Tag Archives: writing

selling a convoluted plot

I didn’t intend to blog today, but the book I’m reading is irritating the hell out of me for a couple of reasons, so here I am to vent my spleen.

(Lucky you!)

The book is I Kissed an Earl, the fourth in Julie Anne Long‘s Pennyroyal Green series. I loved the first and really enjoyed the second. Her writing has inspired me a lot, and I see her talent as something to aspire to. She uses language in a vivid, overabundant, surprising way. One of my favourite passages from Like No Other Lover:

…from that moment on he saw every woman anew, sought evidence in their eyes of the tick of their minds, danced with them as if holding little grenades.


He smiled very slightly all the way through that silk and muslin jungle as though his smile was a passport, a lantern, an apology for the fact that his elegant English manners were only now returning to him along with his English complexion, by degrees.

I cannot say why, but the charm of her writing is somehow missing from this book, leaving only the overabundance. One problem is that she’s given her alpha female – whose intellect and propensity to act out have been built over a few books – an uber-alpha male. She built the question, “What man would Violet Redmond ever fall for?” and I don’t think her hero answers it. They’re simply trying to out-alpha each other all the time, which leaves so little room for tenderness, or vulnerability, or even a sense of liking.

But the much worse offense, I’ve just realised, is that her central plot-device has no legs. Violet has stowed herself on board Captain Flint’s ship, because she believes the pirate Flint is hunting is actually her AWOL brother.

Of itself, it doesn’t have to be problematic, though I’m not a huge fan of “we’re going on an adventure” plotlines.

But the way she’s written it, I’m not in any way cheering for Violet – I’m just cringing at the nuisance she’s making of herself. This is a huge peeve of mine in romance novels, when whatever actions the heroine takes result in chaos and undermine the hero’s well-planned strategies. I like to see a heroine go for something and have the power and autonomy and, good God, intelligence to make it work.

Violet’s desire to find her brother would work as a goal and motivation – I could get on board for a woman who decides she’s going to do something about his absence – but aside from being told “she loved more deeply than other people” we’re not shown any part of their relationship. We have no investment in her brother, or any sense of what she would risk for him.

With no emotional basis, her decision becomes a farce – and it breaks my suspended disbelief.

The hero’s reaction to her breaks his character, which is just as bad. When he finds her aboard his ship, he allows himself to get pulled into playing games with her for her right to his bed, to her place on his ship, to her portion of food. Even though he feels no particular preference for her. And even though he’s dragged himself from bastardy to an Earldom by his own hard work and bloody-mindedness.

A man like that wouldn’t think twice about locking her in a room and dumping her at the nearest port. And I’m given nothing in the narrative to suggest otherwise.

My plot involves a cross-dressing Duke, so you can imagine how I take this lesson in convoluted plot to heart.

End rant.

never, never, never, never give up

I misquote Churchill, because “never give up” galvanises me more right now than “never give in”. Though maybe the latter is more constructive. Maybe this is war.

After a couple of weeks of productive writing (which coincided, without coincidence, with me doing all my dishes every single night) I have hit a general, across the board wall. No surprises, then, that the wall applies equally to my blog, and that I found a large-ish cockroach in my kitchen the other day.

I have noticed a feeling of quiet confidence in me. Actually, quiet is the wrong adjective, because it’s more stubborn and immutable than quiet. It’s not trumpeting from the rooftops or anything (who used to trumpet from the rooftops, anyway?), it just is.

The confidence says: If you keep writing, keep progressing, keep learning and breaking it down and polishing it up, you will be published.

We’re always being told this. The main reason people don’t get published is that they give up. It seems like a pretty straight-forward equation: just keep writing. So it’s amazing to me how even with this sense that I’m on my way towards what I want, it quite frequently feels impossible.

For right now, then, writing is an endurance sport.

the perfect mum vs the mum you love

I’ve been tackling an interesting aspect of character recently.

The mother of my protagonist (Abigail) is in a coma throughout the whole of my YA novel. I’ve been conscious of needing to create their relationship pre-coma, so that the reader cares about her waking up.

The street kid who stows away on board Abigail’s spaceship had a bad relationship with his neglectful adoptive mother. When he hints at this to Abigail, I have her remembering a moment with her own mother that shows how much she was loved and cared for, and then looking at him and saying, “I’m sorry.”

I went down the most obvious “my mother loves me” route: A 6-year-old Abigail can’t sleep one night and comes down to the room where her mum and step-dad are playing Scrabble. The light is soft, and her mother comes immediately to her with concerned eyes, and says, “What’s wrong, darling?” Abigail goes and sits on her lap and listens to them cheat each other at Scrabble until she falls asleep.

The funny thing about this passage is that for me, it didn’t actually evoke what I wanted it to, at all. I don’t think relationship is a direct equation between love/overt displays of love.

My instinct here is that Abigail needs to remember a time when her mother told her off, or teased her, or was exasperated with her. I need to show them actually in relationship with each other, and what that allows between them.

These oddities of fiction don’t really fit into any set of rules, but I guess my first try didn’t work in the same way that “I’m hot, you’re hot” does not a romance make.

One of my most distinct memories of my mum, with a sense of love and care attached to it, is the time she and I were doing the dishes together and she drew the entire female reproductive system on the steamed-up window above the sink. Not the first thing it would occur to you to write…

What’s a memory that sticks out for you about a parent or guardian, that shows love and care?

the brilliance of Terry Pratchett

when I was young and my older brother was reading Terry Pratchett, and my younger brother was about to start reading Terry Pratchett, his books still had those dizzying, vulgar (I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive or negative sense, but I’m sure that’s the right word) covers. I thought for years that his books must be a surreal and adult romp through some incomprehensible world.

Not all of that impression was wrong, but having now read almost every Discworld book, I know that not much of it was right.

I’m reading his second-to-latest book at the mo, Unseen Academicals, and it’s coming home to me all over again, just how well he writes characters. Specifically, characters who are pretending to be something they’re not – or pretending not to be what they are.

(I realise those last two pretty much say the same thing, but there is a huge difference. It reminds me of an anecdote Michael Caine tells about his early days of acting. He was on the stage doing his very best “drunk man walking”, when the director stopped him. “I see a sober man walking in a squiggly line,” the director said (though he may not have used the word “squiggly”). “I want to see a drunk man walking in a straight line.”

Both amount to the same thing, but are completely different. The difference between a character putting their energy into pretending to be something they’re not, and putting their energy into pretending not to be what they are is what makes Terry Pratchett great.)

His characters are complex. They are unreliable narrators, because they’re not always honest with themselves about who (or what) they really are. Their motivations are not what they appear to be. Or else they have two opposing motivations, and you never know which one will out. It’s nature v nurture battling it out inside one consciousness.

It creates narrative traction like nobody’s business, because whilst you’re following the bigger-picture narrative and trying to figure that out, you’re also working away in the back of your mind on what this character is hiding from you. It never feels coy, because they’re almost always hiding it from themselves, too.

Very often, when the conflicting parts of a character come to a head, there’s a moment where free will determines the outcome of this one struggle, which most likely determines the outcome of a larger struggle. A character’s own nature sets the stage and writes the drama for their own moment of epiphany.

The next thing is figuring out how the hell he does it.

happy happy happy

I have been talking a bit about my new novel teacher – the strange creature who understands my genre. After tonight’s class she deserves yet another mention.

My teacher is Toni Jordan, a Melbourne-based writer whose first book, Addition, did extremely well here and overseas. Her second book was released last year. We studied Addition last year, and I didn’t love it. But Toni’s “I’m going to turn you all into professional writers” attitude I do love.

So tonight I workshopped again, and she asked me to see her after class. I walked up to her, she put her hands on the desk, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “What’s your plan for this book!?”

She went on to say that it was just right for the genre, “You get that this is really, really good, don’t you?” and just wanted to check that I knew what I had on my hands, and that I had a game plan for it.

I know this doesn’t mean I’m getting published, but the positive reinforcement is bloody brilliant. I’ve fought my way through the learning curve of last year, and I feel like I’m just re-emerging with the dedication and motivation that come from feeling like getting published – actually in real life – is a real possibility.

(If you’re curious about the piece that I was workshopping, it’s the first chapter of my novel, which you can find here.)

creative panic/headless-chook mode

you know that feeling, when you realise how many great ideas are banking up in your mind, and then you compare them with what you have physically produced and you start panicking?

An ms under revision, partly-written plotlines that will be entirely rewritten if I ever use them, ideas in scraps and bits.

I need one of them at least to be ready to go NOW. I have to email all the agents in the world NOW, but first I have to have something to send them. Something amazing and polished. Surely ONE of those ideas is strong enough, if I just sit down and write it?


Welcome to my brain. Here’s something I feel I’ve learnt as I’ve gotten older, and it doesn’t only apply to creative panic:

Acting on panic is not productive. If it’s 8 at night, and I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done all day, hurrying about getting a hundred words down here, an outline of a drawing down there is going to do nothing but make the unfinished feeling worse.

I’m getting better at thinking: Stop. Breathe. Do something that will actively make you feel good, like having a bath. Clear your space and your brain, and prepare for a productive day tomorrow.

gruesome mermaids

Me and Cat were talking recently about the stories we wrote as teens. I was consumed by a melodrama that has only matured somewhat.

As we were talking I remembered the feel and texture of one of my notebooks – a recycled-paper thing, with flowers on the cover. Shortly after I got my own room for the first time (can I be remembering that right? At 11/12?) I started sitting on my bed for hours at a time, writing. We’d just had all the carpets steamed, and writing was a good way to escape the smell.

The story I put in that notebook was this:

A girl was travelling on a ship from one continent to another (I’ve just remembered, it was a diary!). She and a raggedy ship-boy came to understand one another, if you know what I mean.

Then there was a terrible shipwreck! Shock! Horror!

Lucky for her, she was saved by a merperson colony on the seafloor. Then she had gills cut into her throat and became a productive member of society. She married a nice merman.

Then one day a dashing stranger turned up – a human! I can’t remember how long it took her to realise what I am sure is already clear to you… Twas the ship-boy, and he’d never given up on her.

He underwent an initiation ceremony, which I think involved fighting a shark and, of course, having gills cut, bloody and rough, straight into his lungs.

Move over Stephenie Meyer.

plotting for greatest impact; or, The Spiral

The plotting of the Lymond Chronicles is amazing. I wish there were a better word to express my admiration.

After long hours of deliberation, Cat has boiled the amazingness down to this: Dunnett’s many, subtly-planted plotlines don’t just meet/almost meet/collide the way ordinary mortals would write them. They move through the story and then, out of nowhere, they come together and spiral.

A sudden whirlpool to the ship of story. Think that scene near the end of The Little Mermaid.

One clue we have derived from this method is: plot for greatest impact. For example: my heroine saw my hero coldly seduce a married woman, back before they ever met. I was trying to figure out when to reveal what she had seen – and my method was rather wildly instinctive.

Then Cat said, “When would it create the greatest impact?”

Would that be just before he seduces her under false pretences? Just after? Just before she first sees him again in London, knowing who he is? In the presence of the woman she saw him seduce?

It makes so much sense, once you think about it, that this is a good way to go about plotting. But, as you know, I very often haven’t just thought about it.

OmmWriter: an amazing tool

This beautiful piece of software comes from a design studio in Barcelona called Herraiz Soto & Co. It’s not trying to replace whatever word-processor you use. It’s a creative space to write in, that blanks out everything else, leaving just you, the words, and some cooky new-age music (optional, thank the lord).

Here’s a screen-shot of the program with the parameters visible: a dotted line around your “page” and five simple options for type style, type size, background image, keyboard sound effects and music:

Here’s a screen shot when it’s just you and the words:

There are no formatting options, and the font is very limited. This is not a program for structuring or editing. But for that sinking-into-your-writing feeling there’s nothing like it.

Even if you expand your word-processor window to fill your computer screen, it’s still bounded by scroll bars and tool bars and page borders. This program clears it all away. You know that lovely silence you get in your head when your room and desk are tidy?

Download the free version here. It only operates on mac so far.

“your fingers are palpable”

special k said this to me today, holding my fingers in his.

“Even really good writers,” he said, “describe things you can’t feel as ‘palpable’. Why don’t they just write Holy shit, it’s tense in here!

It made me giggle a lot. It is silly how writers take on weird, archaic ways of expressing things that they would never use themselves out loud. Or in their heads. Or in an email.

One more piece of evidence that thinking is good.