Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Writer's Crucible

Finding a Good Reason

Years ago I was reading a How To book on writing and I came across an excellent lesson on character motivation and believable plotting. It had to do with the plot's crucible. In a nutshell, a plot crucible is the reason why characters must continue toiling away, staying together, and not fleeing or simply saying, "Screw this, I'm outta here."

It was a revelation for me and has helped me plot every single book since then. Sometimes I read a novel and I think, Why doesn't she ask him if that woman is his girlfriend? Or I will wonder, Why are they staying together if they're both so miserable right now? There has to be a good, sound reason for people to remain shackled to a situation or premise or idea. If not, they just look stupid.

In real life we all have a fight or flight response. Flight is easiest. Things become too messy, too dramatic, too stressful, and we take a powder. Easy. Fight is much more difficult and usually we resort to fighting when we feel we can't run away. Something is holding us in place. Running away would cost us too dearly.

For example, in the first question above, why the heroine doesn't ask a simple question of the hero to clear up a huge misunderstanding. This is a weak plot device and most readers will roll their eyes and think the heroine is as dumb as a stump or -- worse! -- a doormat. If she goes around upset because she believes another woman owns the hero's heart, but can't bring herself to ask him about it outright, can we really admire her and want to be like her?

The crucible here is nonexistent. There is no good reason why she is hanging around. Now, if the other woman told her that the hero is betrothed to her and that her family is depending on the marriage (and the hero's money) to save them from being thrown out in the street as paupers and that the woman's father is gravely ill, this might give the heroine pause to think that she should step back and not become the reason a family is tossed out of their home and responsible for an old man's death. But then you have to find a good reason why she wouldn't discuss this with the hero. I mean, wouldn't it be logical for her to ask him about it? So, then you have to decide how he's going to answer and how this will either strengthen or weaken the crucible. See? Sometimes you have to just abandon a plot or plot line and start all over.

But that, my friends, is plotting.

So, when I plot, the first order of business is the crucible -- the trap from which the protagonists can't escape because escape would be far worse than sticking it out. It has to be a solid trap -- not some flimsy thing that wouldn't hold a butterfly prisoner. Sometimes, it's a fight over a place (land, house, business) and sometimes it's a fight for a person (a child, a parent, a first love), and sometimes it's a fight for a thing (inheritance, honor, revenge). Whatever the focus, it must be clear and sharp and the reader must buy into it totally. If they pause to wonder why the protagonist doesn't just throw in the towel and be done with it, you've lost your battle and your war.

When you have a crucible that is a fortress from which your characters dare not leave, you have a formidable plot and iron-clad character motivation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Queen of the Rewrite

Once Again With Feeling . . .

So, I've finished my next book-- the first in a trilogy -- and now I'm rewriting it after I've had a writer friend/editor read it and tell me where I've gone off the rails. This is actually the fun part. I think writing is pretty darn difficult. I'm like Carrie Fisher, who once said she doesn't actually enjoy writing as much as she enjoys "having written." Yeah, I can understand that.

Don't get me wrong. It's not easy sitting beside your editor/writer/friend and hearing that she doesn't understand or particularly like my heroine. Nope. That's no fun. Or that she thinks my hero is "too girlie" in certain parts of the books. Ooops! You never want that to happen! But I know myself and I know that, while the initial consultation stings and sometimes cuts to the bone, if I give myself time to lick my wounds, I will agree with about 95 percent of what she's telling and showing me. I also know that this isn't easy for her either!

You might think that most editors have feelings coated with stainless steel, but I think you'd be wrong about that. Having known a few professional editors, I can remember how they agonized over having to call a writer to discuss a major rewrite or even a rejection. They weren't cackling as they rubbed their hands together in glee. They were dreading it and going over and over in their heads how they were going to handle it.

My friend has told me that it hurts her when I argue or challenge her during these sessions, so I try to keep my mouth shut. Later, I tell myself. Later, after you give yourself time to think instead of defending yourself and your writing. I know that I can be rational after I "sleep on it."

I'm deeply into the rewrite now and my friend/writer/editor told me yesterday that she's really enjoying the newest version and that she can hardly believe it was written by the same person. Oh! Okay! I'm the Rewrite Queen! All bow down and show me some respect!

Patting myself on the back, I coo to my writer's ego . . . "There, there. It's all better now, isn't it?"

Monday, July 22, 2013

Riding the Big Wave

Go with the Flow!

Isn't it great when a novel sinks into your blood and you find yourself eager to keep writing? Even when you're not writing it, you are thinking about it, dreaming of the next scene and bits of great dialogue?

I am there right now. Loving the novel I'm writing and even plotting the next two novels in what I hope will be a series. It has been a long, long time since I was this excited about a novel project. I dream about it at night. I wake up thinking about it. I look forward to sitting down and writing 10 or 20 pages a night after I have worked all day at the computer writing non-fiction for my real job! Oh, yes. I am writing in a fever!

I love my characters. I love the plot. I'm doing something I haven't done EVER as a novelist. I am writing this book without a synopsis. I decided to just keep writing after I had enough for a partial because I didn't want to stop. I wanted to keep writing it because it's so much fun. It's going well, I think, because I have been thinking about this series for at least two years. Maybe longer.

It is a contemporary and it is in a genre that I have never written in before. Everything is new and risky and deliciously scary!

I have sent chapters to my friend, who helps edit my books. She is not too thrilled with it -- or so it seems at this stage -- and you know what? I don't care! I am loving writing on it so much that, if no one likes it and my agent passes on it, that's cool with me. Writing it is such a joy that it's enough for me.

Of course, I hope it's published. I want others to love it, too. However, if it isn't, it has been such a lovely ride that I surely won't regret the time I have spent on it.

This is such a different feeling for me! To write with joy and simply enjoy riding the crest of this sweeping, all-consuming wave of creativity.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Attack Soggy Middles

The middle of a novel is where the quicksand dwells!

Plotting a novel usually begins and ends rather well. It's that middle part that is challenging. Most of the time, you know how the book will begin and how it will end. You might also know or have a good idea of some key scenes. However, as you plot and you reach mid-point in your book, invariably your pace slows and you are faced with every writer's dilemma: Now what?!

When you don't do an outline or synopsis, this juncture can be daunting. You've been flying along and now you're stuck in quicksand. Have you read books where all of a sudden a secondary character shows up along with a subplot? This new development is introduced and dealt with in the space of, say, four or five chapters. How convenient! Well, that's one way to shore up  a saggy middle, but it can also be disconcerting to the reader and play hell with your pacing.

However, the surprise subplot is better than chunks of introspection where the hero and/or heroine review what has happened in the book so far, reflect on it, share memories of their childhoods, and wonder what the future holds for them. This "soggy middle" rescue operation is always a poor choice. You will put your reader to sleep or the reader will skim over these chapters, and the charm of your book is lost. You will also probably receive less than enthusiastic reviews.

Outlining allows you to address saggy middles efficiently and effectively. Since you aren't in the throes of writing the book, you can stop and reflect on what scenes of interest  you can add that will further the main plot, keep up the pace, and add to your characterization. The middle of the book can be -- and should be -- a build up of what's to come in the novel's final revelations, black moment when all seems lost, and wrapping up scenes. These important middle  scenes should engage the readers, not put them to sleep. They should include surprises, insights, and carry your "red thread" throughout. Think of the Harry Potter novels. Did everything exciting grind to a halt in the middle part of those? No! Things heated up!

So, the next time you read a book where a Stop sign pops up in the middle and everything slows to a grinding halt, you can smile knowingly and think, Ah-ha! The writer didn't plot this one out well enough and found himself/herself in quicksand!

Writers can dig themselves out, but it does take planning and good plotting! And it is much, much easier to do at the outline stage than at the actual writing stage.

Good Luck! And keep a shovel handy at all times.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Prying Open the Lid

New Idea -- New Treasure

And so it begins. A new idea tickles my brain and fans the embers of my imagination. A book title floats to the surface of my mind unexpectedly while watching TV one night. And I am off and running.

While I am promoting my new novel that is now available, I am suddenly alive with the possibility of another tale. Another story set in Guthrie, Indian Territory right after the land runs when Guthrie was trying to find its way -- saloons sitting next to opera halls and lawyers obtaining divorces for people who traveled far and wide to the growing town to be shed of a bad marriage.

I love it when a story crooks a finger at me, bidding me to come closer. It's like a treasure hunt. You know the location of the buried treasure and now all you have to do is dig, dig, dig -- plot, plot, plot until you locate the gleaming crown jewel  -- the crucible -- and the golden chain that binds all of your characters and scenes together. The crucible is extremely important, especially in a romance. It is the reason why the main characters can't escape their current situation. Without a believable crucible, the readers will think to themselves, why doesn't he/she just leave or give up? That's why some romances seem silly -- the characters argue and fuss and there isn't a good enough reason for them to continue to stay together. There has to be a life or death reason -- an all or nothing circumstance to keep the main characters in the same orbit.

In my new novel TO SEDUCE AND DEFEND ownership of a ranch is the crucible and the red thread is the tangled web woven by deceit.

I'm fleshing out characters now for the next book. I have uncovered the gems of the crucible and golden chain and now I'm adding other jewels or scenes to it. Plotting can be tedious and/or exciting, depending on your progress. However, once the book is plotted I always celebrate because the hard part is over. Now all I have to do is write. Oh, sure, writing is difficult, but it is the creative part of the process. Plotting is the business of it. Plotting is finding the right place to dig and then putting your back into it. Writing is after you find the treasure chest, pry open the lid, and begin to polish the beautiful jewels inside.

It's back to the shovel for me. Blisters are forming on my brain and my back is killing me!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Inspirational Women

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Any writer hears that question quite often. I usually quip, "At the Idea Shop on the corner of Third and Main." But, seriously, they come from everywhere. I'll tell you where I got my idea for the novel being released in just a few days -- June 1, 2013, to be exact.

I was watching a PBS TV program about the sinking of the Titanic. Out of the blue, the narrator mentioned a survivor who had lived briefly in Guthrie, Indian Territory where she had gone to seek a divorce from her husband. Huh? So, I went online and searched her name. Sure enough, this lady had traveled to Guthrie, which it turned out, was the divorce capital of the whole country in the late 1800's and early 1900's. In other parts of the country if you wanted a divorce, you had to prove that your better half was crazy or was trying to kill you. However, in Guthrie you could claim abandonment or several other reasons and get a divorce. Your spouse didn't even have to show up in court with you. There were a few stipulations, including that those seeking a divorce had to live in Guthrie for three months before the court would hear their case.

The writer in me kicked in and I thought of not one, but four different books all centered on women who came to Indian Territory seeking their freedom from a bad union. I hadn't been excited about writing another historical romance in years, but now I was bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. I enjoyed researching Guthrie, the Land Runs, and the court system in Indian Territory. I had been to Guthrie many times because it is one of my favorite places in Oklahoma. The center of town still looks like it did in 1880, except for the cars, of course. The buildings are still there. The history oozes from every sidewalk, every pillar, every post. That's why I was amazed that I  had never heard anything about it being a destination for women (and men) who were desperate to end their marriages.

If I hadn't been watching that PBS show about the Titanic, I would never have stumbled upon these fascinating stories that happened in Guthrie (and my imagination). The first book -- see how I said "first" because I'm a positive person! -- is TO SEDUCE AND DEFEND. It centers on a woman who comes to Guthrie to claim land her deceased husband purchased. However, she finds instead that she has stepped into a web of lies and deceit that lay to waste everything she believed about her husband, her marriage, and her own heart.

I'm proud of it and so glad to shine a light on a part of Guthrie's colorful history that most people haven't yet discovered.

Friday, May 10, 2013

My Favorite Two Words

Another One Bites the Dust

My two favorite words as an author are "The End." Aaaah. Almost as good as sex. Definitely better than wine or any other alcoholic beverage. I have written those lovely two words recently as I finished my new novel. It is scheduled to be released in June through Amazon.

I am already plotting my next novel, so that proves there is no rest for the weary. But that is the bane of any writer. The plots swim in your head. Some turn out great and some never quite pan out. They seemed good, but once you wrestle them into submission, you realize they simply aren't substantial enough to keep. The one I am plotting now is a keeper. I have the title, the main characters, and most of the outline done.

I like to plot and outline before I tackle the actual writing of a novel. Some writers prefer to wing it. I've tried that, but it seemed to waste a lot of time. I would write myself into a corner and have to stop all forward motion and figure out a way to get out of it or even scrap a chapter or two and take the novel in a different direction. I'd rather solve all those problems in an outline instead of as I'm trying to actually write the story and flesh out the characters. Even with a great outline, I can run into bits of trouble and sometimes I have to stop my progress to do some research.

To each his own, I say. If you want to plot as you go and wonder, What happens next? then more power to you. As for me, I like control when I write. I need to know where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. I have enough surprises, what with characters popping off and saying things I didn't plan on or even evolving into people I didn't envision. That's the joy of writing -- when the story and the characters become strong enough to take over and you hold on the ride of your life.

Friday, April 5, 2013

In the Weeds

I Am In Writing Hell

I am deep into a book and writing day and night to finish it by the contracted delivery date at the end of April. This month! It would not be as difficult if I didn't have another fulltime job and a parttime job in addition to writing a novel. Yes, I'm a tad bit stressed out.

Carrie Fisher once said, "I don't enjoy writing. I enjoy having written something." Ahh, that spoke to me. Writing is not all that fun. Sometimes it is exciting and heady, but most of the time it is grueling and you keep thinking all the while that what you're writing is crap. I have often thought that a scene sucked big time, only to read it the next day and find that it had gotten better with age.

The mere fact that I am writing this blog post when I am in the weeds, so to speak, with the current novel project proves how demented I am. It's like the murderer returning to the scene of the crime or someone bleeding jumping into shark-filled waters. Demented.
My agent writes to me and asks, "How is the novel coming?"

I write back, "Oh, fine."

I'm so glad we are e-mailing and not video conferencing. She can't see me bang my head against the computer keyboard and cry for my mother. Seeing such a display would not win her confidence.

I have been here before. Every book has sent me to this level in Hell where writers toil and deadlines loom. It's a place where we all think we're going to write the Great American Novel and end up hoping to be able to type THE END before our creativity dries up and we end up husks of human beings.

But I'm fine! And the book is fine! Really!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

With Age Comes Interests

Making History

I never liked studying history when I was in school. Ironically (or fatefully?), the college scholarship I was awarded required that I take one history class every semester and pass it or I would lose the money (and my college tuition). Like a good soldier, I chose a history course every semester, and grumbled about it. Sometimes I passed it by the skin of my teeth because I really didn't like reading the books, writing the essays, and memorizing those dates. The only portion of history I actually found interesting was the Civil War and that was only because I loved "Gone with the Wind."

As the years passed and I became a novelist, I wrote contemporary stories until the fateful day when I read a LaVyrle Spencer novel and was entranced. It was an historical. After reading several more Spencer books and getting encouragement from my agent, I embarked on researching and writing my first historical romance.

Folks, I was hooked!

To this day, I love writing historical romances and -- gulp! -- I love researching them! I have not only become engrossed in history, I have stumbled onto undiscovered countries in myself. I discovered that I knew a lot about farming, ranching, and cowboys, but where did I get this information that came pouring out of me? I'm a city kid!

Finally, I realized that those many, many hours of sitting before a TV watching westerns with my family had served me well. Listening to my mother and father recall their childhood on Missouri cotton farms had seeped into me, too.

I now believe that, for most of us, we must begin making history before we can actually appreciate it. Once I was in my 30s, the past was no longer boring because I actually had one! When I hit my 40s, I started wondering about my ancestors and began researching to fill in my family tree.

Now I have to make myself STOP researching and START writing a novel. The one I'm writing now is set in Guthrie, Indian Territory after the Land Run and it's all I can do to resist the urge to read more and more about that time, those brave people, and that fascinating town!

I'm glad history finally beat me into submission. I am now a devoted student of it and I'm happy to pass on what I learn in my novels.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Hello, Stranger!

How Soon We Forget . . .

I have occasionally began reading a book, get about halfway through it, and then realize I have read it before. I usually go right ahead and finish it. If it took me that long to remember I'd read it, I certainly had forgotten much of the plot!

This week I began listening to one of my previously published historical romances, offered on Amazon's Audible, Inc. Not only could I not recall much about the plot, I found myself wondering about the characters' backgrounds. Why was the heroine frightened to be alone on her ranch? What happened between her and her brother-in-law? Why was the hero so deadset against living on a farm or ranch?

People. I wrote this book! Talk about weird. To listen appreciatively to a novel that I wrote and not recalling very much of it is utterly strange. I discussed this over dinner the other night with a friend and she said, "So why is the brother-in-law so mean and did the heroine really have something to do with killing her husband?"

I shrugged. "I can't imagine that the heroine would kill anyone and I don't know what's going on with the brother-in-law, but he makes my skin crawl."

My friend looked blankly at me across the table. "But you wrote the book."

I laughed, getting her drift. "I know!"

Last night I listened to a love scene -- a tender, character-driven scene -- that ended with not only a moment of bliss but also a moment of revelation for both the hero and heroine. I was amazed when I wiped tears from my eyes.

I know that not all of my audio novels will sound as good to me. This particular title happens to have been one of my favorites -- I had at least recalled that about it! But the experience has bolstered my courage to continue weaving stories, taking chances, listening to critiques, reading reviews, reaching out to readers, and appreciating the fact that I can spin a pretty tale now and again.

Sometimes we writers need that kind of inspiration.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Beautiful People

The Eye of the Beholder

I recently received a comment from a reader who scolded me for always writing about beautiful heroines and handsome heroes. She said she couldn't relate to them because they were so gorgeous. She wished I would write about real, plain old people. I responded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Since I get into my characters' viewpoints, I see what they see, and they happen to like what they see in the hero or heroine.

But it goes beyond that. I have studied human to human attraction and responses. People are predictable when it comes to the signals and reactions we have to each other when we are attracted or sexually stimulated. Men are more visually stimulated than women and are also more acutely aware of aromas. Women are also visually stimulated, but not as much as men. They listen more than men and respond more to what they hear and sense.

While some romance writers have gone against the grain and written books with central characters who have scars, eye patches, missing limbs, are in wheelchairs, etc. and those books are certainly interesting and worthy of publication, the fact remains that the majority of romance readers prefer to read about attractive people. More importantly, they want the main characters to be good, decent people.

I used to tell my writing students that most women really don't want to read about a hero who is balding, a bit over-weight, and burps in public because they are married to that guy. And while they might identify with an over-weight, middle-aged heroine, they don't particularly want to read about those women all the time. Romances must have an element of fantasy or they just don't live up to the genre.

Instead of creating physically flawed people I like to create emotionally flawed people. They are far more interesting and almost everyone can relate to them. No matter how they look.

Just remember that beauty is subjective. The man you think is gorgeous could turn off your best friend and your mother might think he is as homely as homemade soap. But if I'm writing in your point of view, he is going to be a hunka-hunka-burnin-love.