Spicing Up a Bland Scene

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably run into this hideous monster—the bland scene. I woke up to that sucker this morning. You know the one I mean, right? That ho-hum scene you don’t feel like writing? The one that needs to be there because it conveys some information or does something that moves the protagonist forward but is just…blah. Have you been there? I struggle with at least one of those in every book.

The hard truth is, if you’re bored writing a scene, chances are high your readers will be bored reading it. There’s an easy remedy for this. Before I start writing a scene, especially one I’m anticipating will be boring, I ask myself two questions:

1. What does the protagonist (or POV character) want in this scene?

2. What is the problem? Or what is the obstacle standing in the way of the character getting what he wants?

These two questions help me develop the conflict in the scene (if I don’t already know it.) Friction is the fuel of writing. Without it, everything is easy and perfect, and there’s really no story.

Who cares if Mr. Perfect with his perfect life goes to his favorite cafe and gets a latte with a perfect foam panda in it? On Facebook or Instagram that might be fine. In a book, it’s horribly boring. What if Mr. Painfully Shy goes to the cafe he kind of hates because that’s where his ex dumped him, but he’s there because he has a crush on the cute but arrogant barista who works there? Or maybe he’s being chased by the mob and needs a place to hide, but the barista is giving him a hard time for not buying something before locking himself in the bathroom? Maybe the barista turns into a flame-breathing dragon and starts cooking everyone in the cafe?

Okay, so those are really stupid examples, but you get the idea, right? By declaring to myself what the character wants and identifying what is standing in his way in that particular scene, the scene becomes more fun to write.

In the scene I’m writing today, my protagonist (yes, that would be Thomas if you’ve been reading this blog) must help his lover question the victim of a crime. The protagonist’s scene objective is to get information on the criminal, so he and his lover can bring him to justice. That’s pretty straightforward. And boring. Hello, ho-hum scene. Why? Because I haven’t identified an obstacle. If the victim is cooperative, and everything goes smoothly, what’s the fun in that? Why should I expect a reader to care?

So, the problem is the victim is severely intellectually challenged. He’s traumatized and getting him to talk is difficult. To make matters worse, my protagonist’s lover is impatient and brusque. His bad cop style isn’t useful in this situation. Now, my protagonist has two problems: getting information from an especially vulnerable, traumatized victim while protecting him from his hot headed lover—and getting that lover to cool down. (Really, I guess, that’s three problems.) Another monkey wrench I threw in here is that Thomas, being physically disabled, identifies with the disabled victim more than the average person might. This makes his internal reaction to his lover’s insensitivity especially painful.

Not only is this scene much more interesting to write, it will be, hopefully, more interesting to read. Is Thomas up to the task? Of course he is! But making it difficult for him is what makes writing the scene and reading it interesting. Making Thomas solve problems and giving him difficult things to do makes him a better person. He becomes more real, both to me and, hopefully, to readers.

Here’s another example from my book, Know Thy Demons: Book One of the Love Songs for Lost Worlds Trilogy, in which a protagonist fails his scenic goal.

There’s a scene where the protagonist, Frank, tries to get back with his ex, Jovan and fails. Earlier in the day, Jovan offered to stop by the restaurant where Frank works to help him with a problem. (Frank understood the demon they summoned in class and is deeply confused.) This could be a simple scene where Frank asks Jovan out on a date, and Jovan declines. After all, getting back with Jovan is Frank’s scenic goal, and failing is what I need to happen. But that’s a big snorefest.

So, Jovan doesn’t show up at the restaurant alone. He’s there with his new girlfriend. And Frank is busier than normal because he offered to take a large, hopping section of the restaurant for his sick friend. Frank has ADHD (something I don’t reveal in the series, but is sort of an Easter egg) and doesn’t always deal well with high stress situations. Basically, I’ve set him up for failure and taken away his ability to meet his scenic goal. He accosts Jovan in the men’s room and ends up punching a wall and hurting his hand. Jovan takes care of him, but doesn’t simply tell him he doesn’t love him—he says he feels sorry for him. Ouch.

This plunges Frank into the depths where I need him to be before something happens that changes his life forever. A setup scene that could have been pretty mundane ended up being an intense dramatic scene that I enjoyed writing.

With a little spice, bland scenes can become some of your favorites. So, spice it up and have fun!

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Be a Writer, Not a Jerk

Someone who will never really be a writer.

This really should go without saying, but if you want to be a writer, don’t be a jerk—especially to people in the industry who are trying to help you.

I follow a popular writing blog by an author of some amazing fantasy works as well as a series of helpful writing books. For years, she has been helping writers and authors, trying to lift people up. When people comment on her posts, she answers them—even when the answer to the question should be obvious. She will even answer the old posts if they ask a direct question. She’s just a really helpful, nice person.

Some guy has been commenting on her latest post acting like he knows everything. I can almost guarantee you this dweeb has never published anything—either traditionally or independently. I’ve taken creative writing classes and been involved in writing groups and attended writing conferences for about thirty years. I’ve seen this type of writer before way too many times. The dilettante. The guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—a walking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The bully who thinks he can elevate himself by dragging others down.

Don’t. Be. That. Guy.

Part of being a writer, part of being an artist, part of being a decent human creature, is humility. Yes, we often feel like gods when we’re constructing that perfect outline or are writing in that heady flow where words and images flash in our minds faster than our fingers can type. But it’s also important to remember that we are, at the end of the day, mere mortals—fallible beings reaching for stars we might never catch. If we’re smart, we’re always learning. Eternal students forever striving to perfect our craft.

You don’t know everything. Neither do I. That’s the beauty of the struggle. That’s part of the excitement. Part of the joy that should wake you up every morning and encourage you to write your heart out.

Don’t hurt people who want to help you. Don’t thumb your nose at mentors and teachers. Every one of them will tell you they don’t have all of the answers, either, but they may well have some that you don’t. Don’t write angry letters to editors and agents who reject your work. It only makes you look bad.

Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. The world has enough prima donnas, enough jerks, enough Dunning-Kruger morons. What the world needs are your stories—maybe now more than ever. It doesn’t need egotistical posturing.

So don’t be a jerk, be a writer! Soak up every bit of knowledge you can! And write, write, write!

Audio Tips for Authors

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Photo by Philip Boakye on Pexels.com

So, I was supposed to release The Inquisitor’s Gift as an audiobook this month. That’s not going to happen. Acts of nature and inexperience have delayed the release. For the first time, I can say that the climate crisis has affected my small business. The heatwave in Europe took its toll on my narrator, who became gravely ill. We also ran into some technical difficulties. This is my second audiobook, and I believe it’s this narrator’s first. Hopefully, things will come together soon.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned about proof-listening. If you’re an author trying to publish an audiobook on ACX, the publishing arm of Audible and Amazon, you’ve probably realized that they don’t offer many resources to “rights holders” a.k.a authors in nonlegalese. Although they do have a Help section and a large FAQ, I’ve rarely found the specific answer I needed. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

What’s Unreasonable?

For instance, the contract between the rights holder and the producer (usually the narrator), says the author should not make “unreasonable” editorial requests. Um…that’s pretty vague. I asked an experienced voice actor to help me understand what that meant.

Basically, “unreasonable” is expecting the narrator to be able to make one character sound exactly like James Earl Jones and the next sound exactly like Bishop Briggs. Don’t do that. “Unreasonable” also means expecting the narrator to rerecord the entire book because you’ve suddenly decided you want it to have a different vibe.

You’re in This Together

It’s also important to understand that this is a collaboration, so an author should allow the narrator–especially if he’s a voice actor–to exercise some artistic control. Yes, you know the characters and the story better than anyone, but sometimes an actor can surprise you by what they bring to a role or scene if you let them.

Nice Matters

Positive feedback is important. Everyone likes to be appreciated. You know what it feels like to have someone tell you only what they don’t like about your work. Remember to tell the narrator what he’s doing right.

Some Basic Terms

Although it isn’t technically the author’s job to identify audio issues (the producer is in charge of this), it doesn’t hurt an author to know a few audio terms to make communicating with an audio professional easier. (And c’mon, what writer doesn’t love learning jargon and vocabulary!)

  • Plosive–also called a “p-pop” this is that puffy sound when someone says a hard consonant like a “P” or “T”. Sometimes it will happen at the beginning or end of a word, and sometimes the entire word will have a puffy quality. If you’re listening with good speakers (and you should ALWAYS proof-listen with the best speakers you can) it can do more than sound obnoxious–it can physically hurt. An experienced producer will know how to edit these, or what sort of equipment or posture to use to avoid making them at all.
  • Mic thump–this one’s kind of obvious. It’s that knocking or thumping sound when the mic is interfered with in some way.
  • Mouth click–a smacking sound. These occur naturally when people talk, but we don’t usually notice them in day to day conversation. However, a mic will pick these babies up and ruin an otherwise good recording. Some producers have tricks to reduce these during a performance, but sometimes the only way to handle them is through the editing process.
  • Mouth noise–these can be loud breaths, wheezes, swallowing, gurgling, etc. Basically, any human sound that distracts from the listener’s experience. Although there are breathing techniques an actor can master to reduce heavy breaths, not everyone knows how to do this. In this case, these sounds can usually be edited out. It’s okay to have some breath noises, however. If all of the breaths are removed, the recording can take on a robotic quality. Quiet, non-distracting breaths–or breaths which are part of the acting–are fine.

If you hear any of these noises when you’re proof-listening, write down approximately where they occurred so the producer can fix them. However, it is not the author’s job to comb through a chapter for several hours writing down each and every one of these. If you’re hearing a lot of plosives or clicks, simply tell the producer that the chapter contains a number of whatever the noise is called so he can try to fix them.

Proof-listening Bonus Tip

A tip I learned from a site that creates audio copies of classic books is how to write an error so it’s easy for the audio person to understand. If the narrator deviates from the text in a way that changes the meaning of a sentence, write:

I hear: The woman asked when the prince lived. Text: The woman asked where the prince lived.

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Happy creating and happy listening!

Music Helps

musicI just wanted to throw this quick tip–that many writers probably already know–out there: music helps. I don’t always write with music. Sometimes I just like to hear my keyboard or the wind outside.

Lately, however, when I sit down to write, I don’t have writer’s block, but I feel overstimulated and overwhelmed. I think this is because of my increased use of social media. I’m an introvert, so the social aspect of social media is difficult for me sometimes. If I’ve been on Twitter or something for a while, then try to write, I often feel agitated and nervous. Going for a walk helps with this some, but not enough to write.

Music, however, helps. With the right music (this varies) I’m able to get back into the story and feel that world again. So, if you’re fidgety and restless when you try to write, see if playing some music gets you back in the zone.

Negative Rating Survival 101

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To be perfectly honest, as a writer, I sort of hate Goodreads. Why? Because readers can leave ratings without leaving a review explaining why they rated it that way. I also hate them because GR has no way of verifying that the reader actually bought and/or read the book. For example, there is a user who goes by Wendy on GR who rates something like four or five books a day (I’m not exaggerating) and rates them all one-star. “She” only “reads” LGBT books. To me, this looks like an obvious troll. However, after I and many others complained to GR, they responded that she isn’t violating their policies and there’s nothing they can do. She is one of GR’s highest rated reviewers. I’m not kidding. I truly wish I were.

However, there are many normal, honest, real readers on GR that also leave low ratings. This used to irk me. I wanted—no, desperately needed—to know why they didn’t like my book. This still bothers me, but not to the extent it once did. I have four strategies for dealing with this. No, they don’t involve wine or chocolate, but those do help.

  • Look at the reader’s profile.

This is done simply by clicking on her portrait. You can (usually, sometimes profiles are private) see what other books the reader has read and how she rated them. If you recognize some of the books and/or authors, this might give you some insight as to what she didn’t like it. Maybe she mostly reads YA and your book is definitely not YA. Maybe she prefers plot-driven books and yours is character-driven. Maybe she’s just rather harsh and gives most books a low rating. (This is different from our troll, Wendy, who only gives one-stars and “reads” unrealistic quantities of books.) My new release received a two-star rating from a guy yesterday and I was momentarily devastated. When I looked at his profile, I saw that he also recently gave two stars to a book by an author I admire. An award-winning author. Obviously, this guy just has bad taste in books. Heehee.

  • Realize that the reader isn’t you.

Okay, that sounds elementary to some of you, but it was a revelation for me. I don’t rate/review books the way most people (apparently) do. I see books as works of art. I love and respect them—even if I don’t enjoy them. Because I view them as works of art, I see them as having inherent value—some artistic merit apart from whatever my experience is with the book. (And yes, I adored literature classes.) I don’t know if this is a writer-thing or just how I was raised. I’ve never left a negative rating or review of a book. I will give it three stars and say some things I liked (there are always things I liked), things I didn’t like (without dwelling), and who I think might actually like it. Or I don’t review it at all. I leave negative reviews of hospitals if they overcharge me and restaurants if they’re dirty or a business if their customer service is horrible, but books get a pass.

Most readers DO NOT think this way. For them, books are entertainment. If a book fails to entertain, it’s crap. I was sneaking about on a reader message board the other day and someone said if a book contained a certain element she didn’t like, she’d dropkick it off a cliff. This horrified me. If someone talked about kicking kittens off a cliff, I would have had a similar visceral reaction. Most readers aren’t literary scholars who will examine a book from different perspectives. They’re people looking to escape the daily grind of their lives. They want something that meets their needs, whatever those happen to be at the time, and if your book doesn’t meet them, well, off the cliff it goes.

For me, this was an ah-ha moment. It gave me a better understanding of my audience and even some empathy for them that I didn’t quite have before. Sometimes, if they dislike something, they just…didn’t like it. They may not even be able to articulate it. So, they leave a rating. However much I dislike ratings, I have to respect that.

  • Revel in the good ratings and reviews.

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I guess I tend to be a negative person. When I first started publishing, someone could write a beautiful review and I would be on Cloud Nine for a of couple of hours. One low rating and I was in the dumps for days. Now, I try to fully appreciate good ratings and reviews. I roll around in them, reading them several times. I try to imagine the people who left them (okay, I snoop around in their profiles) and send them good wishes and good vibes. I’m not just grateful to them, I love them.

  • Keep writing.

Don’t let a negative anything affect your love of writing. If you find yourself unable to focus on writing because you’re hung up on a negative rating or review, block it out. You might want to take a break and do something nice for yourself—take a hot bath, go for a run, visit with a good friend—whatever makes you happy and puts you in a positive headspace. And then dive back into your work. Don’t let anything get between you and your art. Ever.

A Drop of Blood to Bring Characters to Life

actorProbably my favorite part of writing is developing characters. It’s like meeting new friends. There’s an indescribable, magical element to it that is thrilling and unique. I enjoy writing about characters that are very different from me. I like the challenge and, well, it’s exciting! But when you’re working in deep POV (also called third person close or third person limited), it can be tough getting inside the head of a character who’s so different. Here’s how I do it:

I start by leaving myself a backdoor. Computer programmers will sometimes leave a “backdoor” in their code, a way to sneak in if they need to. I do this with my characters. I build a character with various physical and emotional attributes, a unique personality (Myers-Briggs can be helpful with this!), and a suitable back story. I try to make these true to the character and let him develop in a way that is different from me.

But then, I add a backdoor, sometimes two or three, but at least one. I add something that the character and I have in common. So, Bradley from my m/m contemporary romance, Zen Alpha, is a tall, beautiful, twenty-five year old redheaded openly gay man who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is a tech support specialist, has expensive tastes that are beyond his means, and is intent on having an alpha male boyfriend. Bradley Evans and I have nothing in common. Like, squat.

So, I gave him a narcissistic mother. Being the child of a narcissistic parent changes a person in fundamental ways. I know, because my own mother is a narcissist. I used this fact to shape and highlight certain aspects of his personality. It even explains why he is so fascinated with his emotionally abusive boyfriend, Jackson, and why he holds himself at a distance from his sexy neighbor, kind, authentic Ward.

His mother was my backdoor into his character. In essence, I gave him a piece of myself. It’s sort of like molding a clay golem, then bringing it to life with a drop of your blood. Sometimes giving a character a piece of yourself hurts, because you have to confront something of yourself in the manuscript. Sometimes that’s difficult.

However, once you crawl inside your character, you’re in! The rest kind of falls into place. You end up with an interesting, round character that is fun to write about. So, bring your character to life and enjoy slipping into deep POV.

If you’re interested in reading Zen Alpha, you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited, or buy it on Amazon. If you would like to review it, contact me at: everwintergreen@gmail.com for a reviewer copy.

Happy writing!

Why Are Writers So Sensitive?

Being able to accept criticism as a writer is vital if you want to have a writing career. People love being critics. They love having opinions, often regarding things they know nothing about, and they especially love knocking other people down. A writer who wants to be published has to be resilient. But why are writers so sensitive?

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In my case, it’s because of what writing entails. Isn’t writing a book just like crocheting an afghan or baking a pie? You just make something—right? No, not at all. Writing is opening up a door in your soul and carving people out of whatever you find there. So, when someone criticizes your work, they aren’t saying they disliked some nouns and verbs strung together in Arial or New Times Roman—they are saying they looked into your soul and found it lacking.

Recovering from a blow like that is hard. I think if/when this happens, your book simply hasn’t found the right audience. It’s like falling in love. Sometimes the people you get involved with are complete idiots who don’t appreciate you. If you’re lucky, you find someone who does.

Another reason I’m sensitive about my works is that the characters are real people to me. It’s like if someone put your best friend in a beauty pageant and judged how she walks and looks in a bathing suit. Friends have positive attributes that go far beyond bathing suits. I take long walks with my characters, having meaningful conversations with them. Often, I lean on them when I need support.

Although I write faster these days, produce a different genre of books, and have learned to pay more attention to things like story arcs and plot outlines, I spent years writing my epic fantasy books. I don’t regret the time I spent with them. I was learning how to write. More importantly, I needed that world and those characters at that particular time in my life. Lycian helped me cope with the deaths of my cousins who were like my brother and sister, the death of my grandmother who was primarily responsible for raising me, a miscarriage, and the deaths of two familiars. He was a kind, quiet companion. Aside from my husband, he was my best friend during that period. I needed him, and I’m glad I had him.

Currently, I’m working on a new m/m romance (it’s a mystery romance!) and am absolutely in love with the main characters. Even as I lose myself in the bliss of writing, I’m preparing for how my characters will be judged, how my world will be reduced to so many stars, and how some people will simply not understand it. That’s okay. I love the characters; I like the work (so far), and I know there will be some people out there who will enjoy it. I’m writing it for myself and those people.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Change

eye-color-change-2852261_640Since I published His Dungeon Discovery a couple of months ago, I’ve been trying to write an urban fantasy m/m romance. Initially, I was very excited. I had been thinking about it for a while and was happy to dive into it.

But then it stopped being fun.

I started worrying about what genre it actually was, because it was also sort of dystopian. I got caught up in one of the subplots–the main character’s mother has early onset dementia. My own mother is schizophrenic, so dealing with an impaired parent is a big deal for me. Perhaps for this reason, I wanted to spend more time with that aspect of the story. The romance atrophied as I wrote dialogues between my MC and his mom. The story spun out of control, and I grew increasingly depressed by it. I would hide from it for days at a time.

So I set it aside. I started writing a contemporary m/m romance with a couple of fun characters. It’s a simple, straightforward romance with a hint of humor. I’m ten chapters in and I’m glad I made the switch. Since I started working on the new story, I’ve gone back to writing every day. I have scenes going in my head at all times; the characters are talking to me. I’m happy again.

For whatever reason, the last project just wasn’t working for me. I want to go back to it someday, but I need to be in a better frame of mind to grapple with it. So, if you’re a writer who’s stuck on a certain piece, try taking a break from it and working on something else. You might find, not only solace, but a great story.

Indie Editing for Indie Authors

Recently, a professional editor told me I didn’t need her editing services. I was extremely flattered! Editing can be hard work, particularly when you’re editing your own material. I’m sharing my method in case it might help other self-published writers on tight budgets.

  • Edit while you work. Before I start writing a scene (I typically write in scenes), I scan the previous day’s efforts for typos, unintentional repeated words, etc. This serves the dual purpose of getting me into the world and voices.
  • Do a rough edit. After I finish the rough draft, I do a rough edit. I search for typos, adverbs, missing or misplaced commas, and inconsistencies. I look for things like hair and eye color that changes for no reason, voice changes, and weak verbs. Because I’m an indie author, I tend to stick to old-fasioned usage and grammar rules. Lay people don’t trust new authors and won’t realize you’re trying something new. They’ll probably just think you don’t know what you’re doing. Choose a style manual and try to be consistent.
  • Have beta readers. Good beta readers are invaluable. Betas will not only help you by asking questions about character motives and ferreting out plot holes, they will also notice typos and missing words. I submit my manuscript to betas after the rough edit.
  • Enter beta edits. This is often where I do some rewriting. Theoretically, you shouldn’t have to do anything too extensive. Your story should have been ready to go when you sent it to your betas. If you have to do significant rewriting, consider running the story by at least one more beta before continuing.
  • Do a final read through. I can’t stress the importance of this step enough. It’s so easy to mess things up by cutting and pasting, adding new phrases, etc. Use the final read through to correct the small errors still in the manuscript.
  • Stop picking at it. If you’ve done your rewrites, edits, had your manuscript read by betas, polished your piece, and gave it a final read–you’re done. Publish it, send it away, give it as a present to your fifth grade Engish teacher–whatever. Just don’t mess with it any more. Move onto your next project. Call your book finished and let it go.

That’s it! Oh, and have fun. Use different fonts and colors to mix things up and change the way your eyes see the text. Currently, I’m editing the sequel to my M/M romance, Because Faery Godmonster, and did the rough edit on a blue background with white New Times Roman text. (I wrote it on a white background in Arial.) I’ll probably do the final read on my tablet. The different format seems to expose typos.

Happy editing!

My Office Mate

Bruce Banner is the only cat well-mannered enough to visit my office. (I have five cats.) Once in a while, he decides to help me rearrange my action figures, but, for the most part, he’s the perfect writing companion. He either stares out one of my windows or flops in the middle of the floor and snoozes.

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Bruce Banner sleeping near my desk with some Hulks he has knocked down.

Writing can be a lonely endeavor. Having another beating heart in the room–whether it’s a cat or a fish–can make it a little less so. I don’t write horror stories, so I don’t exactly scare myself, but sometimes I write violent or intense scenes that make me feel chilled and anxious. It’s nice to look over at Bruce’s sleepy face when my hands have turned to ice and feel human again.

Sometimes I’ll stop and pet him if I’m stuck. Animals can be distracting, at times, but they can also be great sources of inspiration. Being with me while I write seems to benefit Bruce, as well. He is normally a rather high-strung little cat. I think he appreciates having a break from the others. Writing in the office is our special time–even if I’m at my laptop for most of it.

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Bruce in the living room, where I do most of my editing. He seems to enjoy being around me while I work.