Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Character Vulnerability

Just got another rejection, sigh, which was pretty devastating because this particular manuscript, THE BRICKLAYER'S HELPER, is particularly near-and-dear to me.  It's one of those rare stories that just flowed and where you felt like you finally got everything right.  The best you've ever written.  And I just love the story.

It's one of those masquerade, murder-mystery, adventure stories laced with a liberal dose of humor.  Or at least that's what I think it is. :-)

Obviously, others disagree, which can be really, really discouraging if you feel that it is the best you've written--or may ever write.  To be honest, it hit me really hard.  It make me think, yet again, about quitting.

Be that as it may.

After a couple of days of thinking about it, I'm thinking I need to do a few tweaks in the first few chapters.  Generally, my biggest flaws are always in the first few chapters.  Once the story gets going, it runs pretty well.  But I have a hard time starting out.  Mostly, I have to completely rip out the first few chapters.

All of this is sort of a digression--in a way.  What I think I really have to do, though, is something I'm always somehow reluctant to do: expose my character's vulnerabilities.  Because this is what makes people reject manuscripts: they don't find the characters compelling.

This is difficult for me as a writer for a number of reasons.

  First and foremost, I feel like my characters do show their vulnerability, but I don't spell it out.  I write something like:  She turned her back on her husband, picked up the cast iron frying pan, and banged it down on the stove.  To me, that clearly shows she is angry.  So I don't want to laboriously explain.  And if this follows an entire scene where she has been arguing with her husband, and if he has said ugly things to her, I also figure the reader will know that the woman is both hurt and angry.

But does the reader really know that?  Perhaps.  Or maybe...not so much.  Even the most astute reader needs a little help now-and-again to interpret actions and even words, because they can generally be taken in multiple ways.  Maybe the woman banged the frying pan down because it was hot.  Or because her wrist gave out.  Maybe she's not angry--she's tired and hurt.

I've finally realized that you do need to insert a few words, here and there, to let the reader know what the characters are feeling.  I've been wary of doing this because I loathe over-writing and am terrified I will become entrapped by flowery, angst-ridden purple-prose.

Unfortunately, my first draft therefore has nothing spelled out.  So I get rejections a lot if I forget this lesson.  Then, I realize my problem and go back in and add bits of emotion...or I try to, but at this point, I also tend to overreact and put in too much navel gazing and explanations.  I have a hard time finding the happy medium.

 My other problem is that frequently, my characters are trying to hide their vulnerabilities and I let them.  So they hide their fears from the reader behind a smart remark and a laugh.

EXPOSE THEIR FEARS.  Big lesson I tend to forget.  One of the best ways to earn reader sympathy for your character is to show some chink in their armor, some vulnerable side, a fear, an Achilles heel.  If your heroine is a tough chick, give her a spider to fear.  Well, that's a bad example because it's totally overused.  But you get the point.

So now I need to go back to The Bricklayer's Helper and just add a sentence or phrase to show poor Sarah's deepest, darkest fear.  She actually has a lot of fear and she's become a master at redirection and suppression, but the dark pit is there within her.  I just have to expose it to give her character depth.  Because she's too good to let go into that long goodnight without putting up a fight to get her story published.

I'm off to the land of rewrites, dictionaries, and angst.

Sweet Dreams!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Writing for money or for free?

Another summer is slipping by much too quickly and as usual, I'm getting much less done than I wanted.

What I managed to do, however, was surprise myself by writing a fairly reasonable novella entitled CHRISTMAS MISHAPS for Cerridwen Press' proposed Regency anthology, Cotillion Country Christmas.  My lovely and talented editor approved it and now all that is left is real work: contracts, endless editing, and proofing.

I cannot write quickly, hence my surprise at this accomplishment.  I found out about the project sometime around March and initially had a deadline around June, which normally would be pretty impossible.  Especially considering I had no clue at the time what I would even write.

Not even one idea.

However, as fate would have it, I was reading some Regency-era (early 19th century) magazines I had found on the Internet.  One article talked about a common superstition which stated that if a woman was the first to step over the threshold on Christmas day, she was a harbinger of ill-luck or even death.  As a result, only boys or men were allowed to set foot outside or go visiting in the morning (or as long as it took for some man to set foot over one's threshold).

This odd notion struck my fancy.  So I started a novella about a woman who is estranged from her sister (her sister having run off with the heroine's fiance two years earlier) and wants to make amends.  But she's due to leave London with her parents on Christmas day, so she decides...well, you can pretty much guess, can't you?

Her Christmas day goes downhill from there, including being tormented by a younger man who she suspects is only playing at flirtation.  And she really wishes he wasn't just playing.  And that she wasn't years older than him.

So, anyway, I got about half-way done when I got sidetracked.  And at that point, it looked like the anthology might get sidetracked, too, so I put it aside.  Then, in June, they said:  come on and submit!  Deadline July 14th!

What?  Are you kidding?  After a bit of scrambling, I managed to finish early and submit it.  My editor found a few problems she wanted corrected before (possibly) accepting it, so I made those modifications.  And managed to submit it again in time for the final July deadline.

Apparently it was satisfactory enough for the novella to go to contracting.  This stage always makes me nervous because I fear that something may still happen that will cause the thing to crash-and-burn, but that's where we are.

Only time will tell.

Assuming I'm being paranoid for no reason at all, I'll keep you posted as to the progress and eventual release date of the final product.  I must say, I rather like my little novella and am seriously considering doing a few more shorter works.  Not to mention a longer traditional Regency romance called:  LOVE, THE CRITIC, which I really want to submit to my Cerridwen Press editor--just as soon as my balls grow back and get big enough to submit it after this last round of submissions.

I never have a lot of confidence and what little I can muster is always gone by this stage of the game (i.e. accepted but waiting for contracting, etc).  But maybe by August my editor will be reading through LOVE, THE CRITIC and not imagining all the cruelly torturous punishments I deserve for inflicting such a manuscript on her.

Anyway, back to shorter works of fiction...and writing in general, my other publisher, The Wild Rose Press, has a "free story" program where they publish short works by their authors and give the stories away for free as teasers and promotional material.  (If you haven't checked it out, do so.  After all, it's free.)

I've been thinking hard about this "free story" idea and am still kind of wafflely.

About a month ago, I wrote a short story but put so much into it, I finally submitted it as a regular submission that I will hopefully get paid for.  Because in the back of my mind was another well-known author's advice that if you are a professional and expect to live on your earnings--you must make earnings.  You don't expect a doctor to do your open-heart surgery for free, why would you expect a writer to hand you their story for free?

And if you don't think writing takes just as much time and effort as other careers, you are probably not a professional writer.  That made sense to me.  And I do look on writing as a profession--not a hobby.  A quality product should receive a suitable recompense.

One must live, after all.

On the other hand, I blog for free.  And I do think there might be some value in a short promotional piece that readers can get for free to see if they like your writing.  The problem with that, though, is that you then have to do a good job--which means put a lot of sweat equity into the piece--if you want to impress your readers enough to get them to actually purchase anything else by you.

Which in my mind means spending upwards of a month on a short story, and then giving away all that effort and time, for free.  You can be very sure that Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe never would have considered doing such a thing.  And I'm a little reluctant to de-value my writing by giving it away for free, too.

The other ugly aspect of it is that if you do give your work away for free, you generally can't go back and try to sell it or earn money off of your story.  Most publishers have clauses in their contracts--even short story contracts--that specifically state they won't publish material that has ever been made available to the public for free.

Once free, always free.

In the end, I'm not sure I'll submit the second short story I recently wrote for free, even though that's what I originally intended to do.  I want it to be entertaining, which means spending more time on it.  With enough effort, it should be good enough to draw in more readers for my longer works, like I BID ONE AMERICAN, my Regency romantic mystery. 

But we'll see.  I'm easily persuaded, one might almost say--wafflely--so the fate of my little Regency romance short story, ROSE WARS, is still up in the air.

We'll see which way it falls later this summer (preferably, that waffle will not fall buttered side down).

Good night and pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Historical Accuracy, Phase 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about historical accuracy in my blog. Since I just submitted a historical novella to my editor and am thinking about what to write next, I started contemplating this topic again. I mean, I'm not sure I could even get the details of my own time period accurate, much less those of a period two hundred years ago. And there is that whole TRUTH issue. I'd like to think that there is some sort of TRUTH or FACT that is understandable and knowable, but for most of us, truth and "facts" are largely based upon our perceptions and often limited, or skewed, knowledge.

We do the best we can, but knowledge is like peeling an onion, there is always another layer. There will always be someone who knows more than you do.

You might think I just digressed in discussing THE TRUTH versus perceptions of the truth, but alas, no. Because I'm trying to plot out another historical mystery, and I keep running into decision points or issues.

And that leads me to think about just how accurate I can, or cannot be.

For example, dressing the heroine—or any Regency woman. I've attended several "re-enactment" type affairs where folks who specialize in Regency clothes show what ladies wore and how they got dressed. And they very strongly made the point that a lady simply could not dress herself due to several factors including:

  1. Restricted movement due to corsets, which prevent a lady from reaching behind to fasten up the back of her dress, for example; and
  2. The excessively complex ties, strings, pins (straight or otherwise) used to keep garments together.

Not to mention the discussion about whether Regency women's clothing actually had buttons or not.

The consensus of this group was that no lady could dress herself without help. And a few dresses actually did have a few buttons.

On the other side, several members of the Jane Austen Society have informed me that shy & private Jane used to dress herself. And they don't believe buttons were used on women's dresses (except as decorations) despite the drawing of Jane Austen showing a row of buttons on the back of her dress.

When you think about it, maids and servants often wore the cast-off clothing of their employers. And servants dressed themselves. Ergo, the clothes they got from their employers actually could be thrown on without help or the servants wouldn't have been able to dress themselves in the cast-offs. And please don't remind me that the servants could have altered the clothing. I know. It's all relative.

So…can my ladies dress themselves? Do their dresses have buttons?

I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two viewpoints. Ladies could dress themselves if they didn't tie their corsets quite so tightly, and a few dresses did, indeed, have a few buttons down the back.

On to my next problem: locale. I just started reading a British mystery—contemporary (more or less—I mean, at least it takes place slightly less than 100 years ago). The author resolved the problem of locale by making up a completely fictional …shire in England with a fictional stately home, and two fictional nearly towns. I like that solution better than my previous ones. I used to pick a small place at random and "en-grandize" it into a name worthy of a territory title (like a Duke's) and so on. Although Georgette Heyer was very good at that, I was less good at picking obscure-enough place names for it not to "rankle" with folks actually from Britain.

So for that—forget the accuracy and go for the completely fictional.

Finally, flora and fauna. You absolutely HAVE to avoid placing rare (undiscovered in that time) plants or hybrids not even created yet in your story. Those just will not do. Nor does it work to name all the flowers you know and have them blooming at the same time, e.g. mums and daffodils. But where I get into the weeds is WHAT TO CALL THINGS?

I'm sitting here with the c. 1808 copy of The Gardener's Calendar, looking at the list of roses. Now, to take a step back, many of the plant names are the same as today, which is great and makes it easy for me to list plants that I know people today will understand. But there are a lot of hybrids or plants that have names that have fallen into disuse and there it is difficult even for an expert to identify exactly which plant is being described.

Roses are notoriously difficult. In this 1808 book, there are many named which could be almost anything. 'Dutch hundred-leaved' could be Centifolia, aka 'Rose of a Hundred Leaves', 'Rose des Peintres', the 'Provence Rose', 'Queen of Roses' and 'Old Cabbage Rose'. Which name do you use?

At one point, I wanted to put a list of the roses grown by the Empress Josephine at Malmaison on my website. Until a rosarian noted that most of them were Gallica roses that are not grown any longer and were lost in the mists of time—not to mention, how would you give the modern reader any reasonable rose names since those rose varieties that still exist are generally known by different names? And there is very little chance of me being able to match the original rose variety name from the list to a modern name that a contemporary person would recognize.

Given that sort of challenge, how can you really paint an accurate picture of the past? Even those who LIVED IN THE PAST couldn't always agree on a consistent name for a rose (hence, Linneaus' universal scheme of names, taxonomy, based on Latin—but even that doesn't address rose varieties since they are not separate species but just hybrids or varieties).

Anyway, enough. I will do my best, knowing that whatever I do, I will get questions from readers that will be perfectly valid—because in truth, truth seems to be more relative than I would like.

And for those who like puzzles, here is a list of roses from 1808:

Early cinnamon; Double yellow; Red monthly; White monthly; Double white; Moss Provence; Common Provence; Double velvet; Single ditto; Dutch hundred-leaved; Blush ditto; Blush Belgick; Red ditto; Marbled; Large royal; York and Lancaster; Red damask; Blush ditto; White damask; Austrian yellow; Double musk; Royal Virgin; Rosa mundi; Frankfort; Cluster-blush; Maiden-blush; Virgin, or thornless; Common red; Burnet-leaved; Scotch, the dwarf; Striped Scotch; Apple-bearing; Single American; Rose of Meux; Pennsylvanian; Red cluster; Burgundy rose.

Note, the spelling and capitalization are from the 1808 book. J

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Think the Virus, Be the Virus

  Initially, I thought I would blog about my greatness  as a writer and stuff like the fact that Coffee Time Romance has me listed as their featured writer this month.  I've gotten some terrific reviews from a number of reviewers for my latest Regency romantic mystery, I BID ONE AMERICAN, including a lovely item coming out soon from Romance Reviews Today. But despite all of this, I've had sort of a rough week and I'm not up to such shamelessness.

One would think such things would make a writer glow with good feelings and positive energy about their skills.  Instead, it makes me sort of sick and worried about whether I'm any good at all or just a huge sham.  (Wow-Sham! Oh, no, sorry, wrong television ad.  That would be:  Writer-Sham!)

In fact, I'm sitting here wondering what possible reason could I have for considering myself successful as a writer?  I have severe doubts that I am even a decent writer.  Certainly, I'm no Saki. 

And have I ever written anything that a normal human being could understand, much less enjoy?  I don't know.  I mean, if I was a fabulous writer, wouldn't I be on the NYT BestSellers list instead of just my publisher's bestsellers list?  Wouldn't I be #1 on  Or at least #2?  Wouldn't I have editors begging me for my next book?

Wouldn't I have agents actually putting my name on their rejection letters, instead of "Dear Author"?

Wouldn't I be smart enough not to be writing this in my blog?

So then I started thinking about how it is we writers can go through years (I mean like 30 years) of kicks-in-the-teeth, multiple agents, people telling us our writing stinks, others telling us our writing is capable (ARGH!) but for some incomprehensible reason it's not what we're looking for at the moment...  And I got even more depressed.

What the heck is wrong with us that we keep beating our heads against that wall for little or no gain?  Earning $42 in a year is not going to keep that gas tank filled, kiddo.  Although I guess I'll soon see what "bestselling status" means when my first royalty check floats out of my publisher's hands this fall. 

The point is, though...obviously most of us are not doing it for the money.  In fact--what money?  And we're sure not doing it for an ego boost because I can tell you that I've been kicked so often and so frequently over the last ten years that if there's any ego left I'd sincerely like the wee thing to step forward so I could shake it's microscopic little hand.

This week, I came really, really close to the decision:  maybe I just need to give up.  Maybe I totally stink-on-ice and need to stop inflicting my stuff on others.  I'm just fooling myself with this "I'm a writer" shtick.

I've got a 3" binder full of rejection letters which I can't help saving because I'm completely anal.  Isn't that proof that I'm not a good writer?

So why do I do it?

Why don't I throw in the towel--right now, right this minute?

Who the heck knows?  I sure don't.  No wait--I have this uncomfortable feeling it's because I'm insane.  Completely.  I've got weird stories in my brain that won't leave me alone until I write them down.  And I have this overwhelming urge to communicate.  I don't know what it is--I just have to talk to people, even if it's in writing.

I have to try to explain this world around me and the people in it.  Why do people act the way they do?  Why are we so obstinate?  Why do we take the obviously wrong path?  What the heck is wrong with someone who thinks killing another human being is the answer to any situation--unless of course that person just really, really needs a-killin'.

Don't I get enough people-time and talking at work?  I'm on the phone 7-8 hours a day on conference calls, help calls, planning calls, calls about this-and-that, you name it.  I'm called upon to play amateur psychologist to weed out personal issues from technical computer issues or just listen to some over-worked local site administrator blow off some steam before he goes in and beats some unsuspecting user over the head with their computer monitor.  You'd be surprised what's involved in my job in the way of people skills.  (And I've frequently wondered how many innocent user lives I've actually saved from beatings or worse.)

But really, no one listens to me, anyway, on most of those calls so they're pointless as far as communications go.  And if I get hit by a bus on the way home, those calls are going to buzz on quite nicely without me.  Waves washing over footprints on the beach.  Here for five minutes, gone for eternity.

In a totally strange way, my books are my forum and safety-valve.  Or maybe more like this nice little virus I communicate to others.  They read it and get infected.  Oh, nothing quite fatal.  But something sticks--a scene, a character, a turn of phrase.  And the infection takes hold and spreads as that turn of phrase or idea takes root in the reader, and the reader passes it on to their friends, families, and even enemies.  Maybe especially to enemies.

And so communications takes place.  Insidiously.  Virally.  And despite all the bashings we writers take, we can take pleasure in the fact that yes, even the editor or agent who turned us down was exposed to the virus.  They may even have been infected.  It may stick in their brain until they die. 

And in my case, sooner or later, one of my ideas may pop out of an editor's mouth just as if it was their idea or phrase.  And I have triumphed.

I communicated.  I may have even explained something about the world and its strange inhabitants--at least to myself.

So despite everything, all I can do it keep on trying.  Keep on submitting my projects, and never stop.  Think the virus.  Be the virus.

And if you're a writer, maybe that's the attitude you need to go for, too.  Be the virus.  Write.  And keep on writing until your writing infects enough people to count as a success.  Or die trying under a poorly aimed spray of chlorine disinfectant.

NEVER give up hope.

Sweet dreams.

PS.  I actually feel better now.  Weird how that writing aimless, brainless drivel really does work.  Therapy for the terminally poor and bewildered.