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Series Fiction: What I wish I’d known at the start

long gameI’m in the final stretch of writing the fourth book in my Lexy Cooper mystery series. Now, I’m certainly nowhere near as prolific as many writers, but by the time you get to Book 4, you’ve built up a pretty substantial cast of characters, a history, and a world. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way and wish I’d known when I was writing the first one.

Consistency in World Building

Just because I write books set in modern times in the “real” world doesn’t mean I haven’t done some world building. It’s not Middle Earth, but Lexy Cooper’s fantasy world mapRedmond and Seattle are not exact replicas of the real thing and those subtle differences need to be consistent. Sometimes I run up against a perception I had while writing earlier books that cause me to hesitate and stumble writing later books. Take the Redmond Police Department headquarters, where Detective Malick does his murder-solving thing. When I wrote Schooled I had a very vague idea of what it looked like: a lobby where a desk sergeant sits, desks where cops do their work on battered government-issue desks, a conference room where the cops can gather to brainstorm, and an interrogation room for grilling suspects. That’s all I wrote about, because it was all I needed. Then in Pwned, I added another interrogation room and now there’s “Interview A” and “Interview B.” Each book has added new areas as the story requires them. By the time I wrote Summer Wind, in which Detective Malick gets his own series, the building is three stories high and has a computer lab, briefing room, Chief’s office, gym, and impound lot. The good news is I never said, in Book 1 that the station was small or one-story, or lacked any facilities. So looking back, is it better that I was vague in the beginning, or should I have mapped it out with a little more diligence from the get-go?  Vagueness has allowed me to get what I need from that location, but every time I send Malick up a flight of stairs that wasn’t in my head during the previous books, I feel a little bit guilty.

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The Trouble with Character Names

There are two male cops in my series: Mike Malick and Mark Rogers. In the first three books Rogers was always “Rogers” because he’s a young cop still in uniform and Mike is the star. But by Book 4, Rogers has a new job in a neighboring city and is a detective. Now equals–mostly–“Mike and Mark” are so close it sounds lame.

name gameWorse yet are rhyming names. Lexy’s brother is Kent and her cameraman is Trent. I never even noticed it until the two characters have a scene together in Book 4 and I had to write around putting their names next to each other. Meanwhile I cursed myself for my foolishness for not noticing in Book 1. Another example? Kenny Longworth and Kent Cooper don’t share a scene in the first four books, but that too, could be problematic in the future. And then I have to wonder: What’s with the “Ken” thing? Why did I choose those names? I don’t think I even know anyone named Ken.

Now I’m being much more careful in naming new characters. In book 4, Lexy’s friend Harper Cole (who appears in Pwned and Griefed) is a major player. When it came time for me to introduce a new character, I wanted to name her Hopper after Grace Hopper. But Hopper and Harper? That’s a no-go. So right now her name is Borg after Anita Borg, but I don’t think I can get past the Star Trek association on that one and it will most likely change again.

Now here are a couple of things I think I did right. And I did them right because I was slow and careful about what I was doing. I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as I can here, but if you haven’t read Lexy 1-3 and are super sensitive to vague hints about the plot, you may want to skip this bit.

The Long Game

If you’ve got the foresight to plan the major plot points of the books in your series, it’s very effective to lay the groundwork early for the biggest payoff. So there’s a bad guy in Book 3. Now I could have created a new character to do the bad things, but instead I played the long game. Knowing all along what I was going to write in Book 3 (at that time the end of a Lexy trilogy) I introduced the character very casually in Book 1. This character was so minor he or she may have mostly gone unnoticed. But then he or she became more important in Book 2. So by the time Book 3 rolls around and he or she does the bad thing it is a shock and betrayal to both Lexy and the reader.

See also: Foreshadowing. This character offers hints of what he/she is capable of in the first two books. What you’re going for is either a “I felt like there was something weird about that person!” or “Why didn’t I see that coming!?” So hopefully, a person who read Book 3 could go back to Book 2 and smack themselves for not realizing this character was trouble.

Another example: In Summer Wind (which is Malick #1 but also Book 3.5 in the Lexy series), I introduce a character who is not really going to be very important until Book 7. But when she becomes important she won’t have dropped out of a clear blue sky. She’s already been established in the cast and the world.

Incremental Change

It would have been easy to begin the series with Lexy Cooper–community manager by day, kick-ass vigilante detective by night, but let’s face it…that’s not really believable or relatable. Instead, Lexy learns new skills as the series progresses. Not because she has an end-goal of being some sort of Dirty Harriet, but because she has reactions to the things that happen in her life. Possible spoilers For instance: In the first book, something happens to Lexy that makes her interested in finally learning to handle a firearm. So in Book 2 she learns to shoot. In Book 2 and then again in Book 3, she is in a situation where she has to run to safety. And her speed and endurance fail her. In Book 4, running has become a priority for her. She’ll be ready for the next time. And at this point, she carries her Glock everywhere. By Book 4 or 5 readers will not be shocked–or skeptical–if Lexy outruns an assailant or uses her gun because these are skills she’s worked to acquire and not superpowers she’s granted when she suddenly needs them.

The Downside

The downside of the slow build and the long game is that readers can’t see inside your head and may get impatient as they wait for your heroine to “grow up.” I have had feedback about how Lexy often gets rescued in early books, or that she’s immature or didn’t have a big enough reaction to the tragic events at the end of Griefed. All I can say to that is: keep reading.

 

 

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The Hiatus Experiment or Can I Write A Romance in 2 Weeks?

BES_064Yesterday I finished the first draft of Summer Wind. This is the book that was giving me fits just a month ago when at the half-way point I hated the book so much I wanted to burn it. I figured out the problem, fixed it, and the words just started to flow. The muse was sitting on my lap, cracking a whip, urging “faster, faster!” That bossy bitch brought in the book a month ahead of schedule. So I actually have time to follow my own advice and put it away for two weeks before starting the revision process.

*Deep Breath*

So, I’ve decided to take those two weeks to work on a semi-silly project I’ve had on a back burner for quite some time: A romance novel. Yes, yes, I know you’re sneering. And yeah, I’ve said some catty shit about the genre as well, but in a world of declining readership, romance readers are HUNGRAAAY. How hungry? Let me hit you with some stats:

  • Romance fiction generated $1.438 billion in sales in 2012.
  • Romance was the top-performing category on the best-seller lists in 2012 (across the NYT, USA Today, and PW best-seller lists).
  • Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.350 billion for 2013.
  • 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008.

What’s my book about? Well, the premise is that a corporate VP good-girl with a perfect-on-paper life meets a hot young stripper. She can’t be with a stripper, right? Because she went to college and she has a 401(k), but DAMN THOSE ABS.

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You see where I’m going with this. Romance is nothing if not formulaic. So, formula and premise in hand, I will attempt to write a first draft of this book in just two weeks.

Now, if I can just find that muse…. oh, there it is

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The Care and Feeding of a Muse

nga-calliope-allI absolutely believe in the muse. Not literally a daughter of Zeus, but the creative inspiration that comes from “out there.” Muse is as good a way to describe it as any. Sometimes she comes as an idea appearing in your mind like a bolt of lightning. Sometimes she draws your attention to something: a news article, a scent, a flavor, an overheard conversation, or the way that guy is edging away from the woman with a shopping cart at the bus stop. And once in a while the muse will sit down beside you and whisper words in your ear and you’ll have to scribble or type like your fingers are on fire to keep up with the flow of language.

Each visit from the muse is a gift. And like most gifts you must remember two things: don’t expect them, and be grateful for whatever you get.

The other thing to know about the muse is that she’s willful and unpredictable and nothing pisses her off more than being taken for granted.

If your plan is only to write when the muse inspires you? You ain’t gonna write. To wait for the muse is to disrespect the muse. You need to meet her halfway. You do this by sitting down at your weapon of choice—keyboard, legal pad, voice recorder—and getting down to business.

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Think of it like this. You know when you’re a kid and you go to the playground and no one’s around or everyone is already involved in their own games? If you stand there on the peripheries with a glum expression, no one will invite you to play. People want to join in when you’re doing something fun. Remember the long summer evenings when a couple of kids would start playing Kick the Can and before you knew it the whole neighborhood was out? The muse is drawn to creativity like kids are drawn to fun. So sit down, start creating, and see what happens when she comes around to investigate.

Of course, she won’t always gift you while you’re in prime writing position. Oftentimes you’ll suddenly have the answer to that dicey third act problem while you’re in the shower. Or wake up in the middle of the night with a character name you’ve been struggling with on the tip of your tongue. With me, it’s almost always in the car.  Here’s the solution: always always keep a pen and notebook close by. Trust me, do whatever it takes to capture what the muse gives you; you will not remember it later. There is the equivalent of the lost library of Alexandria of great ideas, jokes, and plot twists that authors have squandered for the lack of a damn pencil.

If you want a visit from the muse be respectful, be prepared, be grateful, and be ready to work.

Course Correction – When a work-in-progress isn’t working

titanic-shipLast week I wrote a long post lamenting the shitty state of my new novel Summer Wind. If you want to read the whole boohoo thing it’s here. The short version is: It sucked. My main character Detective Mike Malick was stiff and uninteresting. One of the solutions I pondered was “Try switching to the first-person POV” but I quickly nixed that as a “cop-out.”

My hesitation went deeper than a knee-jerk reaction. I wasn’t sure I could write a whole book from a man’s viewpoint. I’ve written brief scenes from male points of view in my Lexy Cooper series, but never in the first-person. I don’t know what it’s like to be a dude. Will Malick, channeled through me, come across like a chick in a false mustache? I was afraid.

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But then I tried it.

And it flowed pretty well. Better than I expected. I rewrote a chapter of Summer Wind changing the third-person past tense to first-person present tense, and compared the versions side-by-side.

And yeah, I liked it. And my alpha readers liked it too. One of them said, “I already love it.  his dry noir wit comes comes through even when he’s taking the high road on the outside,” and another said, “seeing it through Malick’s eyes is much more telling about who he is.” So it was decided. Now I just had to do a complete rewrite on a by then 37,000 word novel-in-progress. I estimated it would take nine days to fix and then I’d be able to go forward and write the rest of the book.

SW Old v New side by side

What I hadn’t really considered is how much I would end up cutting. About 5,000 words actually. The entire prologue (which I wasn’t sure was going to be in the final version anyway), scenes in Officer Yi and Officer Rogers POV, and while I was at it a clue that was too obvious too soon and a scene with a character that I’d sent out of the town in the previous chapter (logic fail.)

Here are a couple examples of how I did the rewrites. In scenes that were orginally in Malick’s POV (most of the book) it was an opportunity to add a little more stream of conscious personality. I changed this scene, when Malick wakes up and houseguest Lexy Cooper is burning breakfast:

She had twenty-nine years on her, but looked five years younger and acted ten years younger. He blamed part of it on her job. She worked in video games as something called a “community manager” which as far as he could tell involved writing stuff for the company website, traveling around making videos that streamed on the company’s online gaming service, and being subject to startling levels of harassment and abuse. That’s sort of why she was here. Had been here for weeks sleeping on his sofa and burning his bacon.

To this:

She has twenty-nine years on her, but looks five years younger and acts ten years younger. I blame part of it on her job. She works in video games as something called a “community manager” which as far as I can tell involves writing stuff for the company website, traveling around making videos that stream on the company’s online gaming service, and being subject to startling levels of harassment and abuse. That’s sort of why she’s here. Has been here for weeks sleeping on my sofa and burning my bacon. I keep buying it, she keeps burning it. Hope springs eternal, right? At least when it comes to salted meat.

The part of the rewrite that stung the most was eliminating the Cricket Yi and Mark Rogers scenes. I was especially fond of the scene in which my young redheaded cop interviews the murder victim’s daughter, who is sunbathing on the deck.

“Soooo if you want to ask me questions or whatever, I should probably put some clothes on. If you’re just here for the view…”
Rogers looked down, ashamed. “No, I…”
“I meant the view. You know, the valley and shit?” She swept an arm across the horizon and Rogers felt like a bumbling teenager. He pulled out his notebook and mechanical pencil so she wouldn’t see him blush.
“Go change and I’ll meet you back inside. You know gingers can’t take too much sunshine.”

How do I keep the gist and the flavor of the scene but make it Malick’s? This is what I did:

“Soooo if you want to ask me questions or whatever, I should probably put some clothes on. If you’re just here for the view…” She rolls her shoulders, suggestively.
“What? No, I…” I’m surprised at how offended I am.
“I meant the view. You know, the valley and shit?” She sweeps an arm across the horizon and I feel like a dirty old man. This is not going well. I pull out my pen and notebook and attempt to get control back.
“Go change and I’ll meet you back inside.” When she disappears behind her bedroom door, I call Rogers and tell him to get his ginger ass up here, pronto.

Once all that was done and all the “Malick”s and “he”s had become “I”s and “me”s, I got back to writing. In the first-person present tense. And man, do I feel better about the book. I’m so glad I decided to stop and check the map instead of just blundering along in the wrong direction. Sure, I’d probably be 10,000 words closer to finished, but it would be a shitty book. I’m behind schedule now, but only by a week, and the difference in the story, the character and my confidence in the book is more than worth the short delay.

If your book isn’t working, stop. Not forever, but long enough to assess the problem, mess around under the hood a bit and find a solution.

Breadcrumbs: the art of leaving clues

large_A-Trail-of-Breadcrumbs.-Hansel-and-GretelWriting is hard. Anyone will tell you that. Just sitting down and squeezing your brainthoughts onto a page via your fingers freaking HURTS. And I’m sure that non-fiction has its own hellish idiosyncrasies and each genre no doubt has its unique challenges. Sci-Fi writers probably struggle to think of cool names for non-existent tech, and fantasy authors most likely struggle with…I don’t know, how pointy elf ears should be.

The mystery genre of course, has a set of rules within which the author must work. We have a contract with our readers. If you follow me through this created world I will reveal to you the evildoer. He or she might be killed, arrested, or skip town and get away, but you will know whodunit by the end. Agatha Christie in 1926 [spoiler comin’!] turned this on its ear by having the first-person narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd turn out to be the killer. She flipped that shit around, but she didn’t break the promise of revealing the killer.

roger ackroyd

Another rule of mysteries–that not all writers follow–is that it has to be possible to ascertain the identity of the killer. The reader must be given all the evidence available to the sleuth. Otherwise it’s not a fair game. Now this evidence may be tainted, witnesses can lie, and mistakes can be made, but part of the appeal of the genre is that the reader gets to actively participate in the story.

The murderer also must be available for suspicion. By that I mean that they have to be on the page before their guilt is revealed. They may never be an official suspect subject to police interrogation, but you can’t, in the final chapter, pull a murderer out of your ass. “Oh wow! It turned out to be a guy never introduced and never suspected! He just appeared on the courthouse steps and confessed.” The only way that scenario would work is if it’s a false confession that allows the real killer (a character who has already appeared) to escape detection for a while longer. That’s a twist. Otherwise, it’s just a ripoff.

Going back to the huge twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, if you read the book a second time the signs are there all along that the narrator is the killer. Christie didn’t screw over her readers, she just fooled them in a very clever way. Maybe some portion of readers figured it out, but I didn’t. And I was one of the people who took one look at Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game and said, “That’s a dude.” By leaving these clues…this trail of breadcrumbs I call it, Christie may have surprised readers, but she didn’t break the rules.

So when writing a mystery, you’ve gotta leave the crumbs. And it’s difficult! If they’re too obvious, you give away the game. When I figure out a mystery early in the book, yes I feel very clever, but then I’m just slogging through the rest of it wondering why the detective is such a dumbass. And if I think your sleuth is a dipshit, I’m not likely to read the next book in the series.

The reverse is also true. If the breadcrumbs you leave are too subtle your reader will miss them completely and feel just as ripped off as if you hadn’t put them in at all. They have to notice them, but not register as clues until the end.

The trouble is that reader perception of your breadcrumbs is subjective. What seems middling obvious to the writer can be completely missed by a reader. One of the things I ask my alpha readers is, when did you figure it out? I like readers to figure it out…just not too soon. Sometimes I ask early readers to stop every couple of chapters and write down who they think the killer is. That’s a good way to track how my breadcrumbs are working. In my second Lexy Cooper book, Pwned, I edited out a breadcrumb that I hadn’t thought was very obvious when a reader told me that was the point she knew who the killer was.

The perfect breadcrumbs are ones that you can only see when you know what to look for, preferably on that second reading. And then you have a good chuckle and say I can’t believe I missed that! And you tip your hat to the writer that hid those clues in plain sight and managed to surprise you at the end.

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