Thursday, 30 June 2016

Ink Tips: Balancing Description

It would be a lot more convenient if there was a way to record my internal visions directly into my books for readers to pick up but for now, I'm stuck with having to describe things using words rather than a form of telepathy.

Describing characters, settings and actions is a balancing act.  On the one hand, the reader needs to know what's going on and the right descriptions can help to create an in-depth character.  On the other hand, it can be very easy to get bogged down in what can feel like unnecessary detail.

As my Classic Literature professor was fond of saying: The Greeks rather liked catalogues, and apparently Canadian Tire thinks we do as well.  He was referring to the oral tradition of listing  out details of tributes or character histories multiple times within a work.  The theory is that such memorized lists provide a mental break for a performer reciting a long epic.  And I have to admit, that when I've heard the Illiad and the Odyssey read by skilled performers, the repetition is no longer jarring.  Even though it is the same words, different emphasis and presentation make a difference.

Unfortunately, that's not an option for a print novel.

Recently, I was reading a novel which is a favourite of mine but which suffers from an excess of description.  The author lists all the details of the heroine's wardrobe each day, from underwear, to the fabric and cut of the skirt and top to the jewelry and hair accessory choices.  It usually takes three to five paragraphs.  At first, I thought that this was part of the character development, as the heroine was quite insecure and focused on shallow details.  But it continued throughout the novel, without any alterations, and other characters often had two or three paragraph inventories of their appearances.

I find myself skipping over such inventories, which means that they are not essential to the plot or character arcs.

When I was working on my first novel, I struggled with getting the description level right.  Previously, I had mostly written fan-fiction, which doesn't tend to need a lot of description as the characters are well known.  My critique partners gave me some excellent advice: the first time the reader meets a character or visits a setting, make sure to include at least three separate instances of description within the scene.  But don't ever use more than three points of description within a paragraph.

Let's say I want to make the following points about a character:

She has blonde hair and blue eyes (general description)
She has ragged, short fingernails (shows nervousness)
She is physically strong and trained in martial arts (will be important to the plot later)
She limps from an old injury (adds depth to the character)

In the first paragraph, I can have the hero note the ragged fingernails.  It's an unusual detail and one that says more about the character than general description.  "The cheap drug store polish didn't hide the uneven edges of her nails.  They looked as if they'd been gnawed on by rats.  Or ripped apart from clawing through something solid."

In the next paragraph, he can note her general physical physical appearance, hair, eyes, face shape, figure, etc.  But not all at once.  I'd pick two or three main points that give an overall image without bogging the reader down.

I'd then wait another few paragraphs before I demonstrate the heroine's strength and agility, perhaps by having her shift something unusually heavy or, if I'm jumping right into the action, a fight scene.  I could include the limp in that scene if it's physical, or maybe save it for a surprise at the end as she walks away from the hero.

The key to making the description feel natural is to incorporate it into telling the story.  Inventories don't advance understanding of the character or move the plot ahead.  It's a snapshot of a moment.  By describing the character's fingernails with imagery associated with imprisonment, I prime the reader to expect that the character has been trapped in some way.  By avoiding general description as my first choice, I keep the reader interested and avoid automatic skipping.

For the other physical description, I would want to show it through action as much as possible.  Rather than having the hero note that she looks strong, I would want to show her using that strength.  To make the limp more significant, I would include the hero's emotional reaction to seeing evidence of an injury.  Is he disgusted? Concerned?  Jumping into white-knight protector mode?

The more the description is embedded into the story, the less the reader will notice it while still retaining a rich and detailed mental image.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Weekly Update: June 19th to 25th

Weekly word count: 5000

The word count is slightly less impressive than it looks on first glance.  I went back to the beginning of Inquisition and began doing rewrites, adding description and changing some details to improve flow and consistency.  I've done 6 chapters, adding or redoing 500-1000 words for each of them.

I've also been working hard on getting my blog articles ready for Superpower month on the Fantasy-Futuristic and Paranormal online chapter of RWA.  One is a look at the downside of having superpowers (the cape doesn't come for free!) and the other suggests ways to make sure that character's powers stay consistent and as realistic as possible.  

And the other project occupying my attention is putting the final polish on my workshop for RWA's national conference in San Diego.  I want to make sure that my speaking time only goes for 45-50 minutes, so there's time for questions if people are interested.

There's a lot to take care of and I'll be honest and admit that I'm feeling overwhelmed by it.  I think I have somewhat overextended myself and while I'll be able to get it all done, I won't be taking on any new projects until I have Inquisition and Rose on the Grave more in hand.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Earning True Love

Recently, I've been reading a lot of romance novels that finish with a wedding.  It's a common romance trope.  Austen almost always ended with a wedding.  Fairy tales end with the prince and princess marrying and living happily ever after.  As my professor used to say: the wedding affirms the social order and the end of conflict, it shows that all is right with the world again after the difficulties in the plot.

That said, outside of historicals, it's a convention which usually bothers me.  The courtship process is a romance novel usually takes place in an accelerated timeline, usually only a few days.  And at least half of those days are spent with the hero and heroine fighting with each other or lying to each other.

If anyone I cared about came to me and said they were marrying someone after spending a few days together, most of it in very dramatic circumstances, I would try to get them to call off the wedding.  I would be afraid of the relationship imploding as reality hits.

Despite all that, I do believe in love and I believe in love at first sight.  But I think it's hard to tell infatuation from love at first sight and the only way to do that is time.  It takes time to know if you can live with someone (even if you love them).  Do they leave their socks all over the house?  Do they like to stay up until the wee hours of the morning and then sleep until noon?

Real love can handle life.  It can cope with stomach flu, bad days, misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  It can accept that the beloved has an insane need to listen to a Dolly Parton Christmas non-stop between November and January.  It is always ready to open negotiations because making both partners happy is a priority.

That is the part I love about romance novels.  Both the hero and the heroine have to earn real love.  They have to face the darkest side of their soul, the parts of themselves they would give almost anything not to have to examine.  Anything but their partner.  They prove that they will do whatever is necessary.

I'm terrified of spiders.  If I was a character in a romance novel, I would probably have to crawl through an infested tunnel to save the man I love.  Because that would be the ultimate test of what is bigger: my love or my fear.  Makes me a little grateful that I'm not a character because even the thought of having to do that is enough to give me the shivers.

Romance characters are thrown into a pressure cooker situation.  That proves their love but I still like to see them taking time to make sure they can live together when life and death isn't on the table.  That's why my books end with commitment, but not marriage.

A marriage takes time to make work, no matter how much two people love each other.  And I have a lot of respect for those who are willing to put in the time and effort.  That's real love.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Weekly Update: June 12 to 18

Weekly word count: 2300

I hit a real wall this week, personally and professionally.  After some careful introspection and consideration, I realized I had two problems.  First, I've been driving myself too hard and in too many directions, trying to get everything done without having to ask for help.  (I realized I forgot to promote last week's blog post, it just completely slipped my mind.)  But as I recently reminded a friend, "help" isn't a four letter word.  It's not a sign of weakness.  I've sat down and figured out my priorities to make sure I can still meet all my commitments, but where I can, I'll be asking for help.

Second issue, I've been trying to push myself to finish the first draft of Inquisition rather than getting caught in a constant cycle of rewriting.  I've been making notes in the manuscript as I go along about what I want to change so that I can do one big rewrite when I reach the end.  Or at least, that was the plan.

Stories always evolve for me.  I plot out where I want to go but in the process, I discover the details that make my characters into real people and add depth to my plot.  I've learned not to get too bogged down in pre-plotting because I will invariably find myself covering entirely new territory from what I expected.  I think this is good and necessary part of my writing process.  But it does mean I can get caught up in constant rewriting to make the beginning match the end.

However, in this case, I think I've gone too far.  I don't have the solid foundation I need to make the ending.  So I spent the last few days in the week mapping out my plot (My draft is about 3/4 done, so there aren't a lot of unknowns left).  Then I'm going to go back and rewrite the beginning to make everything consistent.  Then I'll write the final part of the book.

I definitely won't have it all done in the next three weeks, like I was hoping.  But I think I still have a good shot at having the draft done by August to send out to beta readers and start booking editing.  (And order my cover, my favourite part of finishing my first draft.)

As my little blue friend says: Just keep swimming.  (Or in this case, writing)

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Professionalism: Not Just for Weekdays

Life doesn't always work out the way we want it to.  It's hard to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune sometimes, but cultivating a professional mask can keep us from making our situations worse.

Whether it's dealing with critiques and comments from an editor or critique partner, facing dismissal or scorn from the public or other professionals, or coping with errors and slights, I feel it's important to avoid the temptation to strike back.  Now, there is a balance between maintaining a professional attitude and having a backbone.  Being professional doesn't mean simply ignoring what is unpleasant, but it does mean taking the time to decide on your course of action rather than reacting emotionally in the moment.

I have a series of questions which I usually make myself go through when I'm feeling angry or upset.  Once I've gone through them, if I still feel the need to speak up, then I do.  But they've kept me from digging myself deeper on a fair number of occasions.

Is there any truth to what the other person has said?

Sometimes people will give you useful information in a horrible way or they will share something which you didn't want to hear but needed to know.  A bad review can highlight areas for improvement.  A complaint or criticism about an event or behaviour can do the same.  Even if I disagree with what someone has said, if there is some truth to what they've said, then I can't dismiss everything out of hand.  I can dislike how they've chosen to share it, but their words deserve some consideration, no matter how much they might sting my pride.

Is this possibly a misunderstanding or misinterpretation?

If I had the psychic powers to always accurate predict someone's intentions, I would quit my job and start working for Psychic Friends.  Even with the best intentions in the world, things get misspoken, misheard and misinterpreted.  Maybe it's because I've done a lot of work with people on the autism spectrum, who have trouble picking up social signals and often unintentionally give messages of impatience and lack of caring to those around them, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I try not to assume a deliberate slur or attack, giving the other person a chance to clarify their intentions.  Sometimes it is deliberate, and then I have to consider my last two questions.  

Is this someone I need to deal with again?

Idiots are idiots and there are always people who take joy in being offensive bullies.  It is not my job to educate or improve them, so if I don't need to deal with them again, then walking away with my dignity intact is the best outcome I can hope for.  It's not always successful, but I try not to take random opinions seriously, particularly if they are hostile.  Engaging with them will only prolong the hurt and give them the satisfaction of knowing they've struck.

If it is someone whom I'll need to interact with in the future (for example, a coworker, family member or business associate), then it's time to figure out the answer to my final question.

What is my goal in confronting this person?

What am I hoping to do?  What outcome do I want?  Am I hoping for an apology or do I want to enact a change?  For business, I will usually begin by seeing if there is someone else I can work with.  My experience is that if they are large enough, most organizations are willing to quietly make alternate arrangements to avoid a personality conflict.  Sometimes there isn't an alternative person inside the organization, so I have to search for an alternate service.

If I want an apology or a change from the other person, I've learned to be cautious in my expectations.  Bullies do not become bullies because they are accustomed to considering other people's feelings.  I can say to someone: your behaviour was not acceptable.  But they may not be ready to hear it and I need to be prepared for a backlash.

That's my process and while it seems simple, taking the time to go through each question allows the immediate emotional impact to cool.

Realizing that I can only control my own actions and not the reactions of others has helped me to develop a thicker skin when dealing with others.  Some people might find my approach to be naive, but I don't find a lot of virtue in assuming hostility and insult in the world.

That doesn't mean that there aren't hostile people out there.  Recently the Ottawa Romance Writers had an extremely unpleasant situation at Prose in the Park.  A woman who was not an ORWA member bullied her way into our tent and then proceeded to block a number of our authors by preventing people from going down the narrow aisle.  She actively harassed people who were looking at our books, dismissing them as poor quality.  She was rude to our authors and then left abruptly before the event was finished, leaving her garbage for us to clean up.

That entire performance was the antithesis of professionalism.  She actively insulted and alienated a number of people who frankly have the power to block her career.

Added to the mix has been the reaction of one of the organizers, who has been hostile to our concerns.  Initially, I was prepared to go back to Prose in the Park next year but his vehemence and aggressiveness is making me think twice about it.

Unpleasant situations happen, but I believe that how they are handled shows the quality of someone's character.  I'd rather not allow the bullies and petty people of the world to dictate my actions but I also will not subject myself to their venom if I don't need to.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Weekly Update: June 5 to 11

Weekly word count: 5900

I'd been struggling for awhile and decided to go back two chapters.  That was the last place I'd felt things were moving easily.  I spent a day deciding how to rearrange things to still hit my critical plot points.  After that, the words came much easier, so I think it was the right decision.

There's three weeks left of school and then the disruptions of summer begin.  Hopefully this change will continue to keep things moving quickly and Inquisition won't be further delayed.

It's been a bit of difficult week for me aside from the writing challenges.  I've been disappointed in how one of the organizers for Prose in the Park has reacted to the difficulties from the event.  It's making me reconsider going back to that event next year.  I don't want to lose the opportunity to speak to local readers but at the same time, I don't want to subject myself to being the target for anyone's grudge.

But I'm not going to dwell on it.  There is at least six months for things to die down and hopefully the situation will resolve.

Meanwhile, I know there's nothing I can do to change the situation and so I'm going to concentrate on the area I do have control over: my writing and making sure I can produce a quality book and series.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Heroine Fix: Supergirl: Women of Steel

This month's Heroine Fix is less about the version of the character I originally met, which would be Helen Slater in the 1984 movie Supergirl, and more about the latest one, who has inspired me in my writing.

To be fair, Supergirl has always felt a little bit like an after-thought in DC's character development.  "Eh, we need a girl.  Throw an S on her chest and call it a day."

 I'm not sure if Superman's look of dismay is more because she's a girl, because he's never heard of her before or wondering if she's going to take over his comic run.  I like the subtle emphasis that she has all his powers.  Although I suspect it has it's roots in the need to quickly develop the character, it also implies that she is the absolute equal of the most powerful man in the universe.

I watched the 1984 movie so often that I wore out the VHS tape.  Except, I have to admit that it wasn't for Helen Slater's title character.  It was Faye Dunaway's world-altering magical abilities which captured my attention.  She was one of the first female villains I'd seen who wasn't the least bit repentant or ashamed of her powers.  She eagerly sought the opportunity to be more powerful and had no compunctions about using it to improve her life and status.  

 Dunaway's presence was so commanding that she stole the show (at least in my mind) from Supergirl.  I did like how Helen Slater ended up coming to Earth because she inadvertently put what was left of the entire civilization of Krypton at risk because she was fooling around with something she wasn't supposed to.  As a kid who frequently got caught messing around with stuff I wasn't supposed to, I could relate to that.

But that seemed to be her last human moment.  After that, she had the same challenges as her male alter-ego: too much perfection to connect with.

 I gave up on the House of El and headed on over to the Marvel side of the street, where characters are deeply, sometimes tragically flawed, giving me lots of depth for my writer's brain to play with.

When the new Supergirl TV series was announced, I had some mixed feelings.  On the one hand, yay!  Supporting Y-chromosome-challenged heroes!  On the other, why did they have to pick Supergirl?  Why not Wonder Woman or Catwoman or Huntress or... just about anyone else other than Supergirl?

Still, I watched.  I told myself it couldn't possibly be as bad as I was afraid it was.  When the pilot was horrible, I made myself give it another chance.  And to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it.

Some of that I put squarely on Melissa Benoist's shoulders.  She brings a vulnerability to the role, regardless of whether she's playing Supergirl or Cara Danvers.  She's not certain what she should be as a grown up or a superhero and she's struggling to figure it all out.  (Learning she needs a cape for aerodynamic cornering was hilarious.)  She's determined to get there, refusing to run to Superman for rescue even when she isn't sure she can defeat her enemies on her own.  She wants to learn, even when it means getting it wrong.  It's the exact opposite of the perfectionism which I hated in 1984.

The part which really caught me was the play between the different female characters.  They are all strongly developed with unique, three dimensional personalities.  Cara's boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) initially comes off as a Devil Wears Prada clone, but didn't stay that way.  She's demanding because she's constantly fighting for recognition and to improve her company.  She's hard because she's had enough of being trampled on, which makes her rare moments of softness poignant and moving.  Then there's Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), Cara's adoptive sister, who works for a secret government agency which monitors aliens on Earth (sadly, not the Men in Black).  She's strong and smart, but has that niggling insecurity which has to happen when your adoptive sister can punch the fridge through the wall and down the street.  The sisterly relationship between Cara and Alex is frought with rivalry and affection and is the highlight of the series.

Even the female villains have depth.  I've never once gotten the impression that Supergirl is being given the runt of the evil litters.  These are foes who could challenge any cape-wearer.

I've been inspired by the way that Supergirl has interwoven the challenges of being a woman and then challenges of being a superhero and the challenges of being adopted, an outsider and hiding a secret.  There's a complexity and depth which I hadn't realized I was missing until I found it.

Cara and Supergirl have encouraged me to look at the female friendships and mentorships in my own stories and work on increasing the depth and complexity.  They've shown me a new aspect of stories that I want to write and at this stage of the game, that's a rare thing for a comic book adaptation to do.

So I'll be back with my popcorn and cheering when Season 2 starts, notebook in hand and ready to fly.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Weekly Update: May 28 to June 4: the next 90 days

Weekly word count: 5100

This week marked the end of my first 90 days of goal setting so it's time to take a look and see how I did.  As per Cynthia Boyko's advice, I set myself 3 concrete goals:

- write at least 4000 words per week
- have at least two weeks where I write each day, Monday to Friday
- do at least 2 tweets per day for my upcoming promotion (My March 99 cent sale and review tour)

There were a few weeks where I didn't make the 4000 per week goal, but I feel I did fairly well overall.  I had 3 weeks where I wrote each day, Monday to Friday.  And I overcame my promotion shyness.

Not bad for my first shot.  Now I look at my next 90 day goals, which would take me to the end of August.  As much as I want to keep my weekly word count up, I know it's not practical as the kids finish up school.  Not to mention that once the draft for Inquisition is done, I'll be shifting into editing mode.

So here are my goals for the next 90 days:

- finish my draft for Inquisition and have it ready to send to my editor
- finish the editing for Rose on the Grave and get the cover commissioned
- finish transcribing my notes into Scrivener to use as a series Bible

Those feel like a do-able set of goals.  I am still hoping to have my first draft done for early August, to have time for beta reading before it goes to the editor in September.

This weekend was also Prose in the Park.  Those who follow me on Facebook already know that things didn't go entirely smoothly, but I still had a good time.  I brought my camera to take pictures but forgot my memory card at home, so I don't have any pictures to share.  Traffic was lighter than last year, but more people were prepared to buy, which was nice.

Prose was the last event in the flurry of April-May-June activity.  Now it's relatively quiet until I head out to RWA Nationals in July.  Time to buckle down and get back to work.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Ink Tips: How Far to Promote?

Last week, I talked about the "race to the bottom" for media attention, when the splash of sensationalism is more important than accuracy.  There are plenty of sites which still focus on delivering quality, but the reality is that the more people are shouting, the harder it is to get anyone to pay attention to any one individual.  Or author.

A friend forwarded a rather harsh article which blamed self-published authors for the fall in revenue for digital books sales, claiming they had glutted the market with crap.  His solution was that all self-published books should be segregated until they reach a certain sales level, thus "proving" their quality.

Both of these things have gotten me thinking about the difficulties authors have in getting attention for their books.  I started wondering: if Amazon or Kobo or Apple began segregating self-published authors, what would I do to haul myself out of that particular dungeon?

Kozlowski has a valid point in his article: the number of poorly-written books out there is huge.  It does get overwhelming trying to pick out the few good seeds from the mass of garbage.  And unfortunately, the majority of those books are self-published (although I have seen a number which come from small presses and even the Big 6, so a publisher isn't a guarantee of quality).

Authors have to promote.  There's no question about it.  Either we pay someone to do it for us or we do it ourselves or a combination of both.  But even if one is willing to dedicate a substantial chunk of money each month to promotional services, there is still a limit to the number of purchasable opportunities (at least, if we stick to the effective ones).

But looking at the other options available, we quickly find people who will tell us either not to bother or that a particular tactic will backfire.  So I'm going to take a look at two of the most controversial options, the pros and cons and my own view on the matter.

Posting reviews: People who read reviews are looking for books to read.  By creating those reviews, an author can get their name (and sometimes cover) in front of potential readers.  Since most authors are also readers, this seems like an easy solution.  We're going to read anyway, and we're going to judge what we read, so why not post that judgement?

I've had a number of authors tell me that I should never post reviews, particularly not within my genre and with my author name (the two things I have to do if I want to use reviews as a promotion tool).  They point out new authors who have gone down in flames for having dared to criticize someone popular.  The popular author's fans began a campaign to bury the reviewing author's work in one star reviews and fill their social media with hateful comments.  Even being complimentary can backfire, as those who dislike the books can launch similar campaigns.  Or an author can find themselves losing credit as they give "good" reviews to horrible stories.

Personally, I take a middle ground.  I post reviews of romance novels in a local arts blog and sometimes on Goodreads.  I try to be fair, but I also focus on what I enjoyed about a book rather than on nitpicking.  If I can't find anything complimentary (which is rare), I let the editor know and I simply don't do a review.  Thus far, I haven't had to handle any flame wars, but I'm aware of the possibility.  I take the view that those sorts of actions are more reflective of those posting than of me but it's a risk I have to take if I want the opportunity.  

An "Open" and interactive Facebook page:  This applies to all social media, but Facebook is still the most popular option.  By allowing people to friend you and like your page, an author can gain followers in an organic way.  By interacting with them, your name and books stay in their minds, making them more likely to pick up the next installment once its ready.

This is one of those tricky balancing acts.  How friendly and interactive should an author be on social media?  How much should they reveal?  There is a risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention: someone obsessive who won't respect the author/real life boundaries.  There is also the challenge of having people use your openness for their own purposes.  Scammers will 'friend' romance novelists to gain access to their readers, who are assumed to be vulnerable to love scams,

I've had a number of new authors say they won't accept a friend request from a man, since they assume he is a scammer.  I find that sad.  I know I have a number of male readers and I don't want to pre-judge anyone.  That said, I don't respond to private messages from those I don't know personally and if any of my followers tell me that one of my "friends" is harassing them, I will remove that friend immediately.  I keep strict boundaries on my personal vs my author life, particularly when it comes to protecting my children's privacy.  But I will share information about my life, without identifying details.  It's not terribly interesting, but has the advantage of being genuine and thus easy to keep track of.

There are always going to be risks in promoting.  When you shout for attention, it's not possible to control the kind of attention you'll receive.  Some will be good and some will be bad.

I respect those who stay courteous, who offer balanced opinions without vilifying their opponents, who offer insight and who are open-minded.  They may not attract as much attention as those trolling for scandals and shock, but I'd rather take a slower approach and still respect who I am than find myself caught up in a whirlwind.