When are Sexy and Horrible Things Relevant to your Plot

When they are useful.

Everyone’s different. I’ve read books where I skipped the torture scenes. The fact that they are there? Tells me more than I need to know about the characters involved. I don’t need to see it play out. Its purpose – to show me a characters suffering and another characters cruelty – is fulfilled merely by a glance.

Some other people may like to sit through all of that. Maybe. But, if all you showed was torture scenes, if your book was nothing but gratuitous pain? Well two things are going to happen:

  • Your readers will get bored (seriously, even an entire book of sex scenes is a as dull as dishwater unless each of those scenes has a different dynamic and means something different.) It’ll just be “oh, here’s another of those scenes”
  • They will see that there’s no point, and they will leave, because generally speaking, people don’t sit through things they don’t like.

Now obviously the second point applies (hopefully) more to violence than to sex scenes. Sometimes, if they’re written well, people will read sex scenes because they like the sex scene. This is fine, although be aware of what genre your book is in, and what you’re promising to the readers by using that genre as a tag.

People will get a bad case of “can we please get onto the plot” if you have too much of the same thing going on. Even sex.

This is true even in erotica. Maybe if you don’t read it much, a whole book of sex scenes where emotions and outcomes never change and the actions don’t affect anything will enthral you. I don’t read a lot of erotica, because I find it difficult to find books that do it well, but I’ve read a fair few romances with high heat levels. And I find it difficult to not skips sex scenes after we’ve reached number 4. Because things start to repeat.

Everyone has had sex. If nothing important is revealed or happening during a sex scene, eventually people will skim over said sex scene.

Which brings us full circle regarding relevance to the plot. Sex can be relevant. As can horrid things like torture, death, rape. But as to how much of that needs to be in there?

It needs to be there if it serves your book. If the scene shows character, or emotional change, or plot elements. If it doesn’t? Keep in mind that shock factor only lasts for so long, and eventually people will get tired of reading about the same people having sex over and over.

Even in these circumstances, you have to give readers a reason to care.

 

Image via Flickr, attributed to Marina Del Castell

When Not to Write

Now. I know I talked about how to make yourself sit down and write regardless of whether the muse was visiting or not on Wednesday. However, I think it’s important to note, there are some times when it’s just not a good idea.

Here’s the thing. If you’re treating writing seriously, then writing is work. Work you enjoy, yes, but it’s work none-the-less. That comes with all the normal caveats. So we’re going to be referring to writing as work for a bit here, and the reason will become apparent later.

So when is it a bad idea to work?

  • When you have other things that need to be done that take higher precedence

Now be careful with this one. Our brains are very good at making up things that we “could” be doing, not “should” be doing. Do the dishes really need to be done? Probably not. Can you just decide you’d rather write than eat/feed your family/do your day job? No. So set aside time for writing, give up some things that don’t need to be done (TV, playing games, decide between whether your early morning time is for running or writing or half-and-half). But don’t write when you have shit that needs to be done.

  • When you need to take care of yourself.

I had a bit of a moment the other day which I now recognise as being sad. It wasn’t depression, because I was able to deal with it, I got stuff done, and I recognised and understood what was going on, but I was sad. There was a very identifiable cause. As so I got about 1k of words done, and then I decided that I was going to read fluffy fanfic for the rest of the day.

This is fine. It’s healthy, even. If you’re doing it all the time? It’s not a time management issue – it’s an issue you need to be seeking advice about.

  • When you’ve done enough for the week

Writing, when we’re talking about it like work, has a limit. That limit is different for many people. Some will tire of it after 2k each day, some manage only 500 words before they hate everything to do with it. I think each person’s daily limit reflects on how they write – I can comfortably get 2k in. But I write a fast first draft, don’t plan it, and use said first draft as my jumping off point, for the at least 4 rewrites I’m going to need. A friend only manages 500 words a day, but they’re not words she ever needs to edit.

So if you’ve hit your weekly goal (in my case 10k/week), feel free to stop. Go and do something else. Walk the dog. Exercise a little. Write something technical, just for kicks.

This leads me to my final point:

There is other writing than work writing.

The things above apply to “work writing”. Something you’ve told yourself that you’re going to get done. There are other kinds of writing.

One way that I dealt with my sadness the other day was creating a pretend memoir and writing out how I felt. Seriously. There were chapter headings and everything. Journaling, too, has a way of settling some people.

So yes. Take a moment when you need to. Don’t write when other priorities trump your writing work, and don’t write when it’s just a method of punishing yourself further- either because you’re exhausted, or because you need a bit of you-time.

But if a short poem is something that gives you joy after a week on a novel, then go ahead. It’s not work, and work is what we sometimes need a break from.

 

Image from Flickr, creative commons, attributed to Doctor Popular

Work. How to Make Words.

I’m a big proponent of the idea of sitting down and just writing. You do it enough, and eventually you’ll train the words to come.

Sometimes you won’t know what’s going to happen next. This is a big issue for some people (it’s the part I like best about writing). It’s also, generally speaking, the difference between people who plot, and people who don’t. So if you struggle to figure out what’s going to happen next, sit down. Write out your plan.

Then after that’s done, train yourself to sit down and write everyday. You know what’s happening. How it happens? That’s another issue, but you fix that by using three things:

  • Experience
  • Creativity
  • Copying

Experience is straightforward – you’ve heard arguments before. Maybe you’ve had a loved one die. Maybe you’re smelt blood before.

So you dip into your bank of a brain, and you get on with it.

Note, age has nothing to do with this. Experience often comes with age, but it’s not tied to it. I’ve lived in four countries, and spent two years running around in an ambulance in a city of 9 million people. I’ve had more experience in some areas than people twice my age.

I’ve never been truly in romantic love, nor had a child. So those things aren’t something I could ever talk about with authority. But I’ve watched people die. I know what someone in true pain looks like, I know what it is to be helpless. I know what devastation and grief looks like. I’ve had children stop breathing in my presence.

So. That’s experience. Where does creativity come into it?

I’ve never truly been in love – not a long term relationship, anyway. A few very short ones, but long term isn’t really my style at this point in my life.

I’ve known my best friend for 10 years though. And while I can’t say that the three months when we were in university where we had a falling out is exactly like a break-up? I must say, it’s not difficult to extrapolate from that experience to what it might feel like.

Like you’ve been jumping into a safety net that is comfort and home all in one and suddenly it’s gone.

So. That leads us to the last one. Copying.

“You want me to plagiarise?” I hear you saying. Nope. But I want you to go out and steal other people’s experiences for your own.

Take note of that word. Steal. It’s the correct word to be using. Because you’ll never be able to truly represent experiences that aren’t yours. You can have a fairly good go. But you are stealing how it feels, the way it impacts a life, from someone else. Keep that in mind. Be respectful. Perhaps make sure you know what you’re on about enough that the stealing feels less like stealing, and more like borrowing.

For some things, no-one will care. Nobody is going to care if I read about how it feels to have a child, and then write about it, taking in all those second hand experiences and feeding it through the filter of my creativity. People will also, generally not care if I write from the POV of a guy, even though I’m a woman.

They will care if you start writing about groups that you’re not from and doing it badly though. Because there is an impact there for hurt. The male white community is not going to be injured if I get them “wrong”. They’ll probably just go on ignoring me.

If you’re writing about someone when the world already gets most things about them and their people wrong? Try not to add to it.

Image from Flickr, by Kristina D. C. Hopper

Halfway Point – Impact, Processing and Change

 

There are  a lot of articles on the internet that talk about the halfway point. People will analysis it ad-infinum, will talk about it’s emotional structure, how the plot moves forwards from here on out, ect.

For me, I think the structure of a midway point has a lot to do with reader patience, and the ability of the writer to not repeat themselves.

If every character that ever tried to fix their problem succeeded, there would be no stories. So by virtue of there being a story, character have to fail, and thus look for another way forwards.

If the character continues to fail, continues to not make any proper progress, eventually reader patience is going to run out. It’s like supporting a friend in a crisis – if they’re not at the point where they can help themselves, you eventually get tired of being there. That doesn’t mean you leave – this is your friend, you love and care for them.

Unfortunately, the obligation and connection that a person has with a friend is not one they nessercarily have with your book.

So what to do? Let’s look at the size of an average novel. 80k, or thereabouts. Let’s say it takes a person a week to read that much – they’ve dedicated 3.5 theoretical days to your character’s woes.

If your character doesn’t have a plan? Doesn’t have resolve? Hasn’t figured out what everything’s all about (or thinks they have)? Hasn’t pushed through and dealt with the emotional angst that is coming through all this failing?

Well the reader better adore your character. Because they’re not going to stick around otherwise.

So the midpoint, to me, is a change in tone. It’s when the character stops just reacting, and starts planning. They start looking at their other options. They process some of the emotional trauma that’s been dealt to them over the past 40k.

The character has been active previously to this – but they’ve been actively reacting. Trying to ride the back of the bucking dragon, so to speak. At this point, they hop off. They check over their scars, process what they’ve learnt from all this reacting, and then they go off to figure out how to kill said dragon.

Because again, unless your readers love your character like a friend they’ve loved for years? They’re not going to stick around for endless riding-of-the-dragon.

Note that there was a emotional component to all this. This is important. there is no point to your character running off into the second half of the book if they don’t have the time and the quiet to process the first half of the book.

This is why the midpoint is normally big. Its generally action packed. It does three things by being the massive, big event that it is:

  1. It lets the protagonist know that the reacting thing isn’t working. Something has to change
  2. It provides a massive moment of impact. This in itself helps to hold up the middle of the book. But the impact provides something else:
  3. It means that the reader will be ready for breathing space.

Yep. Breathing space. The first half of your book only matters if it feeds into the makeup of the main character and informs what they do in the second half.

This means the main character has to have a moment to process the chaos that has been their life over the first half of the book. And this processing is important – it needs time. And not only does your big moment in the middle signal to the main character that things aren’t working, not only is it a spectacular moment of impact in and of itself, but it allows for a quiet moment to follow.

If you’re hit the reader over the head with your moment of impact, they’ll let you have a moment afterwards where your characters process things. In fact, they’ll almost be expecting it, because they’re human too. They also take a moment when life hits them in places that hurt.

So let your characters do the same. Given them their moment, their processing time. And then have them make a decision. Have the strike out. Because something obviously needs to change. And if they keep doing the same thing, over and over again, you’re going to loose people.

After all, your main character is not the reader’s childhood friend. They’re not going to stick around forever waiting for them to sort their sh*t out.

 

Image via Flickr, by Jenny Mealing

How I Use Writing Books

As mentioned previously, I do quite badly with planning anything. If I know how a story ends, it’s not something I can bring myself to write. I’m bored – what’s the point in writing it down if I know how it’s going to go?

This has caused issues in the past. And where do you turn when you have writing issues? Other writers.

There are some people out there that are planners. They meticulously make character charts, and plan out every beat and counter beat. They’re big on the scaffolding.

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Image attributed to: Timothy Allen via flickr creative commons

 

Doing such a thing would both A) drive me crazy, and B) suck any of the enjoyment in the story out for me.

So what to do? Do I discount these other writers as “not the same as me?” Do I decide that their by-the-numbers style could never apply to me?

No. Many planners write the way they do because it works. They know a lot about story structure, and people in general. The best planners use techniques to manipulate readers to get the emotional output that they want, not to churn out story after story.

Manipulating readers is always a good thing. It’s one of the major points of writing the damn story down in the first place.

But again, I can’t plan. So how is there any point in reading their advice?

Well, I just don’t use it when I’m writing.

This seems stupid. Why would I invest all that time to read about how someone writes if I’m not going to use it when I’m writing?

There’s a couple of answers to this:

  1. Some of it sticks, buries itself into my subconscious and pops up when I need it, mostly without me realising it. The first thing I wrote wasn’t a stream of conscious – it had a beginning, middle and end despite me never having planned any of it. This comes from a history of reading. You start to pick patterns up subconsciously.
  2. It’s bloody useful for the second draft.
  3. It’s useful for when I get stuck – > I can look at these theories on story craft and use it to pick my way out a mess.

The last two need some extrapolation. Second draft? Well, using planner’s methods lets me take a step back, look at what I’ve written, and see what works and what doesn’t. As I said, these theroies on plot, character and story exist for a reason – they’ve worked. If I’m doing something different then I should at least be aware that I’m doing it, to see what effect I’m loosing, and what effect I’m gaining.

And as for unpicking mess? I tend to get stuck in the middle. Generally it’s for two reasons A), I haven’t come up with where I’m going, or B), I’ve figured out where I’m going, and I don’t know how to get there.

 

Taking a break, stepping back form where I am, and figuring ut where I’m going wrong are all made easier when I look at the techniques that other writers use to plan their work.

On Doubting Yourself (Or – Just Send it Out)

20160504_160948Another name for this could have been – surprising yourself. The two things go together.

I’d been submitting for a year when I got my first “maybe”. It took over 90 days to get this reply, a month for me to figure out what they wanted me to do, and then another 80 or so days for them to say yes.

A week ago, I got a cheque in the mail from America.

This particular short story was born of an idea – an arranged marriage that a daughter was not happy about, but when she listened in on how it was arranged, she was surprised by the terms and conditions. Originally it was going to be set in a historical setting. Originally it was going to be a flash piece involving her overhearing her father speak with a prospective suitor.

I don’t plan when I write, but I do make decisions as I write. I mainly wanted to do something quickly, so I picked modern day London, but with magic (because I lived in London). I’m not sure where the brother in the story came from (probably because I myself have a brother). Some of the main relationship probably has to do with the misunderstandings I’ve had with my own parents (often I think children and parents forget that they want the best for each other, and don’t see that at the root of the disagreements they have about life and it’s many paths).

I did not think it was the best thing I’d written. I thought the ending was quite pat – it was a “twist” because I didn’t want the end to be one of the two obvious options. It was written in about an hour and a half. My betas weren’t amazed, just generally responsive. I sent if off because that’s what I do with stories – I send them off.

It was accepted by the first place I sent it to. After about half a year of back and forth, yes. But accepted, it was. (Yoda ftw.)

There’s a story to be learnt from this. I’d been submitting things for about 8 months at that point. The first thing I ever submitted was to this same magazine. And the first thing I ever sent out was a big step for me. It was good. It had to be good at that point for me to want to send it out.

They said no after about 30 days. And for a while that crippled me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. It was *good*. That’s why I’d sent it out in the first place.

6 more months of this, and I’d stoppped waiting for something to be brilliant before I sent it out. I just sent stuff out. And the same place that had originally said no, said yes to something that I didn’t think was worth their time.

You are a terrible judge of your own work, as a writer. You’re married to your piece, it’s yours, it’s part of your soul. You’ll doubt yourself. I still doubt myself.

It’s not worth it. Especially with short stories. They’re not (hopefully, anyway) going to take up months of your time. Just write the bloody thing, go over it, and send it out. Someone will either say yes or no.

It does you no benefit to have it lying on your hard-drive, because no-one can has a chance to say anything then.

 

A New Set of Eyes

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I recieved professional edits today.

*zooms around in her excitement like an aeroplane*

It’s odd, but at the same time very exciting. For the first time ever, I’ve got someone other than a beta looking at my work. And that someone is staking money on it.

A new pair of eyes can be an weird thing. The first time I showed my work to someone, it was my mother. Kudos for her for coming up with the sentence:

Its interesting, but there might be a few changes you can make

The first time I sent something out for publication, I remember waiting. When your writing isn’t terrible, you enter a weird zone where you don’t get an immediate no, but the wait is long enough to you get your hopes up for a “yes”

Spoiler alert, there was no yes. It took a whole damn year of trying to get a “yes”.

Yes means many things in publication. I’ve listed those I think most important:

1. You enter the realm of collaberation
For the first time, you’re not just working on your own, you’re working with someone.

2. That someone (namely an editor) wants to make money out of your work. Either via people paying for it, or via eyes and loyalty to their website. They’re invested. This is a good thing, and something to be kept in mind when the edits come through. Everyone wants what’s best for the peice.

3. Most places that pay for publication have plenty to choose from

Your peice is not going to be changed beyond all recognition by collaberation. That’s way too much in the way of effort. They might as well have chosen something closer to what they wanted.

So all in all, odd though the process of edits is (it’s like someone invading your bedroom with a plan for decore inprovement), it’s generally a good thing. And at the end of the day, everyone wants whats best for the story.

Picture credit : attributed to Jenny Kaczorowski via flicke under creative commons