On Writing Weaknesses and Woes

I have a confession to make: I can't write a good "lemon" to save my life. Unfortunately, I'm a romance writer, which means I'll have to do at least one descriptive encounter per story.

I was just reading over the one I wrote for my post-apocalyptic novel, and I realized it read like a 1980s Harlequin Romance sex scene. Very vague, no direct mentions of body parts, heavy on feelings and sensations rather than the mechanics.

I admire some fanfic authors I've encountered that can write powerful and expansive sex scenes. Jmolly has even written a very good tutorial on the subject on Raum's Reading Lounge. The problem is, they just don't flow for me. I anguish over every word. I ponder, peck out a phrase. Erase it. Lather, rinse repeat.

I remember writing a chapter for The Better Angels of Our Nature. It was chapter 22, a four-paragraph love scene in a meadow. I had the rest of the chapter written within a few hours. One hour was consumed in writing those four short paragraphs, which, for me, is painfully slow.

Sex is, of course, part of any good romance. The first encounter between our hero and heroine tells us much about their emotional connection. Their bodies speak louder than words, and sometimes, it's the only way a character can express the depth of their feelings. As a result, we have to see that first encounter. Thereafter, it's not as important, except when they are re-connecting after a separation or a conflict.

Mind you, sex just for the sake of titillating the reader isn't good writing. As a published author once told me, never add anything unless it is important to the plot or reveals something about the characters. There has to be a specific reason for the sex scene. If it could be deleted without any impact on the plot, it should be.

This is one of the hardest parts of writing because writers are often in love with their own words. That's why you see fics that are sometimes over a million words. (The average novel is 80K to 100K.) We think everything is important. That's why having a good editor can be a humbling experience.

So, my fellow writers, where do you feel that you're the weakest? Where do you think your work could be improved, and if you could, what would you do to make it better? StumbleUpon Share on Tumblr

My Reading Lounge: Writing Lab: a lesson from Lissa Bryan

 This was an article I wrote for Raum's Reading Lounge:

My Reading Lounge: Writing Lab: a lesson from Lissa Bryan:


As many of you know, Lissa Bryan is the author of one of the most discussed (and appreciated) fics that came out in 2011, Written in the Stars. She's now posting two new, amazing stories, The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Selkie Wife. The first story she posted on FF.net, Compulsion, has now a sequel, Sacred to the Memory.

She updates her stories very often. I wondered how could she write so much, with such a high quality, in so little time. Here's the answer...

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Everything You Shouldn’t Do And Why it Works for Me
By Lissa Bryan

Ever since I was a child, I’ve taken novels and “re-written” them in my head, sending the characters on fantastic journeys, or simply writing the ending it should have had. It was only recently that I discovered that other people do this too, and it’s called “fan fiction” and not only that, there are huge online communities devoted to it. Once I discovered the community, I decided to let some of my characters out of my head to play.

I joined FFN in the first week of October 2011, and as I write this on the day after Christmas, 2011, I have two completed novel-length stories and three in the works. I frequently am asked if I’ve pre-written the stories and the answer is no, if you don’t count the “writing” that’s been done in my head. Usually the story has been re-written several times in my mind and I’ll return to old favorites and perhaps even re-write the plot with new characters. Ultimately, there has been a lot of “work” done on my tales before I ever sit down in front of a keyboard.

Essentially, I just have to type the story, so it’s not all that difficult for me to produce between four thousand and five thousand words per day. The difficulty is in deciding where to place chapter dividers so that the flow stays natural, since I never divide the story that way in my head.

From the advice columns I’ve read, it appears that I do pretty much everything that new authors are cautioned not to do.

I don’t have a chapter outline. It means that I have no idea how long the story will be; I can only estimate, based on plot, how much of the story has already been completed. I may have a general idea of the things I want to happen in a chapter, but sometimes they have to get bumped to the next one when I realize I have too much material to get through before those events can occur.

I don’t have a beta. I do my own editing (and it shows.) My reasons for this are that, firstly, I don’t know very many people in the fandom. I’d have to be familiar with a potential beta’s writing style to know how well they do with language and grammar and such (it’s not helpful to have an inarticulate person who doesn’t recognize an incorrect word usage), and then know them as friends to see how well we would be able to work together.

Secondly, it would slow me down. I’d have to rely on another person, work around their schedule, and wait for them to return the chapter. And lastly, I’d have to stop and explain why certain things have happened in the story line and how they’ll fit into the big picture later.

So far, it’s worked for me. There are always things I’ll miss here and there that I’ll only notice on a re-read weeks later. I only ever made one major mistake and thanks to a sharp-eyed reviewer, I was able to go back and correct it early on in the story.

I’ve never shown my stories to anyone to get their input. From what I’ve read, this seems like the first step most authors take, but when it’s posted, that marks the first time anyone has ever read it besides myself.

Since I do everything wrong, you probably shouldn’t take advice from me, but I have two bits of advice from a published author with whom I used to correspond:

1) Never include anything that doesn’t directly advance the plot or reveal something important about the characters. It’s advice that I don’t always stick to myself, but I try to keep it in mind when writing.

I once read a novel, which shall remain nameless, in which there was a chapter detailing a short vacation the characters took to New York. We were introduced to two new characters, who were in conflict, and then the main characters went to Central Park and had sex under a bridge during a rainstorm. Never again were the two new characters mentioned and the trip played no role in the overall plotline. There was no reason for the entire chapter. It could have been deleted without any impact on the novel whatsoever.

I love lemons as much as the next gal, but putting one in just for the fun of it doesn’t do much for the story. We have reason to see the first time that characters are intimate because it’s a large step forward in their relationship, and their actions during intimacy can reveal important character traits. Or, we could see the characters reconnect after a long separation/conflict. Or it could be the only way one of the character can express their feelings. Whatever the reason, the scene should have a purpose.

2) Read your dialogue out loud. If you sound stupid when you say it, so will your characters.

Lastly, I would add to listen to your reviewers. They’ll help you by pointing out areas of the story which are weak, things that might need further explanation and details you may have forgotten to include. We all like positive reviews, but reviewers aren’t just cheerleaders.

Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed my stories, and to Raum, for suggesting I write this article.

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Research, Research, Research

I find that a lot of time, research takes more time than the actual writing itself. Maybe they always tell authors to "write what you know" because it's so much easier.

As an example, I'm writing a travel scene in my new post-apocalyptic TEOTWAWKI novel and I need to know whether my characters are going uphill on the road they're traveling or downhill. Google Maps helps, and I've been reading travel blogs, looking at the sparse number of photos of the area, etc. Thank God for the internet, eh?

When I wrote The Selkie Wife, I had most of the research in my head already, but I still had to check a few things. If I was describing a dress, I had to make sure that the material I was using was actually available and that it didn't violate sumptuary laws. During a wedding, I had to make sure the order of the service, and the wording of the vows was correct. What was the weather like on the day Mary I married Philip of Spain? What happened to the body of Jane Grey if it didn't end up in the chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula as most have assumed? (The last led me to a ghoulishly entertaining document on the Victorian renovations of the chapel and the skeletons they found beneath the floor.)

Today, I was describing an old train station that actually exists. It's no longer used for the purpose for which it was designed, and so I searched for photos of the interior. I found a teenage girl's travel blog, and she mentioned as an aside that her train had stopped there, but that the only area of the building open to the public was the restrooms. I surrendered. I'm going to have to make up the interior and just hope that I don't get reviews that express irritation with the inaccuracy.

Am I too obsessive with the research? Maybe. But I think readers do appreciate the accuracy. I know that I rarely read historical fiction because the inaccuracies bother me (which is why I only watched two episodes of The Tudors on HBO.) StumbleUpon Share on Tumblr
So, I'm writing this post-apocalyptic novel, and the heroine has to leave her home, likely never to return, and it makes me wonder ...

What would you take with you if you had to leave? Not supplies; I mean items of sentimental value. Mind you, space and weight would really be an issue. StumbleUpon Share on Tumblr
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