The Lisa Shearin Group Bestselling Author: Plots, plans, and party crashers

Most writers plot out their books to some degree. Some go with a loose sketch; others know exactly what happens from A to Z. I’m glad I’m not the former, I envy the later.  I fall somewhere in the middle.

For me, plotting a book is just like writing one—some parts are inspired and I can’t write fast enough, other times I’m completely and utterly stuck, and I wonder if pounding my head against the nearest wall will shake loose some ideas. Tempting to try, but I’ve always managed to resist that urge.  I’ve had a concussion before. Not fun.

My ideas come to me in bits and pieces, parts of dialogue and chunks of chapters. Then comes the “sitting/pondering/staring at the computer” part of the writing process.  Or what comes to me at 4 a.m., or in the shower, or driving home from work. The subconscious mind is a wonderful thing. It works 24/7. I don’t work 24/7 (though my husband would be the first to dispute that claim).  The human gray matter has to go through all kinds of contortions to determine how a book gets from beginning to end, where the main characters make their entrance, what turns a snooze-fest of a plot into a page-turner of a novel.

First there’s the struggle to get what’s in my head onto the screen. But mainly my problem is that I’m still working out the guts of the story while I’m writing it. I know the beginning, some scenes scattered throughout the book, and I know the ending. The trick is to come up with the story to link all of those together while staring down the barrel of a tight deadline.

But sometimes you end up tossing it all out the window.

Say you’re happily writing along, everything going according to plan. Character A is behaving perfectly. Then Character B—or even a character you’ve never met before—suddenly enters the scene. Everything changes. Dang it! So much for your plotline, right?

Wrong. It’s become my experience that this is a very good thing. It means that your story is taking on even more of a life of its own. It means that your muse is in residence, and she’s just vetoed your plan, staged an intervention, whatever you want to call it, to keep you from doing something stupid that you’ll regret later.

Whenever this happens to me, I’ve learned to run, don’t walk, after the interfering Character B. That character knows what they’re doing and why they’re there even if you don’t. The key here is to go with the flow. Some of my most fun characters have come into existence by crashing my plot party. In a book, party crashers are always welcome. For me, they’re either being pulled into a dark alley, or pushed out of a bar. I’ve learned to pay attention to these people. They’re worth watching and listening to—and they’ll keep your readers turning the pages.

 

Really get to know your characters by The Lisa Shearin Group Bestselling Author

For me, hitting a snag in a book usually happens like this: I’m writing, everything’s going great, I’m in the zone and the words are flowing.  Then I move on to the next scene or chapter and I hit a wall.  The writing slows to a trickle or stops dead in its tracks, and my characters refuse to cooperate.  And the only thing force-feeding words into their mouths is going to get me is more bogged down.

Most often the problem is that I don’t feel comfortable with the scene, and if I’m not comfortable, my characters aren’t comfortable. All this discomfort boils down to one of two things—either I’m writing the wrong scene for the wrong time in the book, or the scene doesn’t belong in the book. Period.

But what if I know it’s the right scene at the right time and the words still aren’t flowing? When I’m in the zone, it’s like I’m eavesdropping on my characters and typing what they’re saying as fast as I can. It’s like a “runner’s high” for writers. To get into the zone, I have to do two things: shut up and listen.

I’m a bit of a control freak and that control seeps onto the page or screen. Listening seems like such a simple thing, but it ain’t easy to do.  Writers on a deadline want to control the direction their book takes, the pace at which it is written, and the schedule that it should stick to. I’m on my fourth book and it’s just now starting to sink through my thick skull that I really don’t have much, if any, control over these things, and I never will. A book is a creative work, and creativity refuses to punch a time clock.

The only way I can get the words flowing again is to sit quietly and completely immerse myself in the scene.  I’ve been with my characters a long time and I know them well. But just like family and friends, my characters will occasionally throw me a curve ball.  Like real people, characters grow and change.  I learn more about them with each book.  Their personalities, physical mannerisms, and the way they talk and react in a given situation changes over time.

The key to good writing is to get to know your characters just as well as you know the real people in your life.  I should probably say “flesh-and-blood” people, because as most writers will tell you, their characters are like real people to them.

You know what your husband/wife/significant other/best friend would say or do in any given situation because you know them that well.  Though sometimes they will surprise you and do something completely different and unexpected.  It’s what keeps life interesting.  And when the same thing happens with your characters, and you capture it in your book, it’s what will keep your readers turning the pages.

Lisa Shearin Group Bestselling Author: Research—How much is too much?

Most writers (myself included) can’t look up a word in the dictionary without stopping to read other nifty stuff along the way. (Yeah, writers are probably some of the few people who find dictionaries cool.) Sometimes I get so engrossed in reading other stuff that I forget the word I was looking up in the first place. The same thing can happen with research.

For certain genres, it’s critical to do at least some research before you start writing. Say you’re doing an urban fantasy, thriller, mystery, romance, or pretty much anything that takes place in an actual non-make-believe place. You have to know about the place where your story is set, pertinent details about your characters’ professions, and any items that your characters might either have or use—for example a Prada bag or night vision goggles—or, even more intriguing, both.  When you’re dealing with actual places and real things, it’s critical that you get the details right. Your readers will know, and they’ll call you on it if you try to fake anything. But at the same time, we writers can get so engrossed in digging out those fun facts and details that before we know it, our deadlines are a heck of a lot closer than they should be. So do the research you need to get it right, then get back to work. You can always read more about Elizabethan country house architecture later.

Then there’s the question of how much of your research to include. When it comes to weaving in authentic details about your protagonist’s career, for instance, your readers don’t want to know every aspect of a character’s daily work life. However, well-placed details that pertain to your character’s personality or have a direct impact on the plot will make the story more real and help draw your readers in. The devil’s in the details, so never underestimate their importance for enriching your story.

However, research doesn’t have to be dry fact finding. It can help you to differentiate your characters and your work. It’s important to read what’s popular in your chosen genre, so you know what’s been done to death. And since you’ll have plenty of competition for readers’ attention, whatever you write has to be different, or take what the readers expect and turn it on its head for a fun twist. It’s worked great for me with my goblins. Most people think of goblins as gnarled, ugly, with post-nasal drip, and either stupid or only moderately clever. I went with tall, sexy, chiseled features, and a formidable intellect. It was different from any other goblin out there, and it’s gotten me a lot of nice attention.

Research can help you set your work apart by enriching your book with details, inspiring you to strike out in a different direction, and taking a character type that’s become a cliché and spinning it into something fresh.  Something that is uniquely you.

 

Revisions & Rewrites by The Lisa Shearin Group Bestselling Author

Revisions and rewrites—they kind of sound the same, but they’re not.  Not by a long shot.  In my experience, revisions are just a step or two above tweaking.  Simple problem, easy fix.  A rewrite is just what it sounds like, taking the editing chainsaw to a manuscript to fix some serious issues (aka screw ups).  At least once, most writers experience that special moment when they realize that their precious project is a skanky, stinky pile of tripe.  Yep, I’ve been there and had to fix that.  It was a lot of work and it wasn’t pretty, but the results were intensely satisfying once the dust settled.

To avoid the embarrassment of having your critique group/beta reader/agent/editor witness your writer “duh moment,” it’s preferable to discover for yourself where your plot train derailed. The red flags for me should have been characters behaving uncharacteristically and more than a few chapters that didn’t propel my story forward.  They would have been red flags if I hadn’t been too close to the book to see them.  Fortunately my agent was there to tell me where my plot train had derailed—and crashed and burned.  In the instant when she pointed out the problem, I immediately saw how that problem had spawned a snafu, which had caused my first sub-plot to . . .well, you get the picture.  I metaphorically smacked myself in the forehead for being too dense not to have seen it all myself.  I knew I had a rewrite on my hands, not a revision.  At that point, there was nothing left to do but put on my hazmat suit and wade in.

I had a book contract and was on a deadline, so not fixing the book was not an option.  But if you’re what I like to call “pre-published,” you might be tempted to throw in the towel when faced with what you see as a book with insurmountable problems.  I’m here to tell you that it’s never as bad as you think.  If your core story is solid, everything else can be fixed.  The key is to fix one problem at a time.  And if your solution causes more problems further on in the book than it solves, you simply discard it and find another solution.  For me, the key was to keep my emotions out it, to look at my book from a dispassionate point of view, and to dissect it to find the best way to fix it—not the easiest way, but the best way—the way I knew would give me the best book possible.

And when the rewrite was done, the dust had settled, and the finished book was on my editor’s desk, I was proud of more than that book.  I was proud of myself for digging in, doing the work, and not giving up.

So who was my literary problem child?  My second book Armed & Magical, which went on to become my first nationalbestseller.

So you want to write a fantasy novel?

The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

So you want to write a fantasy novel, or in the case of many first-time authors—the vaunted “fantasy trilogy.”

That’s how my Raine Benares series started out—a trilogy.  It grew, as many fantasy series have a tendency to do.  I’m going on six books now, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here to talk about fantasy and the gazillion permutations and sub-genres thereof.

If you walked up to someone on the street and asked them what fantasy fiction was, you’d probably get the following in some shape or form.  Fantasy is when elves, dwarves, humans, and assorted allies are on a quest to find the long-lost magical thingie or elusive sacred whatsit, which the bad guys (evil wizard, mad king, and their menacing minions) will kill, enslave, or obliterate you to keep for themselves.

Yeah, that’s fantasy, but that’s far from all there is.  Subgenres include epic fantasy, urban, contemporary, sword & sorcery, dark, historical, alternate history, steampunk, Arthurian, comic, mythic, fairy tales, science, mystery, paranormal, erotic, romantic, and recently I’ve even heard mention of zombie romantic fantasy. (Yeah, I don’t want to go there either.)

Since it’d probably take half the magazine to write about them all, let’s stick with six of the top sub-genres, which as a beginning fantasy novelist, probably include at least one of the pools you’ll be dipping your toes into for your first foray in the worlds of fantasy.

High Fantasy—Also called Epic Fantasy, this subgenre is what the general population thinks of as fantasy.  At its core is the battle of good versus evil, the stakes are high, with races, civilization, or even the entire world at risk. High Fantasy usually takes place in a quasi-Medieval or Renaissance world.  Quests and magic are an integral part of the plot.  The classic example of this is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Urban Fantasy—The story takes place in our world in the present or near-future. The setting is usually in a city (hence the name “urban”).  Magic and magical/supernatural creatures either exist openly in our world, or covertly with only a select few (the protagonist and their allies) aware of their existence.  Just a few of the more popular creatures inhabiting the urban fantasy world are monsters, fairies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, angels and demons.  Two of my favorite urban fantasy series are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, and The Cal Leandros Novels by Rob Thurman.

My favorite quote about the difference between High and Urban Fantasy comes from Scottish fantasy novelist, Alan Campbell: “If high fantasy asked you to embark upon a quest to find a magic stone, then urban fantasy would be waiting in the shadows, ready to mug you when you got back.”  Priceless.

Contemporary Fantasy—This sub-genre, like Urban Fantasy, takes place in a modern setting, contains magical or supernatural creatures, which either live in our world or crossover from another realm.  Also, the creatures and magic tend to remain secret to the vast majority of the population.  Great examples of this sub-genre are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Sword & Sorcery—This is considered by many to be the “granddaddy of fantasy.”  Think Conan the Barbarian.  In Sword & Sorcery, the quest is the thing, with a small band of adventurers getting in dicey and dangerous situations fighting their way to their goal with plenty of derring-do.  Kind of like Dungeons & Dragons in a book.

Alternate History Fantasy—Think “what would happen if . . .”   For example, what would happen if the Nazis invaded England and the elves helped the Brits kick Nazi butt?  The possibilities are nearly endless here.

Steampunk—A relatively new addition to the fantasy family, Steampunk is alternate history with a twist.  They’re set in the Edwardian or Victorian era and make cool use of steam-powered technology.  A great (and fun) example is Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series.

The key when writing any kind of fantasy is to take the expected and turn it on its head.  Or take the tried-and-true and make it your own.  Find your distinctive voice.  You’ll know when you get it; your work will come to life for you.  Believe me, if it’s flat on the page (or screen) for you, it’ll be flat and boring for an agent and editor. These folks look at literally hundreds of submissions a day—make sure your work perks them up, not puts them to sleep.

And if the High Fantasy you’re writing starts to veer into Urban Fantasy or Comic Fantasy territory, don’t fight it.  That’s one of the great things about fantasy—there are as many successful combinations as your imagination can dream to life.

So, let your muse out to play and have fun!

The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author: Stay true to your voice, especially if it’s different

Find your voice. Those three little words rank right up there with “Read, read, read” and “Don’t give up” as the advice most often given to newbie writers.

Finding your voice isn’t the hard part; it’s staying true to your voice once you’ve found it, believing that it’s good enough to be published.  We authors are big on self-doubt.  That self-doubt starts in the author cradle, when we’re first starting out.  Chances are if you’re a writer, you’ve always known deep down that you wanted to be one.  But when you read a certain book or series by a particular author, you knew you had to be one.

That’s how it happened to me.

I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels and I knew I wanted to do that.  I wanted to write like her.  Guess what?  There was no way in a hot place that I was going to write like Mary Stewart.  Why?  Because I’m not Mary Stewart.  But when I first got the writing bug, she was my ideal of how a great author should write.  Absolutely gorgeous prose.  And if I couldn’t write like her, then I’d never be a greatauthor or even a good one.  I tried to write like her, and then like several other authors whose work I fell in love with over the years—three manuscripts worth of trying.  Those books are in my office closet now, never to see the light of day.  Why?  They weren’t me; it wasn’t my voice.  As a result, the words just lay there on the page.  It was me trying to be someone I wasn’t.

I write quasi-traditional fantasy.  I say “quasi” because my characters use modern speech.  Yes, they wear doublets and fight with blades (and bombs and buckets and whiskey bottles), but for the most part, they talk like us.  I’ve heard my books called The Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos.  Definitely not like Mary Stewart, or any of the other authors whose work I admire.  It’s like me.  I don’t do fancy speeches and lush descriptions.  I can’t do it; and now I don’t want to.  I write like my heroine Raine Benares talks—straight-shooting, plain-spoken, snarky with a dry and twisted sense of humor.

That’s my voice.  And that voice was what sold my series, first to my agent, and then to my publisher. They offered representation and bought my books because they were different.

So if your voice is different from anything out there, don’t try to change it.  You’re unique and so is your voice.  Embrace it and run with it.

Being different can mean being published.

 

 

The fine art of procrastination by The Shearin Group Lisa National Bestselling Author

For writers, it’s also the bane of deadlines and the arch-villain of productivity.

For me, the vast majority of procrastination comes courtesy of the Internet.  Writing is a solitary job.  A chance—any chance—to socialize with like-minded people isn’t just taken, it’s eagerly seized with both hands.  Twitter is my kryptonite.  That’s how I get my book industry news and keep up with writer /agent/editor friends.  It’s like an office water cooler for writers.  We may write for a living, but we do like to cluster together and talk shop, better still if we can do it while imbibing adult beverages.  (If you’re at a conference or convention and wonder where all the writers are, just find the hotel bar.)

I don’t remember how I procrastinated before the Internet came along, but I’m sure I found something to lure me away from the humongous manual typewriter I wrote my first two “practice novels” on.  Procrastinationandwriting go hand in hand.  Nowadays most writers do their work on computers, and most of those computers are connected to the Internet.  Some writers can claim research as an excuse. I can’t. I’m a fantasy writer; what I write, I make up. I don’t need the Internet for that. I’m incredibly productive at my family’s mountain cabin — no Internet, no TV, three radio stations.  I get an amazing amount of work done. Hmm, I wonder why?

It’s not just the computer’s fault. Actually, it’s completely my fault; the computer is just an innocent bystander, a tool of procrastination.  When I’m working on a particularly tough section of a book, I also have what has to be the cleanest house in the neighborhood.  I get an inexplicable need to do five loads of laundry, dust the bookcases, clean the cat box (okay, that’s a real need), empty the dishwasher, and ooh, looky, there’s three bananas left.  Must. Bake. Banana bread.

I like to tell myself that I’m merely allowing time for a particularly juicy plot point to stew, or that I’m multitasking, or that I’m “taking a writing break.”  Yeah.  Right. What I’m doing is avoiding the book.  Writing is hard work.  Contrary to what non-writers probably think, words just don’t fall out of our heads onto the page.  Aside from being messy, it just doesn’t happen that way.  For me there’s the pressure (and fear of failure) to get the vividness of the scene running like a movie in my head onto the page.  A book that’s not finished is a book that doesn’t suck.  But when you’re under contract and on deadline, not finishing is not an option.

So, what’s the solution to procrastination?  Having someone yell “sit down!” every time I start to stand up would work (well, might work).  Saying “no” to procrastination takes the same discipline and dedication that drove me to not give up during those years of submitting books and getting rejected.