Wednesday, June 30, 2010


In his book, THE FIRE IN FICTION*, Donald Maass has this to say:

"Scenes that are written in the normal flow of accumulating pages may be fine but often will lack focus."

Truer words have never been spoken. Which is just one of the reasons I love revision. I think of the discovery draft as not only discovering what my story is about, but also about CREATING the material I will use in building the actual story. So the first/discovery draft is never (for me) the story; just the raw ingredients for a story.

The second draft is always about structure, about hammering out the best, most compelling structure of the book and deciding what should happen when for the biggest impact.

And then I look at scenes to be certain they are all doing what they are supposed to do: moving the story forward.

I have recently created a scene revision template which I am finding immensely helpful in this process, so I thought I would share it here. (It's compiled from stuff I've read in Maass's book, which I can't recommend highly enough**)

One of the things I've always stumbled over with scene revision is the question you are always told to ask: What is the goal of this scene. That always seems far too direct to me, too spot on, and, for me, risks pulling all the nuance and obliquity from a scene.

Instead, I ask what is the point of the scene. Why is it there? That way I can determine if it is earning it's place in the book, but not approach the problem too head on. Then the following template helps me shape it so that the point of the scene doesn't get lost. So my template looks like this:

What is the point of the scene?

What changes?

When does it change?

How does it change the POV character? (This is a biggy--the axis of the scene. Because pretty much everything should either contribute to or lead away from that.)

What are three visible or audible details of that moment of change?

Create hints that the protagonist will get what they want. Also build reasons to believe they won't. (This is a great reminder to me to keep supplying the reader with dramatic questions, even at the scene level.)

What are some sensory details of this scene? What are details that only my protagonist would observe or notice? (I am particularly fond of this question because it forces me to go deep inside my character's worldview.)

And that's it. Once I've answered those questions, I have a very distinct shape and structure to the scene and can go in and revise with abandon. Okay, maybe not with abandon, but at least with a much clearer vision of what the scene should be doing...

*I originally mistyped that as THE IRE IN FICTION and it cracked me up so much I was half tempted to leave it.

**I adore his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL for the initial brainstorming of a book and TFIF for shaping it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Where To Find Me Today

I am blogging over at The Enchanted Inkpot today on mythical beasts AND over at Shrinking Violets about branding, so I think two (lengthy!) posts for one day is about all I can manage.

See you over there!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Meet Me At Chaucer's

I almost forgot to mention that I'll be signing my newest books* at Chaucers Books in Santa Barbara this Sunday at 3:00 with my dear friend and fellow Violet, Mary Hershey. If you are in the area stop on by and say hello!

*Actually, I will be signing my older books, too. Hell, I'll sign your t-shirt if you want. I'm easy that way.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drilling Down

Okay, maybe not the best title choice considering the current, ongoing BP fiasco...

I've been working on the manuscript and one of the things I'm trying to get a grip around is the all different levels this story is taking place on. The layers of the story, if you will. I know instinctively that they're there, but until I can clearly identify them in my mind, I can't be absolutely certain that I'm building those layers and getting them on the page.

After doing some noodling this morning, this is what I came up with, and it struck me as a good solid template for looking at your characters and their level of motivation.

The inciting incident for the story is that my heroine agrees to pose as someone else.* At first glance, my this premise could seem glib or shallow or facile. Or even a bit tacky. But it's what's underneath that intial action that gives it the necessary juice: my heroine agrees because of her perception of what she owes someone.

Underlying that is her need to prove herself to these people, the very ones that raised her up from the ashes of her former life. She wants to earn their respect. Actually, she wants to earn their love, but she isn't able to admit that, so she calls it respect. She is sure that by doing this thing for them, and doing it beyond reproach, she will earn their respect and they know they did the right thing by giving her this chance.

And underlying that is her scar tissue--her absolute starvation for love or affection of any kind and her very human need for those things.

And lastly, under all of those things is her gaping wound--her belief that she is every bit as flawed and worthless as she has been told since birth. Not worthy of love, in any of its forms.

So that's about four layers going on, which feels about right. Any more and I risk losing my mind...

*I apologize for the coy verbiage, but I am trying to avoid any spoilers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


(Or should I say, Victoire!)

I have done it. I have wrestled a series of events during the winter of 1489 in France down to a series of specific actions taken by characters in my novel. W00t!

It is broken down by act, and thank God they make eight different colors of ink or I would never have gotten it all in there. The green and purple ink are two characters I totally made up for this story, while the rest represent actual historical people who were alive and involved in these events. I can't really explain why this makes it all feel more manageable to me, but it does. It reduces big sweeps of history down to an action I could watch a person perform. And by doing that, by making history actions people take, I can weave it into the story so that it doesn't feel like it overshadows the characters.

However, now I have a headache and must go lie down...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oh Me Aching Head!

Okay, so I know I have to prevent historical events and personages from swamping my main characters, but the knowing is the easy part. It’s the HOW that gets tricky.

Once again, I find I am cutting characters right and left and combining them wherever possible. (Keep in mind I’ve done this twice already.) I’ve eliminated two major secondary characters and about eight extras with speaking parts. And combined two antagonists into one, and taken a role filled by a secondary character and given it to my hero. My new goal is to have all the actions that were being done by those extras performed by existing, more important characters. For the first time in the four years (off and on) that I’ve been working on this book, I finally feel like I have a manageable cast that won’t woefully confuse the reader. Phew.

But now the harder part: the historical events themselves. How to weave them in without letting them take over the story and make it feel as if the characters are being bowled over by history, or worse, leave my characters feeling like human flotsam carried along by history.

One of the first things we learn as writers starting out is that *it really happened* is absolutely meaningless. You have to let go of what really happened and create a cohesive story out of the useable parts of history (or reality, for that matter.) The truth is, history ISN'T satisfying in terms of climax and resolution and catharsis, all the things we look for in a story. History isn’t coherent and doesn’t make sense, or provide closure or any of the things we expect a STORY to do. However, historical events DO rule our lives (just ask anyone who lost their jobs in the last recession!) So the challenge is to pick a portion or thread of history that has the potential to be presented in a way that satisfies the needs of the story, or be willing to alter it a bit.

So what I'm going to do is block out the major historical events in the story, then use them mostly as a backdrop. This will allow me to zero in more closely on how my main characters are reacting to those events and, more importantly, what actions those events cause them to take. Because character is action.

And really, that’s the story. Not the historical events themselves, but how ordinary people react under those extraordinary circumstances. How the crucible that is history, molds them into new, stronger versions of themselves.

But even knowing that, it can still risk feeling like a string of pearls or episodic. How to make it hang together?

And with a resounding duh, I remember, It’s the character, stupid.

It’s the characters goals or motivations that will provide the dramatic throughline for the story, tying the events of history together so that, for this one person whose story it is, they create a cohesive, integral story. They do that through the choices they make, the actions they take, and the way they come to terms with the historical events, either emotionally or intellectually.

So maybe it’s a story about a romance in a war torn country and the historical events are pretty much just one hit after another, the chaos of war, not just the attacks launched by enemy, but the random cruelty that causes among people on the same side trying to survive.

In order to keep it from feeling episodic or string-of-pearls-ish, the character has to provide that cohesion and use the chronology of unfolding events to feed her own motivation, goals, and growth. Each of those unfolding events has to increase the stakes for her in some way, or cause her to try to find a new way to reach her goal, which is the one thing that *does* stay constant throughout the plot. Maybe in each of the disasters that befall her she is able to find some small reason to believe in love rather than give in to despair, or each historical event carries her farther from her love interest, but regardless, she gets up and tries to make her way to him again. Or the unfolding events strip one loved one after another away from her, making the reader all that more invested in seeing the lovers united in the end.

It’s about how those historical events shape their emotional growth.

That's the story. Duh.

This is the painful part about picking up an old project, trying to recollect all the good stuff  you need to know, but not carry forward any of the unnecessary clutter that was mucking up the story.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Picking Up The Pieces

One of the problems I’ve consistently had with this historical YA fantasy is whittling down momentous, national and political events to the personal, then including enough to give the story the needed weight and heft, but not so much that it swamps the characters.

So as I picked up the project again, I thought I’d try a few techniques, and I’m going to talk about them here because I think they apply to most big revisions.

The problems I’ve had with the story are:
A cast of thousands
Historical and political events risk swamping the story and confusing the reader
Working out the logistics of what historical events/characters to include and what to make up (in other words, how fast and loose can I play with history. Quite a lot, I’m thinking, since it takes place in the fifteenth century and there are not a whole lot of records about these people.)
Nailing down geographical places

So I gathered all my materials together but decided not to look at any of them yet. I decided to sort of approach the story without all those details and subplots and backstories in my head, thinking that if I approached it with fresh eyes unencumbered by all that I knew, it would make it easer to clearly see what the story was about and who was absolutely essential to the telling of it.

This sprang in part from what they talked about in the book MADE TO STICK, about how people are encumbered by what they know, so they lose sight of what people who aren’t so immersed in the same subject actually need to know without being overwhelmed.

My initial tasks:

  • Printed out the last draft of the mss in a new color. (Pink, in case anyone is interested.)
  • Re-read two of the research books to get fresh in my mind what was actually historical and to see which of those historical details/personages/events leaped out at me as being integral to the story.
  • Took the time to nail down a couple of research bits I’d been stumbling over—the name of the heroine’s village, for example, and whether or not the hero was a first or second son, (which made a huge difference back in the fifteenth century, let me tell you!)

Next, I typed up a brief, three page synopsis of the major story events from the heroine’s standpoint, then again from the hero’s standpoint. That way I can see their motivation for all the acts, and see where and how it interacts.

Now I really need to decide who the true antagonist is. The thing is, there are so darn many to choose from, so many of the nobles of this time and in this court were horribly duplicitous and taking bribes from other kings. But I really need to decide who my heroine’s antagonist is, which I suspect will be different from the story event/historical antagonist.

In fact, that is what I plan on working on today. Perhaps I will officially declare this “Discover One’s True Antagonist Day.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What A Week!

Goodness, it’s been a full week! There was completion and closure and celebration and all sorts of rich-yet-exhausting things going on.

I made my revision deadline for Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh, a three week turnaround of which I am very proud, then hot off the tail of that, our entire extended family (including all sets of grandparents!) went north for my eldest son’s graduation from UC Santa Cruz. All of the grandparents have been amazingly generous and supportive in getting the boys through school, so it was truly splendid having them all there to witness this big moment.

Or would have been if it hadn’t been ninety-frickin’-five degrees out. Oy! And the entire ceremony was set out in the sun. We were broiling like shrimp on the barbie, let me tell you. Which was helpful in one regard—any tears I shed evaporated on contact, so no one need ever know what a sop I was. Am. Whatever.

It’s funny because college graduation is such a momentous thing—a huge rite of passage into true, independent adulthood, more or less. Oddly though, it wasn’t the graduation that drove home for me what an adult my son had become. It was watching him with his grandparents, seeing how attentively he saw to their needs, helped them across the field, or assisted them onto the shuttle bus. He was there for them in a way that nearly made my heart explode with pride.

Aaaaand that ties into writing because…because it struck me as such a clear turning point, a subtle but powerful one, the sort of quiet moments that show true character growth and development. It reminded me that turning points can be about a new level of being, rather than a big external event.

I also spent a couple of days clearing all the Nate and Theo notebooks and research materials off my desk and whisking them back into the cupboard where they live until their next adventure. Then, with great trepidation, I pulled out all the dark YA fantasy materials and notebooks (of which there are half a dozen—I kid you not) and began trying to work my way back into that story world.

The cool thing was, as I was reading the first scene for the first time in over nine months, (interesting timing—no?) I fell in love with the story and the world and the characters all over again, so I am itching to get started on it.

However, re-entering the story world and reconnecting with all the various threads will not be easy, so I will likely be blogging about that for the next few weeks. Consider yourself warned! ☺

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An Interview With Moi

I am being interviewed over at the Enchanted Inkpot today. Take a gander over there if you are interested. Also, we are having a drawing for a copy of THE BASILISK'S LAIR and an ARC of THE WYVERN'S case you needed coaxing. :-)

Monday, June 07, 2010

And . . . I Lied

Okay, so I did want to share one other thing I read in MADE TO STICK. It touches on something I talk about a lot—concrete details.

The authors explain that for an idea to stick, it has to be credible. There are all sorts of ways to gain credibility, through bona fides, experts, celebrity endorsements, and true stories. However the one avenue to credibility that he talks about that has the most relevance to writers is concrete details. It turns out putting in solid, specific details in our writing isn’t just good craft, it’s smart psychology.

He talks about a study done where arguments made using concrete examples are more effective in swaying an audience as to a person’s guilt or innocence. People—readers—respond in a dramatic way to vivid details.

In addition to the obvious way in which this applies to writing—suspending disbelief and making our stories credible—it strikes me that we can also use this in other ways.

In characterization—giving characters, especially secondary characters, some specific, concrete detail that will anchor them in the reader’s mind. Not just a pair of glasses that keep sliding down his nose or a braying laugh, but something much more unique and specific to that individual. Something sticky. ☺

In planting clues and foreshadowing—it strikes me that knowing how people respond to concrete details, we can use that to direct our readers’ attention to the subtle things we want them to notice, but not realize they’re noticing.

How about you? Can you think of a way to use this newfound bit of information in your writing? If so, do feel free to share it in the comments. Hmm. Perhaps I feel a contest coming on...

Friday, June 04, 2010


Okay so maybe I won't be reporting on MADE TO STICK. No sooner did I announce that than I stopped reading the book. Felt too much like a book report. :-)  Suffice it to say, it has a lot of good stuff in it. Stuff like: We can't demand attention, we have to attract it, which pretty much sums up how I feel about first scenes.

Last night I was browsing at my local indie and came upon this most excellent book that I simply had to have. Renaissance Secrets: Recipes and Formulas. Just looking at it made my little heart go pitter patter, so now I own it. V&A really puts out some amazing books. I could happily own every one in their collection.

I also spent the morning cleaning up and putting away all the research materials and writing notebooks and general project clutter for the Theo and Nate books I've just finished up. This is such a treasured part of my process, putting away old projects then feeling the amazing whoosh as new ideas come zooming into all that freed up space!

Between my new book and all that free desk space, my muse is very excited.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Writing Sticky Fiction

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called MADE TO STICK by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, and it talks about what makes some ideas stay with us while others barely make a dent in our consciousness. I originally picked it up because I thought some of what it said might pertain to writing, and it does, but it also deals a lot with how our brains process and retain information, but not in a highly technical or scientific way, rather in a practical way. Which actually, come to think of it, also pertains to writing.

So one of the things that fascinated the authors was how vitally important information that had great impact on our lives could be so easily forgotten or ignored, while at the same time demonstrably false stories and urban legends lingered for decades. What made some ideas so darn . . . sticky?

It seems as if some of the six components they talk about apply more to writing than others, and yet I am finding a lot of useful information in all of them. This week as I read the book, I thought I’d talk about these components and how they might apply to writing fiction.

Take the first concept: Simple. Sticky ideas must be simple. So, okay, that doesn’t really work for a one hundred page story, let alone a four hundred page story. However, some of the principles of simplicity do offer some insight into writing fiction.

One of the things the authors talk about regarding simple is that the simple must reflect our core message. They also talk about feature creep—the phenomenon of adding more and more useless features to a device until it becomes so complex it is unusable. As I was reading this chapter, it struck me that this felt like a good description of the downside to overwriting. ☺

When we are close to a project and mired in our own story world and characters—as we must be when we are creating them!—it is easy to lose sight of what is truly relevant to the story we are trying to tell. The instinct is to put it all in, in the hopes that it will make the story feel richly detailed and complex, is nearly overwhelming.

The problem is, though, that the overload of information actually ends up obscuring our core story and we—as well as the reader—lose sight of what the story is supposed to be about. That is why the selective detail is so important, each detail should be chosen to reinforce our core, our theme, and to help reveal the story we’re tying to tell.

The authors also talk about proverbs as being the quintessential sticky ideas—short, pithy, and memorable. Often for centuries. The reason is because in addition to being short, pithy, and memorable, proverbs pack a big wallop in terms of insight or wisdom. And as I read that, I was struck by how much that DID pertain to writing. From the books we remember vs. the ones we quickly forget, to the difference between stereotypes and archetypes, clichés and resonance.

In order to be memorable, a story, character, or theme must contain an essential wallop of human insight or knowledge. But not just any insight, it needs to be an insight unique to the particular author and their worldview. That is what infuses what would otherwise simply be a cliché or stereotype into something memorable.

And lastly, the book holds the best explanation of high concept ideas I’ve ever heard: high concept simply means extracting complexity from a seemingly simple message.

Doing this relies on something called schema, which is basically a word for all of the associations and definitions we assign to a given thing or concept. So instead of listing all the associations and connotations for a new thing or concept, we liken it to something we’re sure everyone knows, and create a short cut to their existing knowledge/schema.

So basically high concept is simply an effective analogy. That’s it. It is simply a complex message that can be conveyed in simple, universal terms. Usually using schema. The trick is to have those simple terms be evocative and able to elicit an emotional response/reaction in nearly everyone who hears it.

Okay, so maybe I was the only one who didn't get that last part about high concept pitches. But now that I know what they are supposed to do, what mechanism they are relying on, I have a much better idea how to put one together.