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!

Know Your Characters

blue_eyeToday, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.

For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.

A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.

So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.

How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.

Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.

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!

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!

Writer Tools…er…Toys

I love toys. My office is filled with action figures, stuffed animals, and just weird stuff. In my heart, I’m really a nine-year-old boy. Toys just make me happy, and I tend to be more creative when I’m feeling playful. Although I have toys scattered around the room, I keep three close at hand while I write. They are my super special writer toys.

HulkHead

My Hulk head is one of my favorites. I love the Incredible Hulk and will buy almost anything with Hulk on it. I had no idea when I found this rather gruesome ball in a drugstore just how much I would love it. It’s filled with liquid and is fun to smash and slosh around. This is what I grab most often when I’m reviewing my work. I bounce it from hand to hand as I read and mash his head when I’m frustrated. It’s a great editing tool.

Hulk body

Another drugstore find is my squishy Hulk body. This one is filled with some sort of sand and makes a wonderful “walking on the beach” sound when you smash it. His legs are floppy, too, which makes him fun to waggle back and forth. I grab him when I’m stuck on a scene.

DragonSpinner

My husband gave me my newest toy, a dragon fidget spinner. I’ve started playing with it when I’m filling in a scene or trying to figure out where else the plot should go. It’s a nice alternative to squishy Hulk body and has a completely different vibe.

So, if you’re a writer, try playing with some toys to get the creativity flowing. My other tools tend to be pretty boring–I write in MS Word, for instance, and use Excel to plan plots. I tend to jot notes in a spiral notebook, so there is nothing fancy about the way I actually write. I do everything, however, surrounded by a horde of Hulks, Lokis, cats, dragons, and foxes.

Word Counts Aren’t Everything

I don’t know if it’s because of NaNoWriMo or just that everyone likes quantifiable markers of progress, but writers–especially new writers–seem to place an extraordinary amount of emphasis on word count. This seems very wrong-headed to me for several reasons, but I’m only going to discuss one in this post.

It’s easy to let numbers get in the way of progress or become a false marker of it. I hate seeing writers (usually on Twitter) feel deflated because they didn’t reach their daily word count. Writing is a complex art. It’s hard enough without piling some arbitrary goal like the number of words one can click out on top of it. I don’t have a daily word count. I try to write a little every day, but sometimes “writing” means daydreaming about my characters while I do dishes or wash my hair, plotting scenes on a spreadsheet, or reading about writing. I’ve released two novels, a novella, and a short story this year and didn’t fret about the word count a single day.

Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. It just does. This is okay. Sometimes the words flow. Sometimes they don’t. To me, obsessing about word count can interfere with this natural rhythm, stressing out writers who need to relax so they can write more. I often see people setting their daily writing goals too high. So many people want to knock out 3,000 or more words a day. I often don’t write more than 1,500 words on “paper” per day. I write, however, in some form or another, every day.

Writing is too beautiful, too meaningful, to turn into some sort of drudgery. It should be something that is difficult at times, but mostly fun–like a thrilling, high-maintenance lover. It should never be like working at a factory turning out widgets. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your word count requirements, please take a deep breath and remember to ENJOY writing. If you have to back off and read about it, that’s time well-spent. Learning how to craft a story is far more important than banging out some arbitrary number of words.

And here’s the fun part–a good story will naturally result in a good word count. If you have interesting characters, a fleshed out plot with a satisfying resolution, a world of specific details, and stimulating dialogue–I can guarantee that story has a good word count.

Happy writing!

 

There’s Only One Way…

No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)

But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?

I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”

Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.

There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

Writer’s Block or Depression?

Sometimes I get writer’s block because I’m out of ideas for a story, stressed and having trouble relaxing or focusing, or just need to get a better feel for the backstory. These are all things that can be solved rather easily through writing exercises, or simple things like mediation, bathing, or going for a walk.

However, for me, sometimes I have writer’s block because I’m depressed. It’s almost a warning sign that something is wrong with me. In that case, taking a quick inventory of what is happening in my life can sometimes help me track what might be causing the depression. Clinical depression is serious. If you think you may be clinically depressed, please seek help. I’m bipolar, so I see a therapist on a regular basis. I also see a psychiatrist periodically and take medication for my illness.

For me, the red flags that I’m not just having writer’s block but am sinking into depression are:

  1. Either sleeping too much or waking up too early.
  2. Not paying attention to personal hygiene. (Like wearing the same clothes several days!)
  3. Overeating (especially sweet stuff.)
  4. Withdrawing (more than usual–I’m an introvert, so I’m always somewhat withdrawn.)
  5. Not wanting to do anything, not being interested in anything.

Number 5 is where writing comes in. I’m interested in and passionate about many things, but writing is where my heart is. If I’m not writing–and maybe not even wanting to try some writing exercises–I know that’s a big, flashing warning sign that I’m not okay.

One of the worst bits of advice I ever got regarding writer’s block was someone online suggesting to take a break from writing and not write until you feel like it. Maybe that works for some people, but for me it sent me into a downward spiral of not writing that lasted over a year. Not writing led to more not writing, and I became more and more depressed. Once depression gets a toehold, it’s easier for it to get worse.

So, instead, I recommend being mindful of how your body is functioning and how you’re feeling. Make sure that your writer’s block isn’t a cue that something else is going on.