I’m a firm believer that you should never stop learning. On my last day walking this earth, I intend to learn something about this world, or the world I’m about to enter, or myself.
I wince when I hear people say they don’t need to know this or that. Why won’t you want to know something about everything?
Since this is a blog for writers and we focus mainly on the craft of writing and publishing industry and elements related to both, I’ll speak to the authors reading this. Never stop studying the craft. Never turn a deaf ear to information that relates to your small business. Never stop learning about humanity and the world, because they feed your creative well.
No moment in time has offered us so many venues in which we can expand our minds. We have the ability to fly to the other side of the world in a day and experience cultures our forefathers never heard of. We can open a window to the worldwide web and learn about every uncover stone in history, and steps that will change our world today, tomorrow, in years to come.
We are friends to people all over the globe and share our daily lives, hopes and dreams, having never met them face to face.
Since the majority of information shared is through written word, we have a responsibility to humanity to never stop educating ourselves and share what we’ve learned, be it through poetry, screenplays, non-fiction or fiction, but the majority of us, on government income tables, qualify as starving artist. So how can we continue to learn, to improve ourselves as artists?
There are so many avenues that cost little or nothing. Here are ten ways.
Blogs like the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, where experienced writers who published, both traditionally and independently, and are willing to share their journeys and help guide others.
Many authors have writer related archives on their websites where they share articles on craft.
Local or National writing organizations. There is nothing like being in a room with other writers, even if the group is small.
On-line writers groups. Check RWA for info on on-line chapters.
Craft books. Buy used if on a budget, or trade off with other writers.
Industry related magazines. Check for on-line magazines also. Many are free.
Conferences or workshops. Many conferences are breaking down their venues and offering the purchased of one day, two day or entire conference packages, making attending more affordable to some.
Conference workshop recordings. If you can’t attend the event, this is the next best thing.
On-line classes. I, and several other Ruby Sisters, love Margie Lawson classes (margielawson.com). Intense, but worth the time and money! And I’ve taken Master classes from James Patterson and Arron Sorken through masterclass.com. I review classes constantly. Michael Hauge also offers a lot of information on his website, storymastery.com.
Reading. You can learn about the craft just by studying your favorite authors’ works. Whether you write every day or not, reading, learning, every day should be a priority.
There are more venues to help you on your journey and I know some of the sisters will jump in and offer them up, but if something has helped you, please share in the comments below.
Autumn Jordon is the award-winning author of romantic suspense-mystery-thrillers such as her Golden Heart Finalist and Golden Leaf winner His Witness To Evil. After her family business was comprised by The Russian Mafia and the FBI investigated, she grabbed her note pad and pen and went on to interview the agents. Join her newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com and be privy to upcoming releases, sales, and events. Also, you’ll receive free reads and be entered into her monthly contest for great prizes.
The idea for this blog post on writing speed came after reading some responses our readers made to Shelley Coriell’s 1/25/17 blog post, Write on 2017! Strengths and Weaknesses. (Awesome series! Check it out.) In retrospect, writing speed has been on my radar since the Ruby Blog’s early days, when I jokingly called Ruby Sister Darynda Jones and me “The Tortoise and the Hare.” (Make no mistake, I’m the tortoise.) While reading comments people posted to Shelley’s blog, it didn’t take long to notice a distinct theme starting to emerge: writers were identifying their writing pace as “slow,” and further identifying this pace as a weakness they wanted to overcome.
I’m here to say…not so fast.
What follows are a few snippets from that conversation, all from published Rubies. First, Elizabeth Langston, who’d identified her writing speed as a weakness earlier in the thread:
I need to let the comparison thing go. But it’s been bothering more than usual since I attended an RWA chapter meeting in November. The speaker is completely indie. I think she said that she releases 4+ books a year. I have another author friend who averages 6 books per year (which is insane). I can’t sustain either pace.
Jamie Michele weighed in:
Damn it, I’m all done with the cult of productivity within our community!! Like most of us, I’m not in a position to perform at that level, so I will not tolerate any career plans that include producing four books a year!!
I think of one of my favorite books — The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It took her ten YEARS to write that thing, and it was worth every second she slaved over it. I’m grateful to her for that book, even if she never writes another.
YAAASSS – and for what it’s worth, I feel the same way about Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. And here’s my reply:
Beth and Jamie, my sisters! I have the same issues and concerns. An admission: Over the last year or so, I’ve pulled away from some corners of the romance writing community out of sheer self-preservation, because the focus on pace of production just clobbers my self-confidence. My ‘natural’ writing pace right now is one book per year. Compared to most writers in our genre, I will always come up short in comparison. Always. I think my stories would start to suffer if I tried to pick up the pace. My health, and my work/life balance, would certainly take a hit.
Only in Romancelandia is writing one book per year considered “slow.” Regardless of writing pace, I’d like us all to stop beating ourselves up.
Seriously, when did pace of production become the dominant metric by which romance authors measure success? And what does this mean for those of us who can’t measure up?
What it means is that some of us pull away from our writing communities out of sheer self-preservation. It means we come home from conferences and RWA chapter meetings feeling inadequate rather than energized. It means we too often compare ourselves to others, and always come up short.
Needless to say, this mindset is not great for one’s creativity.
As someone who used to design processes for a living, I’ll be the first to say that work methods can improve, evolve and change over time – but I’ve been writing for a decade now, and one piece of self-awareness I’ve gained is that I’m a slow food writer. I like to focus on the individual ingredients, and careful and precise preparations. I revise. I refine. I need things to simmer and cook, testing – tasting – as I go along.
I BUILD WORLDS. This takes time. It takes me time, at any rate. I don’t produce my best work quickly. If I tried to write faster, quality would suffer. I’m not willing to make that trade-off, and I’m tired of feeling guilty about it.
As Ruby Sis Hope Ramsey so wisely says later in the thread, we each need to accept our process for what it is, and set our personal goals accordingly. One size does NOT fit all.
So, I’m here to say: I reject the Cult of Productivity. I reject it utterly and completely. The Cult of Productivity won’t help me produce my strongest, most satisfying work. It certainly won’t preserve my joy in the process, which is the most important thing about this wacky business that’s under my direct control.
Ultimately, we each need to find our own, right rhythm. Our own optimal pace.
Me? I’m a happy tortoise. I’ll be back here, taking in the scenery. Marching to slow and steady the beat of my own drum. 😛
Q: Any thoughts about the Cult of Productivity? How satisfied are you with your writing pace? I look forward to your opinions and insights.
P.S. And speaking of slow food…
I recently got publication rights back to Taste Me and Chase Me, the first two books in my award-winning Underbelly Chronicles series. After a light revision pass on all four books, I just reissued the entire series on Kindle/KDP. (More on that process in my next blog post.) But I wanted to give our readers a peek at my pretty new covers!! and supply some Kindle links if you’re inclined to Buy or borrow.
Tamara Hogan is the award-winning author of The Underbelly Chronicles paranormal romance series. An English major by education and a software developer/process engineer by trade, she recently stopped telecommuting to Silicon Valley to teach, edit, and write full-time. Tamara loathes cold and snow, but nonetheless lives near Minneapolis with her husband and two naughty cats.
Her debut, TASTE ME, won a Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery and Suspense, was nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award®, and won Prism Awards for Best Dark Paranormal, Best First Book, and Best of the Best. Catch her on line at www.tamarahogan.com, or on Twitter, @TamaraHogan1.
Happy Tortoise by digitalart at freedigitalart.net
Writing a great short story used to be the training ground for writers. Hemingway started his career by writing them, as did Stephen King, and many renown others.
For many years, the appetite for short stories, nearly disappeared, cutting the number of magazines that included them substantially, and leaving only classic short stories on the book shelves. However, I believe the tide is changing among today’s readers. Their time is limited and there are times when they just want something worthy and short while they’re waiting in a doctor’s office or school parking lot.
Also, many are now reading on their phones, and reading a short story is more feasible on the small device.
This month, I dove into the short market with a novelette titled Perfect Moments. It released on February first. I was nervous about writing it because shorts have a totally different writing style than a full length novel. It was a learning experience, but after receiving emails from readers requesting to know whether Elizabeth and Bob Kincaid (from Perfect) made it home from their overseas duty, I decided to give Elizabeth and Bob their story. Their short.
Another reason I decided to try my hand at writing a short story was because today’s reader wants more product from an author, and quicker. I’m comfortable writing a full length novel in a year, sometimes nine months. But to write quicker, I know the quality of my work would decline. I want to continue to improve my craft, not hinder it. So to feed my fans cravings, writing short stories might be the way to go.
I asked my Ruby Sisters their thoughts on writing short stories.
Rita Henuber said she wrote her short stories because, “I have many stories bumping around inside my skull. Characters screaming at me to tell their story. Some are absolutely not full length novel material. All but one in my collection of short stories began with an experience of mine. I had to write them.”
And Jeannie Lyn said, “I actually LOVE shorts and think they’re a great way to pack a punch in a short amount of space as well as introduce writers to your voice. The last short story that I wrote was meant to be an introduction to my steampunk world for new readers and a little bonus for existing readers.”
Ruby sister Ava Blackstone stated she wrote a short after reading an article in her RWA chapter’s newsletter about writing for Woman’s World. “I decided to give it a try. I found that short stories were great palate cleansers when I was sick of my main WIP. I also liked the freedom to experiment with different writing styles without worrying that I was wasting months on something that might not work.”
And Vivi Andrews stated, “I’ve always written short stories for anthologies, usually with open submission calls that provided the opportunity to get my writing in front of more readers. My little gateway stories to lure readers into my world. 🙂 This spring I’ll be participating in the 2nd RWA Anthology.”
I then asked the sisters if they found writing shorts difficult? I know I found it challenging not to add more conflict, more points of view, more of everything.
Vivi said, “Actually, I don’t find them difficult at all. I was nervous initially about stepping out of my comfort zone, but I wound up loving the opportunity to tell more compact romances.”
Rita stated, “Not at all. I enjoyed writing the shorts and the side benefit of stopping those people in my head screaming. I view shorts as a moment in time. A snapshot event giving the reader something to ponder.”
Jeannie started writing shorts before she wrote novels. “I have a totally different mindset when I switch back to writing shorts. They’re not just shorter novel storylines — the way I plot and present a short story is entirely different than what I do in a novel.”
Ava said, “Writing that first short story definitely required a paradigm shift. I had to come up with a much smaller-scale conflict than I was used to writing so that I could wrap things up realistically in 800 words. It helped me to think about it as though I was writing a scene instead of a novel. So then it was just a matter of coming up with a compelling scene that could stand on its own.”
So why write shorts? I’d heard shorts help with sales on other books, especially if their part of a series. Perfect Moments just released, so I don’t have a track record to share, so again I questioned my sisters who had published short stories.
Jeannie stated, “I actually have found it helpful bringing in new readers with shorts. Since my settings and worlds are not so mainstream, I think readers find shorts an easy way to get a feel for me without having to commit to a novel. Short stories with direct tie-ins and characters from other series are the best way to go in terms of hooking readership. Teaming up with other authors in anthologies is a also a great strategy for getting that first look.”
Ava had a different use for her short story. “I give it away to readers who sign up for my mailing list, and it has worked great as an incentive to drive signups. I’m planning to write another short to go along with my next Ava Blackstone book.”
If you’re considering writing a short story, I have some advice.
Read short stories. There are many; The International Thriller Writers have released collections titled Face Off. And, I know the Mystery Writers also release an annual collection. Then you have classics like William Faulkner’s That Evening Sun.
Pick your story’s moment or moments that really matter and write about them.
Stay with one main character.
Write more words than you need and then pick the words that show don’t tell, show character’s change, and that moves the story forward.
Go through the same editing steps as you would for a novel.
My sisters also offered advice or suggestions?
Rita said, “I go by what I love to read. IMO a short story is for a reader’s experience. I will also say I think there is a difference between what is considered a short story to a novella. With a novella, because of its larger word count, I expect story structure, GMC, story resolution, the whole enchilada. Shorter stories can certainly have all that good stuff but I think of them as a bite of the enchilada not the whole thing.
Vivi offered this advice, “I didn’t take any online courses or read any books on the subject. I will strongly recommend that anyone looking to write short consider the kind of conflicts that can be resolved quickly. If you give your characters more than they can reasonably solve in a short format, you’re going to have some very grumpy readers.”
Jeannie recommended, “Rather than craft books (which I normally love), the best way to learn for shorts is to read how others do it. I think there’s MORE of an art to writing short than writing a novel. The good thing is that they’re short. 🙂
Some authors I love: Ray Bradbury (for voice, tone, memorable setup and hook). If you can find it, read “A Laurel and Hardy Love Affair”. Edgar Allen Poe (check out his word choice and how effective his opening lines are)
For romance, these authors’ shorts are actually novellas, but they establish character and emotional stakes in a relatively short amount of time. Courtney Milan – The depth of characterization is amazing. They feel as emotionally complete as full novels. And Ruthie Knox – She sets up emotional tension wonderfully between hero and heroine”
Thank you, sisters for sharing your experiences in the short story market.
Please ask any questions that you might have and we’ll try to answer them for you.
Autumn Jordon is an award-winning author of romantic suspense/thrillers and contemporary romance. Join her newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com. And don’t forget to check out Perfect Moments.
Ava Blackstone is a winner and two-time finalist in the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® contest and has five short romance stories published in Woman’s World magazine. She is currently hard at work on the next contemporary romance in her Voretti Family series. You can find her on the web at: http://avablackstone.comPRETTY IN INK
Jeannie Lin is known for writing groundbreaking historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China starting with her Golden Heart award-winning debut, Butterfly Swords. Her Chinese historicals have received multiple awards and starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. SILK, SWORDS, AND SURRENDAR
Rita Henuber; I’ve always had stories in me and now I’m sharing them. I married a Marine, a man I’d known since I was fourteen. I’m fortunate to have lived many places and traveled to the states and countries I didn’t live. I moved back to the barrier island in Florida where I grew up and now spend time writing, weaving my experiences into my stories. My first books have heroes and heroines in the military or government service. But, I’ve started on a new series of books with collections of short stories. LET ME TELL YOU A STORY
Vivi Andrews is a Golden Heart winner & 2-Time RITA finalist. As Lizzie Shane she writes contemporary romance with a pop culture twist, and as Vivi Andrews she writes paranormal romance. ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID
Reading that line, I’ll bet some of you immediately had this mental picture of yourself sitting at your favorite work spot, downing carafes of coffee or tea (or in my case, Diet Coke) while drilling the key board, writing an entire novel, and within six weeks, finishing it with ‘the end’. Good for you. You have a goal.
Yet, I’m sure some of you froze at the word begin because the choices you have to start your story are limitless. The question where do I begin? haunts you. Which one start should I pick? Is it the right place? Fear not, I have some advice for you.
Every writer knows the importance of the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. Failure to immediately gain a reader’s interest is the vilest death to your story. Your work is like a shooting star that speeds across the sky and disappears without a big bang. The dreams and hopes pinned to such a star are gone in one quick moment. It’s far better to be that twinkling North Star. So today, we prepare to start our masterpieces.
#1 Great beginnings are the hard work. Rarely do they come easily and quickly and without dozens of rewrites. Sometimes they appear freely in later paragraphs or even chapters. We only need to recognize them when they do. Know that fact. Owned it.
#2 First impressions are the most lasting; Proverbs.
A magnificent first line must be lean, powerful, and provide the reader with a question or promise. Here are some examples of great lean and powerful lines.
It was a pleasure to burn. ‘451 Fahrenheit’ Ray Bradbury
All children but one grow up. ‘Peter and Wendy’ J.M. Barrie
There was a bloody man walking down the road. ‘Discovering You’ Brenda Novak
Brilliant. Each of those lines not only asks questions but they also laid the foundation of book’s theme or its characters’ persona. Knowing your story’s theme is important. Try outlining ahead of starting your story to learn the theme, but if you finding outlining is not your thing, don’t sweat it. The theme will come to you.
#3 Ground your readers as quickly as possible in time and place. However, settings should be shown in small bits and either add to the conflict or become a character itself. Examples:
On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ M. L. Stedman
It was a cold, bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984 George Orwell
ONE HOT AUGUST Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers. ‘Tell Me Lies’ Jennifer Cruise
#4 Write the first chapter as if it were the entire story, with its own escalation of action and conflict. And let it end with mystery and unanswered questions. Mystery demands answers. It propels readers to read on. Do not tell all. Exposition kills drama and backstory is boring.
#5 Write tight. Write fast. Let your voice ring true. Voice is what is truly unique about your story.
#6 All the boom, boom action or fast paced dialogue will not keep readers flipping pages unless they care about the characters. A great story is an emotional ride. A reader must connect with the characters and care what happens to them immediately. They don’t necessarily need to like them (leads to character growth) but they must understand the character’s actions and feel for them as a human being. Establish your hero/villain goal, give him/her a familiar quality, and then add a ticking bomb.
#7 Dialogue is action. It’s fast paced (quickly drawing a reader farther into the story) and it’s an excellent way to show character and conflict. Here are a few great examples.
“Your title gives your claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow thrones. They follow courage.”
William Wallace in Braveheart.
“It’s not the broken dreams that break us. It’s the ones we don’t dare to dream.”
Will Schuester in Glee
“The problem is not the problem. It’s your attitude about the problem that is the problem.”
Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption
Wow! Wow! Just wow!
#8 Big or little, internal or external, conflict is a reader’s addiction. Add it where ever and whenever you can. You hear me. Big or little. Internal or external. Pile it on!
#9 In order to understand a character fully, we need to know the world he came from. Show the character in his or her world in an interesting way, but make that world change quickly. He can be making toast, but why not have make toast over the gas stove. His method of making toast is interesting and says something about his character, doesn’t it?
#10 The most important bit of advice on making your first pages awesome I saved for last. Have faith in yourself that the story ahead will be adventurous and fulfilling and go for it!
Anyone else have advice on producing great starts?
Autumn Jordon, one of the sneaker Rubies, is an award-winning author who writes Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, and Contemporary Romance under the same pen name. Join her newsletter at Autumn Jordon.com
Don’t believe me, read on. A few months ago, in a reader forum, I started a discussion, asking the question ‘what first grabs your attention when searching for a book in brick store?’ My thread stayed on top for weeks as readers offered their opinions. A great cover was the overwhelming answer with a catchy title running a close second. Behind them were the back-cover blurb and the author’s name.
When I threw ‘the cyber-stores’ into the mix, a catchy title was hands down, no-doubt-about-it number one. With like a thousand new books being introduced each month in cyber-venues, your title becomes the hook that will make the buyer click, read your blurb and check out your sample pages.
A great title says a lot about the author’s creativity and his/hers capability to market their work. If you’re entering the 2017 Golden Heart and are seeking the interest of professional advocates, you definitely want to have the most awesome title.
Looking at my bookshelf, some of the titles that jump out at me are; Zeroes by Chuck Wendig, Tick Tock by James Patterson, Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters, The Hello Girl by Merline Lovelace, The First Grave On The Right by our own Ruby-sister Darynda Jones and most recently The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison. Each one of these titles reveals the essence of the story. And each one jumped out at me from their spine and prompted me to read the back blurb. Do not dismiss the importance of a great title.
Every now and then, on our private loop, one of the Ruby sisters cries out for title help. She shares a very short blurb and we bombard her with suggestions. Are we good at doing this? Look at our titles and you be the judge.
Today only, if you’re having trouble thinking up a grabber, the Rubies are willing to put on our thinking caps for you. Post a short blurb and we’ll help you out. Guests, please offer a suggestion too.
Autumn Jordon is the award-winning sneaker Ruby and author of Perfect~ a fun, warm-hearted Christmas romance set in the fictional town of Black Moose, Vermont. To join her rapidly growing newsletter and be entered into members’ only contests, visit www.autumn Jordon.com
Why do readers read? They want to escape their world. But you knew that, because you are also a reader.
The greatest writers through time have said that the best fiction takes a reader through a fact finding journey and also on an emotional journey. The emotional journey is what connects you and the reader. Without it, you’re just relating what happens in your characters’ lives. Bonding with the reader is the most important job you have as an author. But how can you do that? There are many ways, but today I want to discuss two.
First, recall emotions, especially those you’ve buried. Buried emotions are the best because they affected your heart. Recall a time you felt hurt or happy or lost or found. Allow yourself to experience the emotions again and write them down. By writing them down, I don’t mean just the term. Write the dialog used during the conversation and the reactions both physically and mentally you experienced. Be honest with yourself. The more you peel away the layers of your psyche, the more powerful your writing will be.
Here is an example as I recall my first taste of love. I’ve changed my hero’s name to protect him.
My first kiss happened in my family’s barn. The barn had been in my family for five generations. It was old and leaned slightly. Closing my eyes, I feel the cool air against my warm skin- the barn is built into the hillside. I can see the wood planks, turned gray from time and wear, just a few feet above my head. Bridles and lead ropes hang from pegs hammered into road milled posts nicked over years. Large rocks make up the foundation walls. My sorrel gelding is in his stall watching me, and dust mites float in the sunlight pouring in the door behind the boy who had chased me inside.
I can smell a mixture of summer sun, feed and manure. I hear the munching of hay as the cattle fed and the sound of my horse’s neigh and snort. There is a dip from the nozzle near the shaft to the silo. I also hear the whispered alto voice of the boy with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, as he declared his affection for me. His gorgeous cobalt eyes were magnified behind glasses: dark framed like Clark Kent’s. Eric was my hero and always would be. I’d love him until the end of time.
My heart thumped against my breast, knowing Eric really liked me while my toes wiggled in my boots as if telling to run because if my dad found out about the kiss that was about to happen he would kill the boy and ground me for a month. My spine stiffened and my step was defiant as I cut the distance between Eric and myself, committed to take my chances. Looking up at me, because he was about two inches shorter, Eric’s eyes widened before closing as his lips met mine. For a brief few seconds, we entered an unknown world, a world we knew we’d entered again, in due time.
“Will you go to the movies with me on Saturday night? I can meet you there,” he said in a rush.
I simply nodded, afraid my voice would crack.
Writing the memory down gave me tons of ideas of how to write emotion into any first kiss scene, no matter what the age of the characters.
As an exercise in your comments, write about your first kiss. What do you recall?
Second point: Everyone has experienced a first kiss. Using that scenario immediately connects you to the reader. But what happens when you’re writing beyond your experience? Research is the answer. Say you’re writing a scene where the characters have experienced a fire and have lost everything. You’ve been fortunate enough not to have that disaster happen to you, so what you can do is ask someone who has. I did this and I’ll never forget the two of the responses I received.
One woman she said she always looked at her husband as the rock she could count on, but the day they lost everything, her husband fell to his knees literally and was lost. She took over the responsibility to shoulder their way through rebuilding their home and lives. That catastrophe made her stronger than she thought she ever would be.
The second woman told me she felt guilty after suffering the loss of everything. Her guilt was over her family’s heirlooms for which she had been entrusted. For generations the treasures from England had been kept safe and passed down. She was the one to fail to do so. She was ashamed of herself. It took her a long time to come to terms that the lost was not her fault.
Both are very unique outlooks on a tragedy that can connect you with many readers who’ve had the same experience. And for those readers who have not, we have a better insight into the depth of emotional upheave that a fire can cause.
So show your readers your passion. Reveal your heart and the heart of others.
About the author
I began my writing career at the age of nine and sold three handwritten copies of a twenty page story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and follow in the footsteps of my favorite authors, the ones who took me away and inspired me. Many years later, here I am.
I’ve earned the nickname of trouble from family and friends. Okay, I admit I do stir up things now and then, but in my defense I’m usually the one called on to champion a cause.
All that life reveals is fair game to a writer.
Join my newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com to learn more about me and my works, including my Christmas romance Perfect.
I have to start with a funny story: My first paranormal romance, TASTE ME (2011), is about an incubus security specialist, Lukas Sebastiani, who finally learns to trust his love for Scarlett Fontaine, a siren rock star who can manipulate his emotions with her song. While discussing final tweaks to the manuscript at 2010 RWA National, my then-editor grinned at me, clasped her hands against her heart, and said, “And you completed the extended metaphor!” (At the end of the book, Lukas “boldly crashed his ship into the cliffs,” confessing his love for Scarlett. Because…sirens, right?)
“Of course I did,” I replied. “There is no metaphor I can’t extend until it snaps.”
Unfortunately, this is true – especially in early drafts.
Metaphors, and extended metaphors, are abundant in romance fiction, especially in love scenes. They’re among our most effective and evocative tools. We use them all the time, sometimes without being entirely aware of it.
There’s nothing wrong with being aware of it! Indeed, it’s to your readers’ benefit that you’re aware of it, because well-crafted metaphors – careful and conscious word choice – can add so much to a reader’s experience.
First, some quick definitions:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing as being the same as some unrelated other thing, thus strongly implying similarities between the two.
An extended metaphor is when an author exploits a single metaphor or analogy at length through multiple linked vehicles, tenors, and grounds.
In this post, I’ll focus on extended metaphor, which, craft-wise, requires we choose specific words to evoke the selected metaphor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books – whatever our “linked vehicle” may be – to produce a particular emotional reaction.
An easy way to get a feel for the concept is to study poems or song lyrics. So…here comes my spirit animal, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, to the rescue! Specifically, I refer to the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways project.
The creative conceit behind Sonic Highways is that the Foo Fighters traveled to a different American city each week for eight weeks, interviewing musicians and exploring the city’s musical heritage, then they wrote and recorded a song before leaving the city. That’s ONE FINISHED SONG PER WEEK, folks. Talk about deadline pressure! My example, Subterranean, came out of the Seattle session, where, sadly, so many grunge-era musicians died from drug overdoses – including Dave’s former Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain.
Dave couldn’t go to Seattle and not address this topic – and for a man who never finished high school, he teaches an extended metaphor master class here, evoking dirt, and mines, and burial to explore death and resurrection in context with relationships and career. Seattle’s famously rainy, gloomy weather gets a nod here; musical guest Ben Gibbard (from Death Cab for Cutie) says that if you live in Seattle, you spend a lot of time indoors, underground in basements. Subterranean. And the song came from there.
Here’s the ballad, with lyrics conveniently superimposed (6:08). Watch. Listen. Think about the themes suggested by Dave’s extended metaphor:
Can Dave dig his way out? Can he go this alone? Can he begin again? The song doesn’t tie things up in a pretty little bow by any means, but given the Foo Fighters are considered shoo-ins for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in their first year of eligibility (2020), I’d say things look good. 😉
The composition is complex, featuring diminished chords and a plaintive lead guitar. The bass line is a pick axe, pulling the song along.
Need another example? Take a look at “Something From Nothing,”also by Foo Fighters. Another song off the Sonic Highways album, it’s laden with extended metaphor invoking fire, destruction, sparks and ambition. Is it any coincidence that this song was recorded in Chicago, home of 1871’s Great Chicago Fire? I think not. 😉
Some other great examples:
“Every Breaking Wave” by U2. Waves, the tides, chasing every breaking wave… A song about making mistakes, and perhaps learning from them.
Dirt, fire, breaking waves…lonesome roads and theatrical stages… Notice how, in all these examples, small and private human moments become larger, more elemental? When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.
Consider the romance novels you’ve written, or those you’ve read. How many metaphors have we come across describing an orgasm? Crashing waves, galloping horses, tsunamis of sensation, shattering glass, shooting geysers (OK, eww) but metaphors abound. And there’s a reason for this, right? No matter how tame or hot the love scene, use a good metaphor and anyone who’s ever had an orgasm can relate.
Can you think of a metaphor or extended metaphor, either from your own work or someone else’s, that, to you, made a great scene even more memorable? That turned a serviceable description sublime?
I’d love to see some of your favorite examples in the comments!
P.S. Are you going to be in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon Nov. 12? I’m teaching a workshop at The Loft Literary Center called “Scene + Structure = Story: A Plotting Technique for Advanced Novelists,” and I’d love to see you there!
Over the last two weeks, I’ve discussed the story beats that make up the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. Today, I’m going to introduce some original work on an archetypal story structure that I call The Sinner’s Redemption.
I don’t believe anyone has laid out the beat sheet for a redemption story, but I could be wrong. I haven’t done an exhaustive literature search for this. What you see below is a story beat sheet that I developed myself.
What is it about redemption stories? We love them. We tell them all the time. And like any archetypal story structure, readers recognize the structure. Classic examples of redemption stories include: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, A Christmas Carol (and the many spin-offs of it including It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as many sports comeback stories like Bad News Bears.
Like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise redemption stories are perfectly fitted to a specific protagonist archetype. Theoretically a redemption story can be told about any person with any kind of archetypal behavior system, but usually redemption stories involve protagonists who are Misers, Addicts, Rakes, Harlots, Thieves, Villains, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Zombies, or Biker Boys with Tats. But for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to call the protagonist archetype a Sinner.
In short, redemption tales usually begin with a protagonist who has already fallen from grace, or who, like the Ancient Mariner, commits a crime and falls from grace in the first few scenes. Unlike the Hero who start his story in an “ordinary world,” or a Virgin who starts her story in a “dependent world,” the Sinner begins his tale in a “miserable world.”
Here are the story beats for a Sinner’s Redemption, using examples from the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Electric Horseman.
Example: Electric Horseman
Example: It’s a Wonderful Life
THE MISERABLE WORLD
The story starts in one of two ways:
The Sinner has already fallen from grace and is living in a world that is cold, bleak, dark, and divorced from all things spiritual. He is unkind, uncaring, craven, and values all the wrong things, just like Ebenezer Scrooge
The Sinner falls from grace. The Sinner is not a bad guy, but he (or someone close to him) makes a spectacular mistake that puts the Sinner into a miserable world.
Sonny Steele is a five time all around rodeo champion. At the end of his career he takes a job with AMPO, a giant corporation, to pitch their breakfast cereal. Now he’s trotted out in an electric cowboy suit and paraded around at rodeos. It’s a humiliating fall from his former glory.
George Bailey is a good man, but his bumbling uncle has lost the Savings and Loan’s money and a bank examiner has just arrived to audit the books.
WEARING THE ALBATROSS
There are three possibilities for this story beat: 1) The Sinner will assume the guilt and all the responsibility for his fall from grace. In fact he wallows in guilt. 2) He might be like Ebenezer Scrooge so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize how miserable he is, and he delights in being a real villain and ass, or 3) He will find himself in a state of utter despair.
Sonny is so humiliated by his life that he takes to the bottle. He drinks all the time, and is often so drunk that he can hardly stay on his horse when he has to do personal appearances.
George assumes the blame for the missing money. He knows he’ll be sent to jail the next morning because he has no way to replace the missing money. He despairs.
REJECTING THE MESSENGER
In redemption stories, there is a benevolent force at work behind the scenes determined to redeem the Sinner. The Universe of Goodness will send the Sinner a messenger, designed to shake him out of his misery. The Sinner usually ignores or misses the message the first time it’s delivered. But like Scrooge encountering Marley’s ghost, the message often makes the sinner uneasy or angry.
At a corporate wide event in Las Vegas, Sonny is late to a press conference. Reporter, Hallie Martin, out for a good story, asks him a question that pierces his armor. He dodges the question, but it shakes him up.
George is beside himself. He goes home to his wife and family only to discover that his daughter Zuzu is sick. She is there to remind George of what he holds dear, but George misses the point, and instead, he yells at Zuzu’s teacher when she calls to see how Zuzu is feeling. Zuzu gives George a token of goodness in the form of the petals from her broken flower. He puts the petals in his pocket before he dashes out of the house desperate to find a solution to his problem at the bank.
THE VALLEY OF LIFE AND DEATH
About ¼ of the way through the story, the Sinner leaves his miserable world and enters into the Valley of Life and Death. In some redemption stories, like A Christmas Carol, this is a paranormal purgatory where the rules of physics do not apply. In other redemption stories, it’s a metaphoric valley. This place may be divorced from society, or it may be more akin to a secret world. Scrooge is allowed to visit his past and future life in a dream world. The Ancient Mariner is stuck on a death ship with the souls of his shipmates. In Les Miserables, the Sinner is sent to jail.
The PR department introduces Sonny to their new corporate symbol, a million dollar race horse named Rising Star. The company has sedated the horse and done other things to it jeopardize its health and wellbeing.
Sonny, who has been happy to take money in return for being demeaned, is suddenly unable to let AMPO do the same to Rising Star. So Sonny steals the horse and rides him off into the Nevada desert, a metaphoric Valley of Life and Death.
George tries to raise the missing money from Mr. Potter, who only points out that with George’s life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than he is alive.
George enters the Valley of Life and Death by contemplating suicide.
A GUIDE WILL APPEAR
The Sinner will not face the Valley of Life and Death alone. He will either be guided through it like Scrooge with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, or the Sinner will journey with someone whose main story purpose is to make him review the choices he’s made during his life.
The police and Ampo are on Sonny’s tail, but they have no clue where he’s gone.
Hallie, the reporter, is way smarter. She talks to Sonny’s cowboy friends, learns something about Sonny’s past, and goes off to find him.
When she finds Sonny, Hallie discovers that he plans to release Rising Star somewhere out in the wilderness. She talks him into letting her tell his story. Hallie and Sonny team up and begin a trek across the wilderness together. In this redemption story, both Hallie and Sonny will review their respective lives while they travel cross-country on foot.
Heaven sends Clarence, an angel-in-training, to stop George from killing himself. Clarence who knows all about George’s past, decides to show George what the world would be like if George had never been born. Together they take a tour of an alternate Bedford Falls, where the villain, Mr. Potter, is in charge of things.
MEETING THE AVATAR OF GOODNESS
While the Sinner is wandering in The Valley of Life and Death being forced to review his life and the choices he’s made, he will encounter at least one Avatar of Goodness whose fate rests in his hands. Scrooge had Tiny Tim. Jean Valjean had Cozette. Often this Avatar of Goodness is innocent, naïve, and even Christ like.
As they trek across the wilderness, Hallie digs deeply into Sonny’s past life. She meets some of his friends along the way and comes to realize he’s a better man than the drunk she first met. Sonny learns a lot of about Hallie ,too, and makes her reevaluate the reasons she wants Sonny’s story. For Sonny and Hallie, their Avatar of Goodness is Rising Star. As they tend to the horse, he gets stronger, and their motivations for setting him free gets strong as well.
George Baily encounters himself. Oddly, in this redemption story, the Avatar of Goodness is the protagonist, whose life and choices have changed the course of history in the small town of Bedford Falls.
HE SEES THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS
At the close of the Sinner’s journey through the Valley, he has come to see how his past choices may not have been good ones. And he wants to save and/or help the fate of the Avatar of Goodness.
For a while it looks as if AMPO and the police are going to get the drop on Sonny, because, early on, Hallie gave them information about the place Sonny intended to set Rising Star Free.
But at the last minute, Sonny reveals the release point for Rising Star, and its hundreds of miles away from where the cops think it’s going to be. Together Sonny and Hallie release the horse, and agree that the true location doesn’t ever need to be disclosed.
George is shocked and horrified by what Clarence has shown him. He comes to understand that his life means something. Suddenly George finds himself back on the bridge where he’d been thinking about ending it all. He reaches into his pocket and finds Zuzu’s petals.
It’s not enough for the Sinner to see the errors of his ways. Only an act of true repentance or forgiveness will allow him to move on. Scrooge wakes up from his dream and immediately buys a turkey for Tiny Tim and his family.
Hallie comes to realize that there are some stories that are not worth telling to the world. She gives up her story, and she asks for Sonny’s forgiveness. Sonny forgives Hallie, and as she gets on a bus to return to New York, we know that Sonny’s days of selling himself to corporate America are over. He’s ready to face the penalties for having stolen a twelve million dollar horse, and he’s moving on with his life.
Even though George is facing prison time, he knows the answer isn’t suicide. He must go home and face his problem head on and accept the punishment.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE MUNDANE
The Sinner’s world remains the same as it always was to everyone living in it except the Sinner himself. When the Sinner sees the error of his ways and repents, his miserable world is transfigured and becomes holy. The Sinner emerges from the Valley of Life and Death into a world that is as close to heaven as any world can get.
Hallie has seen things a girl from New York never knew existed. Her view of the world has radically changed. She sees beauty in things she never saw before.
Like any good Cowboy, Sonny heads off into the sunset with his head held high. He’s no longer a puppet of corporate America, but even more important, he’s preserved a piece of sacred nature by releasing Rising Star into the wilderness to run free.
George runs through Bedford Falls like a mad man, even though he knows that tomorrow he’ll be charged with bank fraud. It’s almost as if George is seeing the town for the first time.
When he arrives home, he discovers that all the people whose lives he’s touched have banded together to raise the funds George needs to replace the missing money.
So there you have it –The beats for the Sinner’s Redemption. I can think of many other stories like this: Crime and Punishment, The Family Man, The Shawshank Redemption, The Mighty Ducks.
And – wait for it – the first book in my new series, A Christmas Bride, that will be available this coming September. In that story, a widower is living in a miserable world, no longer able to hear the messages that this eight year old daughter is trying to send him. . .until the his deceased wife’s best friend returns to town, gets all up in his face, and forces him to take a good long look at his life and the mistakes he made during his first marriage. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a redemption love story, set during the holiday season. And it was during the writing of this book that I realized that most redemption stories have a structure to them that is repeated over and over again. And while the character arc for my heroine is probably more of a Virgin story, the much bigger character arc of the hero in this book is definitely a Sinner’s redemption. In fact, the first comment my editor made in her revision letter, was “wow, the hero’s arc is the biggest one you’ve ever written.”
Yeah. Because it’s a redemption story.
Next week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s Redemption.
Human beings have been telling stories since the dawn of language. Some stories have been told so many times that their structure and main characters have been hardwired into the human consciousness.
A smart writer can use this to advantage. Knowing the most beloved characters and their story patterns, can be a huge time saver when you’re sitting down to brainstorm your latest novel. Today’s blog, and the blogs that will follow on the next three Thursdays, will explore the nexus between character and story, by looking at some of the story patterns that have been with us since the dawn of time.
Before I start, two definitions are in order.
Story beat is a term that comes from script-writing. A story beat is scene or collection of scenes that moves the narrative from point A to point B. All the action occurs during story beats, and scriptwriters start plotting their stories with something they call a beat sheet, which is nothing more than an outline of the scenes in the movie and the action that occurs in each scene.
Character Archetypes come from the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that certain human behaviors are hardwired into our “collective unconscious,” because we’ve encountered them in life or in fiction over and over again. The King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Sidekick are all familiar character types that have built in behavioral traits that readers immediately recognize because all human beings recognize these characters.
Some characters are so universal that they come ready-made with a series of story beats. The character archetype called the Hero (capital H to connote that we’re talking about the character archetype and not the male lead in a romance story) is perhaps the best known of these. His set of story beats was first outlined in the work of Joseph Campbell who studied the myths of many different cultures and discovered that the story beats in all of them were the same.
Chris Vogler, a scriptwriter for the Disney Studios, took Joseph Campbell’s work and turned it into a writing manual for Disney scriptwriters. The manual was so popular that he eventually turned it into a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler’s book should probably be in every fiction writer’s library of craft books, especially those writing action adventure stories, suspense stories, or science fiction stories.
Let’s look at the Hero’s Journey.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the standard story beats in the Hero’s Journey only work for a main character who is a Hero. The Hero of a Hero’s Journey story can also have the behavioral traits of a King or a Warrior or a Lover or any other standard archetype, but once you put a character into the standard beats for a Hero, he automatically becomes that archetype.
A Hero is a main character who leaves his/her comfort zone in order to face a series of tests in which s/he proves his/her mettle and quite possibly saves the world. You will find Heroes in all the myths of classic literature and in a lot of today’s comic book movies. Ulysses is a Hero. Luke Skywalker is a Hero. Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz is a Hero. The clown fish in Finding Nemo is a Hero. While the word Hero is masculine, it is possible to write a Hero’s Journey for a female protagonist.
Here are the story beats for a Hero’s Journy for in short form, using the original Star Wars: Episode 4 as an example:
THE ORDINARY WORLD The Hero is introduced against the backdrop of his environment.
Luke Skywalker is living his life with his aunt and uncle on a backwater planet. His uncle buys two androids to help with chores around the farm.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE Something happens that changes the Hero’s situation.
While cleaning and checking the androids, R2D2 delivers part of a message from Princess Leia that is meant for Obiwan Kenobe.
REFUSING THE CALL The hero is afraid of this change in circumstance and tries to ignore it.
Luke suspects the droid is damaged. He doesn’t take the message seriously.
MEETING THE MENTOR Someone older or more experienced comes along and encourages the Hero to answer the call. The mentor will provide advice or training.
R2D2 escapes from the Skywalker farm, and Luke has to chase after him. This brings him into contact with the old Jedi Knight Obiwan Kenobe where Luke learns about the Force, and the fact that his father was a Jedi Knight.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD About one-quarter of the way through the story something happens that forces the hero to commit to leaving his ordinary world and entering a new world with new rules and values.
After his meeting with Obiwan, Luke returns to the farm only to discover than his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Emperor’s evil forces. He must answer the call now.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES The Hero meets friends, battles enemies, and is tested.
Luke, Obiwan and the droids go into town looking for transit. They have adventures in the bar, where they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca. It isn’t long before they are dodging Han Solo’s enemies as they take off in the Millennium Falcon headed for the planet Alderon.
APPROACH TO THE CAVE The Hero and his new found allies prepare for a big battle that will take them into the enemy’s or antagonist’s lair.
Obiwan teaches Luke about the Force during their voyage to Alderon. When they finally the arrive, they discover that the Evil Empire has destroyed all traces of the planet by using it’s latest weapon of mass destruction — The Death Star. The Millennium Falcon is unable to escape and is drawn into the Death Star.
THE ORDEAL Near the middle of the story, the Hero, enters the enemy’s lair and faces death. Out of this ordeal, the Hero will learn something important about himself. He may also come away with an important artifact or prize.
Luke and his friends hide from the Imperial storm troopers. Obiwan goes on a mission to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam. Meanwhile Luke and his friends go deep inside the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. Obiwan has a final battle with Darth Vader and is killed. The rest of the allies escape.
THE REWARD The hero and his friends celebrate their victory. But the celebration is short lived.
Luke and his friends manage to escape the Death Star, perhaps too easily. They go to the rebel base but it turns out that Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.
THE ROAD BACK About three-fourths of the way through the story, the forces aligned against the Hero make their presence known. The Hero must prepare for a final battle with his antagonist or his enemy.
The Death Star is gunning for the rebel base. A countdown to annihilation has begun. The only hope is if the small band of X-wing fighters can torpedo one tiny spot on the Death Star that it it’s only vulnerability.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION At the climax, the Hero is severely tested to the point where it looks as if he will fail and maybe even die. To get out of this, he may need to make a sacrifice. Or he may need to use knowledge that he’s learned during his adventures, particularly during the Ordeal.
The rebel forces mount an attack on the Death Star but their efforts are failing. Many of them die.
After Luke fails on his first bombing run, he decides not to rely on his fighter’s instruments. Instead he lets the Force guide him. Once he follows the Force, he is successful in taking out the Death Star.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR The Hero returns home or continues his adventure, but he is forever changed because he has proved his mettle and learned something as a result of his adventures.
In the final scene we see the rebel forces rejoicing and Luke getting medals for his efforts, but we know that Luke is different now that he’s learned the power of the Force.
The table above is a simple example of a beat sheet. If you want to use the standard story beats of The Hero’s Journey, create a spreadsheet or table like the one above, with the story steps on the left, then number your scenes on the right, making sure that the action in each beat, matches the standard story pattern.
Beware! Some people – Joseph Campbell himself – will try to tell you that every story fits this pattern. And that’s just not true. Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. In fact, if you write romance or are telling a Cinderella story, the Hero’s Journey is not particularly helpful.
Cinderella is not a Hero. She’s not a character from out a myth. She’s a character from out of a fairytale. And if you think about it, you already know that a myth and a fairytale are two different things, even though they are both as old as storytelling.
Fairytale structure is next week’s topic, so stay tuned. In the meantime I’m happy to take any questions.
Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?