Archive for the 'Craft' Category

Monday, November 28th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Earning Your Readers’ Tears

Some of my favorite feedback from readers involves them telling me how much something in one of my stories upset them, or made them cry, or made them happy, or excited, or whatever.  “Why did you kill so-and-so?  I loved that character!  You made me so sad!”  I hear that and think, “Awesome!  You were supposed to feel sad.  That means I did my job and the story is a success!”  If I kill a beloved character and you don’t feel sad, something has gone horribly wrong, don’t you think?

As I write, I’m constantly asking myself:  What experience do I want my readers to have when they read this?  Do I want readers to be pleased?  Outraged?  Frightened? Grossed out?  Turned on?  Joyous?  Depressed?  I have the ability to impact people with my words.  I want them to be affected by my words — otherwise, what’s the point?  If I expect people to enjoy and remember my work, my work must make them feel something.

Another way of putting it:  When I’m evaluating something I’ve written, I asked myself, How are readers going to react to this?  Is that the reaction I want them to have?

I don’t have a formal checklist, but everything that goes into a scene and a story should be designed to affect the reader’s experience.  The vocabulary, the tone, the pacing, the characters’ behavior.  When I write horror, I ramp up the tension.  If I want the reader to be scared, I try to be as gross and shocking as I can.  I want the reader to be afraid that I might actually kill important characters.  In a romance, I need the reader to be worried that the two main characters won’t get together.  This means I have to make sure the reader a) likes the two main characters and wants them to get together, b) the obstacles to the relationship are believable so that the reader is truly anxious.  And so on.

It’s about the building blocks.  You have to ask yourself, how am I going to sell this romance to the reader?  How am I going to get the reader to cheer when the bad guy is defeated?  If I want the reader to cry when something happens, how am I going to build to the scene to earn that sympathy?  This is where studying other people’s writing can help.  Think about books that have made you laugh, or cry, or made you experience some visceral emotional reaction. How can you replicate that in your own work?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White was the first book that ever made me cry, when I was about seven, and I’ll never forget it.  The tragedy of the situation wasn’t just Charlotte’s death, but the entire weight of the friendship between her and Wilbur that had been building through the whole book.  The story spent hundreds of pages earning my tears.

In writing, then, you have two things you have to figure out:  What reaction do you want your readers to have, and then how do you honestly earn that reaction?

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
The Red Pen Strikes Again

It’s a draft.

I turned in the latest Kitty novel yesterday.  Woo!  By my count this is the eighteenth novel I’ve written.  It’ll be the fifteenth published.  (This doesn’t count the three or so I wrote that never saw the light of day.)  That blows my mind. I know I’ve been busy and productive, but as I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes have a hard time focusing on what I’ve done, because I’m always looking at what I still haven’t accomplished.

Eighteen novels, and I feel like I’m still learning.  Exhibit A:  I took a blurry picture of my hardcopy rough draft (a very industrious person could probably suss out some actual text from this, but you’ll hurt your eyes doing it).  I still like working on paper, and here you can see why:  I make a lot of notes.  (I also clipped each chapter together separately to get a sense of length and structure.)  All that red writing — revision notes.  This is a normal part of my process.  I rewrote the book once when I got to the halfway mark and figured out what was really going on.  Then I did it again to make sure everything fit.


For people who ask if it ever gets any easier…well, no.  But I’m a bit calmer about the work, now.  As difficult as the process is, I’ve had plenty of evidence that it works, so I can get through it without pulling my hair out.  Much.

I’ve given myself the next two months to write whatever I want to, before I need to start work on my next contracted novel.  I have a couple of short stories and a couple of novel proposals I want to finish.  I’m really looking forward to working on something new.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 by Candace Havens
Reverse Engineering

A few weeks ago I spoke with Burn Notice executive producer Matt Nix about his writing process. The writers on that show are so good at backing the characters into corners that seem impossible to get out of, and then they have a perfectly plausible way of getting them out of trouble. They do it brilliantly every single week.

Nix says that he uses reverse engineering for his stories. He begins in the corner and writes himself out of it. “The really wonky answer is that if you’re talking about the season arc, that basically stays the same,” Nix says. “What happens in the individual episodes is that the endings tend to be very specific. They are sort of more complicated than people realize. If you think of all the things that need to happen at the end of a Burn Notice episode – you need to answer the question as to why the bad guys aren’t always coming after Michael (Jeffrey Donovan); you need to solve the client’s problem but you can’t let the bad guy go so he can do that to other people. Ideally the problem is solved in some spyish way and not with Michael just whacking someone over the head with a baseball bat. The end needs to feel satisfying, and whatever happens to the bad guy needs to fell appropriate.

“The problem is a lot of times, when I’m breaking episodes myself, I usually come up with the ending first. I kind of know how the problem is going to be solved, and then I kind of reverse engineer it from the end so I don’t back myself into a corner. That happens to be how my mind words. When other people come up with episodes they think of it from the front. They pitch it to me and we’ll get to the end of the third act and I’ll say, ‘Great. What happens next?’ And they’ll say, ‘I don’t know. I was hoping you could help with that.’ My response is just because you can get Michael up a tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can get him down.’ We have to think of some clever way, that we haven’t done before, of getting him out of trouble and it’s a lot easier to think of those from the back end of the story. Otherwise you paint yourself into a corner and you realize your bad guy’s plan is too good and you have no way out of it.”

When I’m teaching Fast Draft, one of the tools I use for writer’s block is to write your ending first. It works the same way as Nix says. It does more than give you a fixed point of reference in your story, it frees you up to be more creative on how you want to get there. There are times when I write a book and the ending is the first thing that goes on the page. I’ll write the last chapter first. When I know where I have to go, it’s easier to get there.

It doesn’t always work that way. My current release, Model Marine (on sale now), began with a first line. “The male models are in jail.” I wrote the next five chapters, and then I had to write the end. I think, for me, I need to know that ending so I can be clear about my characters’ motivations throughout the rest of the book. Knowing the end game, gives you an idea of what your characters are trying to accomplish and how it is they need to get there.

The Demon King and I and Dragons Prefer Blondes are books where I wrote the ending first. My Charmed & Dangerous series begin with prologues, but those prologues are pulled from scenes at the end of the book. So this is something I’ve been doing from the very beginning.

I’m a pantser (write by the seat of my pants), so you plotters may be thinking that you already know where it is you need to go. But as you and I both know, that can change. While you may think you know the end game, writing it down is quite a different story.

I’d like to hear about some of the techniques you like to use when it comes to writing yourself into corners. How do you get yourself out?

And remember, when you comment here your name goes in the hat for an e-reader and lots of gift certificates. Someone who posts today will receive an autographed book.

Friday, October 21st, 2011 by Candace Havens
Whatever Works

Many authors have rituals they do every time they sit down to write. Music, a favorite drink, snacks, candles, a certain typeface, the list of necessary items for the rituals is endless. For me, a big bottle of water and tunes are my basics. Sometimes I light the vanilla or peppermint candle on my desk, especially if my mood is dark. I’ve had to teach myself to write wherever I might be, so I can get by without these things. But I like having them.

I think it’s good for writers to have certain rituals. They say when you go to bed that if you have ritual that signals to your body that it is time to sleep, then you will go to sleep faster and stay that way. I believe the same can hold true for writing. We need to tell our mind and body that this is the time to write.

The last few weeks I’ve discovered something a little annoying. I write more productively when my desk is clean. Sigh. I hate this, because I’m one who is usually comfortable with a bit of clutter on my desk. Unfortunately, that is no longer true. I’m not sure what signaled the change. Usually, before I begin a new project I clean off the remnants of the old one. I’ve done that for years. But now, every few days or so I actually clean off my desk. It’s weird. It’s almost as if I need that clarity.

And maybe that’s the key. I have a lot going on right now, even more than usual. I’ve always been somewhat organized when it comes to work, but I’m even more so now. I have even prioritized my sticky note to-do lists. It’s kind of scary. The psychologist (yes, I actually have a minor in psychology) in me would say it’s a need to make order out of the chaos and to feel like I have some kind of control.

It’s tough to have control when it comes to writing fiction. Your mind has to go to the crazy place if you truly want to create. We say in this business that the only thing you can control is the writing. That’s true to the extent that you need to make your prose the best it can be. But the truth is, the actual process is a little crazy for most folks. There are those who outline each chapter and have a 60 page synopsis, but I think the majority of us aren’t quite that organized.

I’m curious about how other writers work. What do you need to get the words on the page? Do you have a specific rituals that you do before you write? How do you prepare?

Tell me, I really want to know.

Monday, October 10th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
“This should be a novel.”

So there you are, you’ve written a short story.  Short stories don’t come naturally to you, but you worked for weeks on this one, writing and rewriting, condensing and cutting, and you did it.  Then you turned it in to your critique group.  And the most common comment you get back is:  “You should turn this into a novel.”

And you rail and rant to yourself, because you’re already working on three novels, and have another three in the trunk, you don’t have time or brain space to start another, and you really really want to sell some short stories, for the experience and to try for some kind of publishing credit while shopping your three novels around, and in despair you wonder:  Am I really a born novelist?  Am I really not capable of writing a short story?

Well.  I happen to think that everyone can write short stories.  You may naturally gravitate to novel length, but I believe it behooves you to work at other lengths as well.  It’s a skill you can learn, with practice.

If you get the comment, “You should turn this into a novel,” I don’t think it means that you really should turn it into a novel.  It means you’ve packed too much information into a short story, and the scope of your story may be too wide.  Your options are — sure, go ahead and turn it into a novel; or start cutting, not words, but stuff. Characters, backstory, setting.  Narrow your focus.  You may be trying to build an entire city when maybe you need to work on a street, or a room — or maybe even just a wall.

If the story requires numerous characters, and that the reader know all the characters’ back stories (their families, their tragedies, and so on), it’s probably the wrong story to fit in 5,000 or so words.  So, what does a five thousand word story look like?  It’s a moment in time, it’s one decision or event that changes a character’s life.  It’s a slice of life.  It’s a telephoto, not wide-angle lens.

One of the things that prompts a “this should be a novel” critique is a preponderance of details without explanation:  names, events, flashbacks, hints of backstory that make the reader think that there’s far more going on than what’s on the page.  Now, I personally think this is one of the brilliant things about short stories, that there’s usually so much going on between the lines.  But there’s a danger that your story has crossed a line into summary rather than a dramatic portrayal of an event.  If the story leaves the reader confused and asking too many questions, the story may be trying to cover too much ground.

Ask yourself:  What’s the seed that inspired the story in the first place?  Is it an image?  A character?  Is there a way to focus on that seed with just a few characters, and just a moment in time, requiring no back story?  Put boundaries up around the idea:  it’ll take place in just a day, or maybe even just an hour.  Pick one problem or struggle to depict, not a whole series of problems.  Don’t look at these boundaries as limitations, but as challenges.

You can’t tell an epic struggle to regain the throne in a short story.  But you can show an episode in the life of a man struggling to match the expectations placed on him by his legendary father (a confrontation with his father’s greatest admirer, perhaps).  Or the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.  Or a plan that doesn’t go as planned — the fallout of a magical spell gone awry, for example.  The purpose of a short story isn’t necessarily to tell an epic, all-encompassing tale, but to give the reader an intense reading experience.  It can be a chance to focus on emotion and immediacy in a way that an intricately plotted, fast-paced novel can’t.

Thursday, September 29th, 2011 by Candace Havens
Yes, you do have time.

Two weekends ago I taught an all day writing workshop for the Space Coast Authors. (I love those people!) One of the classes I taught was Fast Draft, which I’m also currently teaching online. I came home from Florida fired up and ready to write.

Then life happened. My father-in-law suddenly became ill on Sunday and a few days later he passed. The whole family was in shock. They live a few hours away so there was much rushing around and taking care of business here and there. Then there’s the emotional toll it takes on everyone. Every moment is, “what’s the next thing we have to do?” And you’re doing for other people, so there isn’t a great deal of free time.

But still, I found time to work on my book. I didn’t sit down and write 20 pages a day, but I did use any free moment to think about the book. There were scenes that came up, emotional ones that fed off of what was going on in my real life. I made notes, whenever I could. Sometimes those were on sticky notes that I keep in my purse. Today, I’m sitting down to compile all of those notes and figure out what was what. It’s funny how many there are.

My point, and I do have one, is life is always going to get in the way of writing. Sometimes there may be more extreme things happening, like this last week for me. Those are times when you should give yourself a little grace. But you can still choose to work.

There aren’t many jobs, even in times of bereavement, where you can take off for two or three weeks and it’s okay. The same goes for writing. You may not feel like doing it. But it’s best to throw yourself back into it as soon as possible.

Use all those emotions in your work. Use your writing as therapy. Use it as a way to express yourself. That’s what writing is all about. Yes, we are telling stories, but it’s also a form of expression.

When both of my grandmothers died, writing was my solace. If you go back and look at my first book “Charmed & Dangerous” you’ll see a B story about an older gentleman who has Alzheimers. Bronwyn, my main character, thinks she can help him remember his past. It’s a temporary solution, but a gift he welcomes. My Grandma Clark had Alzheimers and it took her so fast that I wished I could have had a few clear moments with her. She was such an amazing woman and had everything to do with my passion for art.

My Grandma Irby shows up as Helen in that book. She was still alive back then, but the idea of losing her was enough to help me create this fun character. A woman who lived life to the fullest, and my Grandma did that for many years. She was never afraid of a new adventure and she loved to travel. She was also a flirt. I get my sense of adventure from her and it’s the reason Candy Havens (yes, I’m talking about myself in the third person) seldom says ‘no’ to any challenge. Even if it scares the hell out her.

There is never a good time to write. Life always gets in the way. I’d rather be on the sofa watching movies, as much as the next person. But that doesn’t get it done.

If you have a long commute and you have to drive, get yourself a digital recorder or use one of the apps on your phone to take notes. Keep some kind of paper with you at all times. How many times are you stuck in a line waiting at Starbucks, or at the doctors office? How many hours do you spend watching television, going out to eat or reading books? How much time do you spend playing games online or on your phone?

You would be amazed at what you could accomplish in 15 minutes if you really put your mind to it.

What tricks do you use to get yourself to do stuff you don’t want to?

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Candace Havens
You Never Know

When it comes to writing, if someone says, “Can you write this?” I almost always say yes. I like a challenge. I thrive on living outside of my comfort zone. And I think that is a place some of the more creative folks in the industry live. Sure writing what you know gives you a thorough knowledge of your subject, but then how do you grow?

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been going to Grad school the past two years. I wanted to push myself further than I’d ever been. Everyone was shocked when I didn’t go for  creative writing or MFA. But I felt like a humanities degree would make me a more well-rounded human being. I felt like it would stretch me as a writer and as a student of the world.

I was right. I’m only a few months away from that degree and I feel like school has changed my life. I’m interested in so many different things than I was maybe five years ago. It’s even helped me with my day jobs as a TV and Film critic.

But I digress.

Shake it up. That is the best advice I can give you. Don’t write the same old stuff. I mean, hell, if it’s making you money go for it! BUT if you want to challenge yourself as a writer try something new. I’ve been doing that a lot the last few months.

Fen Con asked me to write a Southern Steampunk story a few months ago. I didn’t even know what Southern Steampunk was, but I said yes. I did some research on the elements in steampunk. And then I sat down to write a story. I came up with possibly one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written. Ever. And I hope to make that short story a novel some day. (Oh, and until this one, I’d never written a short story.)

Then I was asked to join a YA anthology, and even though my life was insane and they needed the story yesterday, I said yes. They asked if maybe I could write a ghost story but set it in a different culture. Thanks to grad school I have a new interest in mythology and dug up some Norse stuff that set that story in motion.

Again, I hope to turn that one into a book some day. I LOVE that story and the hero in it.

Okay, so I had to do a thesis if I wanted to graduate. I chose to do a creative one. I’m writing a book about something I know nothing about. It involves a young girl in 1887 Paris. It involves secret societies and art and I love it. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, but I love it.

I’ve had a to do a ton of research, which used to be something I hated, but now I have to make myself stop so I have time to write.

So on top of my regular writing duties, I have three projects I’m really passionate about. It’s not a bad life for a writer. Now if we could add an extra six hours to a day, I’d be in good shape.

Do you shake it up in your chosen profession? Tell me about it. (If you are stripper or prostitute, please keep it PG). :)