Genre Bending

One of the things that catches me up at the end of a project is selecting the best genre for the book. Seems like it should be a no-brainer but it isn’t really. Of the five complete novels I’ve written in The Bucks County Series, all of them have a romantic component, so I’ve listed them under the romantic suspense genre. Nevertheless, all but one are crime stories: mysteries with clues to be followed and criminals to be apprehended. The one exception —Run For It— is even more hard to define; there are elements of suspense and romance, but no crimes get committed nor are there secrets to uncover. What is that? Realistic fiction, maybe? The thing is, I feel like I might be misleading the reader by including the ‘romance’ part in describing the genre.

Do romance readers expect steamy sex scenes? Or is that now classified as erotica? While the stories I write include the development of romance/relationships between my main characters, I abstain from depicting any sort of physical relationship beyond kissing. I think a romance reader might be a little disappointed. In any case, writing romance was never my objective, it was to write a good story in which a relationship might develop. In fact, I have nearly removed the romantic components from two of the five books because I felt the stories could stand on their own without it. I just liked the books better with the relationship left in.

I’m not a good, traditional romance writer and I know it. And perhaps that’s because I’m not particularly traditionally romantic myself. Candlelight dinners? I like to see what I’m eating. Chocolate? Ok, I’ll take the chocolate but not one of those samplers – half the stuff is inedible in those things. Flowers are nice but eventually they will dry up and all the petals will fall off and make a mess. I can never remember where I keep the vases anyway. New jewelry is lost on me – I always wear the same favorite pieces every day. You see what I mean… I feel like a hypocrite writing those sorts of things into my books. My characters feel as silly as I do in traditionally romantic situations.

So how does a romance go in a book by Meg Sorick? Most of my female leads are self-rescuers – they don’t actually need their men to bail them out of their crises. That is not to say my male leads are not capable of rescuing; I like strong male characters, just not Neanderthals. No offense Neanderthals (I hear that’s actually a thing … Neanderthal DNA showing up in all the ancestry testing everyone is having done to find out your real lineage, not the one your grandma lied about. But I digress…) Anyway, except for the non-mystery in my collection, the women find themselves as the target of some sort of criminal activity: burglary, stalking, attempted murder, and finally vandalism/arson. The men are there to help follow the clues, discuss possibilities and ultimately assist in solving the mystery. This is how I like the relationship to develop — the couple works together to overcome an obstacle or withstand a series of terrible events. They will genuinely like and respect each other, they will definitely be attracted to one another and they will learn to trust each other with their very lives. Not a bad formula, I would say. But then I arrive back at the original issue: how to classify the stories I write. I have some thinking to do. And I may give romance a rest altogether after I finish my next stand alone book —a historical novel set partly during World War One. I have plans for a sweet romance in that story, but after that? I think I should part ways with love…

Self Editing – Being Brutal

“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable.” – Joss Whedon.

When I decided to begin writing a few years ago, I began reading as much as I could on the craft of writing as well. Believe me, there is no shortage of advice out there. Occasionally, I would find one bit of information, which in just a few words or sentences, would convey a profound truth. The above quote from Joss Whedon is one such gem.

I soon discovered that stories and the scenes within them can get away from us as we write them. This is how it happens to me. One of the ways I like to combat the dreaded writer’s block is to write ‘garbage’ scenes. If I can’t figure out how to get to my next plot point, I will keep going by writing my characters doing mundane things like having dinner, doing their laundry, shopping or something like that. This often helps me think my way through to the important stuff and the garbage can be edited out later. Occasionally, though, I will have written a part that I rather like. Perhaps something funny happens at the grocery store or the washing machine malfunctions and hijinks ensue. I may have crafted a witty or clever bit of dialogue between two characters, or maybe the conversation my character has in his head is poignant or thought provoking, giving us a glimpse into their background or personality. It seems a shame to cut that stuff out.

Unfortunately, just because we love it doesn’t mean it will work for the story. And that is why we have to be brutally honest with ourselves. Ask: does this scene help the story move along? Do we need to know this information? Does it help the plot develop? Or is it apropos of nothing? And don’t mistake what I mean, garbage scenes aren’t necessarily garbage writing, they are just not useful to the story. And there is no reason not to save the scene to modify for future use in another project. Nevertheless, extra material that does not in a substantial way contribute to the plot, the background or the atmosphere of the story has to go. Snip, snip…

Another experience you may have, especially if you are the sort of writer who has a detailed plot worked out ahead of time, is that you reach a point in the story where a flash of inspiration hits you and you see the story winding down a completely different path. This new idea is much better from the one you began with and you decide to go with it. The trouble is that not everything you’ve written previously will now work with the direction you’re taking. If you read along with Breaking Bread, you may remember this happening in the midst of that story. I did quite a bit of brutal revising about halfway through it. However, the revisions were absolutely worth the time and effort as I am much happier with it now. (Just got word from my editor that he’s happy with it, too!) The worst thing you can do is ‘force’ the new plot to conform to the previously written material. It will be messy, it won’t flow naturally and very likely, it won’t make a whole lot of sense. Remember, writing is not a sprint to the finish. You may walk, trudge, limp or even crawl across the finish line, as long as you cross it with the best manuscript you are capable of writing.

Wishing you happy writing and productive (even if it’s brutal) editing.

(Blah blah image via TV Tropes.)

Connecting the dots: writing between the action

Working out the issues in novel writing.

What do you think is the hardest thing for a writer to write? For many, it’s finding a way to connect the dots, or points of action in the plot. After all, your writing cannot be non-stop action. (That’s a very clumsy sentence and I apologize.)  When you start writing, maybe you begin with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Both are excellent ways to dip your toes into the pool of storytelling. However, with pieces of short fiction, you have only a small space to present your plot from inception to conclusion and that leaves no room for “downtime.” The action of the story will take place all at once. Maybe you excel at, and enjoy short story writing and you want to continue. If so, you can stop reading now!

If, however, you want to move into the world of long-form fiction, or novel writing, then you need to find a way to add and fill spaces between the action bits. You can imagine your storyline as a radio wave, with peaks and valleys rising and falling as each conflict presents itself and is resolved. Or as a set of stairs where the action climbs then levels off, then builds again and finally reaches the top floor or conclusion.

A story has two basic engines that drive it along: the characters and the plot. A character-driven story is one in which something about the character’s essential self, leads to a particular action or event in the story. For example, your female lead may be fiercely independent which causes her to reject help from friends or family to overcome the obstacle she is facing. Her individuality is going to greatly effect the way the action proceeds.

A plot-driven story is one in which the actions taken by the characters in a story result in a particular plot point. But in this case, the action is driving the plot, not the qualities of the character’s personality.

Independent from that, external circumstances outside the characters’ control will influence both plot and character driven stories. For example, imagine that a super storm is about to hit the East Coast of the USA, your characters are trapped in harm’s way, how will they survive? The actions they take as well as the motivations that impel them are the two aspects of spinning a tale. Tension builds as the storm approaches, but for a time, at least, there is not much going on. If you excel at writing action scenes, these downtimes between crises might prove to be daunting. What to do?

The lulls between these sequences of action are the perfect times to explore your characters’ personalities. How are they managing in the situation in which they find themselves? Are their strengths or weaknesses being revealed? What are their motivations for acting/reacting the way they do?

Let’s take the super storm scenario and suppose our main character is a nurse in a hospital in Savannah, Georgia – a city directly in the path of the storm. Let’s call her Ellen. The patients of the hospital need to be evacuated and Nurse Ellen is selected to stay to the bitter end. The suspense in the story escalates as the weather rapidly deteriorates. Only a few of the patients are left in the hospital with just one doctor and Nurse Ellen. The water is rising and the winds are too high for the ambulances to get back for one last trip. The 6 people left behind will have to hunker down and try to ride it out. A character-driven story now asks the writer to show Nurse Ellen being a strong, capable leader or alternatively to show her falling apart as she realizes she may never see her husband and young child again. We may even see a little bit of both. Nevertheless, during this time of waiting, Nurse Ellen’s inner self is revealed.

Now is the time for meaningful dialogue among the characters. For our purposes, let’s suppose that Ellen is going to shine during the crisis and not fall apart. She will care for and comfort the few remaining patients. Perhaps the doctor is the one coming unglued and Ellen has to deal with him panicking and not pulling his weight! The way she speaks, the words she chooses, and her movements will show the reader what kind of person she is. The writer may include Ellen’s thoughts and internal conflict by describing her facial expressions and body language. She may frown, bite her fingernails, twirl a lock of hair, rub her face, wring her hands… things like that. And even though the action is at a low point, the story moves forward. We the reader, are engaged while we wait for the next disaster to hit!

With a look inside the mind of the characters, they become real, fully immersed in the story and the conflict. And without it, they remain generic and unrelatable. It’s hard to sympathize with them, to root for them to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the face of danger. By using the space between the dots, we fully develop the depth and breadth of an excellent story.

Now, I’m off to write a disaster story, starring Nurse Ellen! Happy writing!