Lamentation of the Marked Sneak Peek

Hello, everyone! Release day for Lamentation is tomorrow, so to celebrate I did a quick video of myself reading the first scene from the prologue. Hope you enjoy it! (Particularly the weirdo glasses I’ve had to wear to stop my eyeballs from itching from screen fatigue). The full text is also included below.

Lamentation of the Marked

Prologue

Vendra sensed light and motion beyond the veil of her eyelids. Her unconscious mind stirred. Signals zipped between synapses like messages along a telegraph line. It was a pull as inescapable as gravity, but still she resisted. She clung to the respite of sleep, filled with the vague yet certain sense that rousing would be painful; that wakefulness would be loud, confusing, fuzzy-tongued.

Her cheek was pressed into the grain of a wooden board, and a nailhead poked at the flesh below her left eye. From nearby, there came a thunderous outcry. Despite her efforts to remain asleep, the din intensified in her ears, and the peace of slumber slipped through her mental fingers.

Why is it so loud? she thought.

Where am I? she thought.

Quade? she thought.

The roar shifted, individual voices resolving into a unified chant.

“Dispatch her,” said a cold-voiced man.

Vendra’s eyes flickered open. Her temples throbbed, and she tried to swallow, but her mouth was coated in viscous saliva—common side effects. She hefted her head up from the planking and gazed out over a massive crowd. Her brow puckered in confusion.

“YOUR DEATH WILL BE AS TRIVIAL AS A BEETLE BENEATH A BOOT,” the assembly boomed.

The central square of Accord teemed; its usual bare cobble-stoned expanse was instead packed with bodies. Why? She had only imperfect, half-memories. A hazy sense of purpose lost.

Vendra’s head swiveled, sweeping leftwards. Beneath nine empty gallows, a cluster of Elevated and civilians brawled. She blinked at the knot of violence—the flying limbs and tumbling bodies—uncertain of its origin. Nine nooses swayed in the breeze.

From amidst the tumult, the shape of Quade Asher emerged, crossing the stage with black strides. Vendra’s heart thudded in her breast at the sight of him. His form, so sure and straight, always made something deep within her ache. His dark beauty was her greatest addiction.

Her mouth opened to call his name—look at me, see me. He turned, and when she saw him the sound died in her throat.

His face…

It was his, and yet it was not. The shapes and colors were true, but stripped of their allure. His aspect was, all at once, repulsive to her. Foul. His eyes were the blackest, coldest holes she had ever beheld. The sight of them sent a shiver through her spirit, like a web of minute cracks racing across a pane of glass.

She wanted to avert her gaze, to deny the evidence before her, but she couldn’t manage so much as a blink. She had loved this man for all her adult life—had lived for him, killed for him—and yet, somehow, she had never seen him.

A streak of motion came from above, and an arrow bloomed in Quade’s shoulder. He fell to his knees, a snarl escaping his thin lips. And then their former captive, Peer Gelson, charged into view. A sword flashed in his hand.

Vendra’s stomach clenched, and she was uncertain if she more feared or desired Quade’s death. It mattered little. Before the killing stroke could land, her lover vanished with a hollow pop.

She slumped onto her bottom and hugged her legs close to her chest. Lucid for the first time in nearly two decades, countless memories flitted through her mind’s eye. Wounds only now perceived, sins only now recognized. And it was too much, all too much.

Her shoulder blades hit the planking, followed by the back of her skull. Her mind went blank. She stared up at the sky and watched the clouds drift from east to west. The day’s light dimmed, to the tune of her uneven breath. Flurries swirled like ash on a breeze—ash, fire.

Her nose and cheeks grew icy. The clamor of the crowd dwindled until, at length, no sound remained but the gusting of the wind.

“You can’t be staying here,” a male voice said, shattering her trance.

The form of Peer Gelson loomed above her, his breath exploding like steam from his mouth. She had the strong impression she should feel remorse in his presence—whiff of gunpowder, a pained bellow.

“Are you…?” he trailed off and cleared his throat. “It’s cold and gettin’ colder. People’ve been gathering up at the palace.”

He extended a hand to help her up, then seemed to think better of it. He jammed his fist into his coat pocket and rocked on his boots. “Come or not. I won’t be carryin’ you.”

She lacked both the will and the desire to rise. If she stood, she would still have to be herself. She would still have to live within her own mind. This numbness could not last, and it was the only thing keeping her intact. If she moved, she would surely disintegrate.

I’m in shock, she thought.

My pulse is rapid, she thought.

I want to die, she thought.

“After I murdered your friend,” Vendra said, locking eyes with Peer, “you swore you would kill me. You swore.”

He transferred his weight from one foot to the other. “And?”

Something large and empty was opening inside her—a crater in the fabric of her being. “Do it,” she whispered. “Kill me.”

He squatted beside her, resting his forearms on his thighs. “No.”

“He was a good man, was he not? Your friend?”

“He was.”

“And I shot him.”

“You did,” he said. She watched the lump in his throat bob. Snowflakes peppered his sandy hair. “Live with it. I’ll not be doing you any favors.”

He stood and strode away, leaving her colder than she had ever felt in all her life. She scrambled to her knees, dizziness causing her vision to swim. “Wait!”

He paused and half-turned, but didn’t meet her pleading gaze. “You can’t be stayin’ out here. It’s freezin’.” And with that he departed, his shadow merging into the night.

Vendra trembled against the wind. She glanced around the square, surprised to discover that she wasn’t alone. There were young people—Quade’s Elevated—standing, sitting, and kneeling in various states of shock. They looked like frosted sculptures, misery whittled into form.

She experienced a brief surge of guilt upon seeing them. But that feeling was soon snuffed out, like every other sensation. She stared down at a nail that stuck unevenly from the stage, stared until it was no longer visible beneath a layer of fresh snow.

She wondered how long it would take to die if she just sat there, exposed. Perversely, she thought of Quade. She longed to feel him beside her, to be wrapped in the warmth and comfort of his presence—flick of a blade, blood.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she jolted. She whirled, expecting to see him, Quade—his visage appearing as it did in her memory. Beautiful. But these were not Quade’s eyes studying her with such concern.

“Vendra, can you hear me?”

She blinked, taking in a wrinkled brow, a bristling white mustache.

“Grandfather?”

Dedrre dropped to the snow and pulled her close. She pressed her face into the wool of his overcoat and breathed in the familiar smell of him.

“You’re frozen to the core; thank the Spirits he told me…” he said, rubbing hands up and down her arms.

Before she knew it, she was weeping. Her chest heaved and her throat ached and she shuddered under the power of her shame and grief. Hot tears burned against her numb cheeks.

“Shh,” her grandfather soothed. “It’s over now. I’m here now. Shh.”

She burrowed into his warmth. “It’s not over,” she said, voice muffled. “Not yet.”

Not ever. Not for me.

Posted in Fantasy, For Readers Tagged with: , , ,

Lamentation Pre-order and Book Trailer

Lamentation is off for its first pass with my editor, currently. I am so excited to get this book finished and out to my readers. The book will be available on all platforms on July 3rd. It is up for pre-order now. I’ve set the pre-order at $3.99, as a thank-you price for those who have been patiently waiting (and not forgotten me!). It will be raised to $4.99 after release day, so make sure to pick it up while it’s on sale! There are buy links at the bottom of this post.

Some fun facts about the book: it is the longest in the series, at just under 130,000 words; it has 7 perspective characters (Division had 2, Elevation had 5); half of it was written in Korea, half in the US (split between Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Florida).

Check out the trailer:

Order your copy now!

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
iBooks
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Google
Smashwords

Posted in Fantasy, For Readers Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Lamentation of the Marked Cover Reveal

Have been completely neglecting my blog lately. All my focus has been on getting Lamentation revised and polished. But I figured I’d take a short break to share the cover with you. I’ve been wanting to share this for ages!

Here you go:

 

My hope when I painted this cover was to keep many elements of the previous two, while still creating something new–something that would feel true to this story. As the title suggests, this is a darker and sadder tale. So, I designed a cover with more realistic details, while still keeping the split color scheme and the silhouetted characters.

As I wrote in my previous update, I suffered a hard drive failure and one of the things I lost was the first version of this cover. Having to paint everything again–particularly as an untrained and hit-or-miss artist–felt, at the time, like a real heartache. But in the end this second version was more refined than the first.

Anyway, I hope you all like the cover! I will be revealing the release date and the book trailer in a few days. The book will be up for pre-order soon.

Now, back to editing for me!

-March

Posted in Covers, Design, Fantasy, For Readers Tagged with: , , , , , ,

My Second Draft Checklist

As I dive into my second draft for Lamentation this week, I wanted to take a quick moment to share my little scene-by-scene checklist.

Second drafts are my favorite. It’s the part of the process where I take my mess of a first draft and turn it into a functioning novel. During the second draft, in a large sense, I make sure that my plot is working, my characters are consistent and interesting, and the pacing is effective. Looking at an entire manuscript can be overwhelming, which is why I focus on the changes needed on the scene level.

Here’s my checklist:

( ) Sound Pacing

( ) Clearly Painted Setting

( ) Accurate Characterization

( ) Limited Exposition

( ) Effective Ending Hook

( ) Can I picture it clearly?

( ) Is it compelling?

( ) Am I proud of it?

I copy and paste this into the Document Notes for each scene in my Scrivener file, like so:

1.) Sound Pacing

Is it too abrupt? Too slow? Does it build up enough tension before an important event? Is the pacing well suited to the type of scene?

2.) Clearly Painted Setting

Can a reader picture the place in her mind? Does it have texture? Can I add more sensory details (smells, sounds, etc) to make it more vivid?

3.) Accurate Characterization

Are all of my characters behaving in a way that is consistent with their personalities and purpose? Are they believable? Are their voices clear, and is the dialogue of different characters easily differentiated?

4.) Limited Exposition

Have I passed on world, plot, and character information in the least invasive way possible? Does the scene feel as if it’s unfolding before me, or as if its merely being summarized or recounted? Am I spending too much time in my character’s head? Where exposition is necessary, is it sufficiently broken up by action and dialogue so as not to pull the reader out of the scene?

5.) Effective Ending Hook

Does the last line give the scene a sense of closure? Is it effecting: either by hinting at future problems, or by creating a strong emotion? Will the reader want to know more?

6.) Can I picture it clearly?

I’ve already checked the setting, but is the action clear? The characters? Is the scene comprehensible and vivid?

7.) Is it compelling?

Not all scenes are going to be equally compelling, but every scene should offer something to intrigue, to immerse the reader, to make them want to keep reading and spend more time with your characters. Is this particular scene interesting?

8.) Am I proud of it?

Not every scene can be the best scene in the book. You have to build up to the most exciting moments in a story, and the build is never quite as fun as the moment you’re building towards. BUT, every scene is an opportunity to showcase your skills as a writer. Perhaps the scene is not as action packed or as funny as some others in the book, but I might be proud of how subtly I related important information, or of how tight and clever the dialogue is.  So, find something to be proud of in every scene.

Posted in Editing, For Writers Tagged with: , ,

Polish Your Prose

When I began edits on Division, my first book, I had no idea where to begin. I can distinctly recall how overwhelmed I felt, how uncertain. Now, however, I love editing. First drafts are the most difficult for me, second drafts are the most fun, and third drafts are…well, the most tedious, but also the most straight forward. I no longer worry if I will be able to fix my turd-heap of a first draft. I’ve done it before, after all.

I decided to write up this post to give newer writers a peak into my process for polishing prose. This is an important step, and one I think is too often overlooked. It is the task I reserve for the third draft, but I usually can’t stop myself from doing a bit of this during the second draft as well.

For the purposes of demonstration, I have chosen a particularly weak passage from my current WIP. I typically do these edits in small chunks of about this size or a little shorter.

Here is the lousy fist draft version:

There’s a lot not working about this passage. It isn’t painting a strong picture at all, the writing is a bit awkward, and it isn’t creating enough tension. Writing should be vibrant, purposeful, immersive, and pleasing to the ear. This passage fails on all accounts.

So here’s how I fix it:

Step 1: Fix Big Problems

The first thing I do is look for sentences that are completely failing. If the sentence’s spirit-animal is a panda toppling out of a bamboo tree, it needs to be reconsidered. At this step, I look to scrap and rewrite elements that aren’t working. This could mean replacing one bad sentence with one good sentence. Or replacing one bad sentence with one good paragraph. Or eliminating that bad sentence altogether.

The point, here, is that there is no sense worrying about punching up the verbs or cutting the needless adjectives in a sentence that’s falling on its face to begin with. Don’t waste your time polishing a turd. Ask yourself:

Does this sentence read badly? Is it confusing or unclear? Does it paint a strong enough picture? Does it look or sound awkward? Is it communicating all that is needs to? Does it spark the right kind of emotions? Should it be punchier, more flowery, or more…something else?

Here are the big problems in my passage:

In fact, the more I looked at this passage, the more I realized that nearly the whole thing needed to be scrapped. Sure, I could fix the awkward sentences. But why bother when the whole thing is flat and fails to immerse the reader? So I typed up a new version:

This is, as you can see, a good bit longer. But it is setting the scene in a way that the previous version didn’t. I’ve added several action beats and details so make the scene more vivid. I slowed down a bit, to increase the tension. This new version is also much clearer. But, it is still far from perfect. So on to the next step!

Step 2: Add specificity

I have a lot of theories about the value of creating more unique and specific imagery in a scene. I wrote about it in my most esoteric blog post about inscape. But the general idea is this: adding the occasional punch of specificity to a scene helps to make it more vivid, more memorable, and lends your world greater texture. So look at your text and see if there are any opportunities to do this (without overdoing it).

I identified one solid opportunity. Saying that several curtains are stirring either makes it seem as if they are all moving at once, which is not the intended meaning and would be unlikely. Either that, or it seems as if he is summarizing several events as he moves along, which doesn’t provide the immediacy I’m looking for. So it would be better to have one set of curtains stir, and to describe them, as this is a minor world-building opportunity. Like so:

My world is pseudo-Victorian in era and style, so I made the curtains floral and gave them tassels. I deliberately did not specify the kind of flowers or the fabric, however, because this character would not think of such things.

Step 3: Consider the verbs

The easiest way to strengthen a passage is to strengthen its verbs. The verb is like the mitochondrion of the sentence; it’s the powerhouse. The right verb is both strong and precise in meaning. So, first, pick out all of the verbs in the section of text you’re polishing. Then ask yourself if there is a more powerful or more exact word that would be better. Careful not to choose a stronger word at the expense of exactness of meaning. Consult a thesaurus as necessary. If changing the verb necessitates the tweaking of other elements of the sentence, see to it.

Most of these verbs were already working, but there were certainly a few that could be either strengthened for made more precise. “Trudge” made him sound too exhausted. “Barked” is fine, but I thought “howl” might me more atmospheric. “Looked” is OK, but as he is peeking quickly over his shoulder, I can use a stronger and more precise verb. The others I considered and decided that they were good choices, or at the very least that I could think of none better. “Grunt” might sound a little caveman-y, for example, but it feels right for the character.  Here’s the improved verbs:

“Trod” has the same meaning, but sounds less labored. I thought “notice” had a more precise meaning than “watch.” “Witnessed” seemed truer to the purpose than “seen.” Also, I felt that “discerned,”  to make-out a difference, was an improvement on “detected.” And with that settled, we move on to the next step!

Step 4: Word Diversity

Look for unintentional word and sound repetitions. Great prose is made up of varied and engaging words. Sometimes repetition is unavoidable, and sometimes it can be used for effect. But otherwise, strive for variety.

Using the text statistics in Scrivener, I identified five words that had been repeated in a very short space. Next, I look to see which one would be better to change, and if a change is possible (sometimes it isn’t). Here’s what I landed on:

Step 5: Trim it Down

Next, look to cut any unnecessary words. Pay particular attention to adverbs, ‘that’s, prepositional phrases, articles, and needless adjectives. Cutting fat makes for tighter, more energetic prose. Here’s what I chose to cut:

Step 6: Punch It Up!

Skim through and look for any opportunity to make this section more remarkable. Maybe add a simile, or a short, punchy sentence. Can you make it more beautiful? Can you up the tension?

I split up Peer’s pause and the silence that follows into two sentences, because shorter sentences add tension. This section isn’t particularly important, so I didn’t see the need to add any more flowery language here.

Step 7: Check the Rhythm

Lastly, I read the passage aloud to make sure the sound is working (or I let the robot inside my laptop read it aloud for me). I listen especially for a variety of sentence length and structure. If I find myself stumbling over a sentence, it likely needs to be reworked. Well written prose is musical.

I changed only one sentence in this step. Upon reading it aloud, I realized that I had two compound sentences in a row, each with “and” as the conjunction. This made the paragraph sound singsongy. It was simple enough to change. And with that, I am pleased with this section of text and ready to move on to the next.

And that’s it! If you compare this last version to the first, I think you’ll find a significant improvement. I continue on in this way through the entire scene, and then I repeat steps 4 and  7 for the scene as a whole—checking to make sure I don’t have too much word repetition and that everything flows well.

It might seem like a long process, and it is in a way. But I find that the more I write and edit, the more I internalize these guidelines, and the better my first drafts turn out. This scene was one that needed a lot of work, but there are many pages in this particular draft that need much less attention.

And, just to be clear, this is the step I take just before sending the manuscript to my editor. This is an edit, but certainly not the final one. I also do not begin this step until after I am confident that the overall story is working–that the pacing is sound, and characters are interesting, and the events build purposefully towards a conclusion.

It’s a lot of work, getting a manuscript ready for publication. But with so many poorly edited books on Amazon, this is one straightforward and very doable way that you can make your work stand out. You might think that readers don’t notice or care about this sort of nitty-gritty editing. But stories are made up of sentences and words; with more powerful words and more effecting sentences, you can build a better story. And readers will take note.

Posted in Editing, For Writers, Writing Tagged with: ,

Character Interview: Bray Marron

In anticipation of the third book of The Marked Series, Lamentation of the Marked, here is a quick little interview with one of the protagonists, Bray Marron.

*** This character interview is intended for those who have already read Division of the Marked and Elevation of the Marked. There are spoilers! If you haven’t read the first two books or have not yet finished, do yourself a favor and don’t read on. ****

M: I force a bright smile. “Alright, Bray, are you ready to answer a few questions
for your readers?”

B: She glowers. “I have more important things to do. This is a waste of my time.”

M: “Well, I appreciate that you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, what with Yarrow still being unaccounted for and all, but this really won’t take long. And we could chat about that…erm, if you’d like.”

B: “You could tell me where he is.”

M: “That’s true, I could.”

B: “But you won’t.”

M: “Well, no. But I did write in a character with a gift that can help you find him. So…ah,” my voice rises awkwardly, “you’re welcome?”

B: She looks as if she’s contemplating violence. Then sighs. “Fine. What do you want to know?”

M: “Ok, question the first: why do you think you had such a hard time getting along with Yarrow when you met again as adults?

B: “My winning personality.”

M: “Um, care to elaborate?”

B: “No.”

M: I sigh, thinking I should dream up less stubborn characters in the future. “You aren’t always so combative. We see you, over the first two books, get along well with several people outside of your inner circle: Ellora, Su-Hwan… But at first, with Yarrow, you had a really hard time. Why?”

B: “No, I didn’t.”

M: I puff out my cheeks in exasperation.

B: “No, really. I didn’t. I was, from the start, so drawn to him that is scared me. I didn’t trust it, or him. I put up my guard, and held onto it for as long as I could. Which wasn’t actually all that long…”

M: “Wow. An honest answer. Thank you for that.”

B: “Just trying to move this along. Yarrow…he is alright, isn’t he?” She seems as if she’s trying to sound casual, but fails spectacularly.

M: “Well, to be honest, he’s had a rough go of it since you’ve last seen him. There are going to be hard days ahead, for both of you. For everyone.”

B: She leans forward in her seat, intent. “We failed to kill Quade Asher, and I have no illusions that he’ll cease his campaign for control, not now that he’s announced his intentions to the world. I admit, I’m afraid of what that man might do next. He won’t take this defeat with composure.”

M: “No. He won’t. Do you feel confident that the Chisanta will be ready for whatever he tries next?”

B: Bray’s lips thin and she shakes her head slowly. “Confident? No. His ability to manipulate thoughts makes him uniquely dangerous. We have the tools to undo him, but it will take careful coordination…”

M: “Are you afraid of him?”

B: “I would be very stupid if I weren’t.”

M: “Let’s talk a little about your past. You had a difficult childhood—”

B: “No. I had a terrible two years. Most of my childhood, while my Da was still alive, was just fine. We weren’t well off, but we had enough—we had each other.”

M: “That’s a loss you still haven’t recovered from, is it?”

B: She rubs her brow, looking weary. “I’m beginning to think we never recover when…” She shakes her head. “We just keep moving on, with parts of us missing.”

M: “You’re think of Adearre, too, I take it?”

B: “I think of Adearre often.”

M: “Care to—”

B: “No. I don’t want to talk about that.”

M: “Ok. Fair enough. Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind. No pausing to think.”

B: She rolls her eyes. “I really don’t have time for this. Yarrow—”

M: “Just another minute, then I’ll let you go. Promise.”

B: “Fine. Begin.”

M: “Quade.”

B: “Control.”

M: “Gift.”

B: “Sacrifice.”

M: “Spirit.”

B: “Blighter.”

M: “Friend.”

B: “Peer.”

M: “Book.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: “Love.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: “Fate.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: I chuckle. “I’m beginning to sense of theme, here. Alright, very well, you can go. Go and find him, and I’m sorry for what is to come.”

B: She hops up from her chair and turns to the door. She looks over her shoulder at me, her expression unreadable. “Don’t let it take too long.” And with that, she turns her back and walks straight through the wall.

M: I shake my head sadly. “Oh, Bray. Finding him will be the least of your problems.”

Posted in Character, Fantasy, For Readers Tagged with: , , ,

The Testing of the Marked: Are you Chiona or Cosanta?

Made a little quiz. Take the test and find out: are you Chiona or Cosanta? Be sure to let me know your result! Much better than the real testing, in which you would get pummeled. 🙂 I got Cosanta, though I think it was a pretty close call.

Posted in Fantasy, For Readers Tagged with: , , , , ,

My Pre-Writing Exercise: Blocking out the Scene

I am not a fast writer. To my readers who have been waiting such a long time for my third book (Sorry! Sorry! It’s coming!), this is probably painfully obvious. I’ll likely never be the speediest of writers—I won’t be that indie author pumping out new books month after month. But I am trying to pick up the pace by being more efficient with my time. 

The biggest change to my process has been my pre-writing exercise, which I began using several months ago. This is the time I take, before writing a scene, to block out what will happen and identify significant elements such as tension and character development. It’s worthwhile because I no longer waste time writing my way into a scene if it is flawed, boring, or a dead end—I now figure out these issues in advance, and adjust. 

Sometimes I begin this with pen and paper, particularly if I anticipate having difficulty. I think it taps into a different part of my creativity. But, ultimately, I type all of my pre-writing exercise up in the “Document Notes” section in Scrivener, that way when I flip to Composition Mode to write, I can keep my detailed notes easily visible.

I have tried pre-writing and blocking out beats in the past, particularly after I read Rachel Aaron’s excellent book 2K to 10K. But I was not successful until I adjusted the process to work well for my writing style. The first modification I had to make was the amount of time I allotted for this task. Most writers say it takes them 5-10 minutes. This process usually takes me longer—sometimes a lot longer. 

The problem I had in the past was that I would sit for 10 minutes, trying to think of just what should happen in a given scene. I would come up with nothing, say “screw it” and just start typing. Usually something would come to me—but not always the right something. The issue, for me, was directly linked to my usual inability to outline. I never know what to write until I’m “in” the scene. I need a level of immersion before my creativity kicks in.

So, the first step in my pre-writing exercise is to close my eyes (in public I probably look like I’m praying to my MacBook. Ah, well.) I count up or down from 10 and visualize the numbers, usually as calligraphic numerals scrawled in a book, and my imaginary hand reaching out to turn the pages. I do this to push aside all of the errant nonsense going on in my mind and to focus. Sometimes I don’t need this step. Other times I really, really do, and I have to start over and over again because I get to 7 and start thinking about overnight oats recipes or the Walking Dead or something. I probably have ADD. But I digress…

And then, eyes still closed, I begin with the first item of my pre-writing exercise: location. I picture my character, and then I picture where they are. I do so with specificity—not just the city or building, but the room. I imagine the place in detail: the smell of candle smoke, or the dust motes floating in the shaft of sunlight streaming through the window. This step helps to anchor me, and oddly enough, it almost always helps me begin imagining the scene as if I were in the midst of writing it. 

Once I have that firmly established in my mind’s eye, I open my eyes and begin. Here is my full pre-writing exercise:


Pre-Writing Scene Breakdown

Location – 

Time of Day

Weather

Time Passed

Scene Summary: 

Opener

Middle

Hook

Plot Advancement

Character Development

Tension / Obstacles

Best Bit

Optional:

Character info revealed

World info revealed

Research for scene


The location, time of day, and weather I type in quickly because I’ve already imagined them in detail. “Time Passed” is the amount of time (hours, days, weeks) since we’ve seen the POV character. My stories have a lot of time jumps, so this is significant and something I really need to decide before diving in. 

Next, I write up the beats. I start with the “opener” – what’s the very first thing we see the character doing (and make it interesting, informative, plot and character significant). Then I move to the middle, which is often quite long. I write out the scene in detail, often including the gist of conversations and setting descriptions, but without thinking about actual word choice. If there is a fight scene, I block out the whole fight. This is a huge help when I go to actually write the scene. 

If I get stuck at all, I close my eyes again, re-imagine the setting, and then try to run through the scene in my mind, as if I were watching a movie in my head. I ask myself what I would want to see next. 

Finally, I end with a hook—a hint at a future problem, a gut-punch of emotion, a mystery, etc. Something that gives the scene a sense of deliberate closure and makes the reader want to know what happens next. 

Pre-Writing

Once I’ve finished blocking out the scene, the next four points are a kind of test to make sure that the scene is working as it should. 

-First, I look at plot advancement: what plots/sub-plots are being furthered in this scene? If none, then the scene needs to be reconsidered. 

-Second, I need some character development—as an author of character driven stories, it’s important for me to consider how my characters grow and change little by little over the course of the series. Obviously they aren’t going to have life-altering epiphanies in every scene, but I try to always be giving them a little nudge. 

-Third, I identify the tension and/or obstacles in a scene. Scenes with no tension whatsoever don’t have a place in my book. Even scenes that are primarily upbeat have some kind of underlying tension: usually that the happiness the characters are experiencing is a lull before the storm and can’t last. Or one character is having some form of inner struggle. 

-Fourth and last is identifying the “Best Bit” — this is the moment in the scene I’m most excited to write and/or readers will most enjoy (or hate) reading. This is important, and I think it works best as the last test, because it helps to boost my excitement for the scene and gives me a cookie to look forward to. And, if I can’t think of a single element of the scene that I’ve just blocked out that is excitement-worthy, then I need to go back and fix something. Every scene should make me want to write it, or it’s the wrong scene. 

That’s usually where I end my pre-writing exercise and get started on actually writing (or pre-writing the next scene. I try to do the whole day’s worth up front so my writing flow isn’t interrupted). However, there is the “optional” section which I sometimes fill in before hand. This is most helpful early on in a project when new world and character info needs to be artfully delved out as the plot begins progressing. It is also a useful tool during editing to easily determine when significant details are revealed. 

So, that’s it! It isn’t a five minute process for me. However, in the end, I save myself time by splitting my scene creation into two different steps: imagining what happens, and then putting what happens into words. If I am diligent in pre-writing, I am far less likely to punch out a scene and know immediately that it will need to be scrapped. And I enjoy the writing process much more when I can focus on the music of the prose and the sharpness of the dialogue, without having to simultaneously be answering the question “and then what happened?” 

Even if you’re not a very type-A, organized writer, I would recommend giving this a try—and then tweaking it to better work for you. I didn’t think I could ever plot ahead, not even within a single scene, but in the end it was a matter of adjusting the process until it suited my personal creative style.

What sort of prep work do you typically do prior to writing a scene?

Posted in For Writers, Writing Tagged with: , , ,

Stories Come Together: A Tip For Fixing Plot Problems

Stories come together. This is something I believe. 

I believe it, not because I have faith in myself as some kind of innate-novel-crafting master, and not because of any fairy-fiction magic (the book isn’t alive; it doesn’t craft itself). Stories come together, for me, because I have a process that works. And knowing this gives me the confidence to move forward with a new project, even if it’s not all meshing at the start.

It must be lovely to be a Type A plotter–someone who can envision their whole cogent, heart-felt, purposeful story from start to finish before even punching that first word. Such people scare me. I prefer not to think of them.

As a pantser who writes character-driven fiction, my stories tend to come into being haphazardly over a few drafts. My first draft is sometimes like a Rorschach test–I squint at elements of my plot until I see a shape–“Oh, I seem to have written in a secondary romance plot! Well, sort of. I can fix it up and fill it out.”

The problem with pantsing, or writing as you go, is that it often creates a long series of events rather than a cohesive and meaningful story–something all tied up nicely with a ribbon. And there is a difference. A well-crafted plot has drive and purpose from start to finish, and when you read it a second time you find a thousand clues you missed on your first go-around. This is what I aim to produce, even if I can’t map it out before I begin.

So, the trick is taking that first mess of words, and turning it into a finely-tuned narrative.  I know I can do this, because I have done it before. But in the beginning this faith in a solid final draft felt rather Easter-bunny-esque. Which is why I wanted to share my number one tip for making it all “come together,” just in case anyone reading this is experiencing a similar struggle. 

Ready? Here it is: alternate between your writer’s mind and your reader’s mind. Come at any and all problems from both angles. 

title

What’s the difference? As a writer, you are creating something out of nothing. You can chuck a scene that isn’t working. You can invent a new character to fill a void. You can add or remove secondary plots. As a writer, you are the god of your little kingdom; you can do anything you want.

Being in the writer’s mind is awesome for its limitlessness, but sometimes I find the lack of parameters in itself a burden. With the ability to do anything, it feels as though there are too many options. I become overwhelmed. 

So, I shut that part of my mind off, and I take a look at the story as if I were a reader. But not just any kind of reader: I tap into the part of me that likes to figure out the story, search for clues and develop theories. I transport myself back to 2005 when I was watching episodes of Lost over and over again, analyzing even the smallest details, convinced that I could piece it all together in time: the polar bears, the Dharma Initiative, Kate’s secret. 

As a reader, the text is set. It can’t be a mistake–especially not if we love the world we’re in. And, as a reader, authorial intent doesn’t matter. Sometimes there are theories that can be backed up by the text, even if they were never dreamed up by the writer. Texts live and breathe, and readers bring something new to them. So it really isn’t important what you meant to put on the page–just look at what’s there.

Read your manuscript like a reader. Read it like you’re the redditor who put forth the theory in that Varys in Game of Thrones is secretly a merman. Read it like you’re the Star Wars fan who can explain why the Kessel Run should be measured in parsecs. Read to over-analyze, to hunt for deeper meanings, to explain the seemingly inexplicable. 

When I was working through the second draft of Division of the Marked, there was one character who was just not working. I didn’t have a good grasp on his purpose in the story, and I was debating if he needed to be removed or fundamentally altered. But then I read through my manuscript and paid very careful attention to everything he said and did.

And I found several bits of dialogue and a few unconscious gestures that hinted at something I hadn’t intended in the writing: my problem character was secretly in love with a friend. And as soon as the thought came to me, it seemed so obvious. Suddenly that character made sense, and I was able to go back and more deliberately craft his dialogue and actions with purpose. 

You see, examining the text you’ve already produced is channeling a different kind of creativity. It’s like working backwards once you’ve found yourself stuck working forwards. You look at a scene in which a character does something out-of-character, and you dream up a theory as to why they might be acting that way based on the text. Then pitch that theory to your writer’s mind. If you like it, if it serves your story, go back and write it in. Layer in the necessary evidence. If not, pop your writer-hat back on and consider inventing something entirely new, or cutting the scene altogether.  Toss the manuscript back and forth between your writer’s mind and your reader’s mind until everything is neatly tied together.

In the end, readers will never know if you went back and added your easter-eggs, or if your easter-eggs were unconsciously written in and then expanded upon in later drafts. And you don’t have to worry that you’ll look closely and find nothing. Any text can be analyzed, any character can have secret depths. It’s like looking up at the clouds and assigning them shapes–it’s not so much about the object itself, it’s about the person who’s looking at it.

So, even if you’re a pantser, have faith. Stories come together. 

Posted in Character, Editing, For Writers, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged with: , , ,

Doctor Strange Review: Am I The Only One Who Thought This Movie Was a Mess?

**Attention: Spoilers Ahead***

Doctor Strange: This doesn’t make any sense.

The Ancient One: Not everything does. Not everything has to.

Ok, The Ancient One, maybe not everything has to make sense. But some things should. Plot, for instance. 

I was so very confident I would love this movie, between all of the glowing reviews and the mere fact that it starred Benedict Cumberbatch it seemed a sure thing. I was so certain, in fact, that I had a hard time admitting that I wasn’t enjoying it—I sat there for the first half of the film working very hard to convince myself that I was having a good time. But this got to be rather too much work, and wasn’t proving effective. 

In the end, I really disliked this movie. Not only did I think it was riddled with plot problems, but I just didn’t have any fun watching beyond the first act. Even the mind-bending visual effects eventually bored me, because there seemed to be no solid storytelling to back it up. All flash and no substance. I walked out of the theatre scratching my head at the 90% rottentomatoes score, overhearing numerous people expounding, “that was so good,” and resisting the urge to turn to them and ask, “Really? Was it, though?”

My husband and I spent the second half of our dinner-and-a-movie date trying to think of an MCU movie we’d enjoyed less, and couldn’t come up with much. Sure, Thor was pretty bad. But at least it had Loki to entertain me. I really didn’t like Antman, but I’d take that over a second viewing of Doctor Strange gladly–at least I laughed at Paul Rudd. For me, all of the humor in this installment fell flat. With such cool visuals and such a talented cast, it just seems such a pity that it wasn’t better. My brother-in-law promised it would be like Inception, but that movie established rules and carefully followed them. It was trippy, but logically consistent. This movie was just trippy.

When I read a book or watch a movie that I either love or hate, I like to break down what’s working and what’s broken. It’s a good exercise as a storyteller. I haven’t read any of the comics, to be clear, so this is just my impression of the movie as a stand alone piece of fiction. Here’s my take on why this movie failed: 

Pacing:

The plot was a mess–not a hot mess, exactly. More of a lukewarm mess. Like spilled oatmeal: mushy and rather congealed. I liked the opening, in fact it was the only part I did like–the first fight scene was a ton of fun to watch and Stephen Strange brilliantly extracting a bullet, showing off his memory and wit, was the only part of the movie that bothered to provide Cumberbatch worthy dialogue. I liked it–but I think it was the wrong opening. 

Because the big pacing problem this movie suffered from was montage-overload. Way too little of this movie happens in real time. After his injury, we see long stretches of time pass while he seeks a way to heal (and little insight as to his motivation: what does he love about his job? The glory? The do-goodery?). Then he goes to Nepal and once again, we enter a montage-athon: he’s reading books! he’s goatee-ified! he’s stealing more books! he’s overcoming his  struggles because of his….I’m not sure: effort? change in personality? knowledge? It’s pretty unclear. 

The trouble with a narrative that transpires too-little in real time, is that the reader or viewer can’t feel properly anchored in the story. This is particularly the case if these sequences pass without any indicators of how much time is passing, as in this film. Seriously, how much time passes in this movie? Are we talking months or years? I have no clue. Rachel McAdams cries out when Strange pops up “after all this time”–really, how much time are we talking? 

The Rules of Magic:

The biggest failing of the movie, in my opinion, is its total lack of interest in establishing the rules and parameters of the magic system. We see Strange reading, we see him practicing, but we have no notion of what he is reading and practicing. Good fantasy establishes rules and then follows them. This is important because, in the end, when the characters use these magic systems to win the day, we the viewer cheer and think: Oh yes! He’s doing that thing I already knew about! How clever! Rather than thinking: Wait, what? That’s a thing?

There’s a reason that Harry Potter always uses spells we’ve seen before. Sure, Rowling could just indicate that the characters study so they know magic and then invent spells at will, as the plot demands them. But that would be really unsatisfying to the reader. Same goes if the Doctor used the Sonic Screwdriver to get out of every single problem: it would feel like the writer was cheating. 

Doctor Strange explains nothing about how its magic system works, and it seems to work however the plot needs it to. We are tantalized with seemingly fascinating tidbits, like The Ancient One saying that they can pull on abilities from alternate dimensions. How much better it would have been if Stephen Strange spent that training time learning about these dimension by traveling to them–so that we could learn along with him–and then used this knowledge later in the movie. 

We see him struggling, but we have no idea why: is it just difficult? Or is he hindering himself because of his ego? Take the scene where The Ancient Once drops him off on Mt. Everest: the movie doesn’t even show him figuring out what to do, we see the scene from his teacher’s perspective. So, what did he learn/overcome? I have no idea. He ultimately beats the antagonist because of a one-off line about a possible consequence of a relic, and he somehow knows exactly how to take advantage of this despite having never done so before.

I have nothing but questions about this world: why do the good-guy and bad-guy  “weapons” look different? The Ancient One says that bodies can learn to heal themselves, but for some reason Stephen’s doesn’t. Benjamin Bratt’s does, but somehow Chiwetel Ejiofor can take that away? Why? Why!?!? (Side note: the plot made a lot more sense to me when I realized that one of  screenwriters also wrote Prometheus.) 

Character:

Despite having a group of top notch actors, all of the characters, including the protagonist, were so thinly drawn that I didn’t care at all about them. The movie consistently exchanged opportunities for real emotional connections between characters for rather lame jokes. (Though, admittedly, other people in the movie theatre laughed heartily, so maybe the “lame” part is just me?) Rachel McAdams’ character and Stephen never have any significant interaction to justify their romance. When The Ancient One died, I felt nothing. When Chimetel Ejiofor turned at the end, I was equally indifferent. The movie never bothered to make me care about any of these characters as people–what are their idiosyncrasies,  their ambitions, their fears? I still find it so strange when a two hour movie fails to make me care in the least about its characters, given that I was sobbing ten minutes into Abrams’ Star Trek. 

Theme:

There was no cohesive theme in this movie. It seemed like it was almost saying a lot of things, but never quite managing it. It wanted to say something about ego and arrogance, “It’s not about you!” being the big lesson that Stephen Strange was apparently meant to learn, except that never really came together in any significant way. He didn’t appear to have shed his ego as far as I could see. The movie touches upon the idea of doing something wrong to achieve an ultimate good–as with The Ancient One tapping into the dark dimension to stay alive. Are we meant to be on board with that or not? What did Stephen Strange learn? It was so thematically muddled that I’m not quite sure.

How I would fix it:

If this movie was a second draft and I was trying to improve it (again, with no reference to the source material), here’s what I would do:

Act 1

I’d open with Stephen Strange looking for something in Nepal. I’d
show his scarred, shaking hands. He’d be searching, asking questions, with a pretty tight POV. Flash back to him being a hotshot doctor, and showing off his perfect memory. benedict_cumberbatch_on_the_set_of_doctor_strange_croppedBack to present: he’d find what he’s looking for with a bit more difficulty than in the current draft, and be admitted to the school. Keep his wordy skepticism upon arrival. Have
The Ancient One know what had happened to him, and show a super brief flashback to the car flipping over the side of a precipice, and then him waking to see his hands. Cut back to the present, and he doesn’t believe she can help him, and he’s forlorn. He’d spent all of his money, given everything to get there. Keep her method of convincing him to stay.

Act 2

Here’s where we need bigger changes. The story needs us to learn about the world as Strange does. First, I’d give him a peer that he can form a relationship with. Someone with whom he can exchange witty banter, but who will push him to grow and help us care for him as a person. The two of them talk and try, in addition to read. There is some montage, but also plenty of moments that establish just how and why he is growing as a sorcerer. There are establishing shots with seasons changing to help us mark the passage of time. The rules of the magic system are established, and a problem that needs solving arrises. I think we need a smaller-scale enemy, as this movie’s primary objective is to establish character and world. So the villain should be designed to help explain the magic system better. It’s one of the “mystical problems” that the sorcerers exist to combat, for example. Or it’s a fellow sorcerer who is using the system in a way it shouldn’t be used. Perhaps whatever it is also somehow caused his car accident, lending the plot a nice symmetry. We’ll save the Sauron-esque character for a later installment, and start off with more of a Saruman.  

Act 3

Strange uses the tools he’s learned to combat the enemy. Best case scenario, his progression as a character is significant to the conclusion. His new-found humility is needed to successfully defeat the enemy. Every bit of magic used in the conclusion has been previously established, with us understanding the constraints or cost involved (all magic needs either parameters or a cost, otherwise it’s impossible to have any real stakes in the story). If I were really writing this, I would probably build backwards from the climax. His cloak, for instance, shouldn’t be introduced in the very same scene that it becomes significant. 

I guess we’ve just come so far in the realm of superhero movies, that I no longer feel willing to forgive lazy storytelling and lackluster scripts. There are too many better examples out there. But maybe I’m missing something. So many people loved this film. I must admit, I’m curious: why? 

Posted in Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with: ,