Category Archives: Sunday My Prints Will Come

What Made Buffy Great: Seven Seasons of Lessons for Writers

BuffySeason1Welcome back to the Hellmouth! Sundays are for writers round these parts, but we’re going to stick with the Buffy theme because there’s a lot to be learned from the show.

And as always, here’s your warning that…

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Buffy lasted for seven seasons. Seven seasons they thought a supernatural story with a female lead would never make it. Seven years of gaining traction with a devoted fan base that would last and refresh itself for years after the show’s end.

So why do people stick with it? What was it about that little heap of seasons that inspires people to still convert people to Buffy fandom almost a decade after the show left the airwaves?

Well, a lot. But here’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me about great writing.

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1. Never Let Characters Stagnate

The picture that opened this blog post is Buffy Summers in season 1. The one above is Buffy Summers in season 7. Even though you can’t see the writing in these pictures, you can tell that the woman in the second picture is sure of herself. She knows her place in the world, and she knows that she has the power to change that place.

The characters who stood over the crater of Sunnydale after battling the First? They’re not the same people who sat in the library bitching about Cordelia. The writers of the show created characters who you got to know, bit by bit. When they did something out of character, you knew it, and the writers almost always made sure there was good reason for it.

Each character had a distinctive voice, a way of speaking, and a personality unique to the others. What came out of Xander’s mouth probably wouldn’t come out of Buffy’s — or Giles’. The characters grew and changed and faced challenges that pushed them into becoming different people. The arcs of the characters across seven seasons — that’s the mark of great writing.

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2. The Antagonist is the Spine of Your Story

One of the biggest keys to keeping characters in flux and developing is an antagonist who continually challenges them and forces them to adapt. Antagonists should be the single most important characters in your stories after your protagonist, and an argument can be made to make them almost more important.

You have to get inside their heads, find out what makes them tick, why they do the things they do. Give them something to sympathize with. Give them truth to tell. Bad guys telling the truth almost always throws off a protagonist. Find that truth and make it as true and as important as anything you can give to your protagonist. Mayor Wilkins is right about Buffy and Angel. And he’s right about Faith. Also, his love for Faith makes him sympathetic. It adds layers to his evil and makes him one of the best villains on television.

Season after season, the writers gave us antagonists with heft, from Angel in season 2 to life and the Trio in season 6.

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3. Make Dialogue a World Builder

Fandom is full of Joss-isms. Dawn tells Riley that he can’t go patrol because he’s all weak and kittenish. “Kitteny,” Buffy corrects her.

There’s a fine line with this, but finding little dialogue quirks for your world helps create that world and make it its own. The expressions in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are another example. “Light!” “Blood and ashes!” They fit in with the ideology of the world he’s created. The same with Buffy. The way the characters speak to one another helps delineate the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from, say, the world of Jack the Tax Accountant.

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4. Tell Human Stories Through The Lens of Your World

This goes for any genre, but primarily supernatural/paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi. One of the greatest things about Buffy is that if you strip away the paranormal aspects of her life, you still have a compelling story of a young woman growing up, accepting herself, and making a concerted effort to change her path.

I remember when I moved to Poland. I brought all seasons of Buffy with me, packed in a huge CD case. When I went to Poland, there had been very few times in my life where I felt like I belonged anywhere. But there, I had a circle of friends to run amok with. I found a place there where I was happy and active — and when I had to leave, I felt completely lost.

It was on my return to Colorado after my almost two years in Poland that I started to love season 6 of Buffy. Because even though I hadn’t died and my life in Poland wasn’t heaven, being forced to come back to a city that made me feel lost — well, I could relate. I’d been happy.

In fact, a lot of season 6 hit home for me. Working crappy jobs to pay the bills? Check. Feeling like some cosmic force was messing with me? Check. And it’s the same with all the seasons. Human stories. Supernatural setting.

I could probably keep going, but let’s stop there.

What lessons have you learned from Buffy, writers?

Miss any of my other Buffy posts? I’ve got a whole page for them in the nav bar. Check out Emmie’s Buffyverse for all the Buffy posts!

 

 

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Tiiiiime, Why Do You Punish Me?

Fountain pen

Fountain pen (Photo credit: Sven Van Echelpoel)

Sunday is for writers round these parts! Welcome to today’s edition of Sunday, My Prints Will Come!

I was talking with a friend this week about things that get in the way of writing. Namely, procrastination.

I thought I’d share with you my own personal novel-writing timeline to get us started:

Novel #1: Epic fantasy. Begun 2001. Never finished.

Novel #2: Urban fantasy. Begun 2004. Finished fall 2008. (Four years.)

Novel #3: Urban fantasy. Begun fall 2008. Finished fall 2011. (Three years.)

Novel #4: Urban fantasy. Begun fall 2011. Half-finished. (Got to that point in about 2-3 weeks of writing.)

Novel #5: Urban fantasy. Begun May 2012. Finished June 2012. (Six weeks.)

Novel #6: Urban fantasy. Begun November 2012. Finished December 2012. (Eight weeks.)

Novel #7: Magical realism. Begun January 2013. Ongoing. (See progress meter in the right side bar!)

You’ll notice a very obvious fact if you read through all that.

I went from not completing novels to completing them over the course of several years to finishing books in a matter of weeks or a couple months. The obvious question to go with that obvious fact is: what changed?

Unfinished...?

Unfinished…? (Photo credit: Laser Burners)

The easy answer is that I just decided to write, plunked my ass down in the chair and did it.

But if it were truly that simple, many more people would have finished novels, and the publishing industry would be a lot more competitive than it already is. Which is very competitive.

For me, it boiled down to a few things that truncated years of procrastination:

1. NaNoWriMo

Even though I did NaNo rebel style my first time through in 2011, I finished something. I finished my second full novel and got almost halfway through the third. The real thing this lent to me was the knowledge that I could do it. That I could pound out 60,000 words in a month — or more. Once I knew that, the length of time it had previously taken me to write a novel seemed long, tedious, and rather silly.

2. Consistency

About a year and a half ago, I started blogging every day. Sure, I’ve missed days here and there, but it took me a looooong time to watch through all the fireworks WordPress created at the end of 2012 to celebrate my year of blogging. I write something every day. Even if it’s only a little bit. I do it every single day. This consistency has helped me become a much better writer.

3. Epiphany

Four years is a lot of time. In that time, I graduated from university, wrote a few hundred pages of term papers, wrote a heap of blog posts and journal entries, and wrote copy for real estate fliers and brochures for a year.

Do you see where I’m leading with this? The quality of the writing in my first novel was very uneven. I’d started it in 2004. I finished it in 2008 — after four years of writing other stuff prolifically and reading some great fiction. When you write a novel over the space of years, chances are the writing at the beginning will be drastically different than the writing at the end.

Last week I talked about rereading the second and unfinished third book of my trilogy. The first half of the second book I wrote in 2008 after coming off the high of finishing the first book. The second half of the second book (keeping up?) I wrote three years later in NaNoWriMo 2011. The difference in quality is almost staggering. I could literally see the evolution of my writing skills on the page.

There are benefits to writing quickly. I don’t mean everyone has to write a novel in a month, or even two or six. But there is a huge benefit to the consistency of quality when you are able to do it faster than years.

4. Motivation

This can be just about anything. For me it was a teaching job I couldn’t stand. Now I wait tables, which is fine, because it lets me sleep in, but my job is still a motivating factor for me. Knowing that I’m not yet making a living doing what I’m truly in love with and good at spurs me forward. It makes me put my ass in my chair every day even when I know I’ll be at work for eight hours afterward. Even when I come home from work and need to write the next day’s blog post.

So how do you beat procrastination?

You beat it by figuring out what you really want. You beat it by holding yourself accountable for the hours in the day. You beat it by making a choice. You can start small. You can build up to things. But ultimately, the only thing that’s stopping you from writing is you.

So get out of your way and go.

What clicked for you in your writing habits? When did you decide to do what you love no matter what? Do you still struggle with procrastination? How do you make yourself do what you need to do?

Resurrecting the Dead

How is it Sunday again, gentle viewers? When did the week happen, and how did I miss it?

How I missed it or not, Sunday means it’s writer day round these parts, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the GIFs.

Sunday My Prints Will Come: Trunked Manuscript Edition

Whenever I go back and read something I wrote a long time ago, I approach the manuscript like this:

What is it, precious?

I think everyone’s had that experience. Well, writers, anyway. When you sit down to write a manuscript, your brain whirs along thinking, “Wow. This idea is pretty brilliant. This is gonna be great. This idea will rule the world. This novel’s going to get me on Conan. And the NYT bestseller list. And The Daily Show! Yeah, The Daily Show. Jon Stewart‘s awesome. Never mind that he doesn’t have fiction authors on much. Or at all. I’m gonna be awesome. Everyone’s gonna love this.”

Okay, maybe not those exact words, but there’s an effervescence that comes with starting a new project. You sit down with the lightbulb bright above your head, and you go like this:

Boom. NOVEL.

But then time happens. It goes by, and with it, life. Pretty soon it’s a bunch of years later and your first manuscript is gathering dust somewhere. Most of the time the reason it’s gathering dust is because you realized somewhere along the line that it sucked and you should write something else if you ever wanted to see the light of publication.

That’s about what happened to me. I wrote my first novel over the course of about four years, then the next one in about two and a half after that. I wrote a lot of other things in between. A lot of blog posts and partial novels that were really awful (the partial novels, not the blog posts…I hope). When I finally finished the second half of the second book and plowed through the first half of the third (this was a trilogy), it took a lot of steam.

My First Mistake

Honestly? Sitting on the first book for three years. I finished it in 2008. If I’d really worked and tried to learn about revision and editing THEN, it might have gotten published. Instead, I was oddly tunnel-vision about getting the second book done before I tried to query the first. But hear this, gentle viewers: if I’d tried to get it published back then when the vampire trend was gaining all sorts of momentum and various other physics terms, it might have happened, and I might be in a whole different world now. Or, you know, the same world. But published.

When agent Ginger Clark said, “If you’d brought this to me four years ago, I could have sold it in a heartbeat” at WDC last January, the inside of my head did this:

When someone like that says something to that effect in your direction, it leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth. Of course, she hadn’t read the book. This was after hearing my 30 second pitch. Regardless, I left the conference feeling a bit cranky about my own OCD.

My Second Mistake

I didn’t know how the fuck revision worked four years ago. I thought you looked for comma splices and bad grammar. I didn’t fully understand how to wrangle a 120,000 word novel into workable form. (The other invaluable advice given by Ms. Clark? Chop it by 20K. I chopped 25K.) My second draft had consisted of going through the first draft and retyping the entire thing, with a few minor changes. The third was an eentsy bit better, but I still didn’t know how to recognize major structural problems, and I really had no idea what I was doing. My revision process was like throwing confetti on a fire and hoping it would turn to gold.

Like a boss.

What the Query Shark would have done if she’d known about this.

I knew nothing about structure aside from what I’d absorbed from reading over the years. Which is to say, stuff was vaguely in the right spot, sort of. But it lacked precision. It lacked oomph. And it lacked quality.

Cough.

So after realizing these two gargantuan mistakes and a suitable period of chagrin in which I stuffed my rejection letters under a pile of sticky notes on my desk and buried that under a ream of printer paper, I shelved my trilogy.

Until this week.

For whatever reason, I got curious this week. I’m halfway through my current WIP. I have the first draft of my new urban fantasy series just chillin’ while I wait for my brain to distance itself enough to revise it like Christian Bale would in American Psycho. And between writing heaps and heaps of words and games of Bejeweled Blitz (and the day job), I decided to pull out the third, half-finished book in the trilogy just for shits and giggles.

I waded into the manuscript. And not without some trepidation.

Is it going to eat me?

Much to my utter shock, it didn’t suck.

Far from it.

After the first ten pages, I wanted to pick myself up and do this:

Bad Emmie.

Not because it was awful, but because it was solid. I’d written it in the tail end of 2011’s NaNoWriMo, and I honestly expected it to be total shite. It wasn’t. Sure, there were some sloppy instances of word choice, but it read smoothly and packed a lot of power behind it. Like I said, it’s a trilogy. And as the final book in said trilogy, there were a lot of loose ends that needed to coalesce into some sort of nicely woven hammock to support the Big Bad Finale.

What I was shocked to see was that I’d accomplished those things much, much better than I had anticipated. Reading it re-convinced me that I’d had something with the idea. The characters had depth and emotion. There were a lot of storylines, but they were woven together seamlessly. And apart from one WTF POV moment, all the voices sounded unique.

After beating myself up for ignoring it for so long, I sobered up and stared at my screen for a while.

Always a glutton for punishment, I went back to the second book.

The beginning made me wince a bit. Not gonna lie. I started writing the second book originally before I started writing the first book (and realized I hadn’t started at the beginning of the real story), so the first chapter was embarrassing. I skipped through about half of it until I got to where I’d left off a few years ago. Where I’d picked it back up in November of 2011, it got good.

And it built to a KILLER finale for a second book.

If I went Hulk Smash after finishing what I had done of the third, finishing the fourth and seeing that it wasn’t, in fact, a steaming pile of dung, created this reaction:

Blown.

I’d been trying to figure out the Big What Next for a while. I’m still slogging through the Query Trenches with two books queued up to submit as soon as they’re (properly) revised. Now I know what I want to do: resurrect the trilogy.

It has a lot of potential, but it’s going to erm…need heaps of work. The first book and a half will need more or less a page one rewrite. Which, in screenwriter speak, pretty much means start from scratch, you sad, unfortunate bastard.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I still love the story. I love the epic fantasy elements married with the contemporary fantasy setting and paranormal/urban fantasy creatures. Yes, it’s got vampires. Which’ll make it a tough sell. But there are options, and this is a project that will make me feel good.

I like the feeling that I didn’t “waste” 250,000 words of writing.

I love that I’ve found they might be salvageable after all.

My plan? Crawl back into it and see what happens.

So, writers. What have you written and trunked that you later found wasn’t as awful as you thought it was? Anything you want to spruce up (or tear down and rebuild)? Should writers even do this, or should we just keep moving forward?

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