exploding by leaps and bounds. Even germs were eventually invented, and we learned not to drink from the same glass as someone else. How cool is that?

Anyway, the period is close enough to our time to be recognizable and yet far enough away to be quaint and romantic. Men were men (and the sheep ran scared—but not too fast). People occasionally bathed. Duels were outlawed, but still occurred conveniently enough to give a few heroes—and heroines—some early morning angst. There were smugglers and aristocratic French refugees. The Napoleonic wars. Adventures which were romantic when they took place in the 19th century, but would be just stupid, scary, or too darn serious if they took place today.

I am also interested in freedom and a person's place within Society. Regency Society had more "social rules" which are fun to play against and provide a bottomless source for comic escapades that simply would not work in our modern society. As you might guess, because I am interested in the interplay between personal freedom and Societal restrictions, my stories tend more toward traditional Regencies than Regency historicals.

There is also the fact that my heroines can have hordes of servants, wear fabulous long dresses and jewels, and spend their days writing subtly insulting letters to each other while eyeing the footmen. What's not to love? No e-mail. No Internet. No computers. No cell phones. No explaining away why they couldn't just pick up the phone and call the police (although they could send one of the footmen after a Bow Street Runner).

Yeah, that's the ticket: the Regency. A kinder, gentler period for romance and murder…

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hurry Up and Wait

This publishing business...well, what can I say? Everything takes for-ever, except what they expect you to do.

First, you spend years (or for some people, months) sending out queries and the first three chapters of manuscripts trying to get a nibble, a bite, or even a rejection letter addressed to you--specifically--instead of Dear Author. Even rejections take obscene amounts of time (mostly because the editors are dealing with many hundreds of authors while you're just dealing with a few editors or agents--or are hoping to deal with a few).

Then, you get a nibble, send in your complete manuscript and wait again. Maybe as long as a year. If by some miracle, they decide they are interested in your feeble attempts to write, you wait for a contract. When they finally send it to you, they expect it back like the next day. High priority.

Waiting begins again while they think about everything and tear your work to shreds. Then they ask for revisions (unless you're perfect, and some are, but then, I also think there are aliens among us who are secretly snickering at us from behind their latex, hominid masks). They ask for revisions and you've got to get the revised version right back, right away. After another period of waiting and wringing your hands, you may even get another round of revisions or just final copy edits, which have to be shipped high priority, right away back to them.

Hmmm. Okay. So anything you have to do, has to be done like yesterday, almost before you were even aware it had to be done, but anything they have to do can take weeks, months, even years. Has anyone ever heard of a reasonable timeframe, or is that reserved for those aliens in the face masks?

And folks wonder why authors feel like being a Wal-Mart greeter might really be a great job after all. In fact, that may be my new goal in life. To be a Wal-Mart greeter. Or maybe be the guy who mows the lawn along the highway. Something with no deadlines.

'Cause I'm sitting here waiting for my edits for my first novel which is due out on May 3, and it's like Feb 20, and I'm like...uh...okay, when am I going to get my first edits, because it goes: first edits, I do them and send it back, copy edits, I do them and send it back, and the book comes out. I just have this horrible feeling I'm going to get the edits and have like 24 hours to get them done, and believe it or not, I actually have a day job which consumes 40-60 hours a week, and I've got some business trips scheduled...

Okay, so my schedule isn't important, but I'm one of those crazy people who, when given an assignment, actually starts work on it immediately because... If I finish early, I can set it aside, because invariably, I think of things I need to change or add, and this gives me time to change or add those things I think of. :-) Or...if I run into difficulties, I have time to straighten them out. I do not like emergency situations foisted upon me by others simply because they could not manage their own time and give me my assignment so I have a reasonable amount of time to work on it. Their emergency should not become my emergency.

I can say that because I deal with emergencies every day, mostly created by people who didn't think before they clicked "OK" as in: OK, go ahead and delete all the user logon accounts including my boss and his boss, because I'm an idiot admin and thought I was deleting my dog's test account when in reality I was deleting the entire organizational unit containing all the really high muckety-muck's logon accounts. And even though the system asked me TWICE if I wanted to delete it and all the things (i.e. user logon accounts) it contained, I clicked "OK". So now, no one can log in and get their e-mail and my boss is complaining.

Yeah. I fix stuff like that all day for people who should know better, so you can understand why I'm a get to the editing portion of this publishing process, so that I'm not sitting up at the last minute trying to edit my manuscript after a long day of fixing idiot admin mistakes.

Here I am, sitting here, fretting. I love my editor and don't want to piss her off, because she's the first person who really got me and my writing, but I need to get those edits. If I e-mail her, will she feel like I'm bugging her? Will she hate me? She asked me to do some "pre-edits" to cut the manuscript down further since we were bumping up against the limit on number of words and I sort of didn't do such a great job and only cut about 1,500 words, but I was already down to the bone. The original manuscript was 100,000 words and I had already cut it down to 75,000 to fit the 75,000 limit. It was almost to the point of rearranging sentences to eek out one more word here and there...

So you can see, I really don't want to push her, having failed to significantly cut down the manuscript the last time she asked me to do something... But...I need those edits. It's almost the end of Feb. In March I have a week long business trip with long days, so we're talking 3 weeks left in March. Then April. That's it--it's released May 3. I have to squeeze the main editing/revisions and copy edits in March and April. WAAAAAAAAH...I'm sitting here crying, feeling an emergency slithering up on me like an alligator crawling out of the sewers...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Novels and Writing

I may have talked about this before--I'm not sure, mostly because I'm on travel and am scatterbrained. Anyway, it's snowing here in Chicago and I can't get to the bookstore, which is a real bummer because one of the big bonuses for me when I travel to Chicago is to get to bookstores. They are the highlight of my pathetic life.

So, anyway, I've finished two of the three novels I brought with me and one of them...I think I've read before. I bought it recently because it looked interesting (I always buy books based on the blurb on the back cover--I generally don't "follow" specific authors--I just read the back and hope for the best). Anyway, when I got about 7/8th through the book, I had this feeling that I knew how it was going to play out, and I had this vague sense of deja vu.

Which got me thinking about a previous thing I had read about literary fiction versus "commercial fiction" or, the stuff they force you to read in school, versus the paperbacks you pick up from the bookstore voluntarily. Although I do pick up a goodly number of paperbacks which were once commercial fiction (maybe 200 years ago) and are now considered literary fiction. I have no idea how they "decide" when something that was commercial is now old enough to be literary. I'm wondering, for example, if Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer will be considered literary in another 100 years or so.

Anyway, the point is, someone said somewhere that literary fiction is stuff you remember while commercial fiction is stuff you don't. Except, I have no better recollection of literary junk I was forced to read, than I do of commercial junk I've read. In fact, I think I remember some of the commercial junk, better. In fact, I know it. Because the books I remember the most clearly are: The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, The Ghost Rock Mystery, and Swiss Family Robinson. All of which I read when I was 7 and remember very clearly. I think my mind was empty enough at that point to have room to remember these stories. Thereafter, as teachers filled up the vacant spots, I started remembering less and less of what I read.

Today, I'm lucky if I remember a vague "feeling" associated with a book, or a scene with two characters, whose names I've forgotten, doing something I've mostly forgotten, but I remember what I thought they looked like and a certain setting and/or picture stopped-in-time of what they might have been doing. I never remember names. I also never remember plots, which is how I end up buying books multiple times unless I take careful notes about what I've read and have not read. I tend to remember even less about literary fiction, although I do remember I despised Madame Bovary, thought she was the stupidest woman I'd ever heard of, and she totally deserved what happened to her--although I can't exactly remember what happened to her or what she did in that book to deserve her fate and my contempt.

What is the point of this, other than to prove I have no memory of anything? Well, even a reader with a terrible memory walks away with something from a book, even if they can't remember the characters, the plot, or the ending. Or even the author's name or the name of the book. The reader may even walk away with a couple of things: a feeling/mood, and perhaps a few snippets like still picture or perhaps a small "trailer" like clip.

Which leads me to a point some other author made--about the most important things you need to do as a writer. Create a feeling. That's critical. If you're really good, you create a series of feelings like laughter, tension, perhaps sadness (although I tend not to like books which "pull at the heartstrings" or have sad parts--I especially tend not to re-read them, but that's just me) and finally, leave you with a strong emotion.

And readers will only bond with the character(s) and get strong emotion if they understand the character's motivation, and that motivation makes sense in terms of the story. The heroine can't be too-stupid-to-live. The hero can't be a jerk--at least not all the time. They have to have flaws, weaknesses, and recognizeably human emotions. This is not easy. Some writers are so talented that by the end of the first paragraph--sometimes with the first sentence--the hero/heroine has hooked the reader, and the reader has bonded with them. Once this happens, unless the writer stumbles badly, the story will flow and something--perhaps just an elusive emotion--will stick with the reader.

How the writer accomplishes this is nearly impossible to describe. I have thought on it deeply, and it is difficult because there are many ways to accomplish this, and the methods are all, generally, combinations of writing techniques and not just one single, beautiful thing that a writer could master easily. Word choices, descriptions that are neither over-the-top-excessive nor completely lacking--stuff like that is crucial. Character actions and dialog that is precisely right for that character and only that character--that could never be appropriate to any other character also helps.

Lots of stuff like that. Which is completely unhelpful if you are struggling to actually climb to this pinnacle of perfection. But if you want to learn--read. Read the best authors and as many authors as you can. See what works for you as a reader and then break it down. Try to identify techniques that you--the writer--can master and use within your own, personal style of writing.

The hardest thing is to realize that what works for one author and one reader, will not necessarily work for another author, or some other reader. The best-selling authors have figured out what works for them and the majority of readers.

Personally, I prefer a book that leaves me with a strong feeling of happiness and satisfaction, where all the ends are wrapped up, and the characters have gotten their just deserts--which hopefully includes two of them bonding for life. Although I'm also happy if the wicked get what they deserve. That is part of the appeal of a mystery, where the crooks/murderer's get got or at least punished severely, unlike real life where there is often very little satisfaction or sense of justice. If a book leaves me very happy, I may remember the author's name long enough to actually look for another book by him or her.

Other readers may prefer books that tug their heartstrings and make them cry. They will search out authors who can do that.

So, you need to know what you are aiming at if you want to hit anything at all.

The second important thing is to create at least one really memorable scene, picture, snippet, action clip--whatever you want to call it. Something that will stick in a reader's mind. For me, this is most often the scene which encapsulates the core conflict. The scene where the major problem in the book is revealed and the hero and heroine, or hero and villain, square off. That scene must be strong and it must be clear. What is at stake? What will happen if the hero wins? What will happen if the villain wins? This is what will make the book something a reader will remember, or it could just turn the book into a vaguely nice experience that is completely forgotten after the last page if the core conflict is weak or muddy.

In fact, I would postulate that if you can create a strong, pivotal scene, the preceding and succeeding scenes can almost be mediocre (they really can't be bad) and you can still have a successful book. Although if the rest is just sort of mediocre, you really will need a good ending to tie everything up--you can't just totally depend upon that one, great pivotal scene if the story's ending leaves all the plot lines loose, flabby, and sagging over their belts. I re-read this prior to posting, I'm thinking it's all idiotic rubbish and completely unhelpful, but like I said, it's snowing outside and my brain turned to mush hours ago.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Writing to Improve

Writing Descriptions...
I’ve written in the past about how to develop a description that is effective and doesn’t just annoy your readers. Mostly, I’m studying various aspects of writing because I want to improve my own writing so that someday, I will be picked up by a big publishers and sell a billion copies.

Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never write in a way which will make me a best-selling author and it is tearing me apart. Why would I say this? Well, because out of all the best-selling authors, most of them write in a way that sets my teeth on edge. There is one hugely successful author who writes books at a rate almost no one can match, and will soon have movies made from her books, etc, and I’ve tried several times to read her books and could never get past the first few pages. What is really weird is that I never knew she was this big-time, awe-inspiring, fabled author until maybe a couple of years ago (I would be like...N—who?) and I would pick up her books and just couldn’t read ‘em. What is really weird is that she writes in several genres under different names, and not realizing this, I had picked her up in her various incarnations (all unknowing) and couldn’t read any of her stuff under any of her names and didn't even know they were all written by the same person. I had no idea they were all written by her until years later, after I had already decided I would never buy any more books by X, Y and Z.

Anyway, the point is she is this awe-inspiring, best-selling author and in most of the writer “how-to” stuff I’ve read, they all hold up examples of writing either from her, or very similar, as “this is what you should be emulating”. The writers I absolutely love are not best-sellers. In fact, one of my very favorite authors is having problems getting her books published in the U.S. simply because they don’t sell so well here (although they sell very well elsewhere).

So my dilemma is: do I try to write in my way, which is not the best-selling author way, or…will I always be a low-level author? Oh, yeah, I’ve seen the comments: “If you’re looking for passion, this isn’t your book” kind of comments because I don’t have my characters jump into bed or spend their time gazing at each others’ crotches. I believe there CAN be passion and love without the writer going into detail about that and I don’t force my characters into anything. If they jump in bed and describe it, fine, but if they don’t due to…whatever circumstances…then I’m okay with that, too. It is not a requirement for a story and I find it alarming that this seems to be the sole deciding factor now as to whether a book is good or not. Really depressing.

More importantly, I don’t like all these perfect heroes and heroines. I don’t like excessive descriptions or flowery junk. In fact, I almost prefer to have no descriptions of the characters at all, because as a reader, I build up what they look like in my head anyway, and it is almost never how the author describes them—which means descriptions make this jarring sort of double-layered effect in my head. That’s why I keep obsessing over descriptions.

Here is a description most people adore:
Her eyes betrayed her, flashing a green fire reminiscent of lightning over a stormy sea.

Why don’t I like it? It stopped me cold. Lightning at sea is blue-white, not green unless you're talking certain circumstances and then it's this sickly sort of baby-poop yellow-green which is not particularly attractive. And why do all heroine’s have green eyes, anyway? (In my first book, I tried to toe the romance line and actually had a heroine with green eyes, before I grew totally fed up with it and stopped having ridiculously over-the-top beautiful characters in my later books. Never again. Probably. Desperation does make you do sad things, though.)

And what does this poetic description have to do with anything? Nothing. Does it say anything about the man who says it? Is he a sailor? No. It reveals nothing about him nor does it seem like something he would naturally be thinking. He’s probably thinking, “Damn, she looks pissed.”

As I try to improve my writing, I’m actively looking at these aspects. I’m finding that very rarely are flowery descriptions or overly gorgeous characters appealing to me.
However, lest you think I abhor all descriptions and attractive characters, not so! Here is part of a description I love and can find no fault with:

Miss Charing was a rather diminutive Brunette. She had a neat figure, very pretty hands and feet, and a countenance which owed much to a pair of large dark eyes…

The major difference is that there is an amused quality to this that appeals to me, and it is the sort of thing you can imagine the other characters actually thinking. I know of no one on this planet who would think, when seeing a pissed off—but beautiful woman— Her eyes betrayed her, flashing a green fire reminiscent of lightning over a stormy sea.

I can’t even imagine a poet thinking that—unless he was sitting down trying to come up with something…poetical. Most people when seeing someone’s eyes “flash” are thinking of ways to get the heck out of there. In fact, most men, when confronted by a woman with flashing eyes, are going to be searching for the nearest exit to avoid a scene. They are not going to be standing around reminiscing about lightning over the ocean, even if they happen to know what that looks like (and apparently this one didn’t).

I’m not bashing the author who wrote this (God knows, they are making more at writing than I am and doing a better job of it—and are vastly more popular and romantic) but I am…well…I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying to figure out how to improve my writing and NOT get slammed about it not being sensual enough, or romantic enough. (You’re right. I’m not romantic. I can’t stand that stuff and I loathe Valentine’s day unless it means winning the lottery and getting a new computer.)

There has got to be a way to improve my writing that doesn’t make me want to gnaw off my arm. However, I do know one thing, I’m going to try to write descriptions that sound like what someone might actually think under the circumstances. If it works, it will be a miracle, but it’s the only improvement I can think of at the moment.

Oh, and since I've a book coming out, I should add that it is absolutely wonderful and perfect, and anything I talk about like trying to improve my writing is just gilding on an already perfect work of art. Artists are never satisfied with their works of art, even though they are absolutely wonderful by anyone else's standards. It's romantic, too. Really. Even without the explicit sex. They DO kiss--several times in fact.
(Just shoot me, now.)