Posted in books, characters, creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing and tortillas and putting in the work

I love to cook and bake, but I’m not the greatest at following recipes. I was in the kitchen with my mom from an early age, and most of the time I really don’t think I need to read the entire recipe (especially if it’s in a blog post that gives the entire history of a dish before getting to the actual recipe). I’m also not very good at planning ahead, so I often have to make substitutions and rush recipes (like not letting things rise for the full amount of time).

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With New Mexico being under a stay-at-home order, I’ve been working from home and have had more time to prepare meals most days. So, I’ve been making an extra effort to plan ahead and follow the recipe more closely.

I’ve made tortillas a few times, usually from a mix, but with the shortages at the grocery stores right now, I ended up making some from scratch. I followed the recipe to the letter, including kneading it for the full amount of time (which I almost never do). They were the best tortillas I’ve ever made!

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What does this have to do with writing?

Writers often feel pressured to get the next book out as as soon as possible to keep readers attention. Some say that writers need to release something every 90 days. This can lead to lower quality writing due to rushing, skipping steps, or not preparing well enough.

A recent book club I led for work featured a contemporary romance from a fairly well-known author with a big backlist and a lot of followers. The group was pretty much unanimous at the end of the reading session that this book suffered from the three problems I just mentioned. The characters were often flat and unrealistic. The story never really seemed to go anywhere because there was a lack of real conflict, and many of the scenes felt like filler used to make the target length.

While it is important to produce consistently, quality is more important. Whether in baking or writing, prepare, don’t rush, and don’t skip the steps it will take to make a project a success.

  • Characters need fleshed out backstories and motivations
  • Every chapter needs conflict
  • Conflict should build to the climax and mean something to the reader
  • Outline or storyboard to make sure you have enough content for the word count or end it when the story dictates
  • A storyline should compel readers by making important promises to the reader at the beginning and fulfilling those promises by the end
  • Don’t rely on readers  “buying anything you write” just because they’re fans

Putting in the work for a story is just as important as it is for a meal if you want to produce something people will love. The tortillas, paired with the fish my husband made, were definitely a success!

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Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Developing character motivation that draw the reader in

Understanding your characters’ motivation is key to developing strong characters.

 

dragonsOne of my favorite examples comes from one of my favorite childhood books, Princess Cimorene from “Dealing with Dragons.” She feels trapped in her life as a princess and is about to married off to a ridiculous prince, so she volunteers to be a “captive” princess for a dragon and ends up having all sorts of adventures while fending off knights who keep trying to “rescue” her.

Character motivation is the driving force behind what characters do and the choices they make. Motivations are based on needs. These are deep-seated needs that affect every aspect of their lives and psyches. They may be internal (psychological or existential) or external (survival).

Motivation spurs the character (and story) to keep moving, growing, and developing over time. Whatever need they have needs to be fulfilled, and making choices or taking action helps get them closer to that fulfillment. The steps the character takes to fulfill a need become major and minor plot points.

Motivation also makes a character more relatable. Every human has needs. Even though our individual needs vary, we all understand that desire to seek for something else, move forward, or find a better situation. Starting with a universal need helps reach a wide range of readers. That motivation can then be tailored to the character and story and narrowed down into something unique without losing reader interest.

Motivation provides characterization. It tells the reader something important about that character, such as how they were raised/treated, what cultural norms shaped their morals or values, what expectations they have for themselves or others, etc. Motivation also reveals important truths about character roles and how they fit in to the story.

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Every character needs a motivation, even side characters and antagonists. Side characters don’t need to be developed as deeply, and may only have a general need or motivation, but having something that drives them makes them more realistic. Antagonists act in frustrating or despicable ways for a reason. They are also trying to fulfill a motivation, often a self-serving or misguided one, but they must have a goal that directs their character arc in order to be realistic and engaging.

Motivations must be realistic. That doesn’t mean their end goal is realistic, but it has to be something a reader can believe the character is truly motivated by. Illogical, weak, or lazy motivations make characters aggravating and unrelatable. Motivations can easily be deluded, irrational, misguided, or even malicious. It’s important that the motivation comes from a base need that readers can understand, even if they don’t agree with or like it.

Goals and motivations are not the same thing. Motivation can lead to goals and steps that need to be taken. Goals are the end result, the fulfillment of a motivation. Motivation is what drives the character to keep moving toward a goal even when it’s incredibly difficult.

Characters can have multiple, and even conflicting, motivations. Humans are not rational creatures most of the time. We want things that keep us from reaching other goals all the time. We want things we know we can’t have. We self-sabotage. We want two things that can’t coexist together. Don’t shy away from making your character complex…within reason.

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Posted in books, characters, creative writing, editing, publishing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Improving your self-editing skills

Self-editing is not a skill that comes perfectly paired with great writing.

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Not all writers are good editors. Why?

  • It’s difficult to see your own errors
  • You’ve seen it too many times and practically have it memorized
  • You’re sick of looking at it by that point
  • It makes sense to you, or you wouldn’t have written it
  • You’re too close to it

The aspects of editing many writers are good at include:

  • They have the best overall understanding of the concept of their story
  • They know the characters best
  • They get what makes a good story
  • They are readers, and understand readers

Before you start editing, it’s important to understand what type of editing you’re undertaking.

  • Proofreading: Picking out typos, missed words, misplaced commas, etc.
  • Line editing/Copyediting: Critiquing sentence and paragraph structure, repetition, word choice, etc.
  • Content/Developmental Editing: Story, character, flow, cohesion, etc.

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It’s also important to give yourself some time away from the project before you start editing

  • Begin the editing process by NOT editing
  • Step away for a while
  • Get fresh eyes
  • Read something in your genre
  • Read critically for style, flow, and pacing
  • Forget the details
  • Do something non-writing related!

The overall editing process is broken into several stages:

  1. Read the entire text and focus on plot/character issues
  2. Focus on wording and readability
  3. Focus on word choice and sentence structure
  4. Focus on grammar and punctuation
  5. Final review to polish

Make use of tools that can help make the editing process easier and more efficient:

  • Run Spellcheck
  • Run Autocrit, Grammarly, or ProWritingAid
  • Print it out if possible/change the format
  • Many authors edit better in hardcopy
  • Read in different format than the one you wrote it in (like on your Kindle)
  • Get out your Freshman Comp books (Elements of Style is a classic)

Before you dive into typos and comma usage, think big picture when it comes to editing

  • What is the point of your story?
  • What is your character meant to accomplish?
  • What do you hope the reader takes away at the end?
  • Why did you write this book?

As you start editing, think like a reader

  • Change your perspective: As you’re writing, it’s difficult to be objective, so you need to start thinking like a reader
  • Read the story critically like you would any other book: What do you like? What don’t you like? What stands out as out of place?

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Evaluate the plot as you read and identify weak areas

  • Create a timeline as you read: Is the timing consistent? Is the pacing consistent with the timeline?
  • Are there plot holes or unanswered questions? Don’t attempt to answer them yet, but write them down
  • Does the reveal of information come logically? Where do the characters find answers? When do they find answers?
  • Is there enough complexity to remain interesting? Is their too much filler to cover up loose plotting?

Great characters can make or break a story, so focus on characters and their growth and development while editing

  • Character Consistency: Character BIO (know the details), Who is this character on page 1? Who is this character on the last page? What does their dialogue sound like? Write down a sample from the beginning, middle, and end and compare. What is their world view, attitudes, and ethics?
  • When to break consistency: Situational (Events or knowledge drastically changes something and they act outside their norm, i.e. “Insanity is a perfectly natural reaction to an unreasonable situation.”) or Paradox (The reader thinks they know the character and later learns more that changes who they are)

Lastly, check the overall fit of your story elements

  • Point of View/Tense: Is this the best point of view or tense for this story?
  • Style: Does this style of writing fit the character and story type?
  • Structure: Does the way the character move through the plot make sense?

The purpose of this first, full edit is to identify major plot, story, character, and content issues that need to be addressed before any further editing is done.

 

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, marketing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing to market vs. writing to a specific audience

What is the difference between writing to market and writing for a specific audience, and how does it affect they way you write?

Writing to market is sales-focused. It is writing what is currently popular in your genre, whether that be themes, tropes, subgenres, or topics. An important detail of this definition is “in your genre.” Jumping into new fads you don’t have experience with or haven’t researched usually doesn’t work out well. Writing to market requires constantly staying on top of genre trends and being ready to shift or switch focus quickly.

buy-3692440_1920Writing to market also means knowing general audience expectations, likes, and dislikes. Generally, readers don’t have a strong preference for standalones or series, a plot that moves quickly and well-developed characters keeps readers from putting down a book, blurbs and book covers that don’t accurately portray a book upset readers, readers prefer to interact with authors on Facebook more than other platforms, most readers do want to interact with authors, and readers pay attention to reviews.

Writing to a specific audience is more reader focused. It takes into account general audience expectations then narrows them to a specific genre, subgenre, or trope. Writing to a specific audience takes researching and understanding who you readers are, what they want out of a specific book, and determining the story elements that will satisfy their expectations.

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Understanding your audience means researching and identifying several key factors:

  • Specific genre/subgenre conventions that must be utilized (not all conventions are a must and there is room for creativity and exploration)
  • Trope elements that are expected by the reader (don’t be formulaic, but hit the crucial points that make the story fit the trope)
  • What your book gives the reader (a story must fulfill something for the reader, whether it be escapism, a thrill, vicarious excitement/romance, etc.)
  • Demographics of your audience (the data is out there, even if you might have to make a few leaps or assumptions to narrow it enough to your niche)

The key to writing to a specific audience is figuring out what they want from your specific book and then delivering it. If readers expect an HEA, there better be a very good and convincing reason not to give them one. If readers expect vivid sex scenes and barely gets a peck on the cheek, the reviews will reflect their unhappiness. Make a promise to your reader in the blurb and make sure you fulfill that promise with a great ending.

Writing to market and writing to a specific audience can feel limiting or frustrating when we focus too much on one or the other. Aiming for something in between is a helpful balance. Focusing too much on what sells can lessen the excitement of writing and the emotional connection to the story and characters. You need to love what you’re writing for readers to truly enjoy it as well. Know what is selling in the market and what readers want from a specific book, but add spice and uniqueness to tropes and conventions by delving more deeply into what will excite and satisfy readers on a personal level.

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing great scenes that connect with readers

What makes a scene stick with a reader? Is it the emotion, the revelation, purpose? It can be any or all of these things when done well. Let’s take a look at what makes a great scene.

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A great scene has a purpose and climax. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, reveal important information, or develop the character, it probably shouldn’t be in the book at all, but it certainly won’t stick with the reader as meaningful or important. Identify the purpose of the scene and build the other elements around that purpose, leading to the climax.

A strong scene has good pacing. Things need to happen in a scene, whether that’s action, the character learning something, romantic tension increasing, or the reader putting clues together. Break a scene down to the individual elements that will support the overall purpose. Skip unimportant details that don’t serve a purpose. Watch out for long sections of exposition or narration, don’t stay inside a character’s head for too long, and stay focused on movement throughout the scene.

An impactful scene shows rather than tells. Telling becomes boring very quickly and tires out the reader. While some long passages of dialogue are needed to explain a lot of information, break it up with movement, action, or input from other characters. Use all five senses to bring the scene to life and show what the characters are experiencing. Don’t tell the reader the character is upset, show them through body language, dialogue tone, or physical action.

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A memorable scene creates an emotional connection with the character. This connection may come in many forms, whether it’s disgust, sympathy, romantic feelings, or compassion. A scene should reveal something about the character that makes them more real and shows their depth. This can be done through backstory, dialogue, action, etc. Readers connect more with characters they have something in common with, whether it’s something major like an abusive childhood, or jealousy over a friend doing well. Use traits and experiences that are universal to build a base for connection, then delve deeper into more personal or unique traits to deepen the connection.

A good scene has real conflict. Conflict can come in any form, but it should be integral to the scene. Internal conflict delves deeper into what makes up a character and where they are on their journey of change. External often conflict moves the story along and pushes the character to discover their abilities and strength.

A complete scene shows change and development. Change is a critical factor in any story. The characters, situation, and possibly setting change or develop through the story and character arcs. Each scene should show where the story/character is in the arc and where they are heading next. Change and development isn’t linear. Use ups and downs to create more tension and a more interesting arc. Characters need to fail and struggle. Nothing should come easily, but it should continue to progress.

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Posted in books, characters, creative writing, reading, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing strong females characters: behaviors vs. personality traits

Strong female characters have not only been a topic of discussion quite frequently over the last few years, they’ve been steadily becoming better as readers and writers both recognize what that phrase means to them and why it’s being talked about.

Beautiful bright makeup woman with long curly hair looking sexyOne of the key elements in writing strong female characters (and this applies to writing strong characters of any gender), is understanding the difference between behaviors and personality traits. Behaviors are things a character does (what we do), while a personality trait is how a character behaves, thinks, and feels (what we are). Personality traits are difficult or impossible to alter, while behaviors can be changed.

For too long, “strong female characters” were based on behaviors such as fighting, sarcasm, sexual activity, shunning femininity, using her body for manipulation of others, etc. The personality traits behind these behaviors are much different than the behaviors themselves and are what readers will connect with on a deeper level when they are fully brought into the story.

Consider the list of behaviors above and what personality traits caused or impact the behaviors, and what the sources of the behaviors might be:

MMA Fighter PunchFighting: perhaps the character grew up in a rough home life and had to defend herself from a family member, bully, gangs, etc. Perhaps she was a victim and learned to fight for protection.

Sarcasm: sarcasm may come from insecurities about self, status, a pessimistic worldview, or a sense of humor. It may limit their ability to make friends or have deep relationships.

Sexual activity: This may come from a place of confidence and freedom or a need to please and fill emotional holes. Is it self-destructive or empowering? Does this this affect relationships or self-image?

Shunning femininity: Consider what caused this shunning. It my come from sexual orientation or gender issues, having been victimized and made to feel vulnerable, growing up with masculine role models, insecurity about being seen as feminine or weak, or a genuine dislike for typically feminine activities or looks.

Using the body to manipulate: This may speak to the time/setting and the character’s status in her community or social structure. I may be a learned behavior from a role model, or developed out of survival instinct. A woman could also see this type of a manipulation as a useful tool she sees no problem in utilizing, and possibly even see it as a equalizer with men.

These are only a few considerations, examples, and questions brought up by these behaviors, but they highlight how much more interesting and engaging the personality trait is than the behavior. Readers want to uncover why a character says, does, and thinks the way they do. Developing personality traits rather than only behaviors leads to opportunities for deep backstories and character growth and development.

Any time a character does something, ask why, and integrate the answer into the story and character arc.

Posted in characters, contemporary romance, creative writing, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

HEA, HFN, and Realism

In most romance subgenres, happily ever after endings are a requirement. What exactly is an HEA ending, and how does it differ from an HFN or happy for now ending?

HEA and HFN both end happily. The main differences between them are for how long and on what terms will the characters be or remain happy?

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HEA’s simplest definition is that everything turns out for the best for the protagonists and any side characters. If there is an antagonist, they get what they deserved. HEA leaves the reader confident the happiness will continue long term with no major roadblocks or disasters.

HFN is often consider a more realistic type of ending. Not everything is perfect, but it’s pretty good for the moment and the circumstances. The protagonists’ lives have improved to a satisfying level, even if it isn’t the end goal and may not be permanent.

Now, let’s discuss making HEAs a little less predictable and, let’s admit it, less cheesy.

Make the characters work HARD for their HEA.

No quick resolutions or easy forgiveness. Leave the reader doubting it will happen right up to the last second. The “work” may be external or internal.

External work might be distance, others who keep them apart, lies or mistrust, etc. Internal work is a character overcoming internal issues, such as past hurts, commitment phobias, or held secrets.

Whatever type of work a character must do to reach their HEA, give them roadblocks and roller coaster ups and downs. Any time it starts to feel like things are getting to easy for them, hit them with another one that pushes them back a few steps.

Put a twist on a trope.

Romance has plenty of tropes to chose from. The difficulty is often making them unique and not just another Disney ending. HEA doesn’t always have to end with a kiss, sex, or a proposal.

What else signifies commitment? Exchanging house/apartment keys, adopting a pet, meeting family, etc.

The important thing to remember here is that the twist has to make sense and be relevant to the character’s arc. If a character is open and welcoming by nature, introducing her new love to her family at the end isn’t much of a twist, or very exciting. However, for a character who’s had to work through major issues with her domineering mother and has trouble opening her private life to people, introducing a new love to her mother would be a big step that showed trust and commitment.

Try unique situation and settings.

Very few real relationships reach the HEA moment over a candle-lit dinner or during a grand romantic gesture. Take a page out of reality and spice up a conversation over pizza or taking a walk and falling in love with a house listed for sale. Look for everyday moments that can be made special.

I love the scene from The Office when Jim proposes to Pam at a gas station. It’s a powerful moment, not only because it’s unexpected, but because his previous attempts at a grand gesture kept getting messed up and he simply couldn’t wait to start his life with her any longer.

Make the reader wait.

Whether this is a planned meeting that gets held up and makes a character doubt, a tough decision that is held off until the last moment, a sacrifice the reader isn’t sure a character will make, or something else, a pause before the HEA can up the reader’s anticipation.

In most romances, the reader knows there will be an HEA, but they don’t know how it will happen. If you’ve developed a strong story arc, every time the MCs get close, they’re pushed back apart, making the reader doubt their ideas of how it will all play out. Keep this up until the big moment. Then you can follow it up with a glimpse of what their HEA looks like long term.

One last note…

Make sure each character has their OWN happy ending before their relationship gets a happy ending. HEAs are even more unrealistic when the characters haven’t shown enough development for a reader to believe “true love” will last forever.

This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, but they DO have to be capable of sustaining a long-term, committed relationship. Each character should have their own development arc and need to reach the climax of that arc before the story/relationship arc can reach it’s own climax.

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