First Person Works for Me

When I started my Nano project this past November, I was shocked at how easy it was for me to capture the voice of my protagonist. But there my character was, flesh and blood, breathing life on the page. I wondered why can’t it always be like this? And I asked myself why things were coming together so smoothly for this particular story.

To some extent, I think it has to do with the genre I’m writing – YA Contemporary – compared to my other projects in historical romance and speculative fiction. Instead of imagining the future or envisioning the past, I’m drawing on direct experiences and emotions from my own years as an angsty teen (with a fictive spin of course). Because of this, I emphasized with my characters right out of the gate instead of having to get to know them first before I’m able to direct them on the page. Big difference.

I’m also writing the YA novel in first person, where all my other novels have been in third person limited. Maybe that also contributed to the ease of subsuming myself into the world of the main character and finding their voice.

Based on feedback and my own instincts, I know character voice and reader empathy are weak points in my other stories. I’m just not going deep enough. And for a long time, I wasn’t sure what more I could do besides revising and reworking until the words blurred into nothingness. I made progress, yes, but it’s an arduous time-consuming process.

But now I think I know how to tackle this issue: by writing in the first person, even when I know I’ll revert back into 3rd person at some later stage of the project. By stripping away the artifice of she’s and he’s and making it all about me me me, I hope I’ll be able to strengthen my own engagement with my characters and up the emotional intensity and interest for my readers.

I can’t always control what genres I write in – stories just are – but I can control the POV I use when drafting. And that, my friends, is my New Years resolution. What’s yours?
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Feedback Frenzy

I’m always vexed to learn I’m not perfect.

Yesterday was no different when I received my feedback on my entry for the Golden Rose contest. I already knew I wasn’t a finalist but that was ok since I’d be getting back critiques from three different judges (two published, one unpubbed). I chose to enter this contest for that very reason because there’s no one who writes romance let alone historical romance in my writing groups. So with this contest, I would finally be getting critiques from my so-called peers.

Overall my scores were pretty good, confirming my gut feeling that I’m close and getting closer everyday. But where one judge liked my secondary characters, another thought they were two-dimensional. Where one liked my clean prose but thought I had no style, the other thought my style effectively conveyed mood and tone. One thought my storyline tried and true, another compelling. Hmm…

But two things the three judges had more or less in consensus:

  •  I’m still doing more telling than showing in a few instances
  • After an opening scene chock full of external conflict, internal conflict takes over and affects the overall pacing.

No bueno. But instead of a “I’m just not that into your book,” this time I have actionable advice I can use on another revision. All for 50 bucks. I’ll take it.

One thing I found interesting about this whole process was the unpublished judge was harsher than the two published judges. Resulting in a difference of about 10 points. Maybe she didn’t get the story; maybe she’s still a bit green when it comes to craft and critique. But I have to wonder if we unpublished masses are harder on each other because there’s so much competition out there these days. Manuscripts must be perfect like never before for writers to break into the market. A sobering thought.

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From the Revision Trenches

(or How to Make Layering Work for You)

I’m back at work revising my historical romance novel. Again.

I let it sit most of the spring and summer. During that time I had a request from an editor (who I still hope to hear back from some day) and had rather encouraging rejections from the two agents I’ve queried so far.

I also entered the first couple of chapters into a historical fiction and a historical romance contest – not for fame and glory but for the guaranteed feedback that came with the entrance fee. The historical romance contest is still pending (fingers crossed!) and the historical fiction contest announced the winners earlier this month. I didn’t place, but I did get my critique back – full of good’s and very good’s for all aspects evaluated (POV, character development, dialogue, historical accuracy, grammar, etc.).

While that made me feel all warm and fuzzy, the person who evaluated my work did not give me any suggestions on how to improve, which little-naive-me was counting on. So I’m left with a glowing critique, no accolades, and no where to go. I’m hoping my feedback from the other contest will be a bit more enlightening so I will be able strengthen my MS even more in time for the Golden Heart.

In preparation, I’m going through the MS chapter by chapter. Tinkering, tightening, and fixing the little typos that (STILL!) keep cropping up. I’m also focused on heightening tension and emotion throughout the story. My scene intros and outros are pretty strong already – provocative breaks that should induce page turning and openings that immediately ground the reader in POV and place.

So now, I’m just need to make sure the scenes, from start to finish, sing. Easy, right?

I’ve discovered during this round of revisions that I have a tendency to understate things. When it comes to the romance genre, this isn’t a good strategy. You want the reader to experience every emotional high and low. They should be put through an emotional wringer over the course of the story so the ending provides the closure they’re craving. That’s not possible if you are always downplaying actions and reactions like me.

So throughout my MS, I’m looking for places where I haven’t capitalized on the potential the story offers. Then I revise it, primarily using a technique called layering.When you layer, you are forced to look at what you have already written and see what is missing. Once you have your answer – whether you need more dialogue, insight into your character’s thoughts and so on – you have to recast the scene to incorporate the missing pieces. This iterative process often results in stronger scenes that operate on multiple levels – a win every time.

Here’s a section from my novel. Alex, the hero, grabs the heroine and backs her into the wall to confront her. Her response: “At least this time you did not hurt my injury,” like he did earlier when his temper got the better of him and he grabbed her injured shoulder.

Example 1

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” He noted the girl’s disappointment when he did not lessen his hold on her and leaned closer into her face. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

Reads ok. We get a sense of Alex’s remorse and that the girl is goading him a bit to get him to back down, but he doesn’t. But I wanted to make it a bit stronger, so I layered in a bit more of what Alex is thinking during the scene:

Example 2

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that, but he pushed it aside. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” The girl frowned when he did not lessen his hold on her. So she would play games with him? He swallowed the blind anger that reared up inside him once more. He leaned into her face, his eyes holding hers. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

IMHO, this scene is now much stronger with Alex’s internal thoughts leading the reader through the confrontation. Not a whole lot was added, just a line or two and some general tinkering, but the dynamics are clearer and the tension is heightened.

I’m not surprised I have to spend so much time on this, as I tend to write spare the first time around and need to bulk up in later passes. When I finish a draft, I have action and dialogue covered, but that’s about it. Then I need to layer in movement, setting details, description grounded in the senses, and emotion. It’s just how I tend to write (which you can read more about in Anatomy of a Story). My problem now is pushing myself to take sections that work well already and make them awesome.

I have to keep reminding myself not to settle for good enough.

I encourage you to read The Art of Layering, a fabulous overview by romance author Renee Ryan, for more examples and tips to apply layering techniques to your own work. I stumbled upon Ryan’s article thanks to a post on Romance Writer’s Revenge.

What are your tips and tricks when it comes to revision time?
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Exorcizing Demons

You may recall from my list of WIPs in my post “How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?” I recently completed the first draft of a science fiction novel.

It’s SF in the sense that the story’s set in the future. There’s no space or time travel, no aliens, no cyborgs. There are advances in technology, of course, but not to the extent you see in other works. The story is not apocalyptic, dystopian, or steampunk. It is simply a story, set in the future, where a new technological development has cultural and political ramifications. It sounds kinda dry when I say it like that – but it’s not, I swear! But needless to say, I’m still a long way from having a logline for this story.

I ripped through the first draft in record time (for me). But after letting the story sit and having my husband (and beta reader in disguise) look it over, I realized what I had written was a far cry from what I had originally envisioned. Not unsalvageable, mind you, but definitely different.

Oh, and I should mention the demons… The demons that have completely taken over my manuscript.

For starters, I did not intend to write a story with overt political overtones. In the beginning, I saw the story as a “simple” caper set in the future. But as I started digging deeper into this future of my creation, the politics became harder and harder to escape.

Then there was the pesky dynamic that crept up between my two lead (POV) characters. A romantic subplot that is admittedly not well executed. When I was drafting, I let the story happen as organically as possible. I had a general understanding of the where I wanted the plot to go, but there was a lot of leeway – hence the over-the-top romantic arc I have to deal with now. Think cheesy. Think cringe-worthy. After reading the draft, my husband had to ask if I was writing a romance set in the future or an actual SF novel. Ouch.

In my defense, I think all the mushy stuff was a carryover from my work on my recently completed historical romance novel, but that’s no longer a viable excuse. Nope. Now is the time to exorcize all the demons from my manuscript. It’s time to revise. This is hardcore.

First up, I must minimize the romantic overtones. I don’t mind the characters getting together, but I want their romance to be understated and complement the rest of the novel – not take it over entirely. Next, given the political thrust of the story, I need to add another POV character as a political foil to my two leads that provides another perspective. This will help with worldbuilding and hopefully pull some of the attention away from the romantic subplot. Since I also have a third-act, one-dimensional villain, I’ve chosen him as my third POV character to make him more sympathetic and justify his actions.

All these changes are going to take a lot of work. Adding roughly another third of content and reworking the material I already have. But it will be worth it. With the demons gone, the story can only get stronger.

Demons, begone! How do you banish your demons from a WIP?

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No Character? No Problem

Creating fully realized characters is perhaps one of the biggest difficulties I have while writing. Most of my ideas start from some imagistic scene that appears in my mind’s eye. Sometimes it’s even snatches of dialogue that stick in my ear like a catchy pop song until I give in and write about it. But what is absent is character. All I usually have are hazy impressions, maybe a suggestion of relationships or context fueling the scenario, but nothing more.

I’m no writing god – my works don’t spring fully formed out of my forehead.

My first novel started out with a scene in a hayloft between my romantic leads. I didn’t know any particulars – the who, what, where, when, and why. But I knew I wanted to render what was so vividly in my head into words. Constructing a story around that scene was more difficult than I expected. First I had to figure out just who my characters were. By that I mean their circumstances – the individual personality traits had yet to reveal themselves. And that required research since it became clear that my story could only be set in the medieval past.

Then once I had a stronger sense of who my characters were – a landless Norman knight and an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman – I had to figure out how to craft a story around the moment in the hayloft – it wasn’t a scene strong enough for a beginning or ending, so I would need to create those as well. In plotting my story, I created character backstories that explained their respective situations at the start of Chapter One. Those backstories were hugely useful for identifying character motivations and determining their choices over the course of the rest of the novel.

When I finished my first draft – a feat in and of itself – I wondered if I knew my characters well enough. I knew what they looked like, I knew how they would behave in dramatic situations, their mannerisms, the cadence to their voices… but did I make that clear to the reader? Did I provide enough telling details so the reader would get the same visceral impressions I get whenever I visualize scenes from my novel? And did they not just see my characters but identify with them, feel what they feel over the course of the story, highs and lows, and all that?

Perhaps it is because I know character was one of the last aspects that fell into place for me in the writing and revising of the story that I am so sensitive to its success. Now that I have revised my story for the umpteenth time, and written a few more along the way, I am at a place where I can look back at this first novel and more objectively evaluate it. Of course there were a couple of novice writer issues that I have since fixed, but it is one of the most fully conceptualized works I have written, and although I may tweak it time and again in between deciding the next steps I need to take for getting it published, I am pleased with how it turned out, characters and all.

Character is still one of the last pieces that falls into place for me. But I try not to let that deter me from working through that oh-so-important first draft. And here are the steps I rely on to keep writing:

Write that first inspirational scene – I force myself to write whatever it is that serves as the kernel of my story, and in the course of capturing the scene or conversation, I pull in other details, usually those I wasn’t even consciously aware of. I don’t worry too much about my lack of character awareness at this stage. But any personality traits or hints of backstory that I do bring in at this stage are instinctual and often hugely influential at later stages. This scene may not be a keystone for the story structurally, but it is the keystone for the story’s development.

Figure out how that key scene fits into the larger story – This takes a long time, lots of thought, and for me, lots of research. I would not call myself a bona fide plotter, but I do like having an idea of where I am going when I am writing. And one of the things I like to identify early on is the beginning of my story.

Link the beginning of the story to the key scene – This way I can write the beginning and keep writing until I link it to the scene I’ve already roughed out. At this point I start thinking about my character backstories and what brings them to the start of the story, but there are still a number of blanks that I just have to accept and move on – otherwise I risk bringing my momentum to a halt. Usually by the time I have connected the beginning to the keystone scene, I have lived in my characters’ heads for long enough that I have a stronger sense of who they are and where they are going.

Finish the rest of the story – Completing the first draft of any story as quickly as possible is common advice, and I try to follow it to the best of my ability. Character traits may still be emergent, more details more clearly articulated, at this stage, but my goal is to finish the story first and foremost.

Determine character arc over the course of the story – This is where I pause, read over everything, and try to see what the combination of characters’ description, dialogue, and choices tells me about them. Are there inconsistencies from where I started and where I ended? Does this signal character growth or traits I need to revise for consistency? Are there places where I need to include more/less backstory to justify behaviors? Are there places, particularly in the beginning, that I need to make my characters’ actions and behaviors more clearly defined?

Refine, refine, refine – Here I address other manuscript issues in addition to character development: smoothing out scenes, ratcheting up transitions, sharpening dialogue, polishing description, etc. Changes at this point are to strengthen character or action while eliminating sluggish phrasing and grammatical errors.

I am a firm believer that even if you don’t know your characters very well at the start of a story, it is ok because by the end of the first draft, you will have a clearer, more intimate understanding. As long as you keep writing, the characters will emerge out of an accumulation of choices, reactions, mannerisms, and dialogue. You may need to scour your manuscript for consistency in the end, but not knowing your character initially is no reason to not write your story.

You will find you know more about them than you thought you did.