Category Archives: Ideas & Plotting

Choosing A Genre or Mashing-Up Genres ““ What’s it All About?

 I read three well written novels novels recently and wasn’t sure what genre they belonged in. They were set in the future – one was set in a dystopian Calgary with some really cool cyborg people, another was set on Mars where people had the option of having their consciousness transferred into android bodies, and the third was set in another solar system with interstellar travel and neat technologies and alien beings. Science fiction seemed logical as they were all in the future, but their telling and basic elements were much more traditional.
defining diana
If mystery had a future-crime sub-genre, all would fit that category beautifully. Rob Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues has a delightful, laid back gum shoe detective. Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm (see his blog on writing science fiction later this month) is a solid crime novel that’s gritty, hard and gruesome when it needs to be. K.A. Bedford’s Hydrogen Steel has a retired homicide inspector struggling to save humanity while she struggles to accept her own physical reality. These are three well-executed detective stories  marketed as science fiction.

The fact is, when we write, we use elements from several genres in our stories. Mystery in science fiction. Thriller in fantasy.  Romance in steampunk. The mash ups are as varied as the imagination! And yet, some work better than others. Why? The magic happens when the author understands the elements that make each genre unique. For example, a cozy mystery like Rex Stout’s adventures with Nero Wolfe, could have easily fallen into the annals of “literature’ as Stout deftly captures the voice of the time by using strong characters and a well-defined milieu. Yet, his stories are, first and foremost, mysteries and his novels are marketed as such.

ShanghaiSteam-110px-150dpi-C8In all four examples, it is each author’s ability to understand the genres they are mashing that gives their work depth and memorable voice. Most importantly, their writing is a joy to read as it pleases the intellect on many levels. Making it fun for the reader, transporting him to worlds he never dreamed of – that’s the true test of knowing your genre well and choosing mash-ups wisely. I recently had the privilege to edit Shanghai Steam , an anthology with a unique mash-up of steampunk and wuxia. Reading the submissions and editing the selected stories was fun because authors who understood the subtleties of both genres created distinct worlds, plots and characters. Fun, gripping, mind-blowing – that’s what it’s all about for writers and readers.

Do you choose to write in one specific genre or do you use a mash-up? Every novel has elements of several genres and the question is one of degree and desired market placement. Is it science fiction or mystery? That’s determined when you decide the character of your novel – what its unique voice will be. It’s no different than creating well-rounded, deep characters as was discussed in many of February’s posts. Frank Morin, in his post Complex Characters reminded us of Shrek thinking he is like an onion – layered. In his post Platonic Male-Female Relationships in Fiction (a.k.a. “The Glue”), Evan Braun compared the complexities of romance against friendship as he discussed how each creates a different dynamic in character interaction. What is your story’s dynamic? How will the  genres you choose relate to one another? Is your story more mystery or science fiction? Which genre will have the stronger voice? Like Shrek’s onion, how many layers deep will you go into each genre? What blend provides the best milieu for telling your story? How will your characters and your readers react? What will you choose?

March’s posts will help you better understand how each genre can give your story its unique voice and character. We’ll also have posts comparing genre writing to literature, choosing which genres to mash and how to market them, and there’ll also be a case for not worrying about any of it. There will be posts on specific genres including horror,  steampunk, fantasy, romance, science fiction and many others. What makes each genre unique? What makes it work?

Choose your story’s voice and character and have fun writing as you peel back the layers!

Let’s see now … Miss Marple in dystopian 2081? A western horror? Steampunk space opera? Romantic military SF? Historical fantasy thriller? Urban fantasy folktale? So many to choose from…

Building Character ““ The Art of Genuine Interactions

We can build worlds, create interesting characters, have background information and personality/motivational analysis that fills a book. After studying how to create characters, how to make them interesting, unique and multidimensional, we must somehow bring them to life and make them as real to the reader as a living, breathing human being. Yet how can this be done?

wrestlingIt’s all about relationships. Characters come alive when we see them in relationship. Their interactions (actions and reactions) reveal their innermost secrets, their fears, their world view, their values. Just like us, they act and react to those around them – life is not lived in a vacuum. That’s why the background work and world building are so important. What is the society’s prevailing code of ethics or conduct? Where does the character live – the social and survival norms are different from a crowded city in first world or third world economies, rural or urban settings, earth, Mars or a fantasy world. This determines what is important to the character – what she values or abhors.

We interact with and react to our families, our pets, our loves, those we loathe, those we casually know and those we don’t even know but have a strong reaction to. A strong reaction to strangers? Think about it. Do you slam the phone on the telemarketer or do you make friends with that person? Do you disregard or mock political propaganda from the party you don’t support or do you take the time to befriend a supporter and understand their views? In both examples, the interaction with strangers is at different ends of the spectrum – from blatant disregard to embracing their humanity. Most of us are somewhere in between. The way we choose to interact with people in these situations is determined by what we value, what motivates us and what issues are pressing in on us. Knowing where your character lies on the value spectrum will make it easier to write believable character interactions. Is your character determined or unsure? Have faith in life or believe it can’t be trusted? Accept or reject change?

For example, in a self-help book on relationships (those are gold mines for writers!) titled Love is a Many Splintered Thing by Patricia H. Rushford, we follow Samantha and David as they journey from the honey moon stage to near sky divingdivorce. The fight scenes, simply done for illustrative purposes, are quite compelling. In one scene, we learn that David has manipulated Samantha’s computer dating data sheet so that their scores will jive. Samantha is so furious that she wants nothing to do with David. David is hurt and upset. He had fallen in love with her the moment he saw her and didn’t want to trust a machine with the rest of his life.

So, why did Samantha have such a strong reaction to David’s action and why did he manipulate the data? The answers lie in their backgrounds, in those deep dark corners that are so easy to ignore yet which compel us to act as we do. As Rushford explains: David is a man’s man, always in control and is uncomfortable with the feelings Sam has awakened in him. He has tried to be the kind of man he thought his father (now dead) would have wanted him to be but David feels he has never quite succeeded. Now once again, in his relationship with Sam, he hasn’t quite succeeded. Samantha, on the other hand, comes from a childhood of abuse and neglect and so resists love for fear of abandonment. At times her emotional needs exceed her ability to reason.

Understanding fears and aspirations this deeply means a writer can stay true to the core of who their characters are. That then makes their actions and reactions more consistent and true to their nature as they interact with other characters. What about dialogue and body language? Both are important and once again, are part of knowing your character well. Is her language terse? Can he say what he means? She talks of feelings while he refers to car manuals. Is her manner aloof, open or frustratingly neutral? Is there a combination of warmth and cold, efficiency and aloof caring, that is both appealing and frustrating? How does each character react to how the other speaks let alone to what he or she says? Thinking through those dynamics creates most interesting interactions.

There is one major stumbling block to writing genuine character interactions. That is unconsciously slipping into your own value system and not remaining true to your character. That’s when characters and scenes become one dimensional. Personally, I hate conflict. I prefer to be the peacemaker. Knowing that about myself gives me the awareness I need to let my characters be themselves in all their gore and glory. The best writing advice I ever received was permission to be cruel, to ramp up the stakes, to let my characters sweat, squirm and yes, fight.

tentBy knowing our characters intimately, from their deepest darkest fears to their speech patterns, we can totally abandon ourselves to the muse and write compelling, memorable scenes that will whisk our readers into our characters’ worlds.  Ah, yes, the elusive muse – that’s the moment when we know our characters so well that on paper, we become them and we give genuine voice to them and to those they interact with.

What things have you learned to bring your characters to life and to make their interactions genuine?

Getting Stuck in the Big Swampy Middle

It was breathtaking and I couldn’t stop reading it!

That’s the experience every reader wants and those are the words every writer wishes to hear. The adage that if your character is sleeping, so is your reader is all too true. So if your novel is stuck in the big swampy middle, so will your reader be and he may not have the fortitude to move on. So, how does one gracefully dance across the swamp without getting stuck? There are many books written on the topic but here are three things I’ve learned:


1) you have permission to make things difficult for your protagonist.

When a fellow writer made me aware that it was my duty to make things difficult for my protagonist – that I was supposed to be mean – writing got a whole lot easier and the middle became so much more fun! Disasters, unexpected problems, the fatal character flaw, the goal he so desperately wants is within reach yet is maddeningly elusive, twists and turns, the mentor dies, red herrings  … the list of trouble goes on.

Through the middle, there will be many mini-problems which escalate into bigger ones and culminate into the BIG middle disaster. The BIG middle disaster is the lynch pin of a problem that propels the protagonist into the third act where he rises to the challenge in the smashing climax. This disaster can happen anywhere from the mid-point to the end of the middle.

Most importantly, the protagonist complicates the situation, makes it more complex, worsens it and raises the stakes. How can your protagonist worsen the situation? By having a fatal flaw that he must overcome in order to achieve his goal such as shyness, insecurity, impulsiveness, greed, play-by-the-rules, or risk taker. Sometimes the character may experience success but that can have unintended consequences such as: the antagonist’s reaction; there’s a worse problem he wasn’t aware of; or a secondary character has a bad reaction to the achievement.

2) plan your BIG middle disaster and work toward it

The plan doesn’t have to be overly detailed. Even if you’re a pantster, it helps to know where the BIG middle disaster will occur and what it will be. This will keep you from being derailed, from writing scenes that don’t support the story goals and the final conflict. There’s still lots of room for pantster creativity in getting to the BIG middle disaster and moving beyond to the climax.

As you’re working toward the BIG middle disaster, as you’re ramping up the tension by increasing emotional, physical and psychological conflict, as your characters reactions and actions are met with resounding consequences and reactions, keep in mind the story telling technique you’re using. For example, is this primarily an action oriented, plot driven story? Are you using a mini-arc, a smaller story within a larger one which although connected, serves to reveal information about the characters? Are you following a sub-plot? Is there a new character to add an unexpected dimension to the tale? It’s too easy to get derailed and fall into the swamp if you’re not clear about which technique you’re using.

And it can never be overstated: increase conflict to increase tension to keep readers wanting to know what’ll happen next. For every event, there is a reaction with resounding consequences and more reactions and actions. This will make writing the story exciting for you and a white-knuckle read.

3) focus on the prize

You’ve got your beginning with the story problem clear in your mind. Your protagonist has faced an opening disaster that commits him to solving the problem. You know the prize, the novel’s ending. Now, you must focus on that prize with your protagonist to get him to the ending. At this point, it doesn’t matter if he succeeds and this is a happy ending, or if he fails and this is an unhappy ending or if this is a bittersweet ending with mixed results. What matters is keeping an eye on the goal, working toward the climax by making sure all events -setbacks, triumphs, actions and reactions – somehow contribute to the end result.

Subplots, side trips that reveal character only count if that incident or revelation shows us something significant about the character in relation to the story goal. Saving a cat may be important if it shows a compassionate, compulsive need to act which gets him into trouble later on. For example, it’s a laudable trait to get the cat out of the tree because grandma’s upset and her blood pressure is rising. But, when escaping from the bad guys, he stops running across rooftops because he sees a half starved cat that’s too scared to jump and the six year old kid is on the ground crying. You can imagine how his compassion may get him into more trouble. The rule is that everything you reveal or use must contribute to your character working toward the prize.

The middle is really the fun part of writing the novel. It’s where you can explore your character, exploit his weaknesses and strengths, and keep ramping up the excitement. There are times when I stop writing and ask my character: What do you see? or Oh, oh, what are you going to do now? Your character will answer those questions for you and stay true to the story goal if you’ve done your homework in your character profile, and if you keep your focus on the prize.


For me, the middle is an incredible adventure where the protagonist and I journey through murder, mayhem and have the time of our lives!

What works for you?

Are You Bored or Burned Out by Your Story?

You’re tired of writing the short story before you’ve even finished it. You’re 40,000 words into the novel and are falling asleep at the keyboard. You’ve worked hard on your world building, done the research done your character profiles and have the main elements of your plot chart, the writing should come easily but it doesn’t.

Don’t panic! The inability to write because your work doesn’t feel interesting at this moment doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer. It means that you’re stuck and that you need to answer one simple question to get through this:

Are you bored or are you burned out?

Burn out happens when we’ve been at it too long – our brains need a rest from processing information and creating a work of art. Writing takes lots of energy – physical, creative and emotional.  That’s when you need to give yourself a break But sometimes when you’re feeling bored it’s   your brain’s way of telling you that information is missing.  I had that experience when I was doing the world building and background work for my new series. I had had so much fun world building and I wanted to write the novel so I could share it. No matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t happen. Three times I started the beginning and each time I set it aside. It wasn’t fun anymore. I grew bored. So, I let it rest and when I reviewed my research, I realized that I hadn’t thought through a critical element. My brain, in the form of boredom and frustration, was telling me that I was missing something.

Sometimes I write three to ten pages of background material (important but boring stuff) because I need to get grounded in the setting and characters. Once I’ve done that, then the story begins. So, write, write and write some more. It’s not boredom per se that you’re experiencing, it’s simply that you’re going through the first step of needing to become part of that world, to unclutter your brain by getting information and relationships out of your head.

What happens when you’re genuinely bored with what you’re writing? When you’re sick of the plot and the characters? When it’s not exciting anymore and it feels like work and not fun?

Sometimes, it’s not fun and when that’s the case we need to simply write our way through it until it becomes fun. There may be technical reasons why this is so but many times those aren’t apparent until we’ve finished the novel and are revising it. So don’t stop writing. Write through the scene or section and get to the fun part!

Feeling bored may be the result of not getting to the interesting parts of the story. You’re missing mood, emotion, action and reaction because there’s too much inconsequential description, the reader isn’t an idiot and doesn’t need that level of detail, it reads like a technical manual, and yes, it’s simply boring writing! So in this case, the problem may not be with you but with what you’re writing.  Again, get it out of your system, then write the real story.

But what if you’re bored because you’re derailed and don’t even know it? Check your plot chart. Write out chapter summaries or summarize your scenes in point form. Ask yourself: where does the story begin and what is the disaster in the opening quarter that compels my charter to act? What is the story goal? What is the climax? What is happening to the protagonist between the middle and the end which makes it challenging for him to achieve his goals? It may be that somewhere in the swampy middle that you need to increase action and tension, up the stakes in order to make things dicier for your character and more exciting for yourself. This solution also works if you’re bored because your characters and plot feel boring.

Boredom may mean that you need a break. We get tired – it happens. Do something different for a bit: write a short story or a poem; paint the fence; go to a movie; bake something – give your brain a break and do something fun! Beware though that you aren’t using boredom as an excuse to procrastinate – that it’s an excuse to do the fun things and not write! If that’s the case, the surest way to quell boredom is by applying the BICFOK cure – Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard.

Yawn! I’m not bored – I simply need a nap!