Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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All I got was a lousy draft #amrevising #amwriting #amediting

Have you ever seen T-shirts with the saying: My (sister/brother/best friend’s uncle’s cousin) went to (fill in name of awesome tourist destination here) and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

The door of my writing office that leads to outside clicks shut. “What is so important it couldn’t wait until after coffee, love?”

I look up as my Muse steps into view. “What took you so long?”

He leans against the partial wall that separates the recliner nook from the outside door, to-go coffee cup in hand. His T-shirt, a faded green with a wash-worn decal of a surfing kangaroo over an outline of Australia, is a fitting accessory to his gray sweatpants. Scruff covers his face, and he neglected to do any sort of hair-taming. He lifts the coffee cup. “Caribou. If I’d known I’d have to wait in line for fifteen minutes, I would’ve made my own.” He takes a sip. “What’s the emergency?”

Wow, he managed to say that without a smirk. “It sucks.” There. Simple. Succinct.

He raises an eyebrow. “It’s a draft. It’s supposed to suck.”

“It’s my third revision, and it still sucks.” Yes, I know I sound like I’m whining, but damn it. Just, damn it.

He takes another sip. “I’m not doing your ‘homework’ for you, love. My job is to inspire you.”

“I knew it was bad, and I made some changes that were supposed to take care of most of the issues, but shit.” I toss the stack of index cards (rubber-banded together, of course) at him. It hits that fine chest of his and drops to the floor. “How could you let me write this? There is no tension. Plenty of conflict–in about six scenes.” I fail to suppress a sigh. “I was planning to turn this in by the end of the month. There’s no way I can turn this in to anyone, least of all my writing teacher.”

He picks the stack of cards off the floor and settles into the recliner beside me. “Isn’t that why you decided to try this method to begin with?” he asks, waving the stack at me before tossing it into my lap. “To look at each scene and make sure each one had enough action, relationship, information, suspense, and emotion? You haven’t even done that yet, have you?”

“I don’t need to do that. I already know it sucks.” And looking at each scene illustrated just how much suspense and tension the story lacks.

“You need to do that, love.” My Muse finishes his coffee and tosses the cup into the trash bin beside the mini-fridge. “That’s how you determine what each scene is lacking.”

“Scene? Hell, the whole damn story is boring.” I bounce my head against the back of the recliner. Yes, childish, I know, but I don’t care. “I’ve been hearing how much people like my book, the amount of tension and suspense, how they couldn’t put it down. The pacing.” Bounce. “This book doesn’t have that.”

“It’s a different book, love.”

“With the same main characters.” Pretty sure this is what they call “imposter syndrome”. “It needs to be at least as good as the first one.”

He looks at me with his gorgeous blue eyes. “How many second movies in a series are as good as the first one?”

“Really?” I roll my eyes. “Shouldn’t it be, how many second books in a series are as good as the first one? Lots. I’ve read lots of series, and nine times out of ten, the second book is as good as the first, if not better.”

He narrows his eyes at me. “So, how are you going to fix it?”

I sigh. A big. Long. Sigh. “That’s why I called you. I’ll have to tell my writing teacher I won’t make the end-of-March deadline, but I don’t want to push the deadline back too much. I have to fix this before I let her look at it.”

His turn to sigh. “Okay, love.” He cracks his knuckles. “Let’s get to it, then. Where’s the brainstorming bucket?”

And that’s pretty much how my week went. Do you ever struggle with suspense and tension in a book? Any suggestions? I’m reverting to my “what if” and “what is her greatest fear” tools. As in, “what if this happens, then what?” and “what is she afraid of losing?” (see, I did pay attention in writing class 😀 ) It helps. It helps even more that everything has dried up enough so it isn’t muddy; it means I can walk without wearing my snow boots (which make my feet hurt after the first mile), which helps my brainstorming process.

Back to the drawing/writing board.

Happy Writing!


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Revision Round Three – Revelations #amwriting #amrevising

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Last week I mused (heh, no, not that Muse 🙂 ) about story structure, how I saw the structure in the book I finished reading, and how it made me think about the structure of my own project, creatively called “Book 2”.

I am “old fashioned” in the sense that I prefer to review/revise on paper (and no, I’m not THAT old, or fashionable). I think it has to do with screen time (a full-time job as a tech writer means 8 hrs a day in front of a computer screen to begin with), as well as the whole effect of writing “longhand”. Reading on paper is different than reading on a screen. So I printed out my draft and worked through it page by page, scene by scene, with the recent refresh of story structure in mind.

Of course, plot tweaks make their way into my notes, as do questions about motives and characters, all par for the course during revisions. Refining characters means making sure their goals and their obstacles make sense. Sometimes their motivations change. Case in point: my primary antagonist started out with greed as a motivation. Now, after two revisions and the question of “What’s in it for her?”, her motivation has shifted from greed to more of a public service. In other words, I remembered something I heard or read about antagonists, namely villians: they are the heroes of their own stories.

Wow.

That adds another dimension to that character. There were hints of it already in the story, but when my subconscious finally got around to shouting the reminder, things fell into place around that character. Switching over to the protagonist, the question shifts to: What does she have to lose? As we writers know, the more the protagonist has to lose, the more the reader will root for them, right? This resulted in more notes about her story goals and the “what ifs” that go into the things that prevent her from reaching those goals.

Then, since it’s a mystery, not only do there have to be clues, there have to be false clues and enough suspects so the reader doesn’t figure things out too quickly. We like to call these “red herrings”, even though herring is more gray and white and tastes really good pickled, especially with saltine crackers 🙂 . After I listed my suspects, I realized I didn’t have enough red in my herring, so a note to add a false lead or three.

Getting back to the story structure itself, in the middle part of the story, there should be a black moment or an “all is lost” moment, where it looks like the obstacles in the character’s way seem too big to conquer. In the book I read, it was a point (and I realized this later, when my writer’s subconscious slapped me up the side of the head and yelled in my ear) when the main character stopped moving toward the resolution of the main mystery thread of the story.

As I went through my draft, I realized that even though there is moment where it looks like it’s going to be a LOT harder for the character to reach her goal, it wasn’t dark enough or difficult enough for her to continue. Note to self: figure out what would make her stop moving toward her goal.

And all these notes on how to make the story better were spawned, in part, by reading that book and seeing how the story was structured. It reminded me of all those things my writing teacher has been saying. I think sometimes it takes us a while (at least it takes me a while 🙂 ) to see how the story should work.

Getting back to revising, fleshing things out, and refining the story. Sometimes, especially with this book, I wish I could skip all the false starts and get to the bare skeleton of the story sooner, so I can put that energy toward refining the story, but I’ve learned that for me, it’s the way my subconscious writer brain tells my conscious writer brain which direction to go. Either that, or my Muse is working some seriously-annoying Muse magic to try to teach me something. Or he’s just being annoying. I wouldn’t put either past him.

Now, back to revising!


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Story structure skeletons #amwriting #amreading

I’ve been reading a bit more these past few months, something I’ve been doing less of over the past year (since we all know how busy we were last year–NOT 😐 ). As a writer, I’ve caught myself noticing more lately how stories are structured. I probably always noticed, just not noticed. Know what I mean?

My preferred reading genres follow what I like to write (or is it what I write follows what I like to read?) Anyhow, I gravitate toward mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and urban fantasy. There’s always the occasional non-fiction book, whether craft-related or maybe research for a book.

In any case, lately I’ve noticed some things in the books I’ve read that remind me of my writing classes, specifically the things my writing teacher still says in my head regarding the structure of a story, which hits upon the basics of fiction: inciting incident, midpoint reversal/crisis, and climax/resolution, preferably with a twist and/or big reveal. The “things to pay attention to” between the beginning, the middle, and the end might vary, but it seems those three anchors remain no matter what craft book or class I’ve had.

Some lessons use the three-act structure, some the 7-plot point structure, some the hero’s journey, some try to “save the cat”:

and there’s probably a hundred more variations on the idea, but those core tenets are the ones I hear repeated in my mind when I’m “outlining” (i.e. writing a timeline) or revising. All the different interpretations of story structure follow the same basic path. Try doing a search for “story structure” and just look at the images that come back.

I just finished another book that made me think of this structure in particular, because of the character arc, which followed the story arc: inciting incident, midpoint reversal/black moment/point of no return, revelation/climax, resolution.

As writers, I think we learn from every novel or story we read, maybe not always consciously, but subconsciously. As I read this latest book (if you must know, it was Anne Frasier’s The Body Reader), my writer brain noted the structure:

  • This is what started it all, shaped the character. This will determine how the character approaches life.
  • Dead body? Okay, who is it and whodunit? Off we go.
  • This is–wait, what? OMG, seriously? No way. She can’t … I can’t believe she’s going along with this.
  • Oh, whew! Good, she’s gotten back on track. Sort of. Oh, that’s such a bad idea. Don’t do it!
  • Ha! I knew he was involved. Wait, oh …
  • Holy crap! No way!
  • Uh oh …
  • Whew! Saved! Now, where’s …
  • Oh crap! C’mon, get him!
  • Yeah! Got him!
  • Now what? Oh, good. Sigh of relief.
  • What’s the next book?

Which, I realized as I progressed through the story, was the classic structure, the skeleton of the stories I’ve read and really enjoyed. I thought about some of the other books I’ve read recently. Even urban fantasy books follow the structure, though granted, the obstacles in the way of the main character(s) tend to be way more intimidating than in a regular story (I mean, which would be worse, going up against the bad guy pointing a gun at you, or facing a titan with near god-like powers to fry you where you stand and all you got for Christmas was a skull with a spirit and a carved wooden staff (Harry Dresden, in case you were wondering)).

Which, of course, encouraged me to taked a closer look at my current project, Book 2. Inciting incident, check. Rising tension, check. Black moment? Sort of. Note to self: work on that. Climax? Yeah, that works. Maybe there should be another incident. Tension? Yes, but could be better. Hmm. Add this to jack up tension. Higher stakes. What about this? What if …

Bottom line, reading allows us to see how other authors drape their stories on the skeleton of story structure and utilize it to keep the reader’s interest. It reminds me to pay attention to my own work to make sure I’m taking advantage of a proven formula. So even though I’m not writing, I’m still learning. Yep, I’m going with that.

Now to get back into Revision Round #3. May you all have a creative week ahead!

Keep on Writing!

Aren’t you supposed to be writing?


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Reading as a writer … for fun? #amreading #amwriting #amrevising

I indulged in a bit of reading for fun this week, since I figured out what scenes to submit for my assignment.

Okay, fine. I was procrastinating on my homework. There. Happy?

I haven’t read much of anything for a while, with the revisions and homework and all. Oh, and that pesky full-time job. And the garden.

With the upcoming release of Harry Dresden’s new adventure, Peace Talks, I decided to reread the last book in the series to refresh my memory, since it’s been, oh, years since Skin Game came out. Then I had to reread the book that introduced Mouse because hey, it’s Mouse.

After reconnecting with Harry, I was ready for more snarky urban fantasy, or at least snarky mysteries with a paranormal angle. And what luck! Another of my favorite urban fantasy authors just released a new book (some snark included). Not only that, but I ran across a book from a fellow member of Sisters in Crime that sounded like a nice break from serious. And writing.

I have now read 4 books (Skin Game (Dresden), Blood Rites (Harry again), Ann Charles’ first Deadwood book Nearly Departed in Deadwood, and Patricia Briggs’ latest Mercy Thompson book, Smoke Bitten) in the span of three weeks (one of which took me all of a day and a half to read), when I haven’t read much of anything for months.

Reunions with old friends (Harry and Mercy) are great, and meeting new ones (Violet Parker, with her purple cowboy boots) is fun, but you know you are a real writer when IT happens.

Yes, the infamous “Aha! I see what you did there” moment when you read a scene and you can “see” the structure of the scene and how it lures the reader on.

Here’s a “for instance”: In Nearly Departed in Deadwood, Violet has 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. She becomes friends with a codger who has a gun named Bessie and a total lack of subtlety, meets the tall dark handsome sexy guy next door to the office (sparks there), and starts dating the tall blond handsome rich guy whose family owns the jewelry store in town. So, sparks between dark sexy and Vi (who resists her attraction to him, yet he obviously likes her), but she dates blond handsome (she likes him more than dark sexy, or so she tells herself).

What’s more fun for readers than the tension between a girl and the guy she is determined not to be attracted to? Oh, and toss in the guy who is a chick magnet and rich. So, what does the author do? She includes a scene in which the codger and dark sexy guy are with Violet at the ER (her daughter broke her arm). Dark sexy is being the good friend, keeping Vi calm and comforting her like any sexy guy would (you know, holding her close), when blond handsome shows up.

Boom! The classic setup for tension with love interests. And the guys, of course, have been trying to win her affection in their own ways. Vi is determined not to fall for dark sexy (he’s been teasing her, all innocent-like, since they met), so she greets blond handsome like a lonely girl greets her boyfriend after he’s been gone for a week.

I find myself noticing all these little things now, the rising tension between characters and in scenes, the scene “cliff-hangers” that draw the reader on, and especially the fresh metaphors and descriptions (how the hell do they come up with those?). The first time I noticed the craft behind the story was when I read Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, his debut novel, and I couldn’t put it down. I paid attention to what he did that compelled me to read on.

Questions. Every chapter didn’t have a cliff-hanger, per se, but each had some question I just had to find the answer to. Same with the Dresden books, though those are more “how is he going to get out of this?”

Part of me misses that reader ignorance: the point of reading the story is to escape and live in another place and time for a bit without caring about anything except what happens to the characters–find and stop the bad guy or get the prize. I can’t do that anymore without noticing things with a writer’s eye. The setup, the character arcs, the tension, the description, the way other authors convey emotion.

Does it ruin a story for me? Only if the author does a middling or lousy job of keeping my interest (and then I analyze why it doesn’t keep me reading). When I notice these things, I try to take mental notes so I can improve my own writing. After hearing Allen Eskens talk about the craft and how he approaches a story, I notice that now in his books and others.

Reading like a writer means missing a little of that magic that readers search for in a good book, the escape where the real world goes away for a while. But reading like a writer makes me appreciate more the bits and pieces of what creates that magic to begin with.

Happy Summer Solstice! Just think, from this point on (until the winter solstice), the days will be getting shorter. Or, don’t think about it. Yeah, probably better for the psyche if we just enjoy now and express surprise later when it’s dark before 8p again.

Write on!

Zoey sleeping on chair


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Automatic writing and plots? #amwriting #nanowrimo #writerscommunity

Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

As I was working on my WIP (yes, THAT one), I realized something. An odd/ad-libbed/spur-of-the-moment aspect of a minor character I created on-the-fly solved a problem I was having with the plot.

A big problem.

It was weird. It made me think of automatic writing, which made me think of one of my fellow authors/bloggers who has just released the last book of her Hode’s Hill series (Congratulations, Mae!) In the first book of the series, Cusp of Night, spiritualism plays a big role, and automatic writing was one facet of that whole movement. Anyway …

Holy crap. I solved one of the problems I’ve been trying to figure out by first creating a minor character I didn’t expect to have and then giving that character a part I didn’t know I needed.

Huh?

See where the automatic writing comes to mind? This sort of thing happens to me on a regular basis. I work through the bigger aspects of the plot, barrel ahead with the mantra, “it’s a crappy first draft, I’ll fix it later”, agonize over the stuff I can’t figure out, then somewhere down the line a piece falls into place, and POOF, the plot becomes more solid, and the story “works”.

It’s like my Muse is doing his job, but his timing is off. Sometimes waay off. *checks for Muse, then in a stage whisper: Psst, I think he’s on a beer run.*

Image by Vicki Becker from Pixabay

As fiction writers, we often have story ideas and plots in our heads. For me, the plot lines often seem pretty straightforward at first. The timelines work, the characters have appropriate motivation, and all is well in the planning stage.

Sometimes in the beginning the plot lines are more like a tangle of yarn that needs to be teased into quasi-order. It’s when things look like they’ll work that you have to keep an eye on those buggers, or they’ll start dodging around like a litter of energetic kittens.

I walk through the timeline over and over, and think I have the threads woven together in some semblance of order. Then I start the first draft.

What seemed to make sense suddenly doesn’t. And of course that realization doesn’t happen until I’m halfway or two-thirds of the way through the draft.

I think the more we read, and the more we practice storytelling and plotting and creating character arcs, the more instinctive we become as writers. I’ve been asked by people how I knew the plot wasn’t working. The only thing I can come up with is “I just knew.”

We know what works because somehow along the way we learned it, even if we haven’t taken a class or gone through workbooks or read Save the Cat or The Writer’s Journey. We can use the tools, whether beat sheets or timelines or whatever your preference, but there’s a part of us we may not be conscious of that knows what pieces and bits to add and when.

And that seems to be the way it works, at least for me. I’ll put something in a story, unplanned but it works, then way later on in the story I’ll write something and think wow, it’s a good thing I added that unplanned thing earlier because that makes this part work.

Magic. Or my Muse. Both. Bottom line, the more you practice, the more you read, the more you learn, the more those writer instincts will help you so you don’t get two-thirds of the way through the draft before you realize the story doesn’t work.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it 😀