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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Imagining Characters Through Time

So many sad, disturbing things are happening in the real world right now, so, of course, I have to go inside my imaginary writer’s world and make things weird there, too. I’m writing a paranormal romance novel set in 1888 in the Old West of the U.S. Today, because I’m living through such “interesting” times, I started thinking about what things would happen in the lives of my main characters.

In 1888, they’re in their early twenties. They’re Civil War babies. In some ways, they have just escaped it, but its effects and racism still loom over them in 1888. Thomas will be forty-nine when the Great War breaks out. U.S. servicemen in World War I ranged in age from eighteen to sixty. I don’t think Thomas would have been eligible to serve, since he is disabled, but Hadrian is fit and a police officer. I’m sure he would have been conscripted. He probably would even volunteer. What sort of adventures would he have? Would he make it home to Thomas?

And what would Thomas do while his lover is abroad, fighting on foreign soil? I’m sure he would do most of his typical Thomasy things. Talking to restless spirits. Going around town in his invalid carriage with his cat. Cars would be in fashion, so he would probably have a car by then. Would he drive it himself? The idea of my rather uptight Thomas driving a car makes me smile.

Thomas would be fifty-three in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic hits. If Hadrian survived the Great War, what sort of condition would he be in? Would he survive the pandemic? What about sweet Thomas? He’s already in poor health. With his asthma, I’m not even sure how he made it to twenty-three. What would the pandemic be like for him? Would he make it? Would he hole up in his mansion with Hadrian? There was no Amazon, then. How would they get things they needed?

What will they think of World War II? They’ll be in their seventies then. It must seem terrible to see such a thing having lived through World War I. How cataclysmic it must seem. How frightening. They would have survived so much, but time keeps whirling by, a plow through hard earth throwing up weeds and dirt.

They’ll be long dead before they’re ever able to legally marry in the U.S. Would they even be buried together?

It’s not like I’m even planning a series or anything with these two. It’s simply that some weird part of me worries about them and almost needs to write more stories about them just to make sure they’re okay.

This is the kind of thing I don’t think many readers understand about writers. Our characters are real people to us. They live and breathe. We have coffee and tea with them. We worry about them going out into the wide world like a mother kissing her kindergartener goodbye on the first day of school.

We give them to you as an act of love, because they have been our friends on whatever journey we have taken, and we hope they will be yours.

Writing While Evil

Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.

Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.

And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.

It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.

I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.

But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.

When a Story’s Theme is a Revelation

Metaphor for a sweet protagonist? (He does remind me a little of Thomas.)

When I write, I’ve noticed I’m often sifting through my baggage. Writing is fun, it’s my vocation, and it’s also therapy. I usually don’t realize how a work symbolizes some part of my life, either something I’m working on or something I need to work on, until I’m already into it. This time, I’m about midway through my current story, Carillon’s Curse, and starting to tease out its theme. (I start out with some vague idea of a novel’s theme, then zero in on it as I write.)

I’m still piecing it together, but a component of it slapped me right upside the head.

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I gush over strangers, have few boundaries, and put the wants of others ahead of my own. I shrink in unfamiliar—and sometimes in familiar environments—trying to take up as little room as possible. A friend once said, “Do you realize how many times you say you’re sorry? Why are you so sorry?”

Basically, I’m sorry I’m alive. I’m sorry for the space I take up on this planet. I think this stems from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive parent. I always thought if I was good—if I could be oh, so very, very good—I wouldn’t be hurt. I guess I also internalized her anger and resentment toward me.

Three months ago I started transitioning from female to male. After saying I was genderqueer for a long time, I finally realized that I had been saying that because I didn’t think transitioning was a real option. The pandemic hit, and my shell cracked wide open. To my surprise, my husband was fully supportive. We’re closer now than ever before. (And we were pretty obnoxiously close before.)

I don’t know if it’s the testosterone, the pandemic, or my age, but I free and alive and valid. I’m not putting up with crap anymore. I’m not going back to that person who has to smile even when I’m feeling shitty. I don’t need to go out of my way to make everyone comfortable. I’m not sorry for being here. For the first time, when I celebrated Pride Month, I felt truly proud. I actually, maybe for the first time ever, really like myself.

Okay, so what does this have to do with a gay Western paranormal romance? Both of the main characters, in different ways and for different reasons, feel flawed and unworthy of love. These two good men, tied to their pasts and unable to attain true happiness, are chasing a serial killer who thinks he’s freaking awesome. This guy believes he’s helping his victims and society. He’s a narcissistic creep who, in his arrogance, is sure he has all of the answers.

My job, as the writer of this story, is to send these two good guys down the paths they need to stop this killer and find the love of their lives. Sometimes writers feel like gods. So often, as with this book, I feel more like a shepherd, guiding my heroes to a happily ever after.

Who knew shepherds sometimes learned from their lambs?

My Fiction is My Truth

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Therapists often recommend journaling to people dealing with mental illness and trauma. I’ve never liked journaling. Maybe it’s because I get too self-conscious or because even my old wounds often feel too raw to record in some blunt, dry fashion. Instead, I write fiction. I’ve dealt with my trauma through fiction from a young age. I’ve learned to cover my experiences with layers of grit, imagination, and distance to create weird pearls that I hope others will enjoy. This is how I process pain, both personal and existential; this is how I grieve, scream, cry—this is even how I plead for justice or beg forgiveness.

Right now, someone reading this who has read my books is cocking his head like a confused beagle. “Um…your books are romances about kinky people getting it on and fantasies about people with horns. Some are comedies. How, exactly, are you dealing with anything writing stuff like that?”

While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask.

I change people, places, and things—but the emotions and some of the basic building blocks have my soulprints all over them. While journaling can feel like trying to mold clay filled with broken glass, the creativity of writing allows me to be honest while wearing a mask. I guess it’s like Oscar Wilde said, “Man is less himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

So, while I’ve never lived in a pre-industrialized dystopian empire like Elarhe in Lover, Destroyer, he and I both know what it’s like to be an outcast, to mourn a murdered friend, to be homeless, and to yearn for things that seem beyond your grasp. While I’ve never destroyed an entire kingdom like Kite, his shame and insecurity resonates with me because it’s how I felt when the relative who sexually abused me died when I was sixteen. I didn’t feel as relieved as I did ashamed—like I had somehow killed him with my quiet, clumsy rage.

I wrote the last pages of the silly romantic comedy, His Dungeon Discovery, with tears streaming down my face because a situation reminded me of the death of my beloved emotional support cat, Sand, after his long battle with kidney failure and heart disease. The situation in the book is actually quite different from my real life tragedy, but the feelings are similar.

In Zen Alpha, a contemporary gay romcom, Bradley’s mother is a narcissist who belittles and gaslights him. My own mother was a toxic narcissist who committed murder by proxy, killing pets to frighten and control her children. Bradley’s mom doesn’t seem quite as evil in comparison, but Zen Alpha is intended to be a heartwarming story, and it was more fun to write about a self-absorbed old belle than it was to write about dead animals.

Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

Speaking of child abuse and mentally ill parents, it isn’t a coincidence Petal, the heroine of The Inquisitor’s Gift, feels coerced by her abusive stepfather to live a life to which she’s not suited. I imagine most children who grew up in homes with abuse, addiction, and mental illness know what it’s like to keep secrets and to wrestle with becoming the person they want to be rather than the person the secrets shaped.

Dealing with trauma through writing fiction isn’t some technique I created. J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with his service in World War I, and fears inspired by World War II, by writing about hobbits and magical lands. Rod Serling’s WWII traumas helped give us The Twilight Zone. I believe so many fiction writers through the centuries have been plagued by depression and anxiety, not because they’re writers, but because they write in order process their feelings. That’s one of the main reasons I write. It’s also why I read. Fiction allows us, both as writers and readers, a safe space to dance with our demons and slay our evil stepmothers.

So, if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid if your prose is cathartic. I would worry more if it weren’t. And if you’re a reader, thank you for allowing writers like me to don our masks and reveal to you our truest selves.

focus photography of white mask
Photo by Laurentiu Robu on Pexels.com

 

An Audiobook with Heat and Heart

My contemporary M/M romance, Zen Alpha, is now an audiobook vibrantly narrated by voice actor, Hugh Bradley! You can buy it on Amazon and Audible. If you subscribe to Audible, you can get it for free. Zen_Alpha

Although ‘alpha’ is in the title, it’s not an Omegaverse story. (No MPREG, no shifters—not that there’s anything wrong with those.) Zen Alpha is a contemporary romantic comedy. I wrote this story shortly after Trump won the U.S. presidential election. I was appalled to hear people around me describe him as ‘strong.’ He’s a chest-thumping, bullying, bellowing idiot. Narcissism isn’t strength. Cruelty isn’t strength. Willful indifference isn’t strength. I don’t know how, or exactly when, Americans started thinking personality defects were virtues, but it makes me sick.

So, I wrote Zen Alpha. No, it’s not a political diatribe or anything. It’s a sweet love story with gay characters and erotic sex scenes, but there’s an allegorical thread running through it. It’s about a young, somewhat insecure, man who keeps insisting that his obnoxious, emotionally abusive boyfriend is the man of his dreams. Even as he begins to develop feelings for his kindhearted, helpful neighbor, he wonders how he can love someone who isn’t an alpha male—the sort of self-centered, uncouth silverback society seems to think is so desirable.

Because a good romantic comedy needs a few teary scenes, Zen Alpha has some drama. But it’s a romance, so, of course, there’s an HEA (happily ever after.) If you hate Trump like I do and want to escape the toxicity of our current age, or if you just love steamy M/M romance, give Zen Alpha a listen. I hope it makes you smile and takes your mind off your problems for a bit. We all need more joy in our lives.

 

Zen Alpha Audio Book!

So, I’ve been doing some other things besides wanting to strangle Facebook and WordPress for their horrible lack of support regarding GDPR. (They could really learn a thing or two from MailChimp, who provided tools and easy to follow instructions for their users. I LOVE MailChimp!) But I’ve actually been focused on more than just GDPR. I’m creating an audio book!

Zen_Alpha

Soon, my M/M contemporary romance Zen Alpha will be available as an audio book. I found a wonderful voice actor to narrate it, Hugh Bradley.

This is my first audio book, so I’m really excited! Working with Hugh has been fabulous. If you’re an author looking for someone to narrate your book, you should check him out. He not only has an attractive voice, he has a great sense of timing and seems very versatile.

Zen Alpha should be coming to Audible soon!

The Most Romantic Thing

heart-topiary

Some people roll their eyes when you mention romance. They don’t consider it serious literature. They probably don’t consider it very important in their relationships. It’s frivolous, right? It’s a box of chocolates and some rose petals.

I don’t think so. I write romances, mostly gay romances, so maybe I’m biased. There was a time when I didn’t believe much in romance, either. But I married a terrifically romantic guy who has convinced me that romance is real. Here’s possibly the most romantic thing he has ever done.

We bought a large glazed pot with a beautiful interior. The interior was so beautiful, in fact, that we chose not to plant anything in it. It sat out on our back porch and looked pretty. One day, I noticed the little dried up husk of a lizard in the pot. I was horrified. I love animals and hated the thought that this little creature had died in agony, trapped in my beautiful pot, unable to climb out the slick sides. I told my husband, in tears, about my grisly discovery.

The next day, I found a strange collection of junk in the pot. Someone (my husband) had made an escape ladder out of stones and sticks. I’ve never loved anyone more than I loved him at that moment. I felt heard, validated, and loved. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Romance doesn’t have to be awkward poetry and candlelight. It’s about listening to someone you love, making his needs important, and taking action out of love. These things are powerful. They keep our hearts open to the people near us, making our relationships stronger.

So, no, I don’t think there’s anything frivolous about romance. I think it’s vital to a healthy relationship and important to life, itself. I think it’s significant as a genre, as well, and every bit as important as fantasies or mysteries or sci fi or whatever else.

Following a Story Where it Leads

magicalhorseSome writers are pantsers. They ‘fly by the seats of their pants’ and write what they feel at a given moment. I’m more of a plotter. Usually, I come up with a couple of characters and start imagining situations they could be in. I mull things over until a few scenes really gel, then I make a rough outline and start writing. I’m a control freak. I need to have some idea where all of the bits and pieces go before I can lose myself in the writing.

The new story I’m working on has decided to make me crazy. I’ve never written a mystery, but I thought it would be fun to write a gay mystery romance. I’ve never written a historical. So, why not a gay mystery historical romance? I actually did a significant amount of research for my epic fantasy series, and I enjoy research, so I thought researching this new book would be a lot of fun. Ha! The story had other ideas….

I thought I understood my story. I thought I knew what it was going to be about. I had a spiffy outline that told me what I wanted to hear. But my research turned up new things. Horrible things. Things I thought I knew, thought I understood, but….um…no. The world I’m writing about is so much darker and more frightening than I imagined–and I chose the area because it always frightened me as a child. I chose the era because it seemed like a spooky period, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

My research turned my pathetic little outline on its ear. The story is morphing, growing into some hungry new beast. It’s thrilling, honestly. Is this why pantsers get so starry-eyed when talking about their process? I, because I’m still a stodgy control freak, am slavishly bleeding out another outline. Being thrown into the briars was fun, however.

I have an ambitious project to tame. I imagine it will throw me again when it feels bored. For the moment, I’m excited by where it has taken me.