I write a lot of different kinds of short stories and flash fiction, but when it comes to novels, I’ve pretty much kept my train on the adventure/mystery track. It’s my comfort zone and the place I run to for longer works.
But I’m stepping out of my comfort zone with my latest work in progress. I’m taking on the challenge of a new-to-me genre.
When I say new-to-me, I don’t mean as a reader, but as a writer. I’ve read plenty of fantasies over the years and am currently reading a wonderful series by Northern Ireland author Stephen Black. As I eagerly await his third book (in edits as we speak), I figured it might be a good time to try my hand at the genre as well.
It has been a tremendous learning experience already.
I hate social media. It’s an addictive rabbit-hole.
I just don’t have time. Social media takes away from my precious writing time.
I’m no good at creating those visuals and posts.
I’ve heard many authors—myself included—express our frustration and dismay at the expectation that we will not only produce wonderful books, but also carry out what amounts to a second full-time job as our own marketing team. Most of us don’t mind holding events, whether live or virtual, where we get to engage with readers. Nor do we mind interviews, written or recorded, where we can talk about our books and our writing process. But what so many of us do hate is the seemingly bottomless pit of social media engagement.
Facebook, with all those reader and writer groups. Instagram. Twitter. Pinterest.
“Likes” and “follows.” Comments and messages and shares.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone else could do all this for us?
Someone else can—for a price, and with a few caveats. Whether they call themselves virtual assistants, social media consultants, or author assistants, there are people who will manage your social media for you.
Everyone loves a good fight, and a good fight scene is arguably the lifeblood of every thriller. Since my writing partner, Jay Holmes, is a forty-five-year veteran of the military and intelligence communities, we are often asked what weapons we prefer for fights.
In truth, Holmes and I both advocate firearms training for the best self-defense, but shooting too many people in books tends to make for boring books. So we’re going to explore a bit more about how common objects can be used in a fight scene.
There is a tricky situation that occurs in the lives of writers. To people who are not engaged in some kind of similar creative pursuit, explaining a difficult day can be met with expressions of disbelief. “You mean sitting in your seat and typing words was hard? Exhausting? Really?”
These people may also not understand why the words of others can hurt, whether that hurt was intentional or not. It can be anything from a bad review to a critique from a well-meaning colleague or beta reader that can make us doubt, stall, quit.
I’ve been on a bit of a Brené Brown kick lately.
[Full disclosure: I gave away nearly a dozen copies of her Daring Greatly, have been listening to every talk I can get my hands on, and recount key points almost daily to my very patient husband.]
Most recently, I’ve been listening to The Power of Vulnerability, which has been great because it is a live recording of Brené and I get to hear that she is a lot like me in her resilience to this whole open and honest thing.
But it has got me thinking quite a bit about what it might mean to be a whole-hearted writer. To start with, these are the guideposts she suggests of whole-hearted living:
Before I turned to fiction, I was a hybrid of academic and therapist. There was a truism in clinical practice that having been in therapy made you a better therapist—a complicated question, impossible to prove, although we always encouraged students to experience therapy themselves before attempting to offer it to others. I got curious and decided to ask the question in reverse: what was it like for people who entered therapy after having spent time as therapists? Could they leave their therapist-minds behind when they moved to “the other chair” and surrender to the client role? As you might guess, it wasn’t so easy.
Now that I’m a novelist, I’m interested in a similar question for writers. Most of us were readers before we became writers, and would probably agree that our reading experience influences our experience as writers. But what happens when a writer opens a book and shifts to her reader-identity? Can we leave our writer-minds behind and surrender to the “reader chair”—and should we?
Once again, I asked. More than fifty people on several writer groups I belong to responded to my question: “How do you read? Do you lose yourself in the story (as a reader might) or read to study how the author did it (as a writer might)?”
The responses can be summarized into three big ideas.
There are a lot of people out there who believe writing is a solitary affair. And to some extent, they are right. As someone who is in her final MFA semester, I can tell you that there are many times when people have asked how they can help and my answer is always they can’t. I have to do the reading. I have to do the writing. The drafting and outlining and brainstorming and editing and revising? That’s all on me.
But there is no way that I write a book on my own. Not even close. No one does.
All you have to do is flip to the acknowledgements section of a book to realize that the act of creation is a collaborative one. Much like the ending credit of a movie, the acknowledgments are where authors share how people helped hone their books (this is also a good place to see who is representing/editing work if you are at that stage of your career).
In order to write well, in order to write authentically, in order to create a story that hits all the markers we hope for, writers need to assemble their villages. I have a few suggestions for how to start or improve a novel’s village.
We might have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a story when we pick up a new book. Most of the time, we can judge that book by its cover – or if not, then by its reviews or word-of-mouth from friends.
Even if nobody else has read it yet, we feel fairly certain that a book showing a rancher and a schoolmarm in a chaste embrace will likely end with the couple getting married. Or a book showing a police badge and some crime-scene tape will likely end with the detective taking the killer to jail.
So if we already know the ending, how can there possibly be any page-turning tension along the way?
A few months ago, my editor and translator colleague Luis Pelayo asked me, “Why aren’t more US authors publishing in Spanish?” He shared a 2019 report titled El Español: Una Lengua Vivafrom the respected Instituto Cervantes, a non-profit organization devoted to the study and teaching of Spanish language and culture. The study states that Spanish is a first language for 483 million people around the world and that in the US, Spanish is the second most learned language at every academic level. What’s more, because of demographical reasons, the percentage of Spanish speaking persons continues to increase.
That’s a lot of potential readers who need some good books in Spanish.
Animal characters are created in all genres, either in cartoon-like or realistic forms. They may be walking, talking substitutes for human characters, or reality-based beings that may or may not be augmented with special abilities. No matter how you incorporate an animal into your story, they should be a memorable character.
Choose Your Animal
Some animals will better fit a particular function in a story. In a reality-based fight scene, a snake probably wouldn’t do as well as a dog or a cat.
Say you are writing fantasy and want a reality-based animal to act as a spy. A bird might work well in this instance, perhaps a raven, as was done in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Ravens are intelligent, playful, and have a sense of humor, having been known to perch on snowy rooftops waiting for people to pass by, and then pushing snow on top of them.
When writing historical fiction, consider researching which animals were popular pets of the era so the animals will be a good fit for the story. Jean Auel conducted an immense amount of research for her brilliant prehistoric fictional Earth’s Children series. She incorporated the domestication of wolves in her work. The main protagonist, Ayla, studies animals in order to hunt for food and learn their habits. Those wolf studies enable her to understand pack behavior and the similarities to the human pack or extended family unit—leading to the domestication of a wolf pup.
One of my favorite animal characters is the dog in Dean R. Koontz’s suspense novel, Watchers. Einstein is a golden retriever, altered at the genetic level by scientists working with the military. This dog has a high intelligence level, psychic ability, and sense of humor along with the characteristics typical of a golden retriever. Einstein functions as a secondary protagonist, a protector, and in a way serves as a comment on human behavior.
Writers are no stranger to pressure. In fact, the entire process of story creation is laden with it: pressure to craft characters that readers will relate to and fall in love with, pressure to pen a story that is fresh and new, pressure to market the story well so it sells and we can keep doing what we love. No problem, right?
*passes out paper bags*
Got your breath back? Good.
Sure, we all wish this career was a bit easier, but the truth is that pressure puts our feet to the fire and that’s when we do our best work.
The more we know, the better our writing becomes, so today I’d like to help with a specific point in the story that is really do-or-die: the opening.
The start of a story is a massive juggling act. We need to…