Monthly Archives: January 2015

Writing Cycles

CalendarThe other day, I was discussing work patterns with some fellow writers. I’d been feeling particularly frustrated with my revisions, going through an “I-will-never-make-this-book-good-enough” phase, when I realized I’ve been here before. I don’t mean “here” on any particular project; I mean “here” in my attitude toward my writing career. My self-doubt had extended beyond my WIP to encompass all future projects.

But when a friend mentioned she always drafts her novels in certain months, I realized I have a similar cycle. I’m always struggling with self-doubt in January, always revising in the fall, and always drafting in April. Last year I’d planed to revise a book in April and ended up writing a new one — one I consider my best work to date (after months of revisions, of course). I tend to beat myself up when I’m not as productive as I feel I should be, and recognizing that my writing follows a pattern has helped me feel better about my recent less-than-stellar progress. If you’re like me, think about what kinds of patterns your writing falls into. Do you always find yourself writing something new in June? Revising in November? Querying in March? Knowing what your writing cycle looks like may help you get through those tough times.

I’m not saying “January isn’t my best month” is an excuse not to write. I’m saying, “It’s okay for me to have lower word counts in January, because it’s a slow month for me and I know I’ll make up for it in April.” I still sit down with a notebook or my laptop every day, turning to prompts when I feel stuck with revisions. But now, instead of fearing I’ll never write anything good again, I’m looking forward to April.

Does your writing go through cycles? How do you get through the slower months?


Character goals and motivations

CarrotI was working on revisions the other day, trying to figure out why a huge piece of my novel felt flat. I kept circling back to one of my protagonists, thinking, what are her goals? And why don’t I, as a reader, care more about them?

Then it hit me: all of her goals were dependent upon the inciting incident. Her goals were tied so closely to the plot that, were the events of the novel to disappear, she would be an incredibly boring character. Yes, she has things that she wants — but what she wants is basically for things to return to the way they were before the inciting incident. If that had never happened, she wouldn’t have any goals.

I’m ashamed that it took me so long to realize this. I spent so much time working out characters’ goals and motivations, and the conflicts that stood in their way, yet somehow I forgot to make my protagonist a character in her own right. I didn’t separate her from her story; so, the only reason readers would care about her is to see how she reacts in this particular situation.

Well-developed characters should be able to exist outside their stories. No, I don’t plan to run into my characters on the streets; but I should be able to predict how they’d react if I did. I, and readers, should care about what happens to these characters before and after the novel, and about what would have happen to them if things had gone differently. If I write a character whose goals are all determined by the plot, I’ve written a character who can easily be replaced by someone else.

For example, say Sally has been kidnapped. Her goal is to escape from her captors before they kill her. But if that’s her only goal, then Sally could be anybody who’s been kidnapped. What Sally needs is at least one goal that isn’t tied to the plot. Maybe she wants to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but her audition is in three hours and if she doesn’t show, she’ll forfeit her spot. Sally still loves music, and she’d still want to play with the CSO whether or not she’d been kidnapped. Yes, she wants to escape; but she wants to escape in order to achieve her other goals.

I’ll be diving back into my revisions with this in mind. And if any of your characters feel flat, ask yourself, Are this character’s goals determined by the plot? If x didn’t happen, would s/he still have these goals?

Have you struggled with characters’ goals? How did you make your characters more well-rounded?

Great books that flew under the radar

The Archived. I’m both delighted and sad every time I find an awesome series that hasn’t gotten much attention. Delighted, because these are really excellent books, and I now have a new series to recommend to friends and patrons. Sad because I know there are tons of readers who would love these books but may never find them.

Victoria Schwab’s Archived series (The Archived and The Unbound) has all the elements I look for in good books: an interesting premise, page-turning plots, rich characters, and great writing. And yet, if my brother hadn’t given me the free copy of The Archived that he got at a convention, I never would have known about the series. My to-read list is populated exclusively by books I’ve read reviews of, books that friends and colleagues with similar tastes recommend, and books whose authors have given interviews or contributed to the blogs I follow. It wasn’t until I saw The Archived mentioned in passing on one of those blogs that I bumped it up on my to-read list, and because of the lack of buzz, it still took me another two months and a snowstorm to finally pick it up.

I read it in a day, and checked the sequel out the next day. The sequel was even better. SInce I’m sure you’re wondering by now, here’s the summary of The Archived from Goodreads:

The dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life in pictures only Librarians can read. The dead, called ‘Histories’, rest in the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper is dangerous and a constant reminder of those she lost, Da and her little brother. Mac wonders about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. Yet someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

This series reminded me a lot of Meg Cabot’s Mediator series, and I’d highly recommend it to fans of that and Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters series. I hope to see more Archived books in the future, but for now, Schwab has a new book, A Darker Shade of Magic coming out in February.

Are there any books you thought deserved more attention than they got? Please share in the comments!

Genre Lessons: Romance

Image adapted from photo by Flickr user Jamoor

Image adapted from photo by Flickr user Jamoor

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more widely — at least one book in every genre (including nonfiction topics). I’ve also joined a book club of librarians reading a different genre every month to help us make more informed recommendations to patrons. January’s genre is romance, and in the last few weeks I’ve read two YA and one adult romance. Here’s a summary of what I learned about the genre — both what readers connect with and what writers are doing.

1. Little to no denouement. All three books had a build-up to the climactic moment when the characters get together (in the YA books) or decide to get married (in the adult book), but the story always stops right after that. I guess it makes sense — the whole book is about the relationship, so once it’s where it’s supposed to be, there’s no reason to include anything else. But to a non-reader of romance, it felt a little jarring. I’ve spent the whole book rooting for this couple; I’d like at least a paragraph telling me what happens to them!

2. Lower stakes. At no point was I worried a character might die or make a decision that would completely sabotage their future (drop out of school, get fired, permanently alienate a friend or family member, etc.). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes I really want a book I know I’ll be able to pick up and put down quickly, one that I know will have a happy (if somewhat predictable) ending. The lower stakes allow the writer (and the reader) to focus more on character development. I thought this was done very well in the YA books I read, though most YA tends to have at least some coming-of-age/character growth involved. I thought the adult book fell a little flat here — the female protagonist changed a little, finally standing up to her gold-digging mother, but her love interest started out and ended up as exactly the same person. Maybe I would’ve been more okay with this if he hadn’t been a viewpoint character, but after he was given that face time, I wanted to see him more affected/changed by their relationship in some way. Also, every time there was an opportunity for some real conflict in the adult book — an ex showed up, the protagonist ran off scared — it was quickly resolved — protagonist and girlfriends conclude (correctly, and somewhat conveniently) that the ex was trying to stir up trouble, love interest is patient and accepting without question. Again, some people are looking for this type of book, but I was especially annoyed by it after reading (and agreeing with) all this writing advice about raising the stakes and making your characters suffer throughout the book. Conflict equals excitement; its absence equals boredom, which equals readers finding something else to do. The YA books I read both got this — characters were sufficiently miserable (wow, it feels horrible saying it like that, but hopefully you get what I mean) before they reached their HEA.

3. Viewpoint do’s and don’ts. Both the YA books I read were in first-person with a single narrator, but the adult was in third-person with multiple narrators. When it started out in third limited following the female protagonist, I kind of expected to get her love interest’s perspective at some point. It would’ve been a great way to round out the story and further develop both characters by seeing how other characters (both main and secondary) view them. And I did get his perspective, but only a little, and I felt like those scenes didn’t really add much. Because he had no conflict of his own, all we got to see was him talking with a buddy about his relationship and thinking about how much he loved the female protagonist. And then we started head hopping even more, to minor characters, for a couple paragraphs at a time — with no line break or indication that we were about to switch narrators. This was jarring, and felt like it was done entirely for convenience — the author wanted to show something that was happening when neither protagonist was present, so she had a secondary character take over. I think a close third with one narrator would’ve helped the writer tell this story better. But this is where we see the subjectivity of the book industry — this book, which I wasn’t crazy about, was a bestseller, and the author has written numerous bestsellers both before and since.

So, that’s what I’ve learned from my study of romance. I didn’t go too in-depth with this; someday I’d like to read a few more adult romances by different authors, to get a better feel for the genre. But for now, I’m going to take a break from romance and explore another genre. Maybe horror?

Do you read or write romance? What do you like/dislike about the genre? What lessons do you think other writers can take from studying it? Please share in the comments!