Writing Beginnings, Again and Again

We’re to have a hard freeze Thursday night – our first freezing temps of the autumn – so I’ve started bringing in the house plants from the patio. It’s always a glut of blooms, fallen leaves, and much shuffling of saucers and ideal locations. This, more than anything else, is the first sign of fall for me.

I’ve been working on THE FATE OF THE TALA, and talking a lot about that process on my podcast, First Cup of Coffee. If you want an (almost) daily insight into my process, that’s the place to listen in. As an overview, however, I’ve been talking about beginnings and how to decide where to start a story. This isn’t an easy decision or process. For example, I’m on my fourth opening in FATE – and I think this one will stick. It takes a lot of trial and error to find where the story truly begins, and what counts as preceding events that will be woven in as backstory.

The thing is, newer writers don’t always realize how much effort goes into finding this sweet spot, because we mostly see only the finished product.

I realized this truth (yet again) the other day when I was helping a friend – a not-yet-published writer – with her book. The beginning simply wasn’t working, for a number of reasons. I gave her some specific advice to improve beginnings in general. (In particular, I pointed her to this Twitter thread by Mary Robinette Kowal that really lit me up – all stuff I knew, but framed in a way that I found super helpful.) I also pointed her to a book opening in the same genre by another author friend, pointing out how that person set up the character, world and genre.

The aspiring author came back with a mix of admiration, envy, and despair – agreeing that the (very accomplished) author’s opening was amazing. And I realized that I need to clarify that this amazing and gorgeously executed beginning was the result of easily six months of effort on the professional author’s part. Not only has she published many novels in the genre, but I happened to know she’d torn apart this beginning multiple times. Eventually she started with an entirely different POV character, which is when the story began to sing.

So, it’s important to remember, when looking at examples to follow, that published work has been through countless rounds of revision, editing, and more revisions. Finding the best place to start a story, and writing it well, is possible – but it also takes time, effort, and patient revision.

 

POV Wars: Don’t Be Cannon Fodder

Isn’t this a gorgeous pic of THE ORCHID THRONE? I just love when people make these decorative frames for my books. 🙂 Many of you know I’m buried, neck-deep, in the revision of THE FIERY CITADEL, the second in this trilogy, the Forgotten Empires. I’d hoped to spend eight days on this revision, today is Day 8, and I’m not even halfway. Alas.

I know I keep saying this, but I should speed up soon. I’m bringing a lot of stuff forward in the story, which requires reworking of scenes and re-layering. I’m re-visiting some scenes four or five times. There’s a LOT of “re.” But it’s important to remember that this process is a re-VISION. That means changing up the view of the story, how I see it and how the reader will see it. Sometimes, because I’m bringing stuff forward, making some chapters longer, I’m having to switch up the point of view (POV). The story is told in alternating chapters of the hero and heroine, both in first-person POV.

Lemme tell you: changing the POV of a scene is an excruciatingly painstaking process.

That’s why you may have seen authors passing around this bit of clueless shite and screaming NO NO NO NO NO!

I don’t know who wrote this, except that this person is gleefully and authoritatively giving Very Bad Advice.

I’m tempted to break this down line by line, because there’s a profound error in pretty much every phrase, but I really need to be working on this book. I thought it might be easier to show what a POV conversion looks like, plus saving me time. AND you get a bit of a sneak preview to boot!

Here’s a piece of a scene I originally wrote in the hero’s POV.

“Thank you, all, for attending Me this morning. Some of you may have met my consort, Conrí. He’d like to tap your specialized knowledge in defense of Calanthe.”

And just like that, she turned over the meeting to me—and amused herself by taking me by surprise, judging by the gleam in her eyes. I coughed to clear my throat of pastry crumbs, and handed the little plate and cup to Kara, who looked like I’d handed him a wailing infant.

“Your Highness.” I bowed deeply to her, tempted to add an ironic flourish like Sondra’s mocking manners, but kept it as sincere-looking as possible. Lia saw through me, naturally, though her public face revealed nothing. I stepped beside her, having no intention of putting my back to her, and surveyed the motley assembly. If Lia thought these people could help, then I believed her.

“We have credible evidence that the emperor will bring his forces to bear on Calanthe in a matter of days,” I said without further preamble. None of them seemed shocked, despite Lia’s efforts at secrecy. “My people are bringing in all the vurgsten supplies we can in preparation.” I nodded in General Kara’s direction. He acknowledged that gravely, and he’d relieved himself of my dishes, hands folded behind his back in military style.

“Thanks to Her Highness’s assistance, we’ve established a relay of ships to expedite bringing as much vurgsten to the island as possible before the emperor’s fleet can interfere,” he intoned in his harsh voice.

“You’ll need a fuck-all huge amount of vurgsten,” a square-built woman with short-cut silvery hair opined. Brenda, I recalled, who’d served in the wars in Derten.

“And at least that many ships,” the flamboyant Percy added, examining his nails. He’d affected long jeweled tips like Lia’s and lounged sideways in his chair. “Preferably two times fuck-all.”

A thin woman with a listless mien whose name I didn’t know eyed them with concern, drawing a shawl around her shoulders, though the morning was far from cool. “This is a serious situation, Percy.”

“Agatha, darling. Until I’m dead, nothing is so serious that I won’t poke at Brenda’s colorful language,” he drawled. “Seriously, however, how do you propose to mount any kind of credible defense when we are outmatched in every way? Your reputation precedes you, of course, Conrí, but these odds are sadly stacked against us.”

And now here it is, rewritten in the heroine’s POV:

“Thank you, all, for attending Me this morning. Conrí?”

Con coughed, clearing his throat and brushing pastry crumbs from his fingers. He passed his plate and cup to Kara, who looked like he’d been handed a wailing infant. Petty of me, perhaps, to take Con by surprise, but I hadn’t quite recalibrated my temperament. What little sleep I’d gotten had been spent in nightmares, and Con had nearly caught me in that vulnerable state. Tonight I would find a way for us to sleep separately, as the nightmares seemed to be intensifying.

The dream images had taken on a new clarity, too. The temple above Cradysica falling into the sea. A wolf, gnawing off my hand as I tried to help it. Calanthe, thrashing beneath my feet. Waking. Cradysica it would be. I couldn’t fight this. It had been all I could do to drag myself to this meeting. Thank Ejarat—and my clever ladies—for makeup.

“Your Highness.” Con bowed deeply to me, then turned to the others. “An update since yesterday. My people are bringing in all the vurgsten supplies we can in preparation. General Kara?”

Kara had relieved himself of Con’s dishes, and stood with hands folded behind his back in military style. “Thanks to Her Highness’s assistance,” he intoned in his harsh voice, nodding to me, “we’ve sent ships to establish a relay that will expedite bringing as much vurgsten to the island as possible before the emperor’s fleet can interfere. We’ll keep as much aboard local vessels as possible, so the maximum amount of vurgsten can be relayed to the chosen site quickly.”

“I ran some numbers,” Brenda put in. “Even guessing at most of them, to spring the kind of trap you’re thinking of, we’re going to need a fuck-all huge amount of vurgsten.”

“And at least that many ships,” the flamboyant Percy added, examining his nails as he lounged sideways in his chair. “Preferably two times fuck-all.”

Agatha, wrapped in her shawl, though the morning was far from cool, gave him a look. “This is a serious situation, Percy.”

“Agatha, darling. Until I’m dead, nothing is so serious that I won’t poke at Brenda’s colorful language,” he drawled. “Seriously, however, I ran some numbers, too. How do you propose to mount any kind of credible defense when we are outmatched in every way? Your reputation precedes you, of course, Conrí, but these odds are sadly stacked against us. We’re looking at staggering losses, even without certain…strictures.” He glanced at me, but I kept cool and showed no reaction. Perhaps they only now realized that Con and his people had truly conquered Calanthe after all. I certainly seemed to have lost the power to affect events.

So, yes, there’s more and different information – that’s part of me bringing some points forward in the story – but there’s also changes at every level. Lia and Con know different things, have different familiarity with the characters, see the problem from different angles. Lia is more educated and has more internal, introspective thinking than Con does. She thinks in different words. This POV change is profoundly more complex than switching out pronouns.

As for 1st Person POV being a “gimmick”… I can’t even with that. I, the author, am most definitely NOT one of the characters. Being in a character’s head and a character being an author’s avatar are so wildly different that I’m frankly stunned someone wouldn’t be able to recognize that. Maybe someone who hasn’t read much? First Person POV is difficult to write. It simultaneously gives the reader greater access to the character’s thoughts and feelings, while limiting their perspective to only what that character knows. Some readers don’t like that, which I understand. But using that POV hugely affects how the story plays out.

Also, omniscient narration IS a point of view. I couldn’t leave this without saying that much.

 

Really, but No

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! David and I are both from Irish families. You can see it in those smiling eyes, yes?

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is “I don’t think so. Name a piece of writing advice you do not agree with and explain why.” Come on over for mine. 

 

Always Wanted to Write a Book? Do Tell!

So, you’ve always wanted to write a book? Isabel is at her leisure to listen.

Me? Well, that depends. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m willing to help aspiring authors. I mentor through several organizations and do my best to be generous with helping people looking to build careers as writers. 

The problem comes in when people are only talking and not wanting to do the work. That’s why this week’s topic at the SFF Seven is phrased the way it is: What do you want to tell someone who says ‘I always wanted to write a book’?

Come on over to hear those things I never say out loud. 

Spiritual Pride and Dangerous Newbie Writer Traps

I’m repainting the master bedroom and started with the kiva fireplace. It was the same white as the walls before, so I’m happy with how it stands out now. The walls are next, in a creamier shade. Will try to post pics!

As some of you may or may not know, I used to study with a Taoist martial arts school. We trained in internal Chinese martial arts, but also in the corresponding mental, emotional and physical work it takes to clear your mind enough to grow as a person.

Our teacher was forever reminding us to be wary of spiritual pride. It’s easy, when you finally begin to get somewhere in this really difficult transformation of self, to feel like YOU ARE THE SHIZ. There’s a great temptation to feel better than everyone else. You can see this in people of all religions – where the phrase “holier than thou” comes from. Taoism is all about finding the middle path and part of that balance is feeling good about what you’ve accomplished, giving yourself well-deserved credit for hard work rewarded, while avoiding going too far into hubris and overblown ego.

What does this have to do with writing? 

As if none of us have seen those successful authors who are all ego and no sanity. In fact, I think some of the recent #metoo outings of Big Name Authors who’ve sexually harassed *many* people are partially a result of this entitlement. I can see it between the lines of their “apologies.” They thought they were special and untouchable and could take whatever they wanted – and often did. 

Those are extreme cases, for the most part, and can happen to anyone who reaches that level of fame and fortune (if they’re not careful).

But there’s another trap I’ve been seeing a lot of newer authors fall into that’s just as, if not more dangerous. That first Big Success. 

Now, for a lot of us, that never happens. Or it happens so late that we’re so thoroughly humbled by then that we’re not in danger.  That’s how it was for me. By the time I won my RITA® Award for THE PAGES OF THE MIND, that was my eighteenth published book. I was *really* used to not being much of a deal at all. In fact, it’s still surprising to me when people treat me like something special. I think I was lucky that way, as much as I hated slogging through all that, because my career has grown gradually enough that I’ve grown mentally with it.

Other authors – and we often know a lot about them because they make that big splash – hit it big right off the bat, in some way or another. Their first published story is nominated for a big industry award – and they might be nominated for a “best new writer” type award. They get a snazzy debut book deal, maybe even six figures. They might win a high-profile contest that gets them that book deal. All of these things are wonderful! I sure wished they’d happened for me.

At least, I did then. Now I’m grateful I didn’t have to go through that.

It’s a dangerous place to be, after that first big score, because they feel proud, excited, and giving themselves major strokes for succeeding in a difficult business. And they should, because it’s well-deserved. But it’s easy to stray too far to the other side of the path. Writers I’ve known – and didn’t know, but observed – tend to think that they have it down. That they know the “rules” and succeeded because of that. They think they are the shiz, when really they’re still brand-new authors with one or two publication credits. With this tremendous validation, however, they proceed as if they possess all the wisdom, often handing out advice.

This advice tends to be terrible in a very standard way. “Just write a Really Good Book.” “Follow these rules.” “Use this method.” This is because they don’t really know how they did it. And that is because a whole lot of it had to do with luck, not their craft. Learning and wielding our craft comes in with writing the second book. And the fifth. And the eighteenth.

Perhaps this is the cursed face that every great gift brings – and those writers will find their way through it. I don’t really have advice for them – and not only because they’re unlikely to listen to me, when they’ve done what I didn’t – but my caution is for everyone else. It’s tempting to look to these superstars and give what they say more weight. After all, who doesn’t want what they have? So we hear them say things like “Just write a Really Good Book,” (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this one from a writer with a snazzy new book deal) and we come away half exhilarated and half in despair. Because how the hell do you DO that? And we stare at our blank computer screens – or our list of publications that didn’t get six-figure deals – and we wonder why we didn’t write “a Really Good Book.” Maybe we’ll listen when they say to follow this rule or that, or we’ll slavishly use the method they recommend. 

Don’t do this. If you need advice – which we all do – get it from the authors who’ve been around the block a few or thirty times. It’s pretty much universal advice not to be distracted by the New Shiny, and that includes publishing’s newest darling. Congratulate them – they should enjoy the ride – and then put your eyes back on your own work. 

In the end, that’s the only way to write that Really Good Book. 

 

“If You’re Bored, Your Readers Will Be Too”

Isabel as gatekeeper. You shall not pass.

I hear the titular advice a lot: “If you’re bored, your readers will be too.” It’s that kind of advice you see on inspirational posters. It’s simple enough to fit in a small space. It sounds good at the outset. And, like, many of those, it’s not very helpful.

In this case, I think it’s actually the kind of bad advice that can cause real problems because it’s absolutely not true.

See, writing is a painstaking process. Especially writing a longer work like a novel. Even for people lucky enough to write fast, or on those fantastic days when the words pour out, there’s days when the writing isn’t like that. And there’s revision, which can be torturous. If you write a lot, then you perforce spend a lot of time writing. It’s absolutely unreasonable to expect to be thrilled and fascinated every moment of the process.

Certainly not at the level you hope the readers will be.

This is the key, so I’m going to all cap it. Because, what else is the Caps Lock key for?

READING AND WRITING ARE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES.

Do I need to say it again for the people in the back? I’m guessing no, because we all recognize that this is true. There are few more contradictory feelings for an author than releasing a book we spent the last six months or a year writing and at various levels of editing, only to have readers message within hours that they LOVED it and when is the next one coming out? On the one hand, it’s fabulous and exhilarating that people are so excited for the story that they read it immediately. There’s really no greater compliment. (So, Readers – don’t stop! That’s not what I’m saying.) On the other hand, however, it’s daunting that readers can devour so quickly what takes so long to produce.

Which is why this whole “if you’re bored, the reader will be, too” thing is a false equivalence.

What it takes me a day of work to write might feel like a slog. Let’s say I write 3,000 words/day, which is my usual goal. At my typical average of 271 words/page (this is remarkably steady across all my work), that’s about 11 pages. (That’s in Word, Times New Roman 12pt, double spaced, 1″ margins all around.) How fast do you read 11 pages? At the average reading speed of 200 words/minute, that takes 15 minutes to read what I spent hours drafting. And that’s not counting any of the editing that comes after.

OF COURSE my experience is slower and less exciting!

Neil Gaiman says that writing a novel is a lot like paving a road with bricks. (I think this was on his Tumblr – I haven’t been able to find it again. If anyone knows, please link me to it! Edited to add, I asked him on Twitter and he suggested this post, which isn’t exactly how I recalled it, but is full of awesome.) He says it can be like laying down one brick after another, slowly making progress. Laying bricks is, by nature, tedious. Painstaking, even.

You don’t go into brick-laying for the thrills; you do it because you want a paved road.

Same with writing.

If you’re bored, that’s okay. Keep going. Seek the next brick, layer on the mortar, carefully set it in place. Keep going.

If you do your job right, the reader will cruise along on a smooth road, never guessing what it took to put it there.

Exactly as it should be. 

 

Firing that Inner Critic

Something I get asked quite a bit in the various workshops I teach, is essentially how to deal with the inner critic. The questions come to me like this:

How do you deal with worrying about family reading your sex scenes?

My (sister/mother/father/aunt) says I can’t write about this because I’ll hurt people – what do I do?

Every time I try to finish my story, I get bogged down in editing – how can I get past this?

All of these are evidence of the inner critic at work. Even those voices that “sound” like they come from someone else, those are simply concerns that we’ve internalized. It’s like a part of our brains is a tape recorder, faithfully taking down every criticism leveled at us. Then, when we got to write, it “helpfully” plays all of that back for us.

So, a lot of the time I tell people this is part of the gig (which it is) and you simply have to get good at exercising the discipline of shutting this voice off (which is also true). At the most basic level, it’s like learning to exercise regularly. At some point you have to shuck the excuses, laziness and don’t-wannas and just do it.

Write the sex scene anyway.

Write the memoir anyway.

Don’t go back and edit until you’re done.

All of that makes it sound easy, which it isn’t. It’s simple, but not easy. But I haven’t had better advice than this. 

Recently, however, I discovered a tool for myself that I want to share.

Because – don’t mistake me – these things don’t go away. I’ve never met any writer, no matter how practiced or successful, who’s said they no longer hear these undermining voices. The syndrome can come and go, depending on overall life and emotional health, and on the project. 

I struggled with this not long ago because of a chain of events where several people said critical things to me. A couple of them were angry with me and said things deliberately to hurt me. Even though I knew that intellectually, my inner tape recorder faithfully took down all of it, playing it back for me over and over, along with other stuff – negative comments from reviews, chance remarks that no one meant in a bad way. It became this inescapable ear worm that filled my head when I tried to write, making it both difficult and agonizing.

Finally, I made a stack of blank paper squares. I set them on my writing desk with a stainless steel mixing bowl (nothing special about that – just so I wouldn’t set my desk on fire, as appealing as the notion was at the time), and a lighter I use to light the candle in my tea warmer.

Every time one of those repeated phrases came into my head, I immediately wrote it on a square of paper and then burned it. Witness my pile of ash above!

You know what?? It worked like a charm. Those confidence-sapping earworms disappeared. And stayed gone. So much so that I can’t remember now what they were, much as I’d like to give you examples.

I’m encouraging you all to try this. Let me know how it works out!

First: Own Your Process

2016-08-11 06.20.19I’ve been seeing some scuttlebutt scuttling ’bout the interwebz (which of course – besides porn – is what it’s for) about how access to advice from successful authors leads to a toxic environment. By this the posters mean that finding out when X gets up or how many words Y writes each day can lead to another writer feeling despondent at their failures to meet some sort of similar standard. The (semi)inevitable conclusion seems to be “don’t listen to them, you do you.”

Which isn’t bad advice at all. At least the second part, isn’t. The first part though… Well, I’m not going to say anyone has to learn from more established authors. I did. Lots do. No, you don’t *have* to. I tend to think, however, that doubt and self-recriminations come from within and have nothing to do with what other people are doing.

All of that said, I want to go on record about my position on this. Because I often teach about my process or give advice on how I do things.

My first advice is always, always, always: Own Your Own Process.

Which is a variant of “you do you,” to be sure. 

Now, I tend to believe that discovering our own process comes from a combination of doing the thing a whole bunch AND trying out what’s worked for other people. (And if hearing what’s worked for other people sends you into paroxysms of self-doubt and despair, then yeah, maybe don’t do that.) 

Still and all, while I’m happy to teach and share, that really is key. Find out what YOUR process is and own it. That puts all the rest into perspective. I promise. 

I Learned How to Write Novels by … Training in Kung Fu

Lonen's War Book CoverI’m headed home from #RWA16, the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which was in lovely San Diego this year. This was a truly wonderful gathering this year.Grateful for this community that always leaves me refreshed and supported.

Also, the first book in my new Sorcerous Moons series comes out on Tuesday. I’m loving on this cover! Yes, I helped design it, but the amazing Louisa Gallie is the one who pulled it off. Love the feel. And here’s the blurb:

An Unquiet Heart

Alone in her tower, Princess Oria has spent too long studying her people’s barbarian enemies, the Destrye—and neglected the search for calm that will control her magic and release her to society. Her restlessness makes meditation hopeless and her fragility renders human companionship unbearable. Oria is near giving up. Then the Destrye attack, and her people’s lives depend on her handling of their prince…

A Fight Without Hope

When the cornered Destrye decided to strike back, Lonen never thought he’d live through the battle, let alone demand justice as a conqueror. And yet he must keep up his guard against the sorceress who speaks for the city. Oria’s people are devious, her claims of ignorance absurd. The frank honesty her eyes promise could be just one more layer of deception.

A Savage Bargain

Fighting for time and trust, Oria and Lonen have one final sacrifice to choose… before an even greater threat consumes them all.

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is “I Learned How to Write Novels by (doing some other activity).“ Stop on by to hear about my surprising discovery.