Monday, March 2, 2015

The Unreliable Narrator: Should We Let Characters Have Their Way?

by Sophie Perinot

I have learned to cherish the unreliable narrator. I don’t use that term in the usual sense—the narrator who, often at his writer’s behest, leads readers astray and makes them think hard about what is true and what is not in his recounting of a book’s action. No, I mean the character you as an author researched, outlined, storyboarded, breathed life into, who decides she is NOT who you think she is.

When I first started writing I did not know what to make of these episodic occurrences. I’d be writing dialogue and suddenly some character—usually the main one, the one whose head I lived in, the one I thought I knew as well as I know myself—would say something I totally did not expect. The effect was sort of like being hit from behind while driving. My head would jerk back and I would be swept by a feeling of “what was that?” The further I got into my inaugural novel, the more frequently my characters grabbed the reins of power and the more firmly they held them. No longer was it just a matter of a few sentences that surprised me, they were making life-changing decisions or rather story-changing ones.  I am not alone in this experience. Nearly every writer I know has had it. For example, a good friend of mine who is a successful multi-published author recently reported that the character she created specifically to be the love interest in her wip decided this week that he may be gay.  Yeah that’s a game changer.

For a novel to be successful what our characters do and say must to ring true, must be compatible with their natures.  So who decides upon that nature? Of course ultimately we can force our characters to do what we want.  But should we?

As my characters in my debut novel became more and more strong-willed I began to perceive a pattern.  When they stood up for themselves, my writing came alive.  Instead of reaching for word-count goals I had a hard time stopping for the day.  I was late to carpool.  I wrote in carpool.  By the time I set to work on my second novel, I viewed my early writing as merely preparation—sort of like prayer.  Sure I’d done my research and filled my subconscious with both historical facts and plot ideas, but I was merely setting a stage. I was waiting for a spark, for what I have come to call “the genesis moment” when my characters would come to life, and reveal to me who they really were.

Now, as a veteran writer hard at work on another first-draft, I view myself less an omnipotent God (and don’t all novelists sort of feel like they are all-powerful creators manipulating characters and readers alike when they begin their author journey?) and more like Abraham Heschel’s “most moved mover.”  Yes, warning, I am going to quote philosophy.  Heschel said that, “while God is often frustrated by our actions, he endures, patiently waiting for us to turn our attention to the sacred task of universal redemption.”  Alright, alright, I do not expect my characters to get busy with universal redemption (I don’t’ write literary fiction, remember), but the point is I’ve come to trust my characters.  Sure they still frustrate me when they go off on what I perceive to be a tangent, but instead of fighting them, I try to wait patiently, taking it all down with the knowledge that they are trying to find their way—to find my way for me—to where my story needs to be in order to be my best work.  This is not recalcitrance, this is inspiration, and I can discipline them a bit in editing if I need to.

The very unreliability that used to give me whiplash now invigorates me.  It is the crack-cocaine that brings me back to my laptop every day, the high-inducing interruption that gets me out of my morning shower and sends me scrambling for a yellow legal pad.  My narrators are truly the most reliably themselves when they become three-dimensional animate actors with free will, not just stick figures I move around the page in keeping with an outline.

So I say all hail the unreliable narrator!  What say you?

Sophie P’s The Sister Queens, (March 2012/NAL), is set in 13th century France and England and weaves the captivating story of sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens. She collaborated in the Roman-era A Day of Fire, a ground-breaking “novel in six parts” exploring the last days of Pompeii (November 2014/Knight Media).  Her next novel, Médicis Daughter, (December 2015/Thomas Dunne) is set at the intrigue-riven, 16th century French Valois court, and spins the tale of beautiful princess Marguerite who walks the knife edge between the demands of her serpentine mother, Catherine de Medicis, and those of her own conscience.  Visit Sophie at her website, or on FB, follow her on Twitter as @Lit_gal

Thursday, February 26, 2015

You're A Part of the Scene

by R.S. Mellette

I've been binge-watching the Foo Fighter's series, Sonic Highways, on HBO. It chronicles Dave Grohl's journey with the rest of the band to record a song, inspired by and recorded in a different city around the country. While in that city, they delve into the evolution of the music scene that is unique to that part of the world.  Jazz in New Orleans. Blues in Chicago. Go-Go & Funk in D.C. etc. Not only is the history fascinating, I found the series inspirational for artists of all kinds, including myself as a writer.

But nostalgia is useless if it doesn't teach us something about today, or guide us toward a better tomorrow.

I got to thinking about those music scenes. For a brief moment, I wished I had been involved in something as cool as grunge in Seattle, or Willie Nelson in Austin. Then I said to myself, "You idiot! You are. Right now. Right here at From The Write Angle."

Sure, our Moveable Feast may not be in Paris, but this isn't the 1920s. None of us may be as famous as Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Joyce, but neither were they at the time. If they were, or if we were, then it wouldn't be a scene would it? All great "you should have been there back when" scenes start before the artists become household names. For those involved, it's not necessary for their peers to make it big. They are mythic not for what they will do as famous artists, but what they did last Tuesday when they couldn't afford breakfast.

So whether this little band of writers is destined for greatness or not, I thought I would provide my portion of the yet-to-be-made (or never-to-be-made) documentary on our little scene. Those who are a part of it, as participants or audience, feel free to chime in with your own angle of the story in the comments.

For most of us, From The Write Angle started with AgentQuery Connect, which is a scene unto itself. The head of that little movement is the mysterious AQCrew. No one knows who AQCrew really is, but his or her guiding hand has been a big influence to writers, published or not. The mystery of AQCrew's real identity adds to the mythic aspect of AQC's tale.

For me, From The Write Angle started when Robert K. Lewis, aka Thrownbones, got an agent. This was around 2008 or '09 on the first incarnation of Agent Query Connect. Not only was I completely jealous, which is my highest compliment, but he wasn't around the boards as much and I missed his posts. Shortly after that, I got an agent and I missed his posts even more.

There are a whole new set of problems a writer encounters once they make it to the next level, but to complain about them to writers on the level below is kind of rude. I had never been the type to think I needed a support group, but Agent Query Connect had become that as sure as if it were held in the rec room of a local community center. Once I'd found an agent I felt like I'd lost my support, so I asked AQCrew if I could form a password protected group for writers who have agents.

When ACQ moved to the new site, this group became The Class of 2009. Most of us moderated (or still moderate) forums on that site. At some point, AQCrew mentioned that writers were forming blog groups and that we should consider doing something like that. From The Write Angle was born.

My biggest contribution after that was writing the statement of purpose:

We learn best, not from our bigger than life heroes, but our big brothers and sisters. We run fastest to catch the person just in front of us, not who has already finished the race. We seek The Write Angle to help you, not because we have reached the summit, but because we are in arm's length, and when you are arm's length ahead of us, we hope you'll remember how you got there.

In 2012, Matt Sinclair started publishing short stories via his Elephant's Bookshelf Press. As I say in the acknowledgements of Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand, he is our Sun Records. Thronebones went on to have his Mark Mallen noir series published. Mindy, R.C., Sophie, Cat, etc. have all done well and still blog here along with the rest of the team. Others, have moved on to emeritus status, but like any members of a scene, they are with us in our thoughts.

What scenes are you all currently a part of?  What are you doing now that will be a fond memory in a decade or so?

R.S. Mellette's new book is Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand. He is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the anthologies Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Mindy McGinnis

I work in a public school. The two libraries I help oversee serve 5th graders through seniors, and I end up in the building way past the hours that I stop getting paid. There's always something going on in a school, and basketballs bouncing in a gym have a way of calling to the ex-athlete, as does the ring of softballs hitting aluminum bats.

I don't get a chance to play much of anything anymore, taking the canoe out in the spring and hitting the gym every week is how I get my exercise now. But I'm often drawn into school sporting events, and while I know that the past is golden, I see some definite differences from the proverbial way things used to be.

I see the parents of fifth graders keeping stats in the bleachers, kids being pulled aside after games by coaches and parents alike (sometimes with a referee in tow for official backup) about what they did or didn't do, and how they can improve. I see adults talking about college admissions, scouts, percentages, injuries hurting playing time, and having conversations more suited to ESPN than a gym with fading paint.

Kid's faces are intense, and don't get me wrong - I think that's awesome. I know exactly how it goes in the moment, when a turnover under your hands feels like the end of the world, when sliding into home and winning the game could very well be the best thing that ever happened to you. Yeah, that's all true.

But sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is having fun anymore. Or anyone in the bleachers, for that matter.

Writing often feels the same way. I spent ten years receiving rejections for books that I was certain were Pulitzer material (they're not, for proof hit up my hashtag #BadFirstNovel). I was writing with visions in my head of awards, fame, and yes, money (that's a whole other post).

What I wasn't doing was writing because I loved it. I was writing because I was intent on making it my everything, and proving to myself and the world how freaking awesome I was.
  • Reality check #1 - I just wasn't.
  • Reality check #2 - That's partly because there was no heart in my writing.
After ten years of failing of I gave up. I truly did just let it go for a few years. I came back with a recharge and the thought that maybe I should try writing YA, since I had just started working in a high school. I came up with an idea I loved. A fun idea, nothing that was going to land me at a table with the President someday, but something fun. Something I liked.

And I wrote it.

And while it didn't garner representation or achieve publication, I rediscovered the enjoyment of writing. Which prompted me to write NOT A DROP TO DRINK, which opened up a whole new chapter of my life.

So if you're mired in your stats, or singing sad misereres over the dusty bones of the novel you've been rehashing forever, try to remember why you started doing this in the first place. And then maybe have some fun with it.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author who has worked in a high school library for thirteen years. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, a post-apocalyptic survival story set in a world with very little freshwater, has been optioned for film my Stephanie Meyer's Fickle Fish Films. The companion novel, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST was released in 2014. Look for her Gothic historical thriller, A MADNESS SO DISCREET in October of 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books. Mindy is represented by Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


With the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey (full disclosure: I’ve never read it, nor seen the movie, but I have seen the trailer) currently dominating the box-office despite being widely panned by critics, one thing seems as true as ever, sex sells. Most of us however are not writing romance or erotica, so what place do such scenes have in other genres, and how to manage them if, like me, you’d rather have all your fingers broken than have to type up a steamy scene?

1.  Are they necessary? 
Sometimes. We’ve all heard actors say things along the lines of, ‘I only do nudity when it’s integral to the plot,’ and then we all roll our eyes, knowing integral to the plot is Hollywood speak for will make the producers more money. Books can easily suffer from the same gratuitous and superfluous addition of sex scenes as movies are known for, but the difference is you the author can save us! (And yourself) from the awkwardness of an unnecessary sex scene. 

Look at your story, and at your own motivations. Are you letting yourself feel pressure from society because other books you’re reading included such scenes? Well, don’t. Instead, focus on your characters and your story. 

Your characters: They may very well be having sex, they also go to the bathroom, but it doesn’t mean such actions need to make it into the novel. I like to view sex scenes like bathroom breaks, you’re only going to include a bathroom break if something truly important to the plot happens during it. Such as if your character gets eaten by a T-Rex while on the toilet, à la Jurassic Park. Which brings us to point two.

2. Sex scenes are not about the sex.
If the scene is necessary to the plot it means there is a whole lot more going on than just the sex. This is the thing that got me through the most recent steamy scene I’ve written, realizing that while yes the characters are physically getting intimate the scene is not about the physical mechanics of what they are doing, which I feel so uncomfortable writing, but about the subtext of what’s going on with the characters, which is way more within my wheelhouse. 

In my case the love scene I was dreading is about a burn victim who hasn’t let anyone actually see her in years finally overcoming her own shame at her disfigurement. When I was thinking of it as just the scene where Helen and Chase have sex I was terrified to write it. I left it out entirely in the first draft, and it proved to be a vast gaping hole in the plot, so I had to address it. Once I started viewing it instead as the scene where Helen goes from letting fear of her disfigurement dictate all her choices, and works through those challenges and overcomes them finally making the choice she wants not what her fear requires the scene practically wrote itself. 

You may not know anything about writing a sex scene, but you know your characters and the subtext the scene is really about, so let them guide you, and it will be so much easier.

3. Fade to black. 
I always use this. It may be a cop out, but it’s one that works. If you write way past the point you feel comfortable it will probably result in writing that your audience is going to feel uncomfortable reading. No one wants to end up winning Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award. Sure, some authors get graphic, but you don’t have to. I am a firm believer that implied sex is the best kind. Readers have a great imagination, they can totally pick up in their minds where you left off if they are so inclined. Plus, if someone really wants there to be more sex in your book they will write up some fan fiction.

4. Have someone who is less of a prude beta read it for you.
It’s always a good idea to have a variety of critique partners and beta readers for many reasons, but especially for areas that you feel are not your strong suit, or are not as comfortable with, the input of someone who is can be priceless. 

Brighton can be found motivating fellow writers with Jennifer Connelly memes over on Tumblr at JC Writing Motivator, and documenting his adventures on Instagram, and Twitter. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pomodoro and Procrastination

by +J. Lea Lopez 

If you've been hanging around our little slice of the Internet for a while, you may remember when I created and shared some slow writing memes last year. Including this one:

It's true that I tend to take longer to write a draft, and I favor a cleaner first draft that doesn't need as much rewriting and hair-pulling in the editing stage. It works for me as a writer, and maybe it works for you, too. But in addition to being a fun way to show solidarity with my fellow slow writers, this graphic I made hides a deep, dark, shameful secret...

I'm a world-class procrastinator.

Oh, the shame! The horror!  But it's true. When left completely to my own devices, my time management skills leave a little something (maybe a lot of something) to be desired. When I worked retail, time management wasn't really an issue. There were schedules and timelines to stick to, and there were only so many hours I could work in a day. And there were consequences. I obviously wanted to keep my job. But as a self-employed, self-published author, the only thing keeping me accountable for self-imposed deadlines is a Candy Crush-playing, dog-cuddling, daydreaming, deadline-shifting procrastinator who needs more coffee. AKA me. And to be honest, I don't really get mad at myself when I say this story is going to be finished by this date, and then that date comes and goes. I'm not going to fire me. Sure, you can argue that I'm losing sales or... something? But I'm too damn laid back for that. Those kinds of consequences just roll right off my back and I keep doing whatever I'm doing. Or not doing.

Obviously this is not the best long-term business strategy. I've been a hardcore procrastinator for literally as long as I can remember. Dr. Phil or some other (probably every other) pop psychologist on TV used to say that you wouldn't continue a bad behavior or habit if you weren't getting some kind of payoff from it. Perhaps if I had bombed even one major class project or assignment after leaving it until the last minute, I wouldn't be such a procrastinator. But the truth is, it has always worked for me. The looming deadline gave me the kick in the pants I needed to focus and get the work done. I do some of my best work at the very last minute, which I suppose is why I keep doing it, even when I drive myself nuts.

I'm getting to the tomato sauce part of this post title, honestly. As a way to (supposedly) increase my productivity and keep me accountable, several writing friends and I have an ongoing Facebook group chat going throughout the day to discuss word counts, daily and weekly goals, and to swap knowledge about various writing, publishing, and marketing things we have going on. It helped a little bit. Sometimes. At first. The act of saying to my friends, "I'm going to get some writing done" made me want to do it so I wouldn't look foolish. But that didn't last long, and now the shame factor isn't much of a factor at all. "Ha ha, just kidding, I've accomplished nothing/very little/only part of what I wanted to do," quickly became my battle cry. You might hypothesize that I don't place the same value in myself, my own time, and my work that I do in other people and other things and therefore don't feel that time spent writing is important... but let's not psychoanalyze, mmkay? *gets too close to truth, shifts focus to something else... dog picture time!*

Cuddling > writing, amirite??
Ahem, where was I? That's right, the pomodoro part. My group of friends introduced me to the Pomodoro Technique and a cell phone timer app. You may be used to pomodoro on your pasta, but this is a time management technique, named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. The basic gist of it is you set a timer and do 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a short break. Repeat. There's a bit more to it, and you can check out a short video here about mastering the technique, but so far I've only used it to help me focus and do some short writing sprints. I downloaded an app on my phone and made sure to tell it to disable my phone's Internet connection so that I wouldn't be distracted by the beeps and noises of emails syncing, or Twitter, or whatever. Twenty-five minutes felt like a much easier time limit than, say, an hour, if you're familiar with the 1k1hr sprinting method. I was skeptical, since very little seems to keep me focused on getting words down without one of those elusive sparks of inspiration. But after a few rounds, I discovered I liked it. And it worked! Some rounds are slower or faster than others, but I can get in a few hundred words in 25 minutes usually, which is still slow by many standards, but just right for me, considering I would sometimes struggle to get much more than that in an hour. I know that I need to keep going until I hear the timer go off. Maybe it's that clear goal of waiting for a timer combined with a more manageable time frame that makes it work for me. I'm not sure exactly what the psychological trick of it is, and as long as it keeps working for me, I don't care.

So if you too are a procrastinator looking to reform, or if you just need a better time management tool, grab yourself a kitchen timer, or download an app (the one I downloaded is called ClearFocus: Pomodoro), and try the Pomodoro Technique. And maybe make some pasta for dinner. Mmm... pomodoro sauce...

Do you struggle with procrastination and time management? Have you had success using this technique? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

J. Lea López, also known as Jennifer, Jen, J, JLo, jello, and the Mistress with the Red Pen, is a romance and erotica author who strives to make you laugh at, fall in love with, cry over, and lust after the characters she writes. She also provides copyediting services with a special focus on the sexy stuff.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Challenges of Writing Diversely

by R.C. Lewis

#WeNeedDiverseBooks2014 was, among other things, the year of the We Need Diverse Books movement. And we do need them—stories with diverse characters, diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives, particularly those that are drastically underrepresented right now.

If we want such books, someone has to write them.

Sit up, fellow writers. This means us.

But wait! Is this really for me to do?

Hi there, voice-of-doubt. Thanks for joining us. Why wouldn't this be for you?

Because I'm white/straight/cis/able-bodied/by-the-book majority. Is it my place? What if I get it wrong?

Beyond the fact that yes, we need books from diverse authors, too, I think this is actually a good concern. It means we're being mindful of authenticity, of avoiding stereotypes, of "getting it right." We may not have experience being gay or deaf (or Deaf—there's a difference) or Cambodian ... but I don't have experience being male, either. Should that stop me from writing a male protagonist?

At the same time, it wouldn't be good to dive in with a carefree shout of, "It's fiction! I can just make it all up anyway!"

It comes back to my belief that we don't need to write what we know, but rather know what we write. We can diversify our knowledge base. Read books by and about the people in the branch of diversity you're working on. Research. Talk to members of that community—find those who are willing and able to educate. (But have respect. It's not an interrogation. Listen more than you talk.)

We probably won't get it completely "right" (and that's if everyone can agree what "right" is in that circumstance), but we won't get better unless we try.

But there are lots of kinds of diversity. Does every character need to have a "diversity tag"? Or more than one, maybe for the main character? How do you choose? Pick descriptors out of a hat?

Thanks for bringing that up, because that's my main worry. I accept and believe that we need more diversity in literature (especially kid-lit, the realm I inhabit), and I'm willing to try to do my part.

But how to I escape the Grab-Bag (random assignment of demographics) or Smorgasbord (including everything conceivable) Effects? If the book is ABOUT that aspect of diverseness, we're covered, but aren't we looking for more than that? For diverse characters in ALL the kinds of stories?

Some authors may approach it as just rolling with the character as they first pop into the author's head. That may work for some, but without more directed mindfulness, I'm afraid most of us will default to the same cis/straight/white/you-get-the-idea.

So how does an author, say, like me write diversely WITHOUT it seeming pandering ... or shoehorned ... or like jumping on a bandwagon?

(Maybe if the bandwagon is headed up the right road, it's not such a bad thing.)

I don't know the answer to that yet. Still working it out. Maybe it's my super-analytical nature, but I worry about finding myself in front of my blank screen with a story idea and freezing. "Should my main character be Latino? Black? Asian—wait, so many subsets to all these—Mexican or Chilean, Ethiopian or Jamaican or Haitian, Chinese or Japanese or Indian or AAAHHHHHHH! And that's just ethnicity!"

It's probably just me, but sometimes too many choices freak me out.

What if you just try one that feels right and see how it goes? There's always editing. And there are always more books to write later.

Looks like it's time to listen to that inner voice.

What are your thoughts on writing diversely? Challenges that worry you? Advice for my own worries? See you in the comments!

R.C. Lewis is the math-teaching, ASL-signing author of Stitching Snow and the forthcoming Spinning Starlight (Oct. 6, 2015), both from Hyperion. You can find more information at her website, or watch her overanalyze one thing or another on Twitter.