Category Archives: Seventh Son

On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People

“Don’t tell Angelika,” a friend of ours, an engineer, said to my husband, “but I tried to read her book, and didn’t make it past the first few pages. There are way too many feelings in it!” My husband did tell me, because he knew what my reaction would be: I laughed long and hard.

But also, quite contrary to our friend’s expectations, I took his statement as a compliment. For one, he only tried to read the book because it was mine, i.e. it was an expression of friendship, which I appreciate. But the other thing is that the average engineer is not exactly my target audience. So if I managed to turn one off by dint of having too many feelings in my book, I think I may have succeeded in writing for the other kind of person: the one who wants to hear about emotions, about the inner life of characters, about their relationships to one another.

The point was brought home to me again just the other day in my writers’ group. One of the critiques I got on a piece of mine, the beginning of another novel, was, “Do you really need three different points of view to tell the story?” I was a little taken aback (not to say  hurt, which is, alas, the price of getting all-too-necessary critiques). But once I’d mulled it over for a while, I came to a conclusion: the answer is Yes. Yes, I do need three points of view, because what my stories are about is the characters and their interactions.

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One of the Amazon reviews of Seventh Son says: “The character relationships are subtle and involved. In fact, all of the book’s true drama comes from how people relate to each other”. Precisely. I write character-driven stories.

And the reason I write character-driven stories is because that’s what I like to read. Now, I’m fully aware that I’m in somewhat of a minority with that preference. What’s popular, what sells best, are plot-driven stories, stories where things happen, where there is action and external drama. Battles! Kidnappings! Sword-fights! Car chases! Explosions! Murders! Wicked witches poisoning girls with apples and being chased by workaholic dwarves with pickaxes!

Personally, I find action scenes boring. Crash, bang, boom, bash – just tell me who wins already, and get on with the real story, about the people. (Plus, I don’t like the tension and extra adrenaline; I’ve got too much of it coursing through my system already – a side effect of being an HSP; but that’s a post for another day.)

To me, what is interesting in a story is not so much what happens, but what the people make of it, how it affects them. I want to get into their heads. It’s the character of the, well, characters that matters to me, that creates stories. Of course you always need a plot – a beginning, a middle, an end – but to me that plot can be as simple as “girl meets boy, girl has trouble getting together with boy, girl gets boy”.

In fact, the latter is the plot of all six Austen novels; the only thing that changes is the characters. And Austen is still in print after 200 years. It’s also the plot of every romance novel, which are, in fact, as a group the biggest sellers on the fiction market. Character-driven stories roll across the screen in every TV serial like Downton Abbey or Coronation Street which follows a group of people through the years, watching them live their lives and interact with one another; and they shocked movie critics when My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became sleeper hits.

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Come to think of it, given the popularity of the aforementioned tales, maybe I’m not in such a minority with my preference for character-driven stories, after all. There are a lot of us who prefer people stories, which can be easy to forget when you hear writing gurus go on about “what sells” or castigate the fledgling writer for “not writing tightly enough” or – gasp! – using adverbs, those touchy-feely markers of emotion.

There are a lot of us – but even if there weren’t, I’d still stick with my preference. I like Austen, and L. M. Montgomery, and Georgette Heyer, and even Miss Read. No swords, no car chases, no bad guys and nary a dead body. Just wonderful, fascinating stories about people.

Okay, I’ll grant you that writers of these stories don’t often populate the weekly bestseller lists. But I have a hunch that they are disproportionately represented on the long-sellers list. Which is all to the good, because it means their books are going to be around for a long time for the likes of me to enjoy.

Life, the Universe, and Character-Driven Stories. It’s all about the people.

 

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Filed under books, Seventh Son, Story, writing

Let the Crazies Begin, or: Why I’m a Wrimo

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“What’s the point?” someone asked the other day, when the conversation came around to NaNoWriMo. (NaNo-whatmo? you say. NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. You know, that Novemberly craziness where I, and several hundred thousand others across the globe, vanish into a deep rabbit hole of mad, bad and dangerous-to-know novelling, aiming to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of 30 days. I might have mentioned it a time or three [dozen] before.)

What’s the point, indeed. Why do this to yourself? Why engage in such a bout of insanity? And don’t get me wrong, it is insane. Every year, I get stressed to the hilt, moan and whine, say I’m not going to finish (my fellow local Wrimos can attest to that). And every year, I sign up again. This will be my seventh NaNo in a row. But why?

Grant Faulkner, the current executive director of NaNoWriMo, just wrote an excellent article about it: “How a Month of NaNoWriMo Can Lead to a Lifetime of Better Writing“. A lifetime of better writing. Or, in my case, writing at all.

If it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo, I wouldn’t be a writer. Because writing, dontcha know, is for special people. People who have talent. People who have passion, who must write or go insane. People who have grand ideas, big stories to tell – stories of adventures in far-off places, of lives lived in danger and darkness, of deep and harrowing emotions or high and lofty ideals. People who create unforgettable characters and bring them to life on the page. In other words, people not like me.

I’ve always loved stories, and as a kid in school, I was good at writing them. I even took creative writing courses in my undergrad studies, and a night class on how to write books for children. But what I learned from those classes, among other very useful things, was that I don’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to finish a whole novel, and even if I did, my ideas are kind of basic, trite. Light-weight, as it were. Not the stuff that real novels, and therefore real novelists, are made of.

And that was okay – it’s not like I was crushed or heartbroken about it; it was just a realistic estimation of my skills and abilities. I’m not one of those people who “always wanted to write a novel” – it never occurred to me that I could, because novel writing, dontcha know, is for… (see above, rinse and repeat).

Enter NaNoWriMo 2011.

I wasn’t going to “write a novel” – nah, I had no such lofty goal. All I wanted was to see if I could do this thing, could write 50,000 words in one month. I was going to have fun, and tell myself a story that I liked, and that’s all.

And you know what? I did. I wrote 50,000 words, told myself a story, and “won” my first NaNo. But that wasn’t all. When I was finished, I had a novel. A full, completed novel. And just like that, I was a writer.

Because a writer … is a person who writes.

And that’s what NaNoWriMo is about – writing.

The goal that all us crazies sign up for is to write 50,000 words. Not everyone makes that goal; in fact, not very many Wrimos do – a rough estimate is that maybe 1 in 4 reaches the full word count. But for the rest of them? They still write. Even if someone falls 40,000 words short of the goal, that means they’ve still written 10,000 words they hadn’t written before. Ten thousand words! That’s a lot of words, people. It’s about forty pages, printed out, and there’s novellas out on the market of that length.

And the reason these Wrimos wrote those words is because they signed up for it, and got caught up in the sheer enthusiasm and excitement that’s NaNoWriMo and swept along in the current of writerly excitement. Caught up just like I get caught up again, every year, for the seventh time in a row now. Surrounded by other crazies, talking titles and plots and word count tricks, sharing ideas and cheering each other on.

It doesn’t matter that those stories we write aren’t deep, or lofty, or weighty or important. They might be, but then again, they might not. They might be terrible, riddled with spelling mistakes, more full of plot holes than a broken sieve. But they are still stories, and they have been written. Written by writers.

And that is the point of NaNoWriMo: it makes me a writer. That’s why I do it, year after year.

Like I said, you don’t have to join in – by no means do you have to join in. But if, perhaps, this is something you think you might want to try – do it! Come on in, join the fun! It’s the best thing ever. And who knows, at the end you might have a novel in your hand – that’s what happened to me. And it was a game changer.

Life, the Universe, and Being a Writer. Thank you, NaNoWriMo!

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The book that started it all.

 

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Crackpots

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One of the great things about pottery is that clay is very forgiving. Every potter has a slop and trimmings bucket sitting by their wheel, and when you’re in the early stages of your pottery skills acquisition, most of what you attempt to make ends up in there as well. But you haven’t wasted anything at this stage – you just let it dry out, re-wet it, wedge (=knead) it back together, and you’re back in business. So all those crackpots you have on the shelf? As long as they haven’t been fired, you’re good – chalk it up to practice.

Here are Guy and Cat on the subject, from p.95 of Seventh Son. This is the first time Cat is in his pottery shop with him:

Guy was in the corner of the room, by the drying shelves, examining the cups and lids Cat had looked at the previous day. He looked up as he heard the shop door creak and raised his eyebrows in greeting as he saw Cat.

“These are ruined, I think,” he said, gesturing at her with one of the lids without a handle. “Too dry now to put the knob on. Ah well, we start again.” He chucked the lid into a bucket which sat on the floor between the wheel and the shelf and was filled with dried-up pottery pieces. It hit the contents with a dull thwack, and broke. Cat gasped—did he so casually discard his work? Guy looked up at the sound and gave her his crooked smile.

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” he said, sending half a dozen partially dried cups without handles after the lid. “It’s not a waste; I’ll reuse it. As long as it’s not fired, the clay can be re-wet over and over and made into new things.”

“Couldn’t you salvage these? Seems a shame to throw them out!”

“No, the handles won’t stick now; they’d just crack off during drying—or worse, after they’re fired, and then it really would be a waste. There’s not much use for a fired cracked pot. And, believe me, these aren’t a great loss; I can easily make more. Besides, sometimes this”—he narrowed his eyes, and hurled another cup into the bucket with extra violence—“can be quite satisfying.”

The cup shattered into a dozen pieces.

If you want to know what happens next (hint: something pretty dramatic!), just get a copy of the book. It’s free to download!

Life, the Universe, and Reclaimed Clay. It’s all highly symbolic.

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Seventh Son on Sizzling Summer Sale (or Something)

It’s summer! You need a beach read! (Or, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere: It’s winter! You need a book to read by the fire!) So, here’s your Sizzling Summer Sale – better yet, it’s not a sale, it’s a FREEBIE!! You can get your very own e-copy of Seventh Son for utterly, totally and completely FREE!!! All you have to do is hoof it over to your favourite ebook vendor and click the “download” button. So go ahead, what’re you waiting for?

 

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Here it is on

Amazon

Smashwords (all ebook formats)

Kobo

Nook

iBooks

Life, the Universe, and a Sale on Seventh Son. Go get it, read it, then let me know what you think!

 

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Changing the Label

Covers1-4CompositeI’ve been re-reading Seventh Son and Cat and Mouse, the print copies, no less. It’s been long enough that I can look at them with fresh eyes and a little bit of distance. (In the case of Checkmate, I’ve gone over it so many times in the last months that I have it practically memorised, and you know what they say about familiarity and contempt. I still find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that these characters, whom I’ve lived with for more than a year now, are still total strangers to you – you haven’t even met Rhitha yet, when she’s been a reality to me for so long… Well, just another four days, and you’ll get to know her!)

So, in re-reading the books, I’m seeing them a little bit differently. I’m spotting the odd tiny inconsistencies here and there that had escaped me before (and I’m not telling you what they are; you’ll have to find them for yourself. If you don’t, so much the better). And one of the things I’m rethinking about this series is its designation.

I’ve previously loudly protested that Seventh Son is not a YA novel. Cat (the main character) is 28 years old; she’s an adult, not a “young adult” (aka “teenager”, which is what YA translates to in book business parlance). However, when I first published the book, readers kept thinking it was a YA. One friend said it sounded like the books his daughters brought home from the high school library; several real-life teens read it and said they liked it; and I repeatedly got the label “sweet” for it. I was starting to react a bit (okay, a lot) to that epithet – “sweet” can have an undertone of “nauseating” (although, to be fair, none of the people who used that label for my books meant it in that way at all – that’s purely my own reaction to it). But I’m starting to come around to accepting that word, and, furthermore, changing my mind about the label that would fit the Septimus Series best.

It’s not only that Seventh Son is a “sweet romance” without “adult content”. The further along I get in the series, the more young characters keep popping up. Seventh Son is about adults in their late 20’s (and a small child). But Cat and Mouse prominently features a couple of young teen boys. Checkmate‘s main protagonist is an 11-year-old girl. And Star Bright, which is in the works, is centred around an 18-year-old guy fresh out of high school. Kids proliferate, and the more the series grows, the more we get inside their heads. Cat is still always one of the point-of-view characters, but we get to hear more and more from young people. I can’t help it, they’re asking to be written!

I figure I might as well admit to it: the Septimus Series is a YA series. I wrote (am writing) these books to suit myself – they’re books I would enjoy reading (actually, at the risk of sounding conceited, I am enjoying reading them. It’s a very satisfying thing when you like your own work. Much as I like my own cooking, which my waistline can attest to). I’m not a “young adult” by any stretch of the imagination; all the grey on my head would prove the contrary, were I inclined to argue the point. But I love books about kids (small or big), or traditionally classified as being for kids – many of my favourites come from the YA and JF (Junior Fiction) shelves of the library. In fact, I practically never browse the “General Fiction” shelves; it’s either YA, JF, MYS (Mystery) or SF&F (Science Fiction & Fantasy). So I suppose it’s no accident my own writing falls into these categories.

So, I’m changing the label. If you’re going to suggest the Septimus Series for purchase at your local library (please do!), mark it as a YA, so it comes to the attention of the right librarian and lands on the right shelf. And then forget about the sticker on it, and just read the books for enjoyment. What’s in a name? A series, by any other name, reads just as well…

Life, the Universe, and a new label. Just four more days to Checkmate!

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Book Birthday Party 4, the Wrap-up

Aaaand the party is over. It’s time to wave goodbye to the guests, drink up the dregs of the punch (cheers!), put the leftover chip dip in the fridge, collect the streamers, and sweep up the confetti. It was a great Book Birthday Party – one more time, Happy Birthday, Seventh Son!

IMG_20151026_094055I did promise to reveal the winner of our big draw today, didn’t I? Never let it be said I don’t make good on my promises. So, without further ado, here is the lucky person who won a free print copy of Seventh Son (DRRRRUMMMMM RRRRRROLLLLLL……):

It’s CANDY C.!!!

Congratulations, Candy! Your book will hit the Trusty Post Office ASAP.

And thank you so much to everyone else who entered the Rafflecopter Contest. It was fun – I’d never done one of those before, but now that I figured out how easy it is, we might have a draw more often. Parties are always good, no?

So, once we get over our junk food hangover, it’s time to get back to daily life. But actually, I’m winding up for the next big effort – NaNoWriMo is just around the corner! In a sense, that’s actually Seventh Son‘s real birthday: it was November 1st, 2011, that I first went into labour with – uh, sorry – started typing the first lines of the story.

I wonder how far we’ll get with Seventh Son‘s little brother, this year? Well, not little brother – Jamie is more like another kid, not a brother. He sort of just drops in on the family in Ruph, quite unexpectedly (for himself and them), after he’s had a few drinks (and then a few more), swallows the red pill his friend gives him, and then wishes on the star in the strange blue stone…

Got your attention? Good. You’ll find out all about Jamie… eventually, once I know what’s happening in his life myself.

That’s Life, the Universe, and A Book Birthday Party All Finished. Thanks for coming!

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Book Birthday Round 3, or: Adrenaline

Slowly, the adrenaline is ebbing out of my body. I’ve just come back from the local high school, where I gave a pep talk to the Creative Writing class on NaNoWriMo – which, of course, is coming up in just ten days. The youngest Offspring happens to be a student in that class, and I know the teacher because she used to be the elementary school librarian before moving to the high school; I helped out running Scholastic Book Fairs a time or two (being a book addict, that’s like peddling dope to kids, trying to get them hooked – muahahahah!). I’d been telling her about my books – Happy Birthday, Seventh Son! – and offered to talk to the class about self-publishing, but as it turns out, she’d just had an author in, doing that very thing. However, she was interested in getting the kids into NaNoWriMo. So off I went, armed with a copy each of Seventh Son and Cat and Mouse to show them what can come out of participating in NaNoWriMo, and I gave them that talk.

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Steve on an adrenaline rush [Bzzzzzt!]. It made him stand on his head. On my book, no less.

My nerves are still jangling. They’re slowly settling down, but periodically I get a little jolt again – you know, like those cartoon characters being zapped by a live wire. [Bzzzzzzt! I sounded like a fool, didn’t I?] I don’t mind public speaking, not even in front of a class of high school students, if I know what I’m talking about [Bzzzzzt! I took far too long!], but it creates a massive adrenaline rush. [Bzzzzzt! I talked way too much about myself, and not nearly enough about NaNo!] And then my nerves have to settle down again afterwards. If it was suppertime, I’d just have a nice glass of wine [Bzzzzt! What’d I say that for?], that would do the trick, but seeing as it’s only 10:30 in the morning, an also-very-nice cup of tea will have to do (rooibos, not mintbrew, in this case). [Bzzzzt!]

Well, I hope I put the NaNo bug in some of the kids’ ears. If one or two of them go to the NaNo page to sign up, and it maybe gets a young novelist started on their path [Bzzzzzt! I never told them about last year’s grad who’d mentioned winning NaNo twice!], it’ll have been well worth the adrenaline zaps. Just think, how fitting that it took place during Seventh Son‘s birthday week!

And now my nerves are calming down, the zaps are getting fewer and farther apart [bzzt!], and it’s time to get on with the rest of my day. Incidentally, speaking of said Seventh Son‘s birthday week, you can still get the ebook on sale and enter the draw for a hardcopy. Go do that thing!

Life, the Universe, and [bzzt!] Adrenaline Zaps. Happy Birthday, Seventh Son!

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