Contest Finalist (Take 2) and Technical Difficulties

I was told the site required a database upgrade to continue functioning. I tried to upgrade the database… and the site stopped functioning. It was impossible to upgrade from the version I had to the most recent version, so the only way to get the most recent version was to start over with a new database. Because my host is The Literal Worst, it took 12 hours to complete an installation “famous” for taking 5 minutes, and since then it’s been an adventure of migrating and problem solving. We’re still not fully functional (images are missing, for one thing) (all descriptive URLs other than the main page are 404 errors so we have to use the defaults, for another thing *hiss*), but most of the content has been restored and I’m exhausted, so I’m calling it a day.

The restoration lost the post from a couple of days ago in which I announced the fantasy romance I’ve been working on is a finalist in the On the Far Side contest hosted by the Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal chapter of RWA. That post also detailed the process of condensing what will probably be a 450-page book into a 2-page synopsis, but that’s gone forever now.

Somebody commenting as “Fellow Finalist” asked me a question on the lost post. If you didn’t see my reply before the crash, the answer was something like “No, but my circumstances and goals aren’t the same as yours. If you want to bounce your pros and cons off someone new, it’s probably prudent to do it privately, and my email is on the Info page.”

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The 40K Doldrums

I’m just shy of 40,000 words on the fantasy romance, so—predictably—the wind machine filling my sails has been switched off. This always happens around this point of writing mass, where it becomes clear I’ve put a lot of time and labor into a project and finally have something substantial to show for it. You’d think that would be a positive moment, and maybe it is for half a second, but then it sinks in that this is only a third of the story; and after I write the whole story, I’ll have to do multiple rounds of revisions; and after I do multiple rounds of revisions, I have to do either these thousand things to shop it around or these ten thousand things to self-publish it; and after it’s published, I’ll have to do all this marketing and accounting while working on another book so I can do all of this again. The scope of the undertaking gets overwhelming, my brain says “Let’s NOT,” and I stare for days at the last word I wrote.

Because generating ideas is the fun part, I have too many two-page proposals to count. These make Brain lively because they are limitless, unspoiled potential that has not yet caused any pain, frustration, or disappointment. Brain is enthused about working on one of those… for about 40,000 words.

I’m not new here, Brain! I know how this works. I’m too jaded to be seduced by that shiny young idea that will eventually make me just as miserable as the one I’ve already been committed to for 40,000 words.

But because I’m not new here, I know I’m perfectly capable of staring despairingly at an immobile cursor for months on end, so I have to give Brain a toy to play with to stave off inertia. Brain wanted the Cannibal Comedy, so the Cannibal Comedy is what Brain got.

(No humans were eaten during the making of this story. It’s a light mystery surrounding a sex doll, with a smidge of romance cockblocked by rather a lot of circumstantial evidence of feasting on human flesh. “It’s cute. Trust me,” says the writer poking her pen at a corpse in a hot tub.)

This was a deliberately sadistic story choice on my part. Mysteries have to be plotted in reverse. Obviously, the crime (or whatever the mystery is) must be completed before it can be investigated. In real life, the investigator comes along after the fact, gathers anything that might be a clue, and most of the time never finds the answer. People do this all the time on a small scale: there’s a strange noise, you look for a source, you don’t find an obvious one, you say “welp, guess we’ll never know,” and you get on with your life, mystery unsolved. Detectives’ filing cabinets are stuffed with unsolved cases, not because they were committed by criminal masterminds but because real-life evidence and observation just aren’t as conveniently thorough as the success stories that make it onto TV.

Writers of fictional mysteries, however, aren’t allowed to leave the mystery unsolved. They have to know whodunnit and how and why. They have to have all of the evidence to prove it, plus a hefty amount of misleading and distracting information to make the investigation more interesting. And then, instead of straight out telling everything they know, they have to strategically dole it out as if the character and the reader are collecting and interpreting clues, withholding until the very end the “Aha!” piece that makes everything clear. (Somebody probably claims to be able to aimlessly wander to a successful mystery conclusion, but my side eye is is set on HIGH for that one.)

I’m a plotter/planner/outliner. I like knowing as much as humanly possible about my story before I start the one-damn-word-after-another part of writing. But I plan in a forward direction from a starting point. I can jump forward, I can step back and make an adjustment, but overall, I think forward from beginning to end, choosing the path as I go. I know my destination is *hand flap* in that direction, but the journey might change specifically where I want to end up, so I don’t worry about achieving a specific ending.

Okay, can’t do that here! So I gave Brain a shiny new toy that turned out to be A JOB.

I did figure it out eventually. It was a rare case for me of brainstorming working better with a keyboard than a pen because of the massive amount of moving things around as my inclination to work from the beginning clashed with the necessity of working from the end. The two-page proposal has expanded to six pages.

But more importantly, the Cannibal Comedy has now caused pain and frustration, and Brain isn’t interested in shooting for disappointment, so I can steer the broken brat back to the project in which we’ve invested much more time and labor.

Oh, you thought I gave up?

Nah. There are specific circumstances under which I’ll abandon a project (for example, “the person paying me to write this stopped paying me” or “this romance novel has become a cudgel with which to bludgeon men who suck“), but I don’t let brain weasels make irrevocable decisions.

I’m not new here. I know how this works.

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Requiem for a First Act (in D Minor)

Many, many years ago, I decided I wanted to write a story about a woman who had been, basically, an urban fantasy heroine before being forced into retirement by an injury that impeded her ability to kick ass. During the years of her ass-kicking career, she was too busy saving the world and trying to stay alive to invest time and effort in her love life. (Yes, this is absolutely personal commentary on urban fantasy’s swerve to multibook paranormal romance, which irks me from multiple angles.) Now that she’s back in the mundane world, blending in includes dating and looking ahead to settling down and white picket fencing and whatever “normal” people do here. Her UF Heroine days are over; it’s time to become a Contemporary Romance Heroine. However, she’s struggling to acclimate. Her coworkers are scared of her. Her mother is flaking out. The dating pool is ugh. A cop is on her ass about a murder that occurred at the same time she disappeared to Fantasy World, for which she is his primary suspect. And then a handsome stranger who’s obviously Not From Around Here shows up and offers her a quest back in Fantasy World. She refuses The Call, circumstances conspire to force her to embark on the adventure, and Act II sends her back to Fantasy World, where she falls in love with Handsome Stranger while saving the day. The End.

I still like the idea, but after writing the entire first act as above and dipping a toe into Act II, I discovered a fatal flaw in the execution. I spent the entire first act, a quarter of the book, describing the mundane world and how the heroine functions (or not) within it and interacts with the characters populating it, as per usual. And then we turn the page into Act II and she leaves all that behind, never to return.

Which means we have to describe a new world and how the heroine functions (or not) within it and interacts with the characters populating it. Again.

Act I is for establishing things you need to know to understand the story to follow. Of course it should be interesting and have a sense of forward movement, but it’s understood the tale is just getting warmed up and a more sedate pace is forgivable while readers absorb necessary information. This is the act that sets the baseline norms for the characters and the world they live in so readers recognize the difference and feel the significance when everything goes to hell.

Act II is where everything goes to hell. This is the dive into the plot. This is the ocean of bad decisions and antagonistic forces and learning experiences and just enough bright spots to stave off despair so the characters don’t quit. This is the 1000-meter freestyle through sharks and jellyfish and the occasional dolphin that thinks the protagonist is a pool floatie, and the pace needs to move with ever-increasing urgency toward the climax.

I had written myself into a situation where I had to redo much of Act I’s prep work right in the spot where the story ought to be surging forward. Not only did the forward momentum grind to a halt, but it was redundant because we’d already been through this entire process, in a different location with different people. 

It couldn’t be avoided. This is where 75% of the story was going to take place. This world must be built.

But it was so, so, so bad.

On the bright side, the problem was obvious. (Knowing something is wrong but not being able to isolate the cause is awful.) On the hurl-myself-into-the-abyss side, it wasn’t a problem that could be gently tweaked into correct alignment. The portal fantasy premise and an effective launch into Act II couldn’t coexist in the same story. One had to go, and the portal bit was way more expendable than crucial story structure.

Buh-bye, Mundane World and mom and cop and coworkers and bad dates. We are now officially all Fantasy World, all the time.

If only this was as simple as chucking that bad first act into the trash. Everything about the heroine’s origins also had to be trashed because the world from which she originally originated is no longer in play. Her Fantasy World name can’t be Mary Davis. Her sly references to Mundane World that go over Fantasy Folks’ heads, gone. What she believes is her motivation (settle into a “normal” life) no longer applies.

Looking at just the amount of character correction necessary, the abyss was mighty tempting.

What saved this story is a massive outline that emphasized the functions of each scene. If one function of a scene is to establish what the heroine’s average day is like, I can do that just as easily for a swamp-dwelling fugitive as a receptionist in a hair salon. If one function of a scene is to show her bristling at being “mothered,” it doesn’t have to be her actual mother encroaching on her boundaries. If the function of a scene is Handsome Stranger showing up where he’s not welcome or pursuers cutting off the heroine’s options until she’s forced to accept the quest she doesn’t want, I can find other ways to fulfill those functions.

I lost all the words I’d put into the original first act, but the function-based structure was sound and transferred remarkably easily to the new plan, considering the magnitude of the adjustment (i.e., throwing out an entire world). Having to worldbuild only once fixed the problematic start to Act II but also decluttered Act I because there’s now unlimited room to scatter worldbuilding details as relevant. No time will be wasted comparing and contrasting two different worlds, one of which will never be revisited so who even cares? Otherwise, nothing substantial changes after the heroine embarks upon the quest because none of that was involved in the two-worlds problem, which is a stroke of phenomenal luck.

So… what began as a devastating failure led to a solution that much better serves the story I want to tell, which has nothing to do with a retired urban fantasy heroine trying to make it in the mundane world, as it turns out. I’m inclined to flog myself for screwups and wasted time, but if you squint really hard, maybe you can find something inspirational in this anecdote about salvaging something worthwhile from wreckage.

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Sooty Arms Triumph Over Embroidered Waistcoat

About two weeks ago, I realized the impracticality of hauling gold over a mountain (on foot) to a counterfeiter. Jewels are more easily portable, so I changed my pilfering from gold to jewels and my sooty-armed blacksmith/counterfeiter to an embroidered waistcoat-wearing jewel fence.

Yesterday, as I got into writing the road trip toward exchanging the pilfered riches for spendable currency and peered ahead toward that destination, I recalled the SWORD that is part of the bargain with the blacksmith/counterfeiter is crucial to the overarching plot of the series. I don’t have a good reason for Embroidered Waistcoat Fence to know about or want that sword, nor do I have a good reason for the protagonist to visit a blacksmith who does know about and want that sword in the absence of the counterfeiting angle.

So now the blacksmith/counterfeiter is also a jewel fence—perhaps not as a good at the latter as a specialist would be, but someone the protagonist trusts enough to discreetly handle the exchange. Not an elegant solution, but it solves both the gold problem and the sword problem I created while trying to solve the gold problem.

It also doesn’t deviate significantly from the outline, which is reassuring. There’s a danger of forcing things that don’t work to adhere to the outline if you’re too rigid about the plan. I threw out the entire first act and a major component of the premise, so rigid adherence isn’t an issue for me, but admitting such huge mistakes can raise doubts about how sound everything else is. If I poorly planned an entire first act, how can I trust my judgment about one scene?

Well, when I’m willing to make sweeping changes but the process keeps referring me back to the plan because the plan covers 99% of what I need and the 1% can be addressed with a couple of additional sentences, I feel a lot better about my powers of foresight.

The fact that I gutted the entire first act and didn’t have to gut the rest of the story to reflect the massive change should also perhaps reassure me, but “wrong place, wrong time, wrong character, wrong premise, but structurally, the events occurring are good” is too huge of a fluke to base my self-regard upon.

I’ve been saving the Wrong First Act story so I’d have something to say about the book after it’s out in the world, but I’m feeling grim about the future for multitudinous reasons, so that’ll be the subject of the next update, barring the emergence of a pressing rant.

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Meaningless Numbers; Meaningful Pans and Stabby Things

Screenshot of word processor word count, showing 30,265 wordsI cannot overemphasize how meaningless word count is at this stage of this project. Ordinarily, due to my aversion to complete sentences during rough drafts, doubling the rough-draft word count is a fairly accurate reflection of the finished product, and I can juggle the numbers for rough and projected and anticipated length and know that I’m a third of the way through or whatever. Thanks to those first several scenes that got final-draft treatment for a contest entry, the math no longer works at all. Plus, I put the rough epilogue in this file already, so there’s no longer a fair measure of consecutive progress, and I’ve been leaving myself notes of the “don’t forget the hydro plant” and “maybe the curse works on that thing that way because it’s ALIVE” variety, which are going to get deleted eventually and don’t even count as real words.

So the number is meaningless, but behold how it grows!


Hmm, what meaningful words can I write about this week’s meaningless words? I finished a huge environmental exploration scene, so setting is jumping out at me again. 

One “trick” of describing settings is to give personal significance to objects the character chooses to surround herself with. For example, instead of grabbing a generic baking pan from the cupboard, she uses a warped, scratched aluminum relic that has to be lined with foil because it looks like food should never come in contact with it, but it’s been handed down through four generations of her family. 

An ancient aluminum baking pan with the finish scoured off and the metal warped

That allows you to use a prop in the setting to give a little bit of information about the character’s backstory and what’s important to her in a way that feels organic rather than making her spontaneously announce,  “I AM PROUD OF MY FAMILY BAKING TRADITIONS!” *

Don’t do this for every object, obviously, or you’ll end up with a poorly disguised backstory infodump with setting details stuck on it like googly eyes. Typical setting advice is to pick three details vivid enough to ground the reader in the place for the duration of the scene. If you’re going to make any of them a personally significant detail (not every setting needs them), more than one at a time is likely overkill.

NOTE: There are many things in writing you don’t neeeeeeeeed. Nobody will notice the absence. No reviewer is going to say, “It’s too bad the author missed the opportunity to show us the protagonist’s generational relationships via bakeware.” But in my old age, I’ve become obsessed with resonance. Can stories be told without that quality? All the damn time! But when writers pluck seemingly insignificant threads until the whole story vibrates and it all comes together in a crescendo, I’m wowed by their craft. At a certain point, wowing yourself becomes the ultimate objective, so you take the time to do things you don’t neeeeeeeeed.

The challenge with this particular story is that Heroine owns none of the spaces she’s in and has no say in how they’re decorated. She starts with all of her worldly possessions fitting in saddlebags, and then she leaves those behind and proceeds with only what’s in her pockets, which is all utility, no sentiment.

In order to show that she existed in the world before I plopped her onto page 1, I have to access her memories through other people’s stuff. Here, she’s poking around the long-abandoned playroom of a bratty prince:

On the floor, as if flung against the wall, was a short sword. He’d been old enough to graduate from wood to steel, but she could tell from the way light struck the edge he hadn’t been trusted with anything sharper than a pencil.

[Heroine] had trained with a similar sword when she first entered [Mentor]’s service. The city length designed for freer movement in narrow alleys and stairwells functioned equally well for developing a child’s arm strength and technique.

She was never given a blunted blade. Learning she’d be left to die if she lopped off her own leg was a crucial part of her education.

(Character names redacted for public consumption because they’re likely to change before publication and the less I have to correct myself later, the better. Also, standard note about work in progress being a mess because it has never known the touch of an editor.)

She doesn’t dwell on it. There’s no flashback to a decades-old training montage. She sees a child’s sword, compares and contrasts it with her own childhood experience with a sword, and gets on with her search. It doesn’t take long, it doesn’t change the plot, but you get a better idea that she is the way she is in part because apprentice assassins don’t get a ton of emotional support.

Also, while it’s apparent from her overall observations about the state of the room that she doesn’t have a super high opinion of the young prince, she never muses that she was smarter and stronger and more deserving, and she doesn’t wallow in self-pity because Little Heroine didn’t get enough hugs and toys. The things you choose not to put on the page likewise reveal information about character, even if the reader doesn’t give them much thought because you can’t call attention to your invisible choices.


* I have zero sentimental attachment to this cursed object (and its 13×9 sibling) and would gladly buy a new $10 light nonstick aluminum pan, but in my current living arrangement, that would look just as wretched as the one pictured in about a week because people here love their KNIVES and DISHWASHERS, and the property destruction would upset me more than whatever kind of poisoning risk this pan has time traveled from the Great Depression to bestow. Which, of course, tells a different sort of story about the setting…

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The Week in Writing

Since I last noted my progress here, I’ve gotten a few scenes into Act II. Act I pushes a protagonist to go on a journey. Act II begins when the protagonist says, “FINE! I’LL GO ON YOUR STUPID JOURNEY!” (I wrote a bare bones 3-act structure post in the distant past with a little more whole-story detail.)

Heroine said “FINE!” a while ago, since the alternative was avoid capture and torture. She survived the trip to the place she didn’t want to go. Now that she’s there, it is neither what she was told nor what she expected, and she has to explore to make sense of things because what she sees is implausible and her only companion is a lying liar who tells lies.

Speaking of the liar, this is where I can start working on the romance. Is this a late point to start the romance in a romance novel? You betcha! But I’m doing this for myself, and I want a balance of fantasy and romance, not romance with fantasy wallpaper (or fantasy with a side of romance). Setting up the situation was a must, and doing so brought the future happy couple together only twice in the first act, in contexts that didn’t inspire warm, fuzzy feelings. Now, however, they’re going to be together almost all the time for the rest of the book, just the two of them for a great deal of that time, working together, learning to trust each other, comparing scars, etc. Hey, he already cooked for her their first night in the new place, and if she doesn’t die of food poisoning, that’s definitely going to influence her opinion for the better.

One of the big hangups with starting this section is establishing the setting. Every place the heroine visited before was familiar to her, either directly (has been in this specific place before) or by association (has not been in this specific place but has been somewhere similar and therefore knows the rules), so she could focus on things that were relevant to completing her task in that place. Now she’s in a place she believed didn’t exist (and still isn’t convinced it’s really that place), and it’s pretty big, AND she’s suspicious of everything. I had her enter the area through a confined space, which was an easy introduction, but as soon as she stepped out of that room, I choked because I now have to convey the entire kingdom upon which the story’s premise hangs. When she stepped outside, the most important observation of her immediate vicinity was the bodies, but I had to stop and draw a map of the entire city and its outskirts to give myself something to work with.

I eventually got through the next two scenes, which included a walkthrough of part of the city and a look at the whole kingdom from on top of the wall… but now she has to venture into the castle.

Sometimes Google Image can make my life easier by providing visual inspiration. Unfortunately, searching for “castle floor plans” or the equivalent yields mostly made-up castles people designed for Minecraft or The Sims or whatever. While they look suitably impressive, they don’t meet my needs (how rude of these strangers to not anticipate my needs!), and I figured out last night why they don’t work for me.

Their designers treat their castles as too much home, not enough government building.

A castle is the HQ of a high-ranking political figure. If you’re not thinking of the architecture and interior design in terms of politics, ur doin it rong (for my purposes). Cozy living spaces aren’t going to be anywhere near public spaces. First-rung public spaces will be vast to flex power and wealth. The more important a guest is, the more intimate the scale of where they’ll be received. Then there’s emergency preparedness. The castle is the last stand behind the last defensive wall. It needs onsite armory, barracks, and storehouses ready to withstand a siege, not a ground-floor “breakfast room.”

So, obviously, before I could write a word about Heroine going inside, in the dark, mostly to sleep and find a replacement for her lost bow, I had to draw blueprints for much more of the castle than I’ll ever actually use.

I’m trying to break the habit of feeling bad for “wasting time” designing spaces to a degree far beyond what will show up in the story. Since I am completely unable to move forward until I do it, it’s a necessary part of my process and not a “waste of time” because someone who is not me doesn’t do it. The waste of time is comparing my methods to anyone else’s. All that matters is whether the writing gets done, and if I need too much information before I can decide what’s worth writing, so be it.

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Observational Hierarchy

A decade or so ago, the first five pages of a book caused me so much pterodactyl screeching, I had to develop a workshop in response. Given a choice between public speaking and having teeth chiseled out of my jaw, I would rather fling myself into the dentist’s chair, but I felt strongly enough about this that I embarked upon several engagements and advised a few hundred writers to Never Do This Shit.

That book was on sale recently. I thought, Surely it’s not as bad as I remember. I’ve mellowed in my old age.

Friends, I have not mellowed. I pterodactyl screeched nearly that entire decade-distant workshop from memory upon fresh exposure to those five pages. I have no idea where the old workshop script is, but I shall attempt to recreate it for you now, sans screeching (mostly).

The following is written with a presumption of intact sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. I am not qualified to lead a discussion about sensory impairments in writing. I apologize to everyone excluded by this falsely “all-encompassing” treatment.

Observational Hierarchy

In the absence of sensory impairment, there is an observational hierarchy of things that demand to be noticed, things that are chosen for close examination, and things that warrant only passive awareness.

In real life, our brains ceaselessly process and categorize all this information simultaneously. In the same instant, we can be aware there’s just the right amount of honey in the tea, the dog is gassy, the air conditioning is too cold in this spot, the walls are blue, and thunder’s booming loud enough to rattle the house. When we can’t find our car in a parking lot or think it’s Saturday when it’s actually Wednesday, we nonetheless have a broad sense of our position in space and time.

In writing, we don’t catalog every sensory stimulus the character might be experiencing at every moment because that would be both unnecessary and boring. There’s important storytelling to be done, so we select a few sensory details that further the story and arrange them in a logical order that reflects their importance. I’ve ranked importance by four categories: Urgency, Orientation, Relevance, and Garnish.

Urgency

Loud noises, strong odors, and acute pains are imposed upon us. We have no choice about experiencing an ambulance siren, the reek of hot garbage, or a punch in the face. If that punch cuts your lip and floods your mouth with blood, even taste can be forced upon you. Jarring sensory input takes priority immediately when it occurs.

Urgent sensory input evokes an immediate response from the character. A car alarm going off right next to a character will first provoke some sort of physical reflex (startle, scowl, hand to her ear) and could further cause her to not hear a crucial part of a phone call or to be accused of attempted car theft, either of which will make her next action much different than what she planned to do before that assault on her senses occurred.

If the character can simply wait until the imposition ends and then carry on as if it never happened, it’s probably not a detail you need to use there because it stalls the story rather than furthering it.

Sensory Urgency can arise at any point during a scene. Whether it occurs at the beginning, middle, or end, it immediately takes precedence in the observational hierarchy.

Not every scene requires an incident of sensory Urgency.

Orientation

Every scene does require sensory Orientation. Readers need to know where the characters are every time there’s a change of setting, as close to the start of that change as possible. Nothing takes place in a vacuum, and readers will supply their own setting if you don’t beat them to it. Once they’ve done that work for you, any belated attempt by the author to enforce a different setting becomes an argument. Avoid that argument by giving readers a sense of place as quickly as possible.

In a screenplay, the location is listed first thing at the beginning of every shot (INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY), and then it falls on scores of workers to put that location in front of the camera and, by extension, the audience’s eyeballs.

Novelists generally don’t get pictures, moving or otherwise, to accompany our words, so we have to describe the setting using the tools we have. Sometimes we can get away with screenwriter-like efficiency in the first line (They gathered in the living room at nine the next morning), particularly later in the story if reusing a location that’s been previously described. When more information is needed, however, a setting dump isn’t a great way to hook a reader into a scene.

We balance the need to quickly establish a sense of place with the need to always be interesting by feathering Orienting details into the action.

Goran tapped his foot in time with the antique clock ticking away the final seconds of their marriage. Lucija suspected he was as oblivious to the movement as he was to the Italian leather armchair serving as his throne—and the wife he didn’t deign to acknowledge.

In the midst of two sentences letting us know this couple is on the rocks, we have an antique, a fancy chair, and allusion to a throne and kingly hauteur, suggesting an environment of wealth. Within half a page, we could easily clarify whether it’s a living room, home office, business office, or lawyer’s office while keeping the story moving.

Goran tapped his foot in time with the dripping kitchen faucet that sent water down the drain in mockery of their wasted marriage. Lucija suspected he was as oblivious to the movement as he was to the cracked vinyl stool he straddled like a motorcycle—and the wife he couldn’t raise his eyes to acknowledge.

Drippy faucet, cracked vinyl, biker sprawl, and downcast gaze tell us Goran and Lucija’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Another half page could clarify whether they’re in their derelict studio apartment, the break room at the chop shop where he files the serial numbers off stolen cars, or the basement where she’s going to torture him for what I’m sure are valid reasons.

These aren’t dazzling examples, but they work to demonstrate how just a few details begin to establish a sense of circumstance for the reader as soon as the scene opens.

The above examples rely heavily on visual cues (even the sounds can be traced to objects you can see). Sighted people generally perceive sight as their dominant sense, so it’s efficient to appeal to that one first. We instantly process a broad view of our environment. We can be aware of the room we’re in while looking out a window at trees in the mid distance and mountains in the far distance. We can’t hear, smell, touch, or taste anything on that distant mountain, but we can see it, which gives us information about our location that would be different if what we saw in the distance was the ocean. As you add more Orienting details, you can certainly pull in the other senses, but in the absence of visual obstruction or an Urgency issue demanding the use of a different sense, sight will usually take precedence in establishing Orientation.

It’s possible to use Orienting details at any point in the scene, but it is imperative to position the defining ones near the beginning of every change of scenery.

Relevance

Stories are full of sensory Relevance. Progressive, selective sensory zoom clarifies information. These are sensory choices made by the character. Deliberately and with intent, she visually examines or sniffs or listens intently or runs her hand over an object. Taste almost always falls under this category because it’s rare to have things in our mouths against our will. (One exception is noted under Urgency. Every other example I can think of is also a sinister violation of the most intimate sense.)

The details you favor with the tightest focus tell readers what’s meaningful to the character and plot. A skyline of glittering skyscrapers tells us where we are. A man in a black suit at the front desk in the lobby of one of those skyscrapers who takes a sip of coffee and places the cup, which is marked with lipstick that isn’t his, so it covers three drops of fresh blood splattered next to the phone is inviting us on a journey.

Though close details are the most revealing, they aren’t generally the first pieces of sensory information provided in a scene. Urgency takes priority because if you reveal after two pages of dialogue that the conversation has taken place in the gaps between gunshots, you’ve not conveyed any urgency whatsoever. Before you ask the reader to focus on some small detail, they need context from Orienting details to help them interpret significance because blood on a reception desk is more suspicious than blood on a phlebotomist’s desk.

Sight, despite having the widest range, permits some control over sensory impositions. We can close our eyes or turn away from things we don’t want to see, in which case someone has to physically force us to look, unlike sounds and smells that are inescapable just by being deployed in our vicinity and skin that’s constantly measuring air temperature, at the very least. (NOTE: Somebody prying your eyelids open is going to fall under Urgency.)

Keep in mind you have to be aware of something to look away from it. A deliberate choice to not-see does require some description (can be just a hint of what’s there) and, sooner or later, some explanation of the avoidance unless the reason is obvious. We will all understand if the character doesn’t want to cast lingering looks at an overflowing toilet, but if she spins around and speedwalks away from the security guard at the bank when she sees he’s missing the tip of his left pinky finger, we’re going to need to know what the deal is.

The act of zooming in on smaller Relevant details creates tension. The characters are trying to figure out the story using the limited clues their sadistic author allows them to have. Are they looking at the right thing? Are they interpreting it correctly? Did they miss something important? Have they included information that’s not actually relevant and is skewing their results? Are they trying to hide information from someone else? Readers go along for that ride, but they’re also outside the story, peering ahead, trying to see where the author is headed, eager to solve the puzzle before you spell it out but hoping you’ve done something dizzyingly clever to lead them astray.

These are the details that will be unique to your characters and plot. Only you know what’s important enough to zoom in on in your story.

Garnish

I think I called this tier something else for the workshop (Color? Seasoning? Mascara?), but that knowledge is lost to time. For me, this is where my editor says my presentation is bland and I should slide a sprig of rosemary under the bruschetta, so to speak. These details serve no functional purpose other than making the text more vivid.

She wore a black dress becomes Her black dress cinched beneath her breasts and fell in soft pleats that shimmered with iridescence as she moved.

Clothing is typically an Orientation detail that tells us about the situation and the character’s role in it. An uncomfortable article of clothing may be Urgent. Grandma’s wedding dress may be loaded with Relevance to the character and plot. The specific cut and color of those items is Garnish. That extra information doesn’t change anything about the story. If the reader prefers to envision an orange jumpsuit, the inconsistency won’t create any cognitive dissonance because these particular words are purely decorative.

Garnishing details aren’t the point. They accessorize more nourishing details you’re already serving to the reader.

How much you use Garnishing details is mostly a matter of personal style. I’m on the sparse end of the spectrum (hence my editors consistently getting on my case about it). At the other end are authors who lovingly, lavishly portray every stitch of embroidery on a bodice and anthropomorphize the spices in curry. Readers’ personal taste also ranges along that spectrum. I get dinged for not painting detailed enough pictures, while long paragraphs of description lose my attention, no matter how beautiful the prose is. If you tend toward an extreme edge, a good editor can help guide you closer to the middle, where the most readers will be satisfied, without trying to force your style into something excruciating for you.

And that brings us to a category with no place in the observational hierarchy:

Garbage

I probably called this something nicer like “Irrelevance” in the olden times, but I’m not getting paid to be nice today.

There’s a big difference between decorative and unnecessary.

Describing the aromas of a restaurant while the character is working there or dining there or being chased through it by assassins is good Garnish and Orientation to setting, and possibly even Relevance, depending on the character’s background. If one of the aromas is smoke, you can check off Urgency, too.

Describing the aromas of a restaurant while the character is walking past—never to enter, never to return, never to make any personal connection, never to contemplate at any point beyond the moment of passing—is filler.

Occasional filler is inevitable. Sometimes there’s significance in our heads that doesn’t make it onto the page, and we end up with a rogue sentence. If you don’t do it a lot, editors might overlook it, trusting you to deliver significance eventually, and then forget about it before realizing it was a goof. Many readers won’t notice at all, and many who do notice will shrug it off, as long as it’s a rare goof.

Irrelevant information not only serves no purpose but delays getting to information that is doing something. Leading with irrelevant information squanders the reader’s faith in your ability to make a point. Don’t waste five pages describing every inconsequential thing from trash in the gutter to the color of the paint around the window the character uses like a mirror so she has an excuse to describe herself. Writers can’t afford to be meaningless for that long. Especially don’t do that and then mention the first thing that might be significant (i.e., an angry mob that’s been in place the entire time, yelling and waving signs) and fail to assign that any significance, rendering it as meaningless as the sight of litter and the smell of soy sauce.

Some irrelevant details can be repurposed to give them significance. Moved to the beginning of the scene, an angry mob waving signs Orients the reader with environmental information (this is a place where people are allowed to publicly protest, and these folks are peeved enough about their cause to put forth the effort). Their yelling, if used to affect the POV character’s behavior, falls under Urgency. That still doesn’t seem like the best use of a large, noisy feature with a lot of energy, so let’s give the crowd Relevance to the character and plot.

The protesters could be obstructing the character’s route to her destination, forcing her to go through or around them or to decide this is an ill omen and she should change her plans entirely. If the character has committed a crime and needs to pass undetected, a group of hostile witnesses will not be a welcome development—particularly since protests attract both news crews and law enforcement. Perhaps the character can skulk around the fringes of the protest, light-fingering a hat, sunglasses, and a scarf to fashion a disguise, thereby using the obstacle productively, as well as underscoring her criminal tendencies. Perhaps she dives into the crowd to evade a cop who saw her stealing an element of her disguise, and that’s how her face ends up on the evening news, which tells the bad guys her last known location.

That’s using observations to tell a story, as opposed to randomly listing water bottles and car exhaust and “I have a ponytail!”

Real life is jam-packed with things of no particular significance. Stories are not real life. Even a “true story” doesn’t give an accurate account of every speck of dust, cheeping bird, and full bladder. Writers choose the words that tell readers what’s important. Dumping unimportant information on readers makes it difficult for them to discern what matters, and they may decide nothing does and stop reading.

Be a good guide on the journey through your story. Show readers the landmarks of Urgency, Orientation, and Relevance, and learn to distinguish Garnish from Garbage.

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Lejjen Dairy

A minor theme in the original plan for this story was “heroes are chumps.” The example the heroine used to argue this point was executed as the reward for all his good deeds.

I saved the world, and all I got was this lousy pyre.

Well, a lot has changed since the original plan! (A whole first act went in the trash before getting on the current path.) Due to those changes, Heroine no longer needs to justify not behaving heroically because she’s openly allied with villains and has no illusions about anyone’s inherent goodness (including her own) because she knows people too well. Human nature isn’t universally evil, just universally self-serving (or so her argument goes).

Consequently, “heroes are chumps” has evolved into “heroes are fictional.” The example she used for the former remains her example for the latter, but now there’s more to the story of that legendary “hero.” Sure, lasting good came from the things he’s credited with doing, but he did them for personal gain, not out of the goodness of his heart, and there’s a 99.99% chance he stole the work of others and slapped his name on it. If he was such a hero, why did a foreign court decide to take the drastic step of executing another kingdom’s prince, why did his siblings testify against him (well, they were kind of yikes, but the “hero” had the same upbringing as they did, which isn’t a good character reference), and why did the common folk gawk at his execution instead of rioting to spare their savior?

Because he wasn’t a “hero” to anyone until some clever bard embellished the story with dragons and gods and the injustice of eternal torment. The “hero” was an ordinary, self-serving person who lucked into some good posthumous PR. That is what heroes are made of (or so her argument goes).

Good thing I fell into Heroine’s theater background so she appreciates the manipulative power of storytelling. *high fives self*

Now, Heroine will be doing A Great Heroism! She, per her rules of human nature, will do it for a series of self-serving reasons (spite, escape, money, love, etc.), thereby proving her point. Cue her tremendous frustration when the response to her selfishness is “Others tangentially benefited from your Great Heroism, so would you like your hero parade in the late summer or early fall?”

something something intent means less than outcome yadda yadda traumatized people need feel-good stories more than the truth blah blah no derailing the hero train once it gets rolling

And thus, Heroine becomes something she doesn’t believe in—her lack of belief being a motif (? I guess) that goes back to the beginning of the story, when she doesn’t believe the place she’ll eventually save exists outside of fairy tales. See also: love, friendship, and other cynical non-beliefs that are systematically demolished during the course of the story so she can embrace the things that add up to her HEA.

I think I added all of 1200 words to the story this past week, but conceptual tinkering is important, too. It’s better to write toward stuff like this than try to cram it in during revisions, and leaving it out isn’t an option since this is an entirely selfish project that will meet all my standards or take its turn on the pyre.


MANDATORY NOTE ANY TIME I MENTION THE WORD “THEME”: Theme and symbolism and all that happy crap are tools for me to help add depth and resonance to the story. Readers should feel a sense of interconnectedness without necessarily being able to point to it. If you notice a literary device because you’re savvy to such things, that’s fine; if you notice because it’s jumping and waving its arms and shouting LOOK AT ME, LOOK HOW CLEVER I AM, that’s heavy-handed writing, which is bad. My job is to tell an entertaining story, and it is not super entertaining to be yoinked out of a story to reenact freshman English class. There will not be a quiz at the end of the book to assess your grasp of the crafty underpinnings. I mention them only because that’s my area of geekpertise. 

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Another Milestone

Word counter in my word processor, showing 20,296 wordsI can hardly believe it, but I’m at the end of Act I. I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is roughly consistent with my output when I’ve had 40 hours a week to devote to writing in the past, but I’ve been working 90+ hours a week for other people and writing nothing of my own for so long, I’ve forgotten progress is possible. I wish all this writing time wasn’t at the expense of not being able to pay bills next month, but as the saying goes, every silver lining has a funnel cloud.


In response to some unsolicited “advice” that I could get a bit of cash flowing by serializing this story as I go, here’s a small sample of what this story looks like right now:

Busy adults and a handful of children taking turns between food and chores. Wailing baby. Shaggy dog sniffed her boots, found nothing of particular interest, and trotted away. Cat perched on the step of a wagon regarded her with one sulfurous yellow eye.

“He doesn’t like owls.”

DESCRIBE WOMAN

It physically pains me to show that ugliness in public, but if my mortification helps one person get over the idea that writing means sitting down at the keyboard and typing tens of thousands of words exactly as they appear in the finished book*, it will be worth it.

I have written serials. It is a fundamentally different process than writing a novel. Serials (that aren’t a chopped-up version of a finished book) are, by necessity, edit-as-you-go. That prose gets polished to a mirror finish every couple thousand words and flung out into the world—and once flung, you are locked into what you’ve given readers. If you realize 10 chapters in the future that you should have introduced a character, item, or concept sooner, too bad. You can’t go back and correct the oversight because everyone has already seen it. You have to figure out how to make it work going forward because that’s the only direction you can move in a serial. If you like spontaneity (heads up, pantsers), serials might be fun for you.

I despise spontaneity. I am all about 50-page outlines and series bibles and story treatments that eliminate as many surprises as possible from the putting-words-into-the-story part of writing—and I still miss things, despite all that preparation, because the act of putting words into the story blows open the shutters to reveal a whole realm of possibilities outside the room I so carefully planned. A lot of those possibilities are distractions, but some might make the story better. Better stories are a good thing! Always be open to making the story better.

The thing about possibilities, though, is that the reader needs to know possibilities exist before they happen. If you decide after 200 pages that a character thus far portrayed as a perfectly average human in a perfectly average world can suddenly breathe fire, that’s completely out of the blue. If you’ve kept those 200 pages to yourself (as opposed to publishing as you go in a serial), you can go back and insert the character’s concern she’s getting strep because her throat feels raw and scorched, some suggestive imagery of a carnival performer “breathing” fire, a mysterious stranger asking about atypical abilities, etc., setting up the possibility of the character incinerating an attacker with a fiery scream so when that happens, the reader’s response is “Aha! That’s where those clues were leading!” rather than “WTF, whatever, might as well fart lightning now, there are obviously no rules.”

A lot of foreshadowing doesn’t exist until revisions, after you have a full version of the story, know what needs to be foreshadowed, and can find the best places to blend that into the story rather than plunking down a flashing billboard that says 🚨 GUESS WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN LATER 🚨. Same with symbolism and theme, which are hard to maximize while working on the bigger picture. Also general internal consistency! A protagonist who has never before been outside their small fishing village shouldn’t be peppering their speech with metaphors for things they’ve never seen, like “tall as a castle tower”—in revisions, you replace words you, the author, reached for with references familiar to the character, such as “tall as a ship’s mast.” The depth and resonance of a novel are made possible by the ability to travel backward and add.

So although a potential source of immediate income sounds like a reasonable idea, it’s incompatible in every way with what I’m doing here. More power to anyone who can successfully pull off a work-in-progress serial, but I could not be less interested in such a thing.


*Of course there are authors who claim this is exactly what they do. While there is absolutely a spectrum of first-draft messiness↔tidiness, unless you’ve seen someone produce an entire perfect draft live, take claims of such mythical proportion with entire oceans of salt.

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Progress Report

I hit a patch I didn’t want to write. It ended up being only a couple hundred words of transition between connected scenes, but they had a repelling forcefield around them (probably because they’d be better as a scene break, but I’ll figure that out in revisions). While I avoided that for two days, I worked instead on the final two scenes.

The End is a long way away, but since the outline stage, the actual writing has provided some details I can carry all the way through the finale. I’m 12% (at most) into writing this monster, so more details will obviously come to light as I go, and I’ll rewrite the ending as many times as it takes to accommodate new information. It’s the same core HEA conversation from the outline, but it hadn’t occurred to me at the outline stage to have that talk occur during a robbery, for instance. Like last week’s “brunch” rant, it’s not about the robbery—the robbery just provides more interesting props and context than standing around talking on a balcony for no particular reason. (ETA: Of course there’s a plot-relevant reason for the robbery. I didn’t pick it out of a hat. The whole point of the exercise is to make the ending resonate more with the rest of the story.)

Last night, I did finally manage to drag myself through those transitional words at around 9 p.m., which cleared the way to progress through most of Fight Scene II today. It’s not pretty (what are complete sentences?) and there’s a timing problem (heroine has way too much to say to an accomplice after an enemy puts them on notice that he’s going to take unpleasant action), but again, that’s is all fixable in revisions. Get the content down, make sure the structure holds up, and then it will be time to worry about cosmetic elements.

I signed my first contract in 1996. I know writing always starts ugly and gets progressively less ugly until someone deems it presentable enough for human consumption, but it’s still mandatory to pep-talk myself through early drafts, when it’s hard to see how anyone could ever learn to love a beast.

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