Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Baking a Genre Pie

My novel can't decide what it wants to be when it grows up so I'm taking a write and see approach. Is it a murder mystery or a romance? Could it be romantic suspense? I'm leaning toward murder as a main course with a side dish of romance, but I'm wondering if I've stirred in too much romance.

This got me started thinking about genres and how much fun playing mix'em and match'em can be. I think the two universal spices are mystery and romance. They are the salt and pepper of the literary world. The onions and peppers. The parsley and mint. You get the idea. Things just taste better with love and danger added.

What are the two things we always hear that a great story needs? Well, it needs a hook. A question that must be answered, a journey into the unknown in search of enlightenment. Spice with a whiff of personal peril and you've got mystery. Nom!

Second, a novel needs compelling characters that matter to us. We want to see them, learn from them, larger than life personalities that we can't look away from. Enter romance, stage left. This is what romance does so well. A romance is all about compelling people (and a little hot nooky, but mostly about the people.) Nom nom!

Romance and mystery work together so beautifully, it seems to me that they are the perfect match. Whether you start with danger as the catalyst for love or spice the intrigue with a pinch of desire, the result is the same: Awesomesauce.

Both genres have a formula that must be followed, most especially the ending. The mystery must have a solution and the romance must have its HEA (Happily Ever After). This could be so limiting and yet these are two of the most popular genres. They account for a large portion of published novels and reading tastes. Why?

I think the familiar framework allows for greater creativity within the rules. Instead of trying to reinvent chicken pot pie, mystery and romance writers perfect the recipe and make it their own, give it their own signature flavor.

My time is limited and I read for entertainment, so I like knowing that my novel will be resolved, that my questions will be answered and that the couple will end up together. I like HEA. I spend enough time worrying about my kids and their future. I don't want to waste my energy worrying about characters in a novel.

What's your favorite genre recipe? Share time!

Friday, August 22, 2008

That Plan's Just Crazy Enough to Work!

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a hardcore outliner. This is partly just because I'm an anal retentive map reader and list maker and partly because my chosen genre requires so much advance planning.

How many times have you picked up a mystery with an awesome premise that starts out wicked awesome and then wanders around to some unsatisfying deus ex machina conclusion? Planning. Bringing a mystery to satisfying conclusion requires planning.

In fact, I usually start with the solution and work my way backwards. It just works for me. In this case, I started with the idea for setting and history. I guess I've read one too many novel set in Regency England and my pitiful brain snapped. Now my office is stuffed with books researching the period and I'm knee deep in my outline/rough draft. (Yes, both at once. More on that in a minute.)

First, I created my primary detective (who is not longer the primary detective) and constructed a cast around her by logically asking myself who belonged in her world. Then I gave them a murder and worked backwards to how it was discovered.

A funny thing happened on this trip. I gave her a best friend, bubble-headed scandle prone Lady Calandra as well as a brother, the quiet but confident Lord Arthur Alsbury, Viscount of Bellingfort and a mother and--well, the minor characters took over. It is now Calandra and Arthur's story. Hunh. Whaddya know. Calandra isn't a bubble-head at all and Arthur knows this. He's in love with her. Oh my.

Rough draft/outline. Yes, I do both at one time. What that means is that as I outline, I write whole scenes and snippets of scenes bridged by long bits of placeholder information such as {scene where Calandra discovers rumours have caused her to be snubbed at social event. Arthur consoles. She crashes event anyway. Much chaos ensues}.

My "outlines" often end up about 20,000 - 30,000 words. It's part outline and part rough draft, but it works for me and most importantly it makes my feeble brain happy. It's the only way I can see the entire structure of my book in front of me, complete with clues cleverly planted and character arcs. Adding history to the mix only complicates things because now I keep finding things I need to research.

I'm sure there is a twelve step program for outliners like me, except that I can stop anytime I want to and I'm not hurting anyone, I swear it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008



Why do I do these things to myself?

I'm a nice person--good to children and animals. I give excellent advice and people often ask my opinion. In fact, I often give excellent advice when it comes to writing. THEN WHY DON'T I FREAKING TAKE MY OWN EXCELLENT ADVICE?????


Ahem. Here is what I have done. My WIP stalled at 20K. No big deal. Done that before. I know that I need to keep pressing and get through it and things will pick back up. So what have I done instead of being a good little writing soldier and doing my duty for God and Country?

I started another WIP.

All I can say in my defense is that I got this idea and it would not let go. The characters appeared in my head and would not shut up. They followed me around for days, telling me their life stories and having witty conversations with one another. Two of them fell in love (which surprised me because I never would have seen these two together and yet they make sense and it is so sweet.)

I fought the good fight. I did. Honest. But in the end I was weak and started typing. I emerged 4,000 words later with aching wrists and the trembles. I'm obsessed with this story and these characters and they are something unlike anything I've written before. I don't write historicals and yet here I am writing a regency mystery and loving it.

Whoa! Go figure.

Back to my story:

Lady Calandra is in a panic. Her almost betrothed is dead, the police suspect her of murder and even if she is not arrested, she is so tainted with scandal that she may never be married. She has only recently recovered enough from last season's scandal to find her place in society again and secure an engagement to Marquess Westborn, Thomas Lynton only to have him murdered in his bed a few days later at a weekend party where she was expecting his proposal. Death by poisoned chocolate. Now she has no bridegroom and few prospects.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first of her suitors to suffer misfortune. Last year's scandal was the shooting of Robert, Earl of Camdenshire, in an apparent hunting accident shortly before he was to propose to Calandra. She was very sorry and it was truly an accident on her part, but alas the Earl still walks with a limp.

Things seem dire when rumors abound that Calandra might have had a hand in Thomas' murder, so she falls upon the only help that is offered. Her dearest friends, siblings Julia and Arthur Alsbury aren't about to let Calandra be falsely accused and vow to do everything in their power to help solve the crime themselves. As the duo uncover the shocking truth the Marquess was killed to suppress, Arthur is in danger of revealing his own most intimate secret, that he has loved his friend Calandra since childhood.

I'm having a riot of a time with these people. I know I should go back and try to finish the other WIP, but I just can't. I'm actually dreaming about these characters.

Well, I'm off to research strychnine. Poison is such a fun murder weapon. How is it possible that I have never used it before?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Whizzing on Bestsellers

I understand not liking an author. They make both chocolate and vanilla for a reason. What I don't get is the urge some folks have to raise a leg and whizz on anyone having success. It goes hand in hand with the common lament that So much of what they print nowadays is crap. There are too many books being published and most of them are garbage.

The unspoken follow up is of course Why won't they publish my tomes of deathless prose? I'm twice as good as the piles of poo they call urban fantasy/romance/mysteries/insert genre of choice.

JR Rowling did nothing more than make a mish mash of familiar tropes smushed up with too many adverbs and dialogue tags. Whizz!

Dan Brown is derivative and silly and his characters describe themselves while looking in the mirror. Whizz!

James Patterson writes twenty word chapters and the female characters are more plot device than woman. (okay, I'll give you the last one. He's not my cup of tea.) Whizz!

It seems that I can't go for a week without someone decrying the general state of publishing and the lack of quality product. Get over it.

Seriously, there is a reason McDonald exists. I enjoy fine dining and an excellent steak. I like swiss chocolates and truffles. I like chicken nuggets and Hershey bars too. There is room on the shelf for them all.

The reason things are bestsellers are because people like them. I like Harry Potter and enjoy JK Rowling's writing style. I get sick of the nasty, bitter "why should she be rich and famous when she isn't any better than I am" talk. Face it. She ignited something with Harry Potter and rode that rocket to the moon. Good for her.

There is (IMHO) no such thing as manuscripts that "deserve" to be published or don't "deserve" to be published. Editors don't make decisions that way and there is no reason for them to. Here is a shocking revelation, but they publish things that they like and that they think people will buy. Shocked? It gets even more amazing. "Deserve" has nothing to do with the process. It doesn't matter if the author is a lovely person, what the author has sacrificed or how hard they have worked. It's about the novel. (I'm talking specifically about novels and not NF where the author and qualifications make a huge difference.)

I've heard that editors don't care about books and I'm telling you that nothing is farther from the truth. They love them, adore them, have a passion for the business. Business. Yes, it's a business and they are looking for things they think people will like. You may not like books about boy wizards, murderous albinos, or serial killers, but enough people obviously do. When an author strikes a chord, they can go from struggling to the bestseller list.

Some books get to the bestseller list because of the author's great backlist, regardless of whether this new book is great or even adequate. That is okay. I'm at peace with that. Bestsellers make a convenient target for snark.

It's perfectly valid to not like an author for specific reasons [and for the record, this isn't about book reviews] I don't get Patterson. But it really isn't my job to announce that he's crap and that anyone who reads him should be ashamed for perpetuating such dreck and damnit we should yank his books in favor of quality literature. People like him. They are entitled to without me taking a whizz on them for it.

It's easy to feel jealous. I know there are times when I read something and know in my heart that I write as well as this author. This gives me hope in a strange way. It isn't that this author "took my slot". It means I still have a chance. People with my skills are being published and I have faith that I will too.

Thus ends my rant. Are blogs great? I can take a whizz here instead of doing it on the people annoying me.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Who Saw That One Coming?

Some things don't go according to plan. Just ask the French Men's 4 x 100 Relay Team. See, they were supposed to win. Everyone knew they were going to win. They knew it. The commentators knew it. The Press knew it--partly because the French team had been talking smack, like how they were going to "smash the Americans", their next closest competitors. Evidentally Jason Lezak didn't know this because he swam the race of his life, shattering the world record and catching the French team on the last lap. It was a staggering performance that left the Water Cube rocking and Michael Phelps with an uncharacteristic display of joy as the Americans cheered their unlikely win. The French team stood around looking stunned as they had been slapped by the Clue-By-Four of Life.

That's why they actually have the race and don't just hand out medals based on who is supposed to win. The best laid plans yadda yadda yadda. Writing is like this too. (You just knew I would get to that, didn't you?)

My characters aren't behaving. Understand that I'm not one of those nuts who draws pictures of her muse and holds conversations with her imaginary characters. Nope. I'm a believer in the writer being in control of the story, but I'm telling you that these stupid characters won't mind me at all. I've threatened and cajoled and spanked them all and sent them to bed with no supper and they still refuse to mind me, the willful things!

I had it all set up for my villian, with red-herring villians sprinkled along the way. Who is the baddie? The handsome spoiled prince or his equally handsome spoiled brother (and the heir to the throne)? Gah! Why won't the rotten spoiled princes behave? First, the heir to the throne refuses to be handsome and impressive. He's a nerd. He can't sit a horse. He has a weak chin and beady eyes. He runs away to hide when the hunting party is attacked. FAIL! He's going to make a terrible ruler, but he's not the bad guy and if I'm being perfectly honest, the little twerp has grown on me.

Yep, Daedan is a twerp, but at least Rhon is being handsome. He would make an impressive ruler. He's tall and behaves nobly in a fight. He's brave, but impetuous. We have a winner. Yippee. Too bad that he's stupid and I'm going to have to kill him.

I can make it work. I can. I think. Not quite the clash of the titans I had hoped for with Prince Nerd and Prince Bonehead. How about you? Are your character playing well with others or snorting milk at the lunch table? Are they memorizing their times tables or shooting spit wads?

You don't always get what you want. (Thank you, Rolling Stones!) But if you try, you might get what you need.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

3 Ways Writing is Complete Awesomesauce on Top

Every gig has its perks. Cops don't give other cops speeding tickets. Doctors get free drug samples from RX companies. Golf Pros play free golf. Secretaries bring home free pens and paperclips (Seriously--I can't be the only one who appreciates that perk. Free PENS people!!!) Today I was reminded of some of the sweet joys of writing. So here they are in no particular order.

3 Ways in Which Writing is Complete Awesomesauce on Top

1. Everything is research. Why is this awesome? That book on medieval weaponry? Research! I must have it. It doesn't matter if I'm actually writing a medieval historical novel. I might want to and thus would need that book which I might never find again. Better buy it now. Too much time spent online? Research! An amazing show on the Discovery Channel? I need it on DVD. Research. You never know! A trip in a submarine? Book it. Research. Was I flirting with that waiter? Research, I swear it! Star Wars action figures? Of course I had to buy them. How else can I block out my intergalactic battle scenes? Oooh, let's take archery lessons. Well, of course it's research. Repeat after me: Everything is research.

2. Murder is Legal. Okay, strictly speaking--it still isn't legal, but where else can you kill off people you hate without all the blood and the inconvenience of the police showing up at your door. Not to mention all those legal fees. People who piss me off in real life end up in my books and it usually isn't pretty. Case study? The girl who bullied my kid in kindergarten. She was a rotten, horrible child and made his life hell for months. He was afraid to hit a girl and too ashamed to tell. Little bitch. But I got even with her. Oh yes I did. Her fate? She became a hooker (or at least she did in my story) who ran afoul of a serial killer and suffered a grusome demise. Parts of her surfaced in dumpsters around the city until she was finally identified by her finger prints. Hah! Take that! As
JKcates said on Absolute Write: "That's part of the fun of writing is putting people in it we know and doing horrible things to them. Its like the Sims without the graphics." Amen.

3. You can do it in public without getting arrested. Don't underestimate how wonderful this is. Writing is portable. All you need is a pen and paper. You can write on your desktop, your laptop, in a fine moleskin notebook, spiral pad, on the back of an envelope, on anything. You can write with a $350 Faber Castell Guilloche Black Chevron, a $1 Bic, a #2 Pencil or a broken scrap of crayon with the paper peeled off. Only the words matter. You can write anywhere and anytime (well, almost. I won't elaborate. You understand.) I do some of my best writing at the soccer fields while the kids run drills. Drills are boring. Drills aren't games. They're just...drills. Yawn. In fact, my novel up at Trunk Novels.com was written outside a bar while waiting for my 20th high school reunion and at the soccer fields.

If you think about it, those are some pretty damn good perks. Okay, now it's time to give me your awesomesauce on top reasons for being a writer. What do you love?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A big fangirl Squeeeeee!

So I've done a fair bit of ranting lately and just so you know I'm not really a bitter woman, I'm going to rave for a change. Specifically, I'm going to rave about some awesome world building. Fans of kicking-ass-and-taking-names-urban-fantasy heroines must check out Ilona Andrews series set in Atlanta. The first book is Magic Bites.

This is Atlanta like you've never seen it. The name-taking heroine is Kate Daniels, a mercenary in dystopian Atlanta where magic comes and goes in flares. Kate's job is to clean up paranormal messes and her current task is more like a vendetta. Her guardian has been murdered and a pack of undead critters are on the loose. She must learn to work with the sexy but uber scary Beast Lord (pack leader of the shape-shifters)and the controlling, rule obsessed Order (the official government agency which handles paranormal enforcement) to achieve her goals (catch a killer and save the world).

I picked this book up to take on vacation and devoured every delicious bite in two days. As soon as I returned home, I ordered the next book, Magic Burns, and crossed my fingers that it would be just as good. It is. Yummy!

What makes this series so appealing is the world building. The dialogue is snappy and the characters are fascinating--though I don't believe I would have any of them over for tea. But the world. Atlanta has been trashed by the tides of magic that push and pull at the city. Buildings have toppled and the landscape twists and morphs while all manner of beasties and ghouls prowl the shadows. I love the glimpses into the organized societies of these creatures. Everything works together so beautifully. These are not seperate pockets of society, but all the groups merge and blend and relate to one another so that you can see the past history.

Kate didn't just wake up one day deciding to kick ass. She isn't an innocent thrust into a world she can't understand. She is a product of her environment and has valid reasons for having chosen her path. The characters all belong to this world. You couldn't pick one of them up and move them somewhere else. They belong right where they are. That is so rare.

The magic has been imagined in meticulous detail. It works. It makes sense. And the rules are different when the magic is up versus when the "tech" is up. It's brilliant.

I seriously can't say enough good things about this series. I only hope she can maintain this fascinating world without fading into another case of Good Authors Gone Bad.

I will be watching and waiting with a slight string of drool from the right side of my mouth until her next book.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Disposable Villians

Warning: A little spoilerific of Mummy III (but not really and you know you aren't going for the plot anyway).

Okay. So I blogged about Teh Great Virgin Trope in romantic literature, so it is only fair to spread the attention around. I have another rant, this time about plastic, interchangeable villians. You know exactly what I mean. I don't have to describe them. They are the mustache twirling, scenery chewing, heroine kidnapping, Baddy McBaddies for no other reason than they are evil.

Pure evil. Why? Maybe they feel they were slighted in the past or they hunger for power, but the excuse is always flimsy and out of proportion to their sheer badness.

"What do you want to do tonight, Brain?"

"The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world."

Seriously, what is it with the villians bent on world domination. Why? Why the whole world? Why not just England? Maybe Texas? What are they going to do with the world when they get it?

I just saw the Mummy III. It was unimaginably awful. I'm a big fan of campy adventures, but this wasn't entertaining. The plot...well...there wasn't one. Every device known to man (including a 2,000 year old virgin who wears lip gloss, knows kung fu, speaks Yeti and apparently understands ballroom dancing. I swear I'm not making this shit up.) is included in this big screen atrocity, most especially the disposable villian. Actually, there are multiple disposable villians and none of them made any sense. The dead emperor wants to raise his dead army and destroy everyone in the world and take over. What's he gonna do with this empty world? IDK. Got me.

He is aided in this quest by some modern day general who wants to serve him and help him take over the world. Why? IDK.

The general also gets his very own henchman (or henchwoman rather) to assist his nefarious purposes. She's got a nifty scar and mad skills and she's fiercely loyal enough to leap to her death when the general gets his just desserts. Why? IDK. None of this is ever explained.

You know you're in trouble when the best part of a movie is the ten minute info dump at the start. I think I might have actually enjoyed a movie that explored the character of General Ming and the circumstance that led to his betrayal of the emperor, but alas--Ming was dead in the space of ten minutes and the movie was downhill from there.

So the point is that I'm taking extra pains with my villian. She's likeable. She means well. She has noble motives, but twisted means to achieve them. She's a part of the story (I hope) not just pasted in whenever I need a little conflict to spark things along. After all, she is the Empress Consort and her son should have been the heir. It was really a fluke that a lesser wife gave birth to a son first. That should never have happened and the villian's son would make a much better ruler anyway. So a murder to fix that inconvenient fact wouldn't really be so bad now, would it?

She's not bad. She's just written that way.