Writing Influences

How do you manage your influences?

Most writers are also voracious readers—and if they’re not, they should be. We love reading new stories, discovering new writers, immersing ourselves in new worlds, and admiring other styles.

But how do you keep what you’re reading from leaching into your own personal style?

When I read my first, never-to-see-the-light-of-day novel (more on that in another post) I can see the various influences. Here is where I was reading Harry Potter, and everyone says something dryly or flatly or bemusedly or adverbially generally. Here I was reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and the main character has Claire’s sardonic wit or Jamie’s frankness. Here I was reading George R. R. Martin, and, well, my style falls flat because I don’t write like Martin. Here I was reading Guy Gavriel Kay, and attempting (and failing) to make everything poetic.

When I wrote Shaken, though, I avoided like the plague anything similar to my plot or world. I hardly read any urban fantasy. I put off reading Zoo City until I’d finished writing. I didn’t touch Kim Harrison’s work. Ilona Andrews and Diana Rowland? No way.

It seems to have worked: I’ve gotten lots of compliments on the main character’s voice, and I’m told the style is pretty good. But there has to be a better way to accomplish that. Denying yourself similar works is just masochistic, because a) you’re giving up a chance for fun and b) those writers could always teach you something about your own writing.

Here are my few suggestions:

1. Separate your writing time and reading time. Don’t read on your lunch break for instance, or on your commute home right before you sit down to work. Save books similar to your own work for bedtime reading.

2. Read your own work, too. This one works for me: if I sit down and read a couple chapters of my own writing when I’m about to get to work, I can get my main character’s voice back in my head.

3. Set the mood. Make a soundtrack that suits your books atmosphere, have an appropriate beverage (like tea!) if that helps you, look at images that remind you of your world, do whatever it takes to immerse yourself back in your creation.

4. Play up the differences. No two works are ever the same. Notice what the other writer does with your book and ask yourself why they did it. What do you like about their work? What do you dislike? What would you change? If the other book gives you ideas about how to change your work, ask yourself why, and make sure you’re not copying: that might tell you some ways in which you’re dissatisfied with your own work.

What do you do to separate your influences from your own voice? How do you keep your voice your own?

The Honeymoon Period

There’s nothing quite so exciting as starting a new project.

For me, it starts with a concept: two witches running in a mayoral election or an alcoholic detective with the ability to see magic. There’s no plot yet, just an idea that, given conflict and some supporting cast, could make an interesting story.

Next comes adding that conflict. That’s the first tricky part. What would be the hardest thing for those witches or that magical detective to overcome? How about if the witches are friends, or the detective is investigating a case where she can’t use her magical ability? Once I’ve decided on the Worst Possible scenario, I flesh it out, giving it a face and a name, a high point and a low point.

Then comes the really fun part: breaking out the index cards. I carry them around and scribble every possible idea for a scene onto its own card. Eventually I accumulate enough disparate ideas that a plot starts to emerge, and that’s when I start to assign turning points and major plot points.

And somewhere down the road, a book is born.

This isn’t really a natural process for me, but rather something I’ve developed to blend my “pantser” tendencies with a more organized approach that I know works.  (And lucky for me, Scrivener works in just the way.)

The whole process is fun, but I tend to think of these early stages as the true honeymoon period. Before you put anything on paper, the story is sheer possibility. Your characters are witty, your plot is a nail-biter, your reader will laugh and cry and wonder at the awesomeness of your climax.

It’s all fun and games until you realize your character just comes across as mean, your suspense is really just tedium, and the only tears your reader cries are tears of boredom. Those things are all fixable, of course, but that’s where you really have to get to work.

But before any of that happens, you’re writing the perfect novel.

Today I cracked open a new pack of index cards. I have a concept, and I’m ready to bring it to life.

It’s not fantastic timing. My wedding is rapidly approaching, and I’ve put off the querying process for Shaken until I get back from my honeymoon. But I’m smitten with a new idea, and my mind is itching to create something new.

What does your process look like, readers? Do you ever get the urge to start something new, even when the timing is less than impeccable?

My Love/Hate Relationship with Story Engineering

Last week I finished reading Larry Brooks’s writing manual Story Engineering.

I have to say that I loved it as much as I hated it. I also need to give a shout-out to Rebecca Berto, whose “Best Advice I’ve Learned” series turned me on to this book to begin with.

So why the mixed feelings?

1. Brooks spends a lot of time telling you why his method is the best. The trouble is, there’s a pretty good chance he’s right. (And nothing is more irritating than someone knows he’s right and likes to tell you so.)

2. He trashes on some resources I’m fond of, like The Writer magazine and Stephen King’s On Writing. Yes, these resources may not be as specific and neatly tailored as his is, but they’re still useful. Not everyone’s brain works the same way, Mr. Brooks, so we may get some use out of reading about other approaches.

3. He’s a fan of tough love. Brooks doesn’t shy from telling you why your method sucks. He’ll tell you how to correct it, but not before elaborating on why you’ve been shooting yourself in the foot with your methods.

4. He’s right. I know I said this in number one, but it drives me crazy when someone irks me or hurts my feelings and then turns out to be right. The nerve!

On the other hand, this book has completely upended my revision process, and, when I start a new book, it’ll revolutionize my writing process, too.

Clear, straightforward rules for how to plot a book, how to populate it with well-rounded characters, and how to tie the whole thing together with skillful execution and a strong concept can help any writer improve her craft, no matter how much she insist she knows what she’s doing.

Honestly, if I had read this book before plotting Shaken, I would be doing a shorter rewrite. It is true, though, that learning and making mistakes are part of the process. If I didn’t learn by doing that my process was flawed, I’d probably be even less willing to listen to Mr. Brooks.

And if I weren’t willing to listen, I wouldn’t have learned from this book how to improve my writing.

Bottom line? If you’re a writer, read it. And—if you’re like me—chuck it off the bed from time to time to vent your feelings. Once you feel better, pick it up again and keep plugging. It’s worth the frustration.

Sounds like I’m talking about writing itself, doesn’t it?

Have you read this book? Did it help you? Did you hate it? What other writing books do you love/hate?

The Scene that Could Have Been…

This is one of the few ways I indulge my inner artiste. Every time I write a scene, especially one I’ve been planning for weeks—or worse, months—I think about the scene that could have been.

You know the one I’m talking about. That perfect scene where everything happens like magic. Your prose sparkles, the dialog crackles like popcorn, the descriptions paint a perfect picture. In my mind, the lighting is tasteful and the characters are dancing to Within Temptation’s “All I Need“—not because of The Vampire Diaries, but because I love the song and back in 2009 I used to take long walks playing and replaying the reel of a particular scene, set to that song, in my head.

I get this feeling when I write a scene without really planning it, too. With every word I write, I kill another word I could have written. With every unexpected plot twist, an invisible door somewhere closes.

Have you ever experienced this feeling? I mourn the loss of something that never was but could have been. Like I said, this is one of the few ways I allow myself to wallow in artistic pretense, so maybe the cheese stands alone.

Still, I think there are a few ways to prevent this feeling.

1. Slow down. When you start writing a scene you’ve been imagining for weeks, don’t rush through it because you have every line of dialog memorized. Write slowly. Capture the details. Don’t let that elusive perfect scene slip away because you weren’t paying enough attention.

2. Try something unexpected. It’s best to do this only when you have notes or a draft of how you want your perfect scene to play out. Sometimes the shake-up will make a scene that’s been fermenting in your brain for too long fresh and new, but you don’t want to lose your vision of how you wanted the scene to play out disappear.

3. Don’t let scenes get stale in your imagination. Sometimes fermenting doesn’t create wine: sometimes it makes natto. I know this one from experience. If you build up your expectations about a given scene, even a given story, you will never be able to write it the way you imagined.

So here’s my question for you: Can you recreate a scene entirely in a rewrite? I don’t really mean starting from scratch. I mean same characters, same place, same conflict. What do you think?

Questions, Hooks, and Goals

Sounds like a game played by philosopher-shepherds, doesn’t it? Just to me? Fair enough.

Today we’re going to talk about story questions and protagonist goals! Why today, you ask? Why, because I’m starting a new short story as I’m reading Conspiracy and before I read Shaken, and I need to clarify the story question before I get started.

A story question, according to Jim, goes like this:


But why do this?

…By getting your story broken down into its basic elements, you’ll help yourself focus on the most important portion of the novel and avoid dumping lots of extra words into it. Always write a story as lean as you possibly can (and still be happy with it). Every scene and every sequel should be planned to move your story forward–and you should have the purpose of the scene in mind as you write it.

Yes, indeed. I did this for Shaken, and that book is one lean, muscular sucker. Conspiracy… well… I didn’t do this, and that flabby monster of a book meanders all over the place. Not good.

So let’s look at this in action. I’m writing a story about two oldish ladies running for mayor in a hippy town like the one I call home. One of them discovers the other is using magic to swing the election her way, and our protagonist must decide if she wants to sink to the other’s level to win the election. Can I break it down into a lean, mean question, though?

When she discovers her opponent is using magic to win voters and hurt the competition, Marion must become a witch so she can counter her opponent’s magical measures. But will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?

Well, aside from some unclear pronouns, that worked pretty well, didn’t it?

Here’s the trouble, though: that’s a pretty passive way of looking at it. Marion, my protagonist, is reacting to her opponent, and that’s it.

Kristen Lamb advocates boiling a book down to one sentence to show what it’s about. Doing that will show you (a) whether or not you know what your book is really about and (b) whether or not you’re writing about a real conflict.

Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.

Marion has a clear goal: learn magic so she can win the election before her opponent turns the town’s residents into frogs. There’s a real conflict: her opponent is using magic to win over the public and to take the competition out of the running. But “Will Marion succeed when her opponent turns her spells against her?” is weak. That’s not saying much about the real meat of the story.

How about this: But will Marion succeed before she and her opponent tear the town apart with their spells?

That’s definitely better. You can still tell that I haven’t finished plotting out the story. (I know, I know, shame on me for writing about it before I’ve even hammered out the details.) Still, that’s pretty interesting, with clear conflicts and clear goals.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into my creative process, but now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you distill your work this way? Is there any hope for my story question?