Lessons from My Reading

M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer, blogs about the books she reads--mostly fantasy and mystery authors whose books catch her eye and keep her interest. Nothing so formal as a book review, just chats about what she liked. Theodoratus also mutters about her own writing progress or ... lack of it.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Writing Success: Using Cliches and Tropes

Is there anything more cliched than a fairy tale? The story lines from the Brothers Grimm get recycled over and over -- with varying results, both artistically and financially. One of the most fun reworking of fair y tales, IMHO, is Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Series. While my computer was held hostage by my bedroom furniture [while getting to carpeting] -- I reread The Fire Rose [It was the easiest to grab.] for the ????? time.

Yeah, I admit I've reread her Elemental series over and over and enjoy each volume each time I read it. The question to ask is why on earth Why?

I'm sure you've already guessed the answer. It's the way she twists various cliches to make them her own and support her storyline -- in this case it's Beauty and the Beast. Some examples:

the poor girl all alone in the world:
In The Fire Rose, Lackey sets her story in the good old early 20th century USA. The setting is is academe, both institutional and private. Rose is a brilliant scholar whose fight for an advanced degree ends when her professor father dies. She uses her skills as an ancient linguist to escape her predicament ... only to fall into a deeper pit.

the werewolf:
The hero is the usual alpha male egomaniac. While he doesn't flex his abs, he does something more interesting. He turns himself into a half-man, half-beast by trying to use earth magic when he's a Fire master. The hero also learns from his act of hubris which includes accepting Rose as an equal.

magic base on the four elements:
Lackey's magical system -- based on fire, air, earth, and water -- is fairly simple, but it works within its logic. When the hero tries to break it, he is punished. [See above.]
societal conventions fill the pages:
The villains are even more arrogant the hero, and don't learn any lessons. Loved the way she used A. E. Crowley's arrogance to set up an alternative form of magic to break the rules of mastering the elemental magic.

Perhaps one of the more interesting is how Lackey uses xenophobia as an illustration of tolerance. The setting, San Francisco of 1906, provides Chinese traditions as a counter to the European magic system. It also provides allies to help the protagonists stay alive, against the way Chinese were treated in California at the time.

Out of her magical systems, Lackey gives a neat alternative explanation of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Yeah, I realize that there are lots of story line cliches mentioned above. Doesn't matter to Lackey though. She makes the whole story fresh. 

May you write as well as she, them.
 
Advice:
Want your writing to be a success? Jonathan Gunson at Bestseller Lab has one word for you: Click here to learn more about what he thinks is the hottest tip for writing success

I would argue that there is another piece of one word advice: Write.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Avoiding Cliches: Some Writing Crutches to Build Your Story Line

Cliches are the bane of a writer's existence. They things pop up in the words we use. They undermine the characters we build.  The darn things even undermine our story lines, because you structure your stories like so many other writers have done. So the question: how to avoid cliches. Here are a couple links that struck me as helpful.

What can be more cliche than a private eye? We can't all come up with a Harry Dresden, but we can give our private eye ... something different to investigate.  Reed Farrel Coleman blogged on Ten Reasons to Hire a Private Eye at the Writing PIs.  Once your main or secondary character is chin deep in the investigation, you can throw odd ball complications at her/him. It's the "odd ball" that gives your story its freshness.

Another way to avoid cliches is choosing a setting that is uniquely yours. We all have places we know better than most people.  We know the possibilities for danger that are unique to that place and its hidden beauties. When we weave them into our stories, we create a sense of freshness.  MaryLu Tyndall did a guest blog on Rachelle Gardner's blog that gives you some hints on different ways to weave a settings into your stories ... until the setting becomes a character in its own right

I would have had another set of good hints, but the blog had all sorts of dire warnings about lifting info from it that I decided not to link to it. Which maybe reminds us, we should think twice about what we put in our blogs. Basic question you should ask yourself: Do you mind complete strangers knowing about what you write?

And then, there are my snarly elves. I've gotten the revisions done for two-thirds of "For the Price of a Pig". At least, I think I tied up the loose ends. I even have the last third of the story outlined in my rough fashion.  -- Mainly writing down some suggestions actions that might take place. Of course, everything is subject to change. 

At least, I've worked the black tailed pig into the ending of the story. My daughter still won't like it because she thinks the pig should be magical. I think she spent too much time in Wales.

Now, I get to resolve the story line ... and introduce the love interest ... only I can't decide which guy it'll be.  --  That doesn't mean I'm done. It still has to be critiqued and rewritten, yet again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cozy Is as Cozy Does: Making Your Story Different

One of my favorite forms of fantasy is the cozy mystery. Why fantasy? Because I can't imagine any murder being so charmingly serene. Of course, the "detective" doesn't do the nitty-gritty stuff like collecting evidence. They just shift through the tangled relationships to solve the crime.

Recently read two cozies back to back: Jenn McKinlay's Due or Die and, one of local authors, Bailey Cates' Brownies and Broomsticks. The similarities of both books give some insights on how to twist a trope to come up with something different.

Most American-set cozies I've read seem to be craft oriented in some way. Due, the second book in the series, focuses on a group of friends having a weekly crochet project session at the local library. The MC, the library director, is a recent immigrant to the New England coastal community when one of the library board's husband gets murdered. McKinlay sets up a number of red herring suspects for the MC to shift through with complications coming from a powerful northeaster and love interests. Oh, and I forgot the dog who also plays his part in solving the crime. The plot threads are nicely tangled but get sorted in the end. 

Brownies and Broomsticks is the first of Cates' new series. Again, the MC is a new resident who moves to Savannah to help in her aunt and uncle's new bakery. Yes, artisan baking is a craft ... even when you don't pay a school an arm and a leg for the credentials. Complications here is the MC is introduced to her family's background as hereditary witches and love interests. In between baking scrumptious desserts, the MC tries to solve the murder of the "town bitch" when her uncle is the prime suspect. 

All of which, raises the question in my mind of where do these amateur sleuths find the time to detect. I don't do the 9-to-5, yet I have trouble keeping up with all my writing stuff -- and, I don't have any deadlines.

Neither Cates nor McKinlay need help writing scenes. Yeah, I'm sure they rewrite and rewrite, but the results hook. The books were both 2-AM-reads. If you want help writing scenes or just a check list to see if you covered the bases, C. S. Lakin recaps her blogs on writing that crucial first scene: Five Months on the First Scene. I thought it was worth printing out to underline and study. Even though my pig intro scene is liked by my preliminary readers.

Need a whole week's worth of blogs on writing?

Roni Loren's Fill Me In Friday runs them more regularly than I do. Here's the link to this week's selection.  There's some good stuff here. Came up to the computer in between fixing food sessions [farmer market strawberries] to find the computer still on Twitter. When I check my tweets, from this link and was absorbed until I had to got down and start the artichoke.

On a personal note.
The Poudre River Canyon is suffering from its fourth and largest forest fire in four weeks:
over 41,000 acres and 5% contained in spite
of five planes and a bunch of helicopters.
Where is the Northwest Coast rain when you need it?
I'm willing to give New Mexico the rains from the Mexican hurricanes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Taming Those *#@!& Words: Some Useful Links

The job of every writer is to pile up the words, good, bad, delicious or indifferent. But, what do you do when the words don't come?

One of the sneaky ways I boost my word count is with dialog. For some reason I write dialog faster than most other stuff. Once the dialog is down, I then revise for setting, emotions, reactions, descriptions, and all that other stuff.

We won't go into the quality of my dialog, but Mayra Calvani gave some interesting tips on writing good dialog on a guest blog: Eight Tips to Writing Great Dialog. I found it at S. J. Clarke's website.

Yeah, it's one of the articles that gave me some useful insights into what I'm trying to do. I printed it off ... in hopes I'll be able to find it again ... if and when I ever get around to doing a major revision of something already in my confuser. Why? I think her main points make a good check list when you're retooling your story line.

What else do I double check when I revise? Commas.

Every once in a while, I get knocked for using commas. [Seems I follow the Oxford or some other grammatical rule or other.] A lot of people think I use too many of them. But, I'll keep using them since they help me understand what I'm reading.

I also use a lot of "ing" words -- without caring whether they are gerunds or past participles. I think of "ing" words as indicating on going action. I was happy to see that Kira McFadden over at Novel Publicity & Co. tried to put me straight in her blog on "ing" word useShe tried, but she may have better luck with you.

Of course, once you finish revising ... The Passive Guy gives you some things to consider about self-publishing.  Do you know why you want to self-publish? If you want to be a best-seller, I think you should listen to what he says. Yeah, I know I've self-published ... and plan to self-publish my pig story. But, I'm building a platform which is a different kind of thing from than hoping to sell for fun and profit.

Of course, you're going to have to insert bunches of words into your computer if you're going to revise. So, last but not least, I want to share with you a writing plan that made me tired just looking at it. Kristan Koster wrote about her writing plan for this summer on her blog Impulsive Hearts. How does your summer schedule compare?

I'm keeping my same old, same old. Some days, I even get something new written.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Finicky Muse Syndrome: Wasting Time While You Write

Wasting time comes naturally with being a writer, I think. A lot of would-be writers think they can't create unless conditions are ideal. You know. The Finicky Muse Syndrome. You fail to get your word quota done, and it's because something disturbed your concentration. It's the Muse's fault. Which is a little silly because you can always write down the ideas you want to use in a scene and go back and revise. -- I think it's called outlining, actually.

While my "muse" isn't particularly finicky, I do waste a lot of time when I should be writing. Like today. I just spent a good 90 minutes trying to find some blog links that tied into the "book review" below. Read some interesting things. Like how some blogger was plagiarizing others' blogs from E. J. Wesley. How a low carb diet has helped Yasmine Galenorn's health. Plus, the Passive Guy offered loads of different interesting stuff. But, none was pertinent to what I thought I wanted to say ... or I couldn't think of a way to switch gears and write something else. So -- No links.

That leaves me with a confession. I "plagiarized" all the time -- only it's craft techniques. One of my favorites lately: Richard Castle's book Heat Rises. Went through the book looking for solutions to different writing "problems" to help me get my "Pig" story on track [like 250 words a day. Actually, I've been writing more.] I've been trying to get pertinent background details into the opening without an info dump. Whomever the Castle author is does a brilliant job of this.

I just loved the opening of Heat Rises:
"The thing about New York City is you never know what's behind a door. Homicide Detective Nikki Heat ponder that, as she had so many times, while she parked her Crown Victoria and watched police cruiser and ambulance lights lick the storefronts on 74th off Amsterdam." After creating that atmosphere, the writer describes the writer goes on to describe the setting for the rest of the paragraph.

The next two paragraphs switch to people. First, the uniform fighting the cold. Then, the 3rd paragraph switches to Heat herself. "She got out, and even though the air bit her nostrils and made her eyes teary, Nikki didn't button her coat against it. Instead she fanned it open with the back of her hand by rote, making sure that she had clean access to the Sig Sauer holstered underneath."

Result: in less than two pages you get the sense that Heat is both a no-nonsense cop and sensitive at the same time. Others may disagree with me, but I think the writing's masterful.

Another piece of craftsmanship in the book that awed me was the way description is interlaced with the action. Maybe that's why I "waste" so much time rewriting. My stuff just doesn't seem to be measuring up. Is my muse faulty? No, I just think my skills are half-baked.

Oh, what's the book about? The storyline mirrors the plot points featured in a previous season of the TV show where Heat dug into past investigations to solve a cover up of a crime committed crooked cops -- not the same crime. The plot opens with the discover the body of a Catholic priest at a BDSM role-playing parlor. The plot fans out from there with Heat's seeking a promotion to lieutenant and the bad guys trying to convince her to let "sleeping dogs lie" with guns. Oh, yeah. There the romance line between Heat and her tag-a-long too.

All together it's a book that kept me reading until after 2 AM. Which get me to another reason why nouveau writers waste time or give up. Envy. Despair. A host of other sins. The only thing to do is to keep writing and trying to improve your craft skills.

If your muse is too finicky, maybe you should tell it/him/her to get a tougher skin.