Monday, April 13, 2015

Grand Exits

Revamping a favorite from the archives this week!

It’s hard to kill off a character, especially a beloved character. We debate, gnash our teeth and wring our hands, (They don’t reeeaally have to die do they? What if I just rewrite the plot? Or maybe throw in some magic Lazarus serum. Yes, that’s it! Lazarus serum!), we cry (and hope our readers do too), and then we stare at the page totally drained of emotion and wondering if we’ve just made a huge mistake and where to go from here.

But here’s a secret. Killing off a character also can be opportunity to have a little fun. Hey, we’re writers, remember? We torture our characters for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner, and elevenses).

A well-written exit is a chance to make our adored character larger than life. The culmination of everything we’ve tried to convey about them, and it can be a huge page-turner and fan favorite if done right.

Here are some of my favorite final exit examples and why I love ‘em. Warning: Minor spoilers for Castle, Star Trek and Burn Notice.

Captain Montgomery: Castle

The Exit: In the semi-finale of a thread spanning multiple seasons, the loyal and beloved Captain Montgomery is revealed to be the mysterious “third cop” in a group of vigilantes entangled in the events surrounding the murder of main character Kate Beckett’s mom twenty years ago. Now, that past has caught up to him. He’s the only remaining survivor of the vigilante group, so the bad guy pulling the strings considers him a liability and gives Montgomery an ultimatum: turn over Beckett or they’ll kill his family.

Montgomery sets a meet with Beckett at an abandoned air field hangar. As she walks up to meet him, she gets a text that tells her he’s in cahoots with the bad guys. When she confronts him, Montgomery shows his true (awesome) colors. He used Beckett as bait to lure the bad guys, knowing he could get her safely away and take the bad guys down. Which he does. At the price of his life.

Why it Works: The twists! It’s a huge shock to the Castle team and viewers that Montgomery played a part in the backstory of Beckett’s mom’s death. We feel a sense of betrayal and whiplash, and because we’re so thrown off our game, there’s a lingering unpredictability throughout the rest of the episode. We have no idea what to expect.

The emotions! There is a very deep bond between Montgomery and Beckett, which is shown beautifully here as he gives his life to save her. Viewers, too, get the sense that, while Montgomery might be flawed or have made past mistakes, he is a man who stands his ground, a man to admire.

The lines! I have a soft spot for exits that include lines of bravado in the face of imminent danger or death. Montgomery’s last words, before he takes out the final bad guy (Who has just told him he can’t hide): “You’ve got that ass backwards, boy. You can’t hide from me.”

Kirk’s Dad: Star Trek (The new movies)

The Exit: George Kirk is on-screen less than 12 minutes. I love him anyway. The Romulans are attacking. The ship is crippled. There’s only one way to save his wife and infant son…stay behind. Not only does he do that, he does it with an aplomb and conviction of character that makes me want to cheer and weep at the same time.

Why it Works: Well, see above, for starters. Simultaneous cheering and weeping is like the gold medal standard of reader/viewer reactions.

Also, the pacing! It helps here because events move so fast and build a foundation of intensity that heightens our emotions all the more. The fact that they kept the dialogue running between Kirk’s parents throughout all of this was a brilliant move.

The effect on other characters! This is a great example of how a character death can alter the course of the lives around him or her. Sometimes, writing someone off isn’t the hardest part. It’s keeping everyone else going in their absence. We haven’t even met Kirk yet, but we sense this will play a defining role in making him the character we know and love. Don’t forget about managing the aftermath of your Grand Exits.

Madeline Westen: Burn Notice

The Exit: Madeline Westen, chain-smoking, straight-talking mom of spy hero Michael Westen, is trapped in a house with her grandson and Jesse (one of Michael’s fellow former spies) as the bad guys close in. Like, the really bad guys. The ones who also have Michael and gang pinned down in an office complex across town, threatening to kill Madeline and her grandson unless Michael gives himself up to die. So, what does Maddie do? She takes herself out of the equation. They have explosives in the house, but no remote detonator, so Maddie gives her grandson to Jesse to escape and sets it off herself, taking down the bad guys in the process.

Why it Works: The attitude! This ties back to my earlier comments about great final lines. Madeline Westen chooses to go out on her own valiant, kick-A terms. In a situation where the bad guys should clearly hold all the cards, she flips their metaphorical poker table so fast, it’s not even funny. They’ve lost their main bargaining chip, and Michael is now free to rain down hell on them.

There also is a strong sense of steely, motherly protection in her final scene. She wants to stick it to these guys, and she lets them know it. The bad guys enter the house, see a 50+ year old woman lounging on a couch smoking a cigarette. She fixes them with a sly, how-do-you-like-me-now smile, says: “This one’s for my boys,” and hits the button. People don’t forget characters like that!

Misc. Other Favorite Exits
  • Draco – Dragonheart *“Look to the stars.” Happy sigh.*
  • Boromir – LOTR *Can you say “redemption?”*
  • Wally Hamilton – The Far Pavilions *This one made me ache in a way beyond tears.*

How about you? Any you want to add to the list?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shelf Updates, Most Anticipated, & Book News

Can you believe 2015's almost a quarter done already? Time flies like books off a shelf! And, speaking of books and shelves, here's what's been on my shelf so far this year.

FIRST LORD'S FURY - Wrapped up Butcher's CODEX ALERA series. Fantastic!

MARK OF ATHENA & HOUSE OF HADES - These characters are so much fun to read. They always leave me cheering, and I can't wait to finish the series with BLOOD OF OLYMPUS.

THIS SHATTERED WORLD - The sequel to THESE BROKEN STARS. See my full review at Fantasy Faction.

ICED - A continuation of my fave Karen Marie Moning series. I was lukewarm on this one.

SNOW LIKE ASHES - This was a gift read and another lukewarm one for me.

THE MAZE RUNNER - It fell at the perfect time to feel like a fresh voice compared to what I'd been reading lately, so I enjoyed it!

THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA - A friend has been bugging me to read this for years. I owe him. It's amazing! Like, read-in-one-sitting-and-go-buy-the-sequel-the-next-day amazing!

Books I'm Still Looking Forward to in 2015

LION HEART (May 19) - The final chapter in AC Gaughen's Robin Hood trilogy. Can. Not. Wait!!

THE AERONAUT'S WINDLASS (Sept. 29) - Jim Butcher does steampunk! I love all his other stuff, so I'm very excited to see what he does with new characters and a new world in his CINDER SPIRES debut.

Other Book Happenings

If you haven't been following the Fantasy Fandom March Madness Battle Royale, check it out here

My pal, Nick Wilford from Scattergun Scribblings, just unveiled the cover for his up-and-coming collection A CHANGE OF MIND AND OTHER STORIES. 

And, in case you were partying too hard on St. Paddy's to notice Mark Koopmans found a publisher for his Donald Braswell  memoir (Woo!!), go congratulate him here. I reviewed an early draft and enjoyed it, and I'm so happy and excited for Mark!

Have fun and good luck to everyone doing the A-to-Z Challenge in a few days.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Writing that Perfect Pace

The right pacing can cover a lot of sins, and each genre, age group, and storytelling style has its own sweet spot when it comes to pulling the ready along at the proper speed. But what if you haven’t nailed that perfect pace yet? Here are some tips to help.

Too Slow

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos

 Is there at least a small amount of conflict pulling readers along in each chapter? On each page? Pull out your handy highlighter (or virtual highlighter) and actually walk through your chapters with this in mind. Highlight the conflict or stake on each page, and you’ll begin to see where the story drags. If you’ve got a handful of pages with no highlighter, that’s your trouble area. Focus there. 

Another approach is to assess the beginning and end of each chapter to measure plot progression. Read your first sentence in the chapter. What’s happening? What’s the main problem? Now, read your last sentence in the same chapter. Nine times out of ten, you’ll want to end with the original problem solved (or made worse) and a new problem introduced. Can’t go letting our characters to get bored, after all, can we?
Is that half-page-long description really necessary? Ask yourself this question and be firm on the answer. And then go ask a bunch of your crit pals who bring more distance to their assessment than you do. If it’s not needed or you can get away with less, do it! Remember, tightly written description often is the most powerful. 

If you and the crit brigade are absolutely onboard with leaving it in, ask yourself the next question. Is it necessary HERE? All of it? Or, can you sprinkle it across multiple pages in the chapter, interspersed with action and discovery. Sometimes, that simple type of change makes all the difference in pacing.
Does your flowery prose need a trim? If your action scenes consist of sentences like: Ryan stretched his long, cargos-clad legs and leapt like a spooked gazelle for the rusted, cracking fire escape, retrieving his heavy black .45 from the leather side holster on his braided belt along the way… You’re probably overwriting. 

These sentences can be tricky to spot at first, but cleaning them up tightens your pace AND your word count. This exercise can help.
Should you consider adding fresh plotlines or twists? If you’ve run through the above and your manuscript still feels sluggish, it’s possible there’s just not enough going on yet to spark the pace. You want to be careful about adding plotlines or twists simply for the sake of complicating the story, but adding a layer of threat, complication or motivation can really up the pace. 

Imagine the Harry Potter storyline without Sirius Black. Harry would face just a teensy bit less mystery, lower personal stakes, and fewer external pressures and motivations to drive his actions and the series’ pacing.

Too Fast
I may not look fast, but I'm plotting.
©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Even if the pace if quick, are you increasing the stakes? One of my recent reads had this problem – and note this was on a book I still enjoyed. I loved the pacing, but realized that 100 pages in, the stakes were essentially what they’d been on page 1. We just kept getting whisked along so quickly there wasn’t time to stop and think about it, or from the author’s perspective, to build those stakes. To me, this puts a story in danger of remaining shallow, when it could be much deeper and more developed.
Do your characters have time to process and reflect after big moments? This can be as simple as a paragraph or two, but it’s important to slow things down occasionally to let characters react, grow and change. These are the parts of the book that help us feel the pace because of their momentary contrast with fast action.
Are you going as deep into the plot as you could be? While I enjoy hyper-paced books, they also risk irritating me by breezing through important plot points or simplifying aspects I wanted characters to investigate further. Don’t abandon plot depth for pacing. Ask yourself if you’re allowing your characters to question the situation enough, to respond to alternate solutions, to dig deeper into mysteries you’ve left hanging. Remember, plot loses most of its power if readers stop caring about and relating to your characters.

So, there you have it. I feel like I should cue one of those fast-voiced legalese announcers to read pacing disclaimers and inspirations to set the mood for that nail-biting pacing you’ll crank out next time you open your manuscripts!

And jump over to Fantasy Faction to check out my review of THIS SHATTERED WORLD. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Silly Things Writers Panic Over

Oooooh, what am I gonna do?! 

  • That our query alone among hundreds is the one that the email system has somehow mysteriously failed to deliver and it is now lost to the ether forever

  • To email or not to email that agent who was supposed to receive the perhaps-vanished-forever query

  • To email or not email an agent who’s a day late in his or her estimated response times

  • That some readers might mistakenly pronounce a word we MADE UP

  • The fact that, technically speaking, the title of this post should be Silly Things Over Which Writers Panic

  • Amazon rankings. Did anyone buy our book in the last hour…minute…second?!?! WHY NOT? REFRESH!!

  • Reviews…any, all, number, substance, you name it

  • That we've run out of a) chocolate, b) coffee, c) tea, d) [fill in the blank!]

  • Did that last edit save? Let’s save again, to be sure. Oh my gosh, we might lose EVERYTHING!! We did save it, didn’t we? Okay, just once more.

  • That another book (movie, TV show, one-woman play) in a totally different genre (format, universe) used the SAME NAME as our character’s cat (horse, best friend). Clearly, it must be changed THIS INSTANT!

  • What if someone misinterprets our meaning in line 3 of the fourth paragraph on page 315?! (Seriously, these are the ones that keep me up at night!)

  • Any combination of: We’ll be perceived as writing on trend. We ARE writing on trend. We missed the trend!

  • That people will call our work dreck.

  • That people won’t say that last one out loud, but they’ll be thinking it.

  • That no one, anywhere, will ever want to read our words.

STOP. Scroll back up to the title of this post. Read it.

Now quit being silly and get back to writing, because I want to see ALL your stories some day!

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Monday, February 23, 2015

What Happened to February?!

Holy hamburgers, Batman, how is it already the last week of February? It seems like I was just here doing an update, but work, life and a little bit of vacay have kept me MIA for three whole weeks!

Good news is we have lots of stuff to catch up on. Here's a recap of the month:
  • If you missed the latest #4Writers, browse the summary for quick writing and editing tips from my CP group.
  • In the mood for some classic 80s fantasy? Goonies, anyone! Check out my list of favorites over at Fantasy Faction
  • Kudos to blog buddies David Powers King and Julie Dao for a great book launch and for signing with an agent respectively. Way to go, guys!!
  • I always try to do a bit of a "Writer's Travelogue" when I go anywhere. This time I  toured Ernest Hemingway's home and writing studio in Key West. Writing with windows open to the tropical breeze = not a bad life.
A 360 view of Hemingway's writing studio

On the writing front, I haven't had nearly as much time to jump into my steampunk YA as I'd hoped, but the good news is the ideas and characters are as strong as ever and still beating my brain to make it onto the page. Hopefully, March will free up a little so I can tackle it more.

I also have a fun blogging project rolling in the background that has me so, so excited! I'm hoping to share more soon, so stay tuned!!

How about you? What are you writing these days? Stuck on edits? Excited about a shiny new idea? I love hearing about it.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My Favorite Fantasy Speeches

We all have favorite speeches that make us stand up and cheer … or sniffle … or kiss three fingers and volunteer as Tribute. When we need the inspiration, they bring it in a big way. Here are my top seven. Be ready to be energized!!

6 & 7 – Princess Bride Mash-up
We start off with a duo of speeches from the most quotable movie of all time. Westley’s “To the Pain” speech, for when you need really creative ways to embarrass your villains, and the best less-than-15 vengeance speech ever written.

5 – Mikey’s Wishing Well Speech from Goonies
I have a thing for Sean Astin delivering speeches. I’m not sure what it is about them, but I love them! Goonies, Rudy, LOTR! This is the first of two appearances by his characters on this list, and it’s one I’ve had memorized since I was about seven. When Mikey says, “It’s our time down here,” I just want to run off on an adventure. Who’s with me?

4 – Mel Gibson in Braveheart
Okay, this isn’t really fantasy. But c’mon, it’s Mel Gibson! Speaking brogue! In a kilt on a horse! Besides, the world basically implodes if this one isn’t included in lists of top power speeches.

3 – Aragorn’s Battle Speech at the Black Gate
Heck yes, this would convince me to stand against Sauron!

2 – Sam’s “Holding On” Speech in the Two Towers
Sean Astin speech #2! Ah, guys, who hasn’t asked themselves similar questions or voiced similar doubts at low points in life? Sam says what we all wish we had the courage and stalwart belief to say, and he reminds us of what truly matters. Go Sam!!

1 – President Whitmore’s Speech from Independence Day
Game. Set. Match.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writer's Workout

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos
With New Year’s not too far gone in the rear-view mirror, we’re talking fitness! Writing fitness, that is. Just like any muscle, we've got to work our writing muscles to keep them in shape. Test them in different ways, strengthen them, make them lean and mean.

Here are some sample “workouts” to try next time you get some quality Butt-in-Chair time!

Speed: Word sprints
Want to write faster? Try this one. Give yourself a set time-frame and a set word count, then get ready to dash. Start with a goal of 500 words in 30 minutes, or whatever matches your baseline writing speed. You can even do mini-sprints, where you aim for 100 words in 5-10 minutes. Teamwork helps too - find a few friends to sprint with you! It forces you to get your ideas on paper and move the story forward with the understanding you’ll edit later.

Tighten: Reducing word counts
I like to use excerpts from familiar published novels for this exercise. Take a paragraph as is, grab its word count so you know your starting point, then try to whittle it down at different levels. 250 words. 100. 75. See how bare bones you can get it, and how the scene changes (sometimes for good, sometimes bad) as more words are cut. You’ll start to see similar cutting opportunities in your own work, and you’ll develop instincts about when to cut, and when you’re in danger of cutting too much.

I did a full example from The Hunger Games here.

Strengthen: Circle the verbs & be precise
Take a page in your current MS and highlight the verbs. Now brainstorm how you could make each one stronger. Is there a more compelling word choice? Punch it up! You might also find places to improve the pace using verbs with fewer syllables, but the same meaning.

Once you've action-packed your verbs, try doing the same thing with your descriptions or nouns. Use specifics and precision to make your world and characters come alive. Here’s a quick example of what to look for:
  • I heard a sound from the abandoned second level.
  • I heard running water from the abandoned second level.

There’s nothing wrong with the first version, but the second paints a stronger picture in readers’ minds because it’s more specific.

Go Deeper: Push your characters
Find places to push your characters to their limits – physically and emotionally. What would they never do? Make them do it, and give them a compelling reason why. What is the opposite of their natural personality? Write a scene that forces them to act that way. What’s the line you’re afraid to cross for them? Cross it.

Donald Maass has excellent exercises related to this in his “Writing the Breakout Novel” workbook. Even if you don’t use these scenes in your final MS, going through them will strengthen your characters AND your understanding of how they’ll react to different situations.

And, we’ve come full circle to Butt-in-Chair. Like all good exercises, practice makes perfect. So, keep at it and write, write, write!

Tips from Last Week's #4Writers

In case you missed last week's #4Writers on Twitter, here's a summary of the insights. Join us again a week from Tuesday. 7:30 p.m. CST.