Still in the Trenches

For every writer who claims that writing nonfiction is easier than fiction, I have to say — not for me!

I am still slaving away on the countless small details of revision, proofreading, wrestling with spiny, difficult creations otherwise known as Excel, and fending off the typical bouts of self-doubt, second thoughts, and the occasional desire to run screaming into the night. But such things are typical of any book project in the closing moments before DEADLINE lands — boom — on the doorstep.

I’m hesitant to make any claims or proclamations at this stage, lest I jinx something, but I think I have only to proofread one final document file, and the entire thing will be done … as done as I can make it at this point.

My brain is fried. My eyes hurt. My shoulders burn. My dog is faithfully “helping” me by staying curled up against the computer tower beneath my desk, and I never have the heart to make him move. Therefore, my knees are aching with the need to stretch out my legs, but I don’t because the Spook believes — with all of his dear doggy heart — that he’s contributing to this project.

And so he is.

The how-to book on fantasy writing is almost done. I cannot wait to send it off and get it out of my head for the time being. I am anxious to return to fiction.

Meanwhile, regular blogs will resume soon. Just not quite yet!

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Eaten by Setting

Are you writing in a genre that requires considerable time and attention lavished on the setting? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, western, and historical fiction come immediately to mind. And although many thrillers rely heavily on action, their sometimes-exotic locales can require author research.

All that’s fine. In some stories, setting is so important it can be called a character.

When an author establishes a vivid sense of place or locale it enhances the reading experience. I love the research. I love inserting those sparkling jewels of information or detail that can make the setting come alive for me as well as my readers.

However, if unchecked, setting can swell into a monster that engulfs the writing project.

It can so absorb writer attention that the actual writing of story is forgotten or set aside in favor of digging out more research, more details, more obscure pieces of information, more maps, more, more, more!

It can mesmerize writers into abandoning their plot outline. Instead, they change portions of their story to accommodate a fabulous setting that simply has to be crammed into the plot — whether it belongs or not.

And it can grow out of proportion, taking prominence in a story instead of the characters and plot.

These are all danger signals that a careful writer should heed. You don’t have to kill the setting. You don’t have to cut it all away. Just make sure it’s part of the backdrop where it belongs, secondary to the plot action and protagonist.

Let’s compare setting to the morning glory vine. The flowers that bloom all summer, every morning, despite heat, drought, and blazing sun, are lovely. Most varieties come in some shade of blue or purple, or maybe white with blue streaks, and there aren’t many blue-blooming flowers that can handle the merciless prairie climate.

Two homes ago, I tried and tried to grow morning glories. Their seeds are notoriously challenging to start. You have to soak them in water overnight and use a nail file to nick a groove in their hard surfaces. I used to do all of that, and maybe would succeed in sprouting one feeble plant. I tried buying morning glory plants already started at the farmer’s market. I planted them in pots, envisioning them spilling in lush abundance over a stone wall bordering my patio. The vines were puny and feeble. They barely bloomed.

One home ago, I tried again with slightly better success. And then the potted vine managed to seed itself in the ground of my front flowerbed, and suddenly I was pulling morning glory sprouts everywhere.

I moved away to my present home, grateful to have escaped a vine that was threatening to grow larger and larger. Little did I know that the seeds evidently had fallen into my potted roses, and when I transplanted those roses into my flowerbeds, the morning glories took off. Then they took over. Now I feel like I’m constantly fighting the house-sized Crinoid monster from a Dr. Who episode. My rose bushes vanish during the summers, press-ganged into serving as structural support for a vine gone mad. Yes, morning glory blooms are lovely, but I would like to know if my antique rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, is still alive under that throttling mat of vine and flower.

Last year, I tried to pull down the vines, only to discover that the mockingbirds had built nests within them. I couldn’t disturb their habitat or harm the baby birds, so I left things alone. Now the vines are even bigger and more vigorous. I live with a monster — beautiful, yes — but out of control.

My roses, the intended focal point of my backyard garden, have been engulfed, eclipsed, and visually eaten by a force of nature that just won’t go away.

The vine and its beauty have a place, but only if it behaves. The same principle applies to your setting. If it behaves, and stays where it belongs, and doesn’t seduce you or distract you from your responsibilities to your plot, characters, and pacing, then by all means make it as lovely or as gripping or as gruesome as you desire.

Just don’t let it get away from you.

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Flat or Lively?

When you read over your copy, does it seem flat? Does your story carry a blah aspect? Do you feel that it’s close to being where you want it, yet something’s missing?

Chances are that you’ve made two fundamental mistakes: a passive protagonist and insufficient scene conflict.

The passive protagonist may be a decent human being, may be skilled and knowledgeable, and may be capable of fending off attacking zombies with a good chance of survival. However, if this character isn’t initiating action or isn’t taking charge of the story situation, then he or she is just following at the heels of someone else.

That does not a hero make.

When you put your protagonist in charge, you will instinctively change aspects of his or her personality to some degree. You will find this character now has a purpose in mind, now has things to do–even if she’s interrupted by the story problem. This character becomes much more interesting to readers.

Lack of conflict within a scene will automatically weaken it and prevent it from achieving its fullest dramatic potential. If your protagonist waits for someone else to wander by and suggest what should be done, and then the two of them take that action without any disagreement, and they find themselves working together in complete accord, there is nothing (dramatically) happening!

Scenes of conflict can occur between two people on the same side, working together toward a common cause or objective. Just because they’re allies doesn’t mean they have to agree about what to do or when to do it. They can disagree on the approach or the timing or one may want an explanation that the other one doesn’t want to supply. Conflict can be mild, but it still needs to fuel the scene in some way.

Remember that agreement between characters is dull.

Also, without conflict a scene has nowhere to go. As a result, you may have planned your story but it will read like you’re moving your characters from one event on your checklist to the next. The characters must appear to move the story by making plans, disagreeing on how to implement the plan, attempting to carry it out, failing or partially failing because of opposition stronger than expected, and then reacting to the new problems.

Scenes without sufficient conflict generally end without setbacks. And setbacks are necessary to force a protagonist to take subsequent risks in order to reach the story’s climax.

Flat and dull, or lively and exciting?

The choice is yours to make.

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Apologies

This is a hasty explanation of why I haven’t been writing my blog lately, and won’t be providing you with anything today.

I’m on deadline crunch with my nonfiction book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA. The days are ticking away rapidly, and I need full concentration on wrapping up revisions.

Thanks for your understanding and patience. I’ll be back soon!

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Scene Check: Part How

In planning or editing any given scene, consider the “how” questions:

How long will the scene be?

Answer? A scene’s length depends on what’s at stake, what the two opposing characters’ motivations are, and how strong the conflict will be.

Let’s say a scene’s purpose is for a private investigator to gain the answer to a question. He goes to the victim’s sister and asks her about the strange clothing the victim was wearing the night she was killed.

If the sister wants to help, but she doesn’t know the answer, the scene conflict will be mild and brief. She’ll evade a little, then when pressed, she’ll admit she doesn’t know the reason. When pressed a little more, she’ll insist she doesn’t know. It’s obvious she’s telling the truth, and the detective moves on.

But if the sister is hiding something, if the peculiar clothing points to an aspect of that secret she doesn’t want known, she’ll be nervous and irritable. Her evasions will be stronger, and as a result the detective will be more suspicious. He’ll ask tougher questions, and she’ll lie, and maybe flirt, and maybe try to change the subject, and finally throw him out.

How much conflict should there be in a scene?

To reiterate the point made above, the degree of conflict will depend on what’s at stake.

If the issue is simply whether to eat a hamburger for lunch, then the low stakes hardly merit a scene at all.

But if the issue is really about a rocky relationship, where the woman has celiac’s disease and the man insists on their eating lunch in a burger joint, now the argument isn’t over the menu but about how little he cares for her health or safety; in fact, how little he cares about her.

How can a scene be lengthened?

Before you solve that problem, examine why you think the scene is too short.

Do you feel your characters overlooked something as they argued? Did you intend to include a particular point but as the scene heated up, your characters skipped it? Or do you have the sense that the scene just isn’t doing enough?

In the latter case, compare the protagonist’s motivations and goal to his emotional involvement. Is he a bit passive? Has he given in too quickly? Those are signs of insufficient emotional involvement with the goal.

On the other hand, if a character really cares about what he’s trying to accomplish, then he won’t stop at the first maneuver of opposition. Or even the second. He’ll persist as far as he can take the confrontation until that persistence lands him in trouble.

Also, when a scene falls too short or seems too skimpy, look at the antagonist’s emotional involvement. Perhaps this character’s motivation isn’t strong enough. If you make adjustments, what happens?

Or, perhaps the antagonist’s motivation is strong but for some reason you had him rein back much of his temper. Why? Are you inadvertently trying to protect your protagonist? Unleash the antagonist’s temper. Stop coddling your protagonist. Let one character needle the other one, and see if it pushes any emotional buttons.

How can a scene be shortened?

Maybe you’ve written a strong, tense scene where the conflict level escalates well and the confrontation ends in a setback for the protagonist. The scene is well-crafted, but for some reason you’ve got to shorten it. Perhaps your story is over the assigned length and simple tightening hasn’t reduced it enough.

To shorten a scene, first look for any chitchat. Get to the argument quicker. Look for internalizations, gestures, or mannerisms. Trim them. Look for pauses while you describe the room or a prop one of the characters is handling. Shorten or eliminate those. Then search for any attempt by the antagonist to get the protagonist off track or on a tangent. Eliminate that tactic.

How can a plot twist be incorporated?

First of all, let’s nix the kind of brainless plotting where a writer simply thinks about the most horrible random thing that could happen and tosses it into the scene.

For example, a teacher and her principal are sitting in the school’s office, having a civilized disagreement over whether the after-school music club should be discontinued. And suddenly there’s an earthquake, and a bookcase filled with books and school trophies falls on the teacher, breaking her collarbone and giving her a concussion.

Plot twist! Right?

Well, not exactly a plausible or effective one. It’s not organic to the situation. It’s sheer, coincidental bad luck. It may seem exciting, but how does it actually contribute to the story?

Plot twists work best when they come from the antagonist. So the teacher goes into this meeting thinking she’s got to stand up for the music club and find some way to persuade her principal from cutting it, and the principal tells her the real reason he’s ending the club is that he’s learned she was accused of pilfering club funds at her last teaching position and he doesn’t want her trying such shenanigans here.

Miss Jones is left stunned, hardly able to respond as she stumbles from the office. She did not steal at her last job, but she was never fully exonerated. She moved to another state, trying to get away from the scandal, but now it’s followed her here. She should have kept her head down and simply taught her classes, bringing no attention to herself. But she wanted to help her young students. She wanted to bring an extra dimension of music appreciation to their young lives. And now, the lie is hanging over her again.

Plot twists pick at the issues the protagonist most fears and bring them forward. Not only can’t she have the music club, but now she’ll fear for her job as well. If the principal doesn’t like her, he’ll use it to end her teaching contract. So the plot twist was unexpected, hit her like a ton of bricks, and has made her story situation much worse than before.

That’s much more effective than a random earthquake, isn’t it?

How can a scene make things worse for the protagonist?

Through setbacks and plot twists, as I’ve just showed you in the above example.

The worse the scene ends for the protagonist, the better–as far as the story is concerned. Remember that this isn’t to be sadistic toward your protagonist, but to force the character to change as a result of meeting challenges.

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Scene Check: Part Why

Why, why, why?

Such a tiny question, but it carries enormous influence.

When you’re planning a scene in your story, you need to understand why it’s important before you include it.

Are you intending to let two characters chat with each other about nothing much? Or will this encounter lead to a confrontation that betrays a shocking secret, a missing piece of evidence, or a motivation?

Scenes should matter. If you’re just recounting a trivial incident that lacks true dramatic value, summarize it. Don’t dramatize it.

Save scenes for the critical events that move your story forward.

Ask yourself, does this scene really need to be in my story? Why? If it doesn’t, cut it.

Beyond that, let’s consider the actual scene content. The majority of it should deal with conflict. And conflict is best focused between two characters at a time.

So then, why is the scene antagonist opposed to what the scene protagonist is trying to accomplish?

You never want to dramatize two characters bickering just because Deborah Chester said you should write about conflict. Certainly it’s a reason, but one that has nothing to do with your story.

So look inside your antagonist. You won’t be writing the scene from his or her viewpoint, but as the writer you need to understand this person’s perspective. What does the antagonist want? Why is the antagonist here, in this place, at this time? What does the antagonist hope to gain? Why is the antagonist in opposition to the protagonist?

The answers to these questions get at the antagonist’s motivation. To write really good conflict, you need to know those reasons. Because until you do, the antagonist’s dialogue and actions will be contrived. They’ll come across as inconsistent, weak, or phony.

But when you understand that Irmengarde doesn’t want her brother-in-law to give his young daughter a pony because when Irmengarde was seven she was thrown off a runaway horse and had to stay in bed, mending a broken pelvis, for several months–then her hysteria and sharp words make sense. She may or may not actually tell the brother-in-law why she’s adamantly opposed to the idea. So she may act erratic or arbitrary, but there will be a visible consistency–and evidence of a reason–in her words and actions.

The man, not understanding, may think she’s a sour old biddy who doesn’t want any child to have fun. Since he’s the scene’s protagonist, he’ll have the viewpoint. He’ll be baffled and annoyed. He may think Irmengarde is trying to run his life, unasked, and control his little girl. He’ll resent Irmengarde’s interference. And reader sympathy will be with him.

However, from your understanding, you’ll be writing a much more complex character than “sour, old biddy.” You’ll have a stronger, more determined Irmengarde–who, despite her personality flaws–really does mean well. And because of her motivation, she won’t surrender easily. It may or may not be necessary to ever share her motivations with readers. But, then, if she’s kept the past event a secret all her life … why? If it’s not a secret, she’ll blurt it out in the conflict, using her terrible experience as a tactic of persuasion.

Now, moving beyond the antagonist’s motivations, why is the protagonist willing to fight for his goal?

What keeps him going after he hits opposition? Why doesn’t he back away? Why doesn’t he accept no as an answer?

Again, if you don’t understand the protagonist’s motivation, the scene will seem hokey and false, especially if he takes risks.

Does Cuthbert want a salary increase or does he need it? If you’re shooting for a strong scene of conflict, then he’d better need it.

Well, why? What’s happened to create this need? Is he in financial difficulties? Maybe his salary doesn’t cover his living expenses. Fair enough, but that’s a background situation, a continuous problem. What’s happened now, right now, to propel him into his supervisor’s office to ask for a raise today, this moment?

Has he just received a notice from his landlord, raising his rent? Well, why can’t he move to a cheaper place?

Did he celebrate his birthday over the weekend at a casino with friends, and now owes forty thousand dollars he doesn’t have?

Hmm. I don’t think a raise will cover that one.

Maybe his sweet love has finally agreed to marry him, and he wants to buy her a ring.

Couldn’t he put the ring on his credit card? Maybe, unless it’s already maxed. Or maybe he doesn’t believe in buying on credit because his parents went bankrupt from mishandling consumer debt.

Or perhaps Cuthbert is already married, and his wife just told him they’re expecting their first child. With a family on the way, he can’t drift along in his modest little job. He needs a promotion that will pay more. He needs to take on more responsibilities and carve out a career path for himself. He can’t go from week to week the way he’s done in the past. People are depending on him now. He’s about to be a father, and no son of his will do without.

And why does he feel he must give his son everything? A new father’s natural pride and elation perhaps. Or did Cuthbert grow up in a disorganized, stressed-out household where there was never enough money because his father stayed in a dead-end job and spent his paycheck on too much beer and cigarettes? Eating fried Spam for supper when he was little so his daddy could have fun at the bar made Cuthbert feel unloved and of little value to his parent. He doesn’t want to be that kind of father.

But of course, scenes are about conflict. Cuthbert may need a raise, but his boss has no desire to give him one.

Why? Maybe the boss is stretched as far as he can go in a soft economy. Boss feels he’s barely keeping his small company afloat. He’s proud of having avoided laying off his employees despite all the hassles from the new benefits laws. It angers him that Cuthbert would pester him for an increase now when no one in the company is getting a raise. No one! Cuthbert should be grateful he even has a job.

Now the question becomes, why–when Cuthbert’s boss resists–doesn’t Cuthbert back off? Why must he persist?

If his motivations are trivial, if he just wants more salary because his buddies tell him he’s worth more than he’s paid, he’ll back off.

If his motivations are strong, and he needs more salary to cover the hospital bill when his child is born, then he’ll risk standing up to his boss and being more assertive with his request.

And an assertive, risk-defying protagonist opposed by a beleaguered, possibly desperate, antagonist means a good scene of conflict that will advance the story.

Because if Cuthbert’s need is strong enough to force him to assert himself farther than he ever has before, maybe his boss will fire him.

Now what will he do? Why?

And your plot rolls forward.

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A Sad Farewell to Linda

This post is not about writing. I performed a mercy killing today. I didn’t want to. I’ve put off the task for over a year. I kept telling myself, She’s not so bad. As long as she’s still blooming I can trim off the infected parts and keep her going.

Yes, I’m writing today about a rose bush named Linda Campbell. You may be thinking, how silly! Bushes die all the time. It’s the way gardening goes.

Of course it is. Gardeners know that plants have their seasons. They live their span and they die. Or they’re planted in the wrong spot, and they fail to thrive. Some die instantly, getting the mistake over with. Others linger on and on–struggling and yellow, scraggly and sick–until finally you yank them out. Still others fall prey to insects that munch them, strip them, and riddle them into unsightly specimens you’re ashamed to own. Varmints don’t help. I’ll never forget happily planting marigolds in a very tall raised bed, and finding them eaten and gone the next morning by some mystery phantom that came in the night.

But Linda Campbell didn’t deserve her death. She wasn’t planted in the wrong spot. She didn’t succumb to Blackspot or an infestation of Japanese beetles or aphids or a gnawing rabbit. I’d owned her for many years at my previous home, growing her in a huge pot, and she did just fine although no rose truly enjoys living in a pot. I brought her and her sisters (two other Linda Campbells) with me to this home. I planted her at the southwest corner for maximum sunshine. She and one of her sisters bracketed my office window.
Linda healthy bush

The Linda Campbell rose is a rugosa, a hardy shrub variety that’s tough as nails, blooms constantly in huge red clusters, sheds its spent blossoms so that no dead-heading is required, resists disease, and grows into a massive shrub. Give her room and leave her alone, and she will reward you with a summer-long show of color. Any time I come across her at a nursery, I tend to snap her up and find room for her somewhere.

The villain in this lament is a rose virus–Rose Rosette Virus (RRV)–that’s reaching perniciously into more and more gardens and backyards. Horticultural references say it’s spread by a mite, and the blame has been assigned to wild multi-flora roses growing in nature.

Or did it come about from breeding easy-care roses? Rumors and misinformation abound. All I know is that RRV is getting worse, that the new landscaping trend of planting Knockout roses very close together is allowing the mite to spread the disease more quickly, and that once a plant is infected there’s no hope and no cure.

The rose virus wiped out my favorite rose nursery in California several years ago. That’s where I used to order antique varieties, the roses grown by the ancient Romans and the Tudors.

I’d heard about the virus. A friend of mine has been issuing warnings about it for years in her blog reddirtramblings.com, but I’d never encountered RRV until I moved to this house. I brought my roses with me, of course. I always move my roses along with my furniture. One bush, a variety called Penelope that covers herself with the loveliest creamy white blossoms, had been growing in a pot in my previous backyard. Here, at the new place, my backyard featured a long raised bed with in-ground sprinklers, so I put Penelope in the ground and looked forward to seeing her explode happily in size and bloom.

Instead, she immediately contracted the rose virus. Up grew the distinctive “witches’ broom” deformed canes and leaves. I consulted my gardening expert friend, who confirmed the worst. I dug out Penelope and disposed of her.

Everything seemed fine. But then, a year or so later, one of my Linda Campbells in the front of the house sent up a small witches’ broom. I couldn’t believe it. She was–as I’ve already mentioned–a transplant from my former house. I couldn’t believe RRV had struck me twice. I hadn’t been buying new bushes, bringing in contaminated roses from nurseries. But it struck this Linda just the same.

If mites are the carriers, why this bush and not the one next to her? If mites are the carriers, why the Penelope in the backyard when nothing back there has been affected since?

Linda sick leaves
I cut off the affected canes and disposed of them responsibly. (Never put an infected rose into your community’s compost!) I disinfected my pruners, and hoped for the best.

Months went by, and Linda looked okay. I lived in hope and denial. She would send out a couple of witches’ brooms a year, usually in the fall, and that would be it. In the back of my mind, I worried about whether delaying was risking the others, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.

Until today. The Polar Vortex arrived, bringing unbelievably pleasant temperatures here to the mid-July prairie. This summer, sick Linda has been sending up more and more deformed canes. She’s tried, pathetically, to bloom and couldn’t. It was time to let her go.
Linda weapons

So I strapped on my back brace and got out my tools for the grim execution. Today is trash pickup day on my street. I had to bag her up and put her in the regular landfill, and I didn’t want her lingering on the curb, possibly spreading the virus to anyone else. The best way to dispose of an infected bush is to burn it, but my city prohibits that, so this was the best I could do.

As I chopped her down and dug her up, I felt anger at whatever’s responsible for this horticultural Frankenstein’s monster. Do I believe that nature has caused this plague? Not entirely. Do I need to read more about RRV? Probably.

Given the chance to choose, however, between what mankind fumbles and nature tries to correct–and given the fact that roses have existed for thousands of years in lovely manifestations of bloom and fragrance–I have to side with suspicion and doubt. The mite may transmit the disease, but I don’t think the cause comes from nature.

So I’m angry. When, I asked myself with every shovelful of dirt, did we decide that roses putting on one annual show of blooms weren’t good enough? When did we decide that they had to have a certain form so we could exhibit them at flower competitions? When did we decide that dead-heading was too much trouble? When did we decide that we’d rather have constant blooms instead of fragrance?

Isn’t fragrance the whole point of a rose?
Linda sick bloom

Perhaps you’re thinking, too bad–so sad–it’s just a rose. Plant another and get over it.

But you see, I can’t plant another rose bush where Linda was. If I could simply yank her out and replace her, I’d be mildly annoyed but okay. In all the years I’ve grown roses, I’ve seen many of them die in this hot, drought-ridden prairie climate.

The trouble with the rose virus is that the roots are infected, too. Unless I can eradicate every piece of root from my flowerbed, no other rose can go in there. And if she sprouts anew from a piece of root–like the undead in a horror film, she’ll have to be executed all over again because she’ll still carry the plague.

Linda sad bush

I knew, when I began today’s task, that I’d never get the roots out. Roses take about three years to settle in and fully establish their root systems. The modern spindly, delicate hybrid tea roses–the ones that produce those lovely, long-stemmed blooms so perfect for formal bouquets–tend to die after one season here and have tiny little root systems because they never become well established. But the shrubs, ramblers, rugosas, and even the sturdy hybrid teas that live on and thrive–all develop generous deep root systems, sometimes nearly as large as the bush.

So today, although I wanted to remove every bit of root, I couldn’t do it without excavating the entire bed and destroying the perennials under-planted beneath the roses. I dug and dug, but eventually I had to cut the long feeder roots and leave them in the ground.

Linda chopped

Linda RIP

Now the symmetry is gone. Will the other rose in this bed succumb next? I don’t know. What will I plant in Linda’s place? Daylilies? Monarda to attract the butterflies? I don’t know. Right now, I’m too disgusted to decide. Because I want Linda there, or at least some lovely rose there, and the virus means I can’t. The virus has taken a little bit of natural beauty from my life.

Linda sister

RIP, Linda Campbell. Today, as I dug you up, the skies wept for you with gentle rain.

Linda healthy bush

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