At this moment in my life as a writer … by Amber Foxx

At this moment, nearing midnight, I’m stuck on a certain paragraph in chapter twenty-nine. It’s Act Three. The tension needs to be high. But I can’t skip my protagonist’s inner processes, either. She has to think, feel and plan. Is the paragraph too slow? I like the section before it and the section after it, but this transition is a clunker. What if I move the middle line to the end? How much can I cut and still make sense? Should I just skip it and move on? No. I’m revising. I’m not letting myself off the hook. There could be some error of logic, some failure to follow my character’s heart and mind, that will affect the validity of the subsequent part that I— so far—like. (How many times have I cut something I loved because it no longer worked after I fixed what came before it?)

I tried rearranging the lines. Not much better. Maybe I can cut the whole paragraph. Replace it with one tight sentence once I grasp what the scene needs as a transition.

I could say more about this battle with the paragraph, but I have to get back to it.  That’s what’s happening tonight in my life as a writer.

Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

The Fig Tree, Yoga, and the Middle of the Book

At first glance, the fig tree in the courtyard outside my apartment looks like a round mound of large green leaves and tiny green fruits. Today, I studied it longer, though, and began to see golden-brown fruit hidden in the green. The longer my mind was attuned to shape and color of a ripe fig, the more of them I discovered. Circling the tree slowly, I reached in and harvested the fruit, choosing only the figs that were perfectly ready. My four neighbors in our building had come out into the courtyard, and I enjoyed the sight of my cupped hands offering the bounty and my neighbors’ hands one by one taking their share. Chatting sociably, we ate sun-warmed, rain-watered figs.

Later, as I began my yoga practice, I chose the theme of doing it differently. Normally, I practice without music, so I selected a CD from the bottom of the stack, strange contemplative music with drones and drums that I hadn’t listened to since I moved over a year ago. I started with a pranayama technique I seldom practice, changed the sequencing of familiar poses, and replaced others with asanas I’d neglected for a while. The idea was to change the flow of my energy and open myself to new possibilities.

I did it as preparation for writing, getting ready to tackle the middle . According to my word count, I’ve completed fifty percent of book seven in my series. The chapter in progress will be a major pivot point, with revelations about the crime and about a ghost. It should set up future challenges for Mae Martin, adding to the necessity of a trip to a place she’d rather not go—her old home town. The problem is, it feels like the beginning of Act Two, and it should be the middle of it.

I’m not cutting until I finish the first draft, though. As a pantser, I don’t yet know which of the subplots in the first half will turn out to be integral to the story and which can be removed. Several of them surprised me, but then, my ongoing characters have lives of their own. I’ve never suffered for lack of material. This is where my notes on possible directions and loose ends come in. I get floods of ideas and record them in case I forget, but as the book progresses, some of those ideas may not fit. Some of the loose ends will turn out to be dead ends I can cut. At this point, I look at that list and see a lot of major events yet to come, a lot of little green figs, but that may not mean the book is going to be too long. The pace should be picking up. I might really be half-way through. When this draft is done and I can step back and study it after a break, I’ll be able to see the subplots that contribute to the whole, like ripe figs hidden in the leaves.

I may have to rearrange events, the way I did my yoga practice. Perhaps that pivot point in the middle would make a good beginning or a good chapter three. Maybe it’ll be the beginning of Act Three. Revisions like that would be hard but satisfying. In fact, if it’s difficult, it may be more fun than if it was easy.

And I have an end goal. Not just a story, but readers. I won’t see them the way I saw my neighbor’s hands taking figs from mine, but creating a new book leads to the same joy: sharing.

Small Change, Big Change

When I started improvising my current work in progress, I had a seed for a plot in mind, but it changed directions because of one small thing. My first-round chapter-by-chapter critique partner told me that the name I was using for a character’s business, Minerva Press, is a real publishing house. No big deal, I thought. It would be simple to change it. She would name her small press after a lesser-known goddess. Having already established that this character was part Finnish, I picked Loviatar, a Finnish goddess, from the pantheon of my search results, though I had no idea why anyone would name a business after her. She’s a dark goddess, the blind daughter of death, the bringer of scourges into the world.

Rather than reject this goddess, I kept reading about her. Something told me to stick with her.

One article mentioned that that Loviatar is popular with black metal musicians. What, I wondered, is black metal? At the time, I didn’t know the difference between black metal, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, melodic death metal and Viking metal, or that most of these genres even existed. The next thing I knew, I was watching such bands on YouTube and digging into Nordic black metal and the world view of that culture, finding some unexpected connections with (not kidding) the Romantic Movement and Shelley’s views on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. My character is a poet, and faculty advisor to a poetry club. With the name of her small press, her backstory changed. Her situation of danger changed. The motives of her enemies changed. The only thing that didn’t change is my taste in music; I didn’t become a fan of black metal when she did.

I may have a title for the story that’s evolving: Dark Goddess.

Strangely, many of the plot elements fit better into the new version of the story than the old one. Clues that I’d planted, puzzling myself, fell into place. If I’d finished the first draft before sharing chapters, it would be a different story. Maybe I still would have liked it, but it would have been lighter, less complicated, and more predictable. And I don’t ever want to be predictable. Even to myself!

 

Thank You for Not Enjoying My Book

Since my turn on this blog comes around on the fourth Thursday of the month, every year I get to explore a new facet of gratitude on Thanksgiving. This year, I asked myself, what’s the most unusual thing I’m grateful for? How about thanking someone who didn’t like one of my books?

As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve stayed in the Guppies subgroup, short for “great Unpublished,” long after moving out of unpublished territory. Like many authors, I find the group’s benefits too valuable to leave behind. One benefit is the opportunity to do a manuscript swap with another author and give each other feedback. In addition to getting input from my regular critique partners, I always seek out at least one new critique partner or beta reader per book, someone who is not familiar with my series.

This time, I did a swap with an author who turned out not to like my work, and I didn’t like hers. It was great. Since neither of us was wrapped up in plot and character, we saw all the technical problems each other needed to address. She noticed some things the other six people who gave me feedback didn’t. They were following the story, turning the page, emotionally involved, and wondering what would happen next; she was disengaged. Though I continually get better at weeding out my crutch words and my over-used habitual phrases, certain ones are so natural to me they become invisible. But they were visible to her, and likewise her habits were visible to me. She also noticed where I needed clearer time transitions at the beginnings of chapters, where the background was unclear, and where a long chapter should break in two. I thank her for not enjoying my book. She helped make it better.

This was the second time in writing my six-book series that I’ve had this experience. Years ago, I swapped an early draft of a book that later evolved into The Calling with a woman who didn’t even finish it. Her assessment was harsh, not as tactful as the Guppy guidelines suggest we should be. My prior swap partner on that manuscript liked my characters so much, the plot and pacing weaknesses didn’t register with her. This ruthless second critique motivated me to study plot and structure and then revise from the ground up. After that, I reworked the book chapter by chapter with a critique group. The final product has been well-reviewed, and bears little resemblance to the version that my swap partner so disliked. I am grateful to her for tearing it apart.

Of course, I’m equally grateful to critique partners who did like my books. It’s useful to get insights and suggestions from someone who enjoys the work in progress, noticing where it could improve but also telling me what they find effective. When my critique partner who didn’t like the book still said that the end of Death Omen made her cry, I was sure I’d done something right.

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

 Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy links and preview

Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is currently free on all major e-book retail sites.

Understanding Your Characters

Part of what makes a great story is great characters. Any reader can tell you that. Writers talk about developing characters, fleshing them out, giving them back story, making them flawed and relatable. These are all vital steps in creating great a character.

But once the character is created, I find I have yet one more hurdle that I have to jump: I have to understand my characters.

A young couple in Galway contemplate the evening

But you created them, you might say with surprise. You wrote their background, you devised their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. What’s left to understand?

Lots.

Characters run the show. They get away from you, the writer, taking their own story in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. Yet it happens to all writers.

In my current work in progress, I realized after finishing the second draft that I had the wrong killer. A different character was standing in the wings looking guiltily around, trying not to make eye contact with me. Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the real killer!

Trying to pull a fast one on me, I might add.

In several of my books I have another problem of understanding with some of my characters: I write characters who are not native English speakers.

My mother and grandmother in Warsaw

As we all know, language affects not just the way we talk but even the way we think. Writing a foreign character (foreign to me, that is) means not only understanding their native tongue enough to be able to replicate their thoughts, but also understanding the way they frame their thoughts in the first place.

A Pole, an American and an Irishman walk into a bar…. They’re all thinking a little differently and it’s my job to understand those differences.

A woman examines a grave in Warsaw. What might she be thinking?

I’m not complaining. I love that job! I spend time improving my language skills. (By the way, for anyone interested in learning French, I recommend the lessons by Paul Noble. They’re very good!). Extra bonus, it helps when I travel the world and meet new people. So it’s a good problem to have. And one that I hope I have succeeded in overcoming.

But you tell me. If you’ve read any of my books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my foreign characters and how well I’ve captured their differences.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com.

Openings, Closings, Cliff Hangers, Hooks, and Dribbles

In early drafts, I fall into a habit of beginning and ending chapters in similar ways. Because of this, one of the stages I’ve added to my revision routine is the focused examination of chapter-opening and chapter-closing paragraphs to make sure they are not only effective but varied.

Openings

A chapter has to start with a sense of purpose and direction, or a reader will be confused or lose interest, and it’s not just the writer’s goal for the scene that matters—it’s the character’s. Furthermore, it has to be a goal the reader will care about, a goal that arouses empathy, curiosity, suspense, or dread. Although some chapters can begin effectively with an overt statement of a character’s goal, it would be tedious if they all did. How many other ways can I indicate that goal?

  • It can be forced on the protagonist by another’s character’s goal, either in conflict or through teamwork. (But not too often, or the lead character can seem passive and reactive.)
  • Some goals are made so obvious by the action that opens the chapter that they need not be stated directly.
  • Occasionally, a chapter can open with a sequel or reaction scene relating to the previous chapter, a paragraph or two of the character’s inner work which leads to a decision that becomes the goal.
  • Minor goals can set a character in motion only to be swept aside by a more urgent goal.
  • There’s immediate energy in a goal stated in conversation or implied by the subtext of the dialogue.

Though I won’t keep listing them, I’m sure you can think of other variations on this essential feature of the chapter (and scene) openings.

Closings

If a chapter ends with a nice, tight feeling of closure, the reader can easily put down the book. I doubt any of us has ever read a chapter ending like that in a mystery. At least, I hope not. The last lines have to keep the momentum going. I’m not a fan of the “if only she had known what was coming next” sort of hook. It’s possible to use to it sparingly in the first person, or in a truly omniscient point of view where there is a narrator’s voice, but not in close third person, which is the only point of view I use. Sometimes I want to create that portentous feeling, though.

To do so, I can end with a character having a sense of something bad about to happen, and if I do it once or twice in the book—probably once—that’s enough. Another way to get the hint of forthcoming doom or disaster is a chapter with a happy ending to that’s too good to last, or a character turning down a task that he’ll eventually have to face. There’s also the classic cliff-hanger that leaves a character on the precipice of a life-changing decision or a dangerous confrontation, but it can’t be overused without losing its power. Sometimes the hook can be as simple as going through a door, if the reader wants to know what will happen on the other side.

I took a class in which we were cautioned not to let our scenes dribble—not to keep going after they have ended—and it’s good advice, but once in a while I’ve seen some excellent writers do this at the end of a chapter. There is a page-turning plot event at the end, but it’s followed by a few humorous lines of dialogue that add depth to the characters and their relationships without smothering the impact of the “real” ending. It’s a dribble, but it’s a skilled dribble, used judiciously like a dribble of hot sauce that’s only good in small quantities.

For this post, I studied how one of my favorite writers, Tony Hillerman, began and ended chapters, examining his Sacred Clowns. The chapter openings vary from setting a scene and introducing characters along with their goals to dialogue lines that jump into the next stage of the plot, and from inner reflections to moments that progress the romantic subplots. The goals are clear but sometimes implied, not always stated in narration or dialogue. His endings range from surprises to warnings to humorous dialogue following up a more serious event (the well-crafted dribble). One chapter ends with a character’s recognition of an important pattern in the mystery plot, another with an informant’s hint that he can help, and another with a comic setback in a romantic subplot. There are endings where the characters are stumped or struggling, but he never uses an outright cliffhanger in this book. Once in a while, he even ends with character getting what he wants—for the moment.

There’s some wonderful symmetry in Hillerman’s chapter structures. One begins with Joe Leaphorn dealing with paperwork and ends with Jim Chee dealing with paperwork, paperwork to be exchanged with each other. It’s humorous and insightful, tells much about their working relationship, and it moves the plot. Another chapter ends with someone warning Jim Chee that a certain investigation is none of his business, while the following one begins with a different character giving Chee the same caution. The book is a page-turner, without the author doing anything clichéd to make the reader turn the page.

One of my go-to writing books is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, and I expect many of my fellow writers are familiar with it. Bickham’s basic scene structure advice is: goal, conflict, disaster. He gives creative ways to work with that structure, including starting in the middle of the conflict and then revealing the goal later, ending short of a full disaster, and more.

Can you share any other “tricks of the trade” for keeping readers up at night?