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The Writer’s Toolbox: Connecting the dots

by Kate Paulk

Not that I’m in the least opinionated, but I think that putting pieces together into the whole is one of the writer’s tools that needs a lot more focus. Why? Well, even though a book can stand, and even succeed, with a major weakness somewhere, unless the author does something about that weakness as they continue to write, sooner or later they’re going to fall into one of many traps in mixing those compelling characters, fiendish plots and wonderful worldbuilding into a coherent story.

I do mean many traps, too. I’m not going to be able to hit anything like all of them, but I can manage a list of some of the most common.

Very Nice, But What is it About?

Here the author doesn’t actually know what – or who – their story is about. The result can still work with good enough characters, but it tends to end up floundering in pages of aimlessness before meandering to something more or less resolution-ish. Or worse, the author has given off signals that it’s Freddy’s story, when it actually ends up being Sally’s story (this can happen when you’re writing it. That’s one of the things revision is for – so you can refocus the story properly).

Now, before you tell me this is a group novel, that doesn’t matter. There will still be one character to whom this story belongs. He, she, or it doesn’t even have to have the bulk of the page space. It’s still that character’s story. Possibly the best known example would be from the movies – the Star Wars movies are really about Darth Vader’s fall and redemption. And from Tolkein, Lord of the Rings is Frodo’s story. Everything else pales beside his journey into inner and outer darkness and his ultimate redemption.

Group books usually work one of two ways – either the focus character shifts between members of the group (Sarah’s Musketeer Mysteries do this very well), or all the books in the series have the same focus character and the entire epic deals with that person’s story.

The Epic With Everything and the Kitchen Sink

This can happen with a bad case of not know what it’s all about, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. In this case, the author seems to have gone on a mad spree through TV Tropes and tried to shoe-horn as much of it as they can into a single book. It seems to be a phase – most authors I know have one of these buried in a closet somewhere. If you get to know them well enough, they may, shamefacedly admit to its existence.

My example here is from my own personal hall of shame. My Epic With Everything is about 160k words, written when I was in my uber-stripped-down phase (which happened because I had to do something to cure myself of adverbial froth) so there’s almost no description, next to nothing in the way of transitions, and at least three different co-occurring novels all wrapped in one tangled mess of a plot.

And I do mean tangled. There are two Lost Princesses, one unknowing, the other one out for revenge against the family she thinks tried to kill her. One Tomboy Princess. One Fluffy Princess (who is singlehandedly maintaining an entire lace and pink dye industry and has yards and yards of pink lace on everything. Oh, and she’s got about as much gravitas as your average soap bubble). There’s the Noble Prince who’s been force-fed honor and duty so thoroughly he can’t not be sickeningly rot-your-teeth honorable even when he hates it, and his womanizing, boozing younger brother. Two Evil Wizards (although one is mainly by proxy), a Mad Prince and an Abused Prince (brothers, of course), the Sleeping King (he wakes up), and yes, even a love potion. That’s just the character tropes. Plot tropes include, well… most of the fantasy standards, just somewhat… twisted. Fortunately for the alleged sanity of all concerned the whole thing doesn’t take itself seriously, so it’s actually kind of readable. Maybe one day I’ll work out how to tease all the intertwined plots apart and turn them into multiple related novels. I’m not that good at it yet.

Does this sound a bit too much like something you’re writing? If so, it’s time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and figure out what the darn thing should be about, then pull everything else out of it. It might work better that way.

WTF Was That?

This is another focus and direction problem – instead of a plot twist, it’s a bolt from the blue that leaves readers scratching their heads and going “huh?” (or words to that effect). The sin here is failing to foreshadow the twist. Trust me, you don’t want to surprise your readers that much. It’s not nice. Readers (and I speak as a reader here) like to feel that they’ve figured it out, so it’s totally unfair to throw in something you gave not so much a hint about anywhere earlier.

Once it was acceptable to have the Gods descend from On High and sort everything out. In plays, that was often done by complicated mechanical contrivances (hence Deus ex Machina – the God of the Machine). These days, no. People want there to be reasons why something hit the character like a thunderbolt, and they prefer the reason not to be that Mr Deus Ex finally got the aim right.

In short, if it’s utterly crucial that your ending involve your characters being completely shocked by divine intervention, you need to establish early on – and mention during the piece – that divine intervention happens, and it’s very rare indeed, possibly with a side note that those it’s happened to tend to end up very dead or saints – or both – so it’s not precisely a desirable thing either.

For a good example on how to shock your characters while seeding enough information that your readers don’t go “huh?”, read anything of Dave’s, or Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves. In both cases all the information that’s needed to work out what’s actually going on is there, but the characters are unable to piece it together for perfectly understandable reasons.

Honestly, those three are probably the most common flaws of putting everything together, but there are any number of others – and yes, putting all the pieces together into a story and making it all fit and seem to be a coherent whole is something that improves with practice. If I ever start to doubt, I go back to any of my early pieces and then look at Impaler.

Or I reread The Color of Magic then my most recent Pratchett. Yep. It’s a writing tool and belongs in the box all right.

Cover Her Face, Mine Eyes Dazzle* — by Sarah

Recently, through a series of unconnected incidents, including discussing the cover for my upcoming Sword And Blood (as Sarah Marques, from Prime Books) I became aware that not only are covers still important, but what’s a “good cover” has changed dramatically over the last few years.

Or perhaps it isn’t a good cover that has changed but my perception of a good cover.

When I first sold my Shakespeare Fantasies, my idea for the cover was that it would show a young Shakespeare meeting a lady in the forest. It might have done well. Instead I got what many small presses are resorting to these days: out of copyright art from Sandis, utterly nondescript, even if gorgeous.

This probably would have been salvageable, if the cover said ANYTHING about “fantasy” or even “Fiction.” But it didn’t. Rumor has it that it was supposed to have the big marketing plan that is limited if one restricts the audience to “those who read fantasy.” Anyway, speaking of slips betwix the cup and the lip, that got lost… somehow. So what bookstores were faced with was this book called Ill Met By Moonlight (Until M. Lackey reused the title, the only book by that name was a WWII non fiction, btw) with a classical painting on the cover.

Children, that book got shelved EVERYWHERE except… where it was meant to be. From Art to Shakespeare Biography to Theater, the book went everywhere… and no one could find it.

This was when I learned that a cover was not just a piece of art to put on the outside of the book and make it pretty – it wasn’t even, at any level – an attempt to represent what was in the book. Rather, it worked like those drawings on the outside of packages to grab the attention of the distracted shopper. (Those can misfire too. Once in Germany I spent my precious last money on a container of lard, thinking it was ice-cream. Yeah, I knew German – two years – but not enough. I saw the word “creamy” and the drawing looked like ice-cream.)

If you’re selling, say, crackers… do you have a drawing of a beautiful, laughing baby? Why? You might have that in teething biscuits, mind, but it best have a large biscuit superimposed. Trust me, as an often distracted shopper, I often grab the wrong thing because I forget to read. However, even if the best thing about your teething biscuits are oat flakes, do you have a drawing of a bowl of oatmeal too? Well… no, that would confuse people. Particularly if it’s the only thing you have.

For books this is even more tricky. You have to look at it, pretend it’s not yours and analyze what it says. The cover from Prime, on first iteration, had a sword with a big polished shield behind, ghostly wings coming out of the shield, and a chain around the top. There was also some dark stuff that might be lace, but what I got was the type of cover that should grace a title called “the Sword of the Conqueror.” With Sword in the title, nine out of ten people would look at it and go “military fantasy” or “historical military” and never even notice the black lace. After I talked to the editor, it came back with a heart where the shield had been, which signals “romantic fantasy” and perhaps even “vampire”. I hope. The black lace seems more obvious and serves notice the book has… not exactly uncomplicated sex within its pages.

I will tell you in all earnestness, though, even two years ago, I’d have been appalled at the cover. It’s too simple, too Symbol filled, with too few human figures. But now we’re in an age of ebooks, and in a thumbnail, the sword, the heart and the chains will be very visible, and perhaps lead people to click on it, which will then reveal the wings and the lace. I think it will work.

Frankly, even the debacle that was my Shakespeare series didn’t teach me how to see covers properly – the second book shows a woman in historical costume wandering the streets of London carrying a lantern. Very pretty. However, there’s not even a flying fairy to give the idea that this is not an historical romance. And btw, in the book, they used mage lights, which might have served as more of a warning. The third does have centaurs – in the distance. So tiny you could barely see them. Behind the large woman, holding a lantern.

Note that NONE of these said “this is fantasy with fairies and Shakespeare. You’d think it would be easy, right? Have the iconic Shakespeare image somewhere, even if you prettify him and youngify him. Have an elf or a fairy, or something. Nope.

Strangely, the people who bought the book, unless they’d read a review, weren’t looking for fantasy or Shakespeare. It took years for word of mouth to get started, and by then the book was out of print, and I was getting no royalties, though for a while (until two years ago) boxes of the book were apparently discovered in the publisher’s warehouses and thrown into circulation. (Yeah.)

Fast forward to my first book with Baen. I don’t know what Jim was thinking, except that he was very ill at the time, which is the only possible excuse fo the cover of Draw One In The Dark – the hard cover cover – which managed to go one better on the first Shakespeare cover. Not only didn’t it have almost anything to do with the book, but it signaled all wrong as to genre and style and, oh, yeah, it was repulsive to look at.

Children, while a pretty cover won’t sell a book, a horrible-looking cover, no matter if it is accurate, won’t sell your books. (The exception will be some zombie anthologies.) I mean, if you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with that picture on the wall… it’s not a good cover. It has to draw the reader forth.

The cover has been described as “A zombie with an udder fetish.” For reasons semi explicable, he stands in front of a castle. For reasons even less explicable, the castle is called The Athens. The only element that rings true are the dragons behind the castle… but they are… uh… strange looking.

In the context of the castle, the dragons and the zombie, what you think is “uh… historical fantasy with dragons. VERY dark fantasy. Possibly set in Athens.” Actually, the story is light urban fantasy with shape shifters set in a diner.

Because the book cover is executed at middle-school skill, you will also – probably – assume it’s a YA. A… uh… horror YA.

I was VERY happy when the cover was changed for the paperback, and I’m still grateful to Toni for changing it. She got me Tom Kidd, an artist I love, too. The cover shows a city street and a Chinese dragon. It’s not quite… I mean, it still looks dark and all. But it is a nice cover as opposed to a “Good gracious, what’s that?”

For the sequel, Gentleman Takes A chance, the cover shows the diner on which the plot centers, and on the roof of it a dragon, a panther and a lion. It looks nice and inviting.

Being a writer, I just thought “well, they’re both scenes from the book.” And “Nice.” And it didn’t hit me that the covers weren’t doing their job until I was at a convention with Ilona Gordon, (half of Ilona Andrews) and we were signing at the same table. She picked up my books and said “What are they?” I said “Urban fantasy” and she said “I’d never have guessed.” And proceeded to instruct me on urban fantasy covers. They always have a hot girl or sometimes a hot guy, with a tattoo or a weapon or a hint of danger. Yes, it gets monotonous, but in the quick-signage game it works like a dream. People who like urban fantasy will pick it up immediately, and give it a chance.

(BTW, my instincts were right even if I knew nothing, because what I wanted for the first cover was something that resembled Tattoo by Boris Valejo and for the second, I had the vague idea of a woman in a short skirt, leaning against a lamppost in noir style, while a saber tooth jumps at her. Ah, well, maybe for the third book. And no, I don’t blame Toni for the mis-signaling on the covers. I didn’t know any better, and I DO read UF, which Baen isn’t known for – well, okay, not traditional UF.)

My Magical British Empire series, again lovely covers. But except for the details (a ship flying in, a flying building and a dragon) they could be travelogues, rather than historic fantasy with a hint of steampunk (i.e. magical machinery is big in the stories.) What could they have done to show that? I don’t know. I’m not a cover artist. Perhaps put goggles on the dragon? (G)

Frankly, the cover I like best, so far, is the Darkship Thieves cover. It doesn’t show a scene from the novel, but it evokes the novel beautifully. First there’s Athena, unclothed and looking like she’s quite sufficient onto herself. behind her is a spaceship and the powerpods twine around her. It has a “Heinlein” feel, says science fiction, and says it’s about a woman. The “sexy” bit suggests romance, which the book does have. Forget that the scene isn’t anywhere near the book (you can’t walk naked in space, okay. No, not even Thena) it’s perfect signage.

And now you know, I think, why romance always has some beautiful half clothed woman in period clothing/not and often being held by a brawny man (but not always.) Because the signage says “Romance” and that’s all. After that people go with title and blurb. SOMETIMES they will also go with “how nice is the cover” which hints at how good the company thought the book was. But that’s all. I can pick out regency romances based on clothing alone. (And do.)

So, how has that changed for the net? I’m seeing a lot more – even in Romance – of just partial shots of a woman in luscious clothing, or a brawny man supporting her. In the seventies and even recently, it would show man, woman, their faces, the ducal mansion, a horse, a butterfly and three kittens. (I’m exaggerating, but look up the covers at smart bitches.) Now it’s tightly focused and uncluttered. Why? Ebooks. Thumbnails.

One of the small publishers, who is trying to go with the “scene from the book” approach has a woman sitting on a buckboard wagon. From the position, in the thumbnail, it looks like she’s doing what bears do in the woods. Okay, it got me to click on it. For all the wrong reasons.

Take the cover for Death Of A Musketeer with Naked Reader. If it were still the market we had two years ago, I’d hate that cover. It’s just a hand, with a frilly glove, holding a sword.

I’ll grant you that mystery covers are in general more sparse (unless it’s funny mystery. No, don’t ask.) but that, on a shelf says “historical book on swords. Non fiction.” On an ebook it says “Hand, sword. What? Oh, Death – ah, mystery – of a musketeer, ah historical mystery. Okay. maybe I’ll download sample!” In other words, for a book I expect to sell MOSTLY in electronic format, it’s perfect.

Do I have a handle on this? Well, no. Cover artists and designers make a living from this. I wouldn’t take over their craft anymore than I would expect them to take over mine. Do they backfire? Sure. They’re human. The problem is, until recently everything depended on the cover. Now, it sort of does. The cover needs to signal the right genre, the right feel, and be intriguing enough for people to pick up the book. It also has to be clear in black and white, which is all the kindle (still by far the largest ebook platform) displays.

This seems to be leading to clear/concise signage and just enough visual interest to encourage download.

What are you feelings, both on cover and on how it’s changing?

*Yes, I HAVE been reading Agatha Christie’s Sleeping murder, again.

Crossposted at According To Hoyt

A Grab Bag of Writing Craft Ideas

Today is a bit of a grab bag of writing craft ideas. I came across this post by Nathan Bransford on First Person VP Vs Third Person VP.

He says this: ‘One of the great tensions in a first person narrative, then, is between what the narrator is saying and what the reader senses is really happening beyond the narrator’s perspective. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the narrator is unreliable, it just means that we’re seeing the world through a very unique character’s eyes — and only through that character’s eyes.’

I think this can be achieved with what I call Deep Third Person VP as well. If I use First Person I do it for a specific reason. It shapes the narrative and it shapes our understanding of the world.

He says he prefers a more distant Third Person VP. ‘the most interesting third person narratives jump into character’s heads to show their thought processes but leave some distance between what is happening on the outside and what the characters are thinking.’  As a reader, I hate it when I feel like there is a pane of glass between me and the character.

Then there’s this post By Chuck Wendig. 25 things Every Writer Should Know.  He’s right, there is an awful lot of Luck involved.

I like number 20. Writing is about Words, Story Telling about Life. Or to put it another way, sure you can craft a pretty sentence, but you need to have experienced life and observed people to be able to create believeable characters and put them through events where they react in a plausible manner.

And then there’s his post 25 Things you Should Know about Character. I like number 13. The Code. It’s true. Every character has an internal compass. The character must stay true to their own sense of right and wrong.

And I like number 17. Nobody sees themselves as a supporting character. This is so true. This means the protagonist’s friends should have things they care about just as passionately as the protagonist does.

I find reading other people’s posts about writing craft interesting. I’m still having those Ah Ha moments, when I realise something. I’m still getting those moments with my own writing. I find the act of writing intrinsically satisfying and interesting.

Have you had an Ah Ha moment recently? Have you come across a writing craft post that resonated with you?



Happily ever after

“And they all lived happily ever after except for Freddy, who was miserable and stuck pins into the effigy of his mother-in-law. It didn’t seem to help.”

It’s a question every young (and even those of us who are quite doddery and senile, like moi) asks themselves. “Does a book need a happy ending?

It’s one of those questions that deserves more than a cursory answer, because that answer is of course, on the balance of evidence, no.  There are countless award-winning novels which lack any sort of resoltion entirely, let alone a happy one. They are successful, at least in that some editor bought them, and they were deemed fit to give prizes to.  There are even some which gained that greater mark of success of having done this and sold a lot of copies. And a few of these are are much loved too. 

The real answer of course is ‘that’s the wrong question’.  The right question is does MY book need a happy ending?  And the answer here is ‘that must depend on the book, and what I want to do with it. And… um, how much skill do I think I have?’

Now there is money, still, in convincing editors that you’re Dawkins’s own gift to literature. And given that most editors need a hook based on a movie, and that a bit of schmaltzy arts double-speak is indistinguishable to most laymen from real knowledge. (trust me on this. It works in science too. I’ve seen it done, might even have a clue how to do it myself, sometimes).  But it is, unless tied with a rare and incredible amount of talent, a route at best to awards and not to many readers. To get both, you need to be exceptional. It happens, and if you have that level of talent, perhaps it might be you.

And while miserable endings are just about de riguer for this sort of thing, to have lots and lots of readers and miserable ending,  you need to be extra-specially exceptional.

Some writers are. Maybe you are the next one.

I am glad you have such confidence. Good luck. Don’t bother to read any further. Nothing to see here.

On the other hand, if , like me you’ve ever looked at your own writing in despair and wondered how you could possibly ever be good enough to show your book to anyone, let alone get published. a)You’re possibly better than mr self-confidence — because at least you can learn,  if,  like me again, you’ve got a lot that you need to learn. b)You may as well accept that, while, the story dictates the ending, most (like 90%) can only manage lots of readers (for the next book, and to recommend this one to their friends) if the ending provides some satisfaction to the reader. And for a lot of readers and a lot of stories, that is ‘a happy ending’.  

Of course the fairytale ending (except for Freddy) isn’t plausible in most stories. We realise, outside of 1960 Thrills&Swoon novels,  getting married is maybe a good… start.  But most audiences will I believe give you the credit of ‘happy ending’  if you  lead your characters to some sort of promising resolution.  I’ve done bitter-sweet in a novel. It was my 10th I think, and I was very scared of what it would do to readers, and still wonder if it was a good idea. But there was… hope.

And that is my thesis for this post. The start of a novel is all about first impressions. The end of a novel is about leaving a lingering flavor. A flavour that will make firstly your reader remember it (and that could be sad), and secondly your reader tell their friends what a great book it was (so if it was a bleak ending, the middle better be worth it!) and thirdly, buy the next one. The flavor of happiness or satisfaction are widely liked. It’s of course tricky to get points 1,2 and 3 if it’s merely the same as all the other good ending reads this week/month. Personally, I try to inject a bit of hope too. Because it leaves a feelgood that goes a little beyond just happy.

So: what have you read that left you feeling better, and that you could take on the world a little easier tomorrow?

Win-Win Scheme — Riiiiiiight

A lot of things have been happening of late in the publishing realm and yet I’m having a hard time deciding what to blog about.  Sure, I could talk about the continuing debacle that is the Borders trip through bankruptcy.  Then there’s the news about Barnes & Noble’s earnings not rising to expectations.  Or I could write about agents as publishers and how so many agents don’t understand the phrase “conflict of interest”.  Then I heard from a writer friend about one of the most unbelievable bungles of a royalty statement yet by a publisher.  All worthy topics.

But I’m going to take a different approach today.  I usually spend Sundays either reporting on industry news or skewering idiotic moves in the industry.  There’s one thing I don’t discuss often — the often unreasonable demands of readers — but this week has seen example after example and, as someone who works both sides of the industry (as writer and as editor) these demands often send me up a wall.

Every month or so, someone starts a thread on at least one e-book related forum wanting to know why publishers don’t give them free e-copies of a book they have already purchased in hard copy.  After all, they’ve spent years — and a lot of money — building their personal libraries.  Now they have this shiny new e-book reader and they want their library on it.  The catch:  they don’t want to have to repurchase the books already cluttering their homes.

Part of me knows exactly where these readers are coming from.  After all, I have books in every room of my house.  I grew up in a home where books were cherished companions, reading a part of our every day lives.  I’d love to have some of them in digital format.  The problem is that many haven’t been converted into e-books yet.

But the idea that a publisher should provide, free of charge, a digital copy of a book just because I purchased the physical copy of the book some time in the past is beyond me.  First, it assumes the publisher has the digital rights — which very often isn’t the case, especially for a title that is more than a few years old.  It also assumes that the title is still in print.  Also problematical when you consider how quickly most titles are taken out of print by publishers these days.  But the real kicker is that these readers aren’t realizing what this would mean for the writers of the titles in question.  What they are asking for would result in nothing short of taking money out of the writer’s pocket — something I am very much against, as I’m sure you can guess.

What really set me off on this was an oh-so-helpful suggestion on one of the boards this week that Amazon “pressure” publishers into accepting a trade-in program.  The way this person saw it, readers should be able to trade in their hard copies of books for digital versions.  Again, no money would pass hands.  But this would allow the hard copies to be kept in circulation forever because they could then be resold over and over again.  I guess the reasoning was that, after the trade-in, Amazon (or the publisher) could then resell it to another purchaser who would later trade it in for a digital version and the process would repeat.

Now, there are several problems inherent in this from the outset.  The first is the assumption that Amazon can pressure the publishers into anything.  For one, the publishers in question are, generally, the large publishers that have adopted agency pricing.  If you remember when this issue first came up, Amazon removed one of the publishers from its offerings.  Such a hue and cry went up from Amazon customers, all demanding that Amazon let them choose for themselves if they wanted to pay the increased prices, that Amazon capitulated and relisted that publisher.  (On a side note, many of those who’d raised that hue and cry are now the ones whining about the prices of ebooks under the agency model and demanding Amazon lower the prices — something Amazon cannot do.)

The second issue with the suggestion is a bit more laughable.  That is the assumption that the publisher — or Amazon or similar outlet — would do a trade-in without any money changing hands.  Come on, when you go trade in your car, does the dealer let you drive off the lot without paying them something?  Do you get to trade in your TV for a new one and not pay for the new one?  When you changed from VHS to DVD, were you able to trade in your VHS tapes for the same titles on DVD?

But the biggest issue is the same one I alluded to in the first example:  the fact that this sort of program would short change the writer of the book even more than the current system does.  Not only would the author not get paid for a sale of a digital title under this program, neither would he get paid for the resale of the book.  (No, I’m not saying royalties should be paid on sales through outlets like Half Price Books.  But the trade in set-up is one that would have to include the publisher, hence royalties should be paid, imo).  This scenario that the poster viewed as a win-win for everyone involved is a huge FAIL for the author.

The truth is that e-books are as much a “book” as a paperback or hard cover.  The only difference is the medium used to produce it.  Just as a movie is a movie whether you go see it in a theater or in a park or in your home on DVD or via a streaming feed or television, a book is a book whether it is printed on paper or you read it on a screen of some sort.  That means the digital format should be paid for just as the paper format should be.  Authors should be compensated for the sales of all formats.  To demand a free digital version of titles you already own because you have decided to change your preferred reading medium is unrealistic.

In the years to come, we may see more publishers following the Baen example of setting up free digital libraries where some of their titles are available for free download or where CDs with a number of digital titles are included with some physical books.  That’s good marketing.  But expecting free digital copies for books you’ve owned for years is unrealistic.  It just isn’t going to happen.  Or at least I hope it doesn’t, at least not without reasonable compensation being worked out for the author, or their estates, first.

I know most people don’t understand how authors get paid.  They don’t realize that most of us have to work at least one traditional job to make ends meet because writing just doesn’t pay the bills.  That’s why these “everyone wins” schemes that crop up get to me.  It may seem like a no fail plan for the reader, maybe even for the publisher.  But they usually leave the author — the creator of the work — out  in the cold and I don’t know about you but I’d love to make enough from my writing not to have to work an 8 to 5 job.

So, what do you think?  Am I wrong?  Should publishers and retailers create some sort of program where, if you prove you have purchased a print copy of a book you get a free digital copy?

Writing and Physiology

I was sitting at the desk the other day, staring at the blinking cursor when I remembered something from a long way back about meditation. It was from a ‘how-to’ book, so don’t sue me, I’ve never actually studied meditation properly. But the book was talking about how the body position and even facial expression can affect mood – I have heard something similar from motivation gurus.

I think the ‘gurus’ take it all a little far, one claiming (not naming names:)) that emotions are nothing but ‘physiological storms in your brain’. Hmmn. Well maybe for him, but that sort of statement has never gelled with me.

There is a point here though. How you physically position yourself, and even facial expressions can influence your mood.

One of the best examples of this is trying to feel certain states while doing certain physical actions. For example, try to feel sad while jumping up and down in the air, smiling and going ‘Yay! Yay!’ at the top of your voice. It’s hard to well-nigh impossible.

I’m not sure how much that proves – after all sometimes we want to feel sad. That’s a core emotion. And ignoring or repressing anger is not healthy. But beyond this there definitely is an influence on our mood when we adopt certain physical postures.

So while I was watching the blinking cursor I lifted my jaw up off the desk, straightened my back . . . and smiled. It did actually make a difference.

Do you use body position or posture to give your daily word limit a boost?

The Writer’s Toolbox: Plots and plants

Contrary to a rather popular belief, plots are not simply what happens in a story. Confused? Think of reality TV. That has no plot – stuff happens for the set time period, then the show finishes. So while stuff happening is necessary to plot, it’s not sufficient. I’m not claiming any guru-ness here, so if anyone can offer more or better information than I’ve got, feel free to speak up.

At any rate, I’ve identified these major components to plot: People, places, motives, actions, and pace. I consider them essentials because if you take any one of them away, you don’t have a plot any more. What’s more, none of them can be switched out for a different set without significantly changing the plot.

Here’s the way I look at it. Your people are your characters, major or minor, good, evil or somewhere in between. If by some chance you have no characters, you also have no plot unless you anthropomorphized part of the scenery, in which case it is a character. If you genuinely don’t have any characters, you’re writing for a suckitudinous fiction prize and don’t need a plot. For the vast majority of the rest of us, there are people, whether they’re human-shaped, dog-shaped, alien-shaped, or something even stranger.

As for place, well, the floating voices in undefined space effect is just so passe these days, and besides, as I mentioned a few weeks back, place has a profound impact on character. It also, not coincidentally, has a big effect on actions and pace. Harry Potter would not be the same story if it was set anywhere other than a magical version of the quintessential English boarding school. None of Pterry’s Discworld novels would work anywhere but the Disc. And so forth. Without a sense of place, a story won’t feel grounded, making it weaker – one of the reasons I spent hours researching Wallachia, Bulgaria and Turkey to get the feel of place for Impaler as close to right as I could without walking the whole thing myself (not that I’d mind doing that, but there’s little issue with budget, namely I haven’t got one).

Motives are what drive your plot. If no-one wants anything, there’s no reason to do anything so there’s no plot. Even talent shows have a plot of sorts: everyone there wants to win, and only one of them can. Your main characters need to want something enough to turn their own worlds inside out in order to get it. Along the way, they’ll have more immediate but less major needs and desires: which is where we as authors get to make their lives miserable by denying them their needs and making them chase that big motive while half-dead, or in extreme cases all-dead and too stubborn to let go.

Actions rise from character, motive and place – the person, motive and place determine the best action (or what looks like it – part of our job as authors is to make sure the action that looks best is going to turn around and bite the person). After all, if you desperately want to be a cross-country skiing champion, what you do to become one is going to be totally different if you live in Switzerland than if you live in Jamaica. It will be a lot easier from Switzerland than from Jamaica, too, and unless you’re aiming for suckitudinous infamy, a more difficult big motive leads to more actions and riskier actions – which makes the story more interesting. The higher the stakes, the better the plot, as a rule. Playing dice with the Devil for a few pennies isn’t nearly as interesting as playing for your soul (and losing. Then you’ve got to defeat the Devil on his home turf. See what I mean?).

Pace is the last piece of the plot puzzle. The simplest way to look at pace is how fast things happen, but it’s more than that – pace measures how fast things feel. As a general rule, the more intense the emotions around a sequence of events, the faster it will feel, even if almost nothing happens. I don’t recommend loading seven hundred pages with intense emotion while advancing an epic plot all of three days and ten miles, though. As will all things, moderation is good. Pace should not stay the same through a book – there’s a natural rhythm a story follows that has several peaks and quite a few slower sections that let readers and characters catch their breath. The early L. K. Hamilton books are brilliant examples of pacing – she has it down almost to the page: to the extent that you could look at how much book was left and figure you had maybe a chapter before all hell broke loose (given the plot, often literally).

Of course, you can’t deal with all of these in isolation: they work together and if done well enhance each other. When they’re done very well, you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it. In my case, I don’t notice anything until the book’s been finished, it’s several hours later, I’ve got starving cats, I haven’t eaten and it’s way past when I should have been in bed. I may be a tad on the extreme side.

So that’s the quickie overview of plot, the super-simple version. Typically, most writers will be good at one or two of the elements and weaker with the others – it really does help to identify which aspects of plotting you need to improve and get help from someone who’s good at it. It helps even more if the person who mentors you had to work at it themselves: when something comes easy it’s a lot harder to teach because the nuts and bolts are buried in the subconscious and it will “just happen”.