James Scott Bell’s Tips for Making a Scene Great

Hi everyone–
This blog is mostly written for readers, but occasionally i like to slip in some writing craft which i hope gives readers a better insight into the books they read and shares some ideas with fellow writers. This post
is one of those.

This past Saturday, novelist James Scott Bell spoke at my RWA chapter meeting (we have a great chapter). He gave us so much useful stuff, i can’t begin to share it all, but i will pass on a wonderful tidbit of inspiration that helped me a lot. Then maybe in another blog, i’ll share some more.

James taught us that every scene must have an objective, obstacles, and an outcome. This is something a writer feels instinctively but actually hearing it from a teacher helps us bring it into practice. And readers also sense that this is what makes a scene great. The outcome of a scene can be success or setbacks or it can be a success that leads to a setback. In fact, until you get close to the end of the book, a lot of scenes will lead to setbacks.

 Then he shared the principle of SUES. No, not lawyerese! It stands for Something Unexpected in Every Scene. This keeps the readers on their toes and looking forward to the next scene. And to help us do that, he gave us the best tip! He said after you’ve written a scene, go back in and look around through the character’s eyes. What could the character see or notice that wasn’t there before? He told us we didn’t have to explain the item then. It could become significant later.

I love this tip and it helped me with a scene i’d written a few days ago and knew was kind of boring. It had some interesting details in it that would be important later, but the scene didn’t quite have a clear objective. When i came home yesterday, i immediately went back to the scene and inserted a discovery. An object my hero finds that he doesn’t recognize. He wonders what it is, but that’s all. I’m hoping the readers will also wonder what it is. When Cataclysmic Shift comes out later this year, maybe you’ll guess the scene.

This is a simple tip, but a great one for spicing up a scene. For those of you anxious to have more of this valuable information, let me share the link to James’ plotting tool that is available online. I can’t endorse it because i haven’t used it yet, but if yesterday’s talk was any indication, it should be great.

Thank you all for coming by!  : )

Plotting & Pantsing Under the Whip — NANO

I’m slightly more than halfway through the first NaNo i’ve ever done and have reached over 60,000 word on the sequel to Genetic Attraction (coming out Jan 4) called Androgynous Dreams. I’d say “can i hear an Amen?” except there’s still a long way to go, though i do feel a teeny bit confident i’ll make it. I even like the book — i think. You see, normally when i write, i go back and read quite a lot. That doesn’t work for NaNo. For one thing, it takes too much time, for another, too much editing is kind of against the rules.So, i think the book is working but i’m not sure and won’t be until December (or whenever i finish 50K words, whichever comes first).

I’ve learned something really important to my future life as a writer. I can comfortably fit 2000 words into a day, even when i’m pretty darned busy. Not everyday, but a lot of them. And those are days that still include sleep, food and maybe even exercise — as well as the day job. A cool discovery.

Here’s what i think is working for me, NaNo-wise. I thought about the plot a fair amount before NaNo began. Then, on a veteran NaNoers advice, i actually wrote down a list of scenes. I haven’t looked at it since, i must confess, but i have a good memory and that semi-outline is helping me stay on track. Thats the plotting part.

The pantsing is most of the writing, but as i go i solve problems. For example i realized two key issues — i had one too many coincidences in the plot and, as usual, i didn’t have enough conflict. I solved these problems in the walking around staring time of day. You know, when people are talking to you and you’re not answering? Or when you’re supposed to be sleeping. I solved the problem i think successfully by combining the two issues. I got rid of the coincidence and made the event (one hero showing up at the home of another) a deep manipulation by a villainous person. Bingo! I had conflict. Now my second hero is a tool of a bad guy and we have to see how he gets himself out of it.

So if you’ve never done NaNo, i’d suggest giving it a try some year. I have friends who say their life is NaNo and they don’t need the push. For me, who loves challenges and rises to occasions, it’s been a blessing so far. Even in the face of having my release date on Genetic Attraction moved up to Jan 4, having to do all the edits in a few days rather than weeks, having one of the busiest work schedules ever, and needing to plan all the promotion for my book release, NaNo has kept me writing. So far, so good. What’s your NaNo experience so far? (BTW, the photo is for inspiration)  :  )

Plotter versus Pantser

Ask  fiction writers if they’re plotters or  pantsers and most  will know what you mean. Plotters, as their name implies, carefully construct the plot of their books, at least chapter by chapter and, most frequently, scene by scene. They may do this on the computer or the old-fashioned way, on index cards that can be moved around on a bulletin board. The classic plotter knows precisely where the high points of the book occur, where the climax is, what the denouement will consist of, where the sex scenes occur (if its a romance). They may describe every detail of a scene before writing it. The actual writing just inserts the dialogue and emotion.

Pantsers are another matter. These writers operate by instinct, inspiration and write from the seat-of-their-pants. I had one pantser writer tell me that she literally can’t determine anything about her story before she starts, not even the plot outline.  Now, that’s inspiration. I recently wrote a post (see below) called Talking to Your Characters and explained how you may think you know what’s going to happen in a story, but once your characters start talking to you, things happen on their own. The “pure pantser” is the extreme of this idea. It  scares the wits out of a plotter, but pantsing is very successful for many writers.

There is no right or wrong way. Choosing how to plot a book is individual to each author. I’m a mixture of plotter and pantser. I usually start with some germ of an idea and it suggests a character. I got an e-mail from a friend in London raving about the ballet and i thought wouldn’t it be fun to write a book with a male ballet dancer as the hero. (I’m writing that book now). Then i need a plot for this hero. I walk around in a fog and don’t get a lot of sleep for a few days while some story builds itself around the hero. I write (on cards) who the main characters are and what the significant plot points will be. Just high points. Two heroes meet, have a kiss, one runs, third man in the menage enters, meets dancer, other hero gets angry, comes to rescue, three hook up, etc. You get the gist. For me, knowing that i have enough plot for the general length i want the book to be is important. That’s why i map out some plot points in advance. I need to know what the conflict will be so i can introduce the seeds of that conflict right at the beginning. Who is the villain, if any? How will i get that person on stage? What research do i have to do to make my story believable? This all sounds very organized but it’s actually not. Most of it happens in my head, with only a bit ever written down.

Then the pure pantsing comes in. I have no idea at the beginning, how i’ll get from one plot point to another until i start writing. That’s where the characters talk to me and everything just happens, seat-of-the-pantswise. As i come upon each scene i generally have to pause for awhile and figure out the best place to start to get to the action most quickly. Then i plunge. Stuff happens and i learn things i’ve always wanted to know.

I guess i’m a “plotser”. How about you?

Where Do the Stories Come From?

At breakfast yesterday, my husband asked about the new stories i’m plotting. I started describing a science fantasy menage and how there are two races on the planet, one a dominant invader group of tall, aggressive humanoids and the other a more gentle race. But there are also some hybrids and our rebel leader is one of those. The dominants are blue skinned and very modest but live on energy — And my husband shook his head. “Where do you come up with these ideas?”

That’s the question that many people ask. When i decided to write my first book, Genetic Attraction, i had to answer it for myself. Where to start? Well, romance is fantasy and i have plenty of those so i decided to start there. I’ve always had an older woman/younger man fantasy (since i became an older woman) so i grabbed that element. But i wanted to write male/male, so i thought, what if the hero has a male lover? I love my men pretty, so lets make him a super-beauty. And i want my heroine to be smart and capable so i fished around in all the many technologies and businesses i learn about in my day job and decided it would be cool if she was a genetic scientist. Then i needed conflict (the tough part for me) so lets put her to work in a University. From my past experience, i know that higher education is a hotbed of politics, so that should provide a real basis for crises. And so a story was born.
What i learned after that was that creating stories is like sex. The more you have the more you want. As i wrote Genetic Attraction, i couldn’t bear the idea of leaving my characters, so i wrote a prequel that tells how the two men met in Los Angeles and fell in love. I adore that story and i’m editing it now for submission. In that book, Jake’s brother appears and he’s such a great character i started creating a story for him. That book is being plotted now. Then i received an e-mail from one of my best friends who lives in London raving about a ballet she saw. I love ballet. What if i created a story with a male ballet dancer? And who could be the other man? Maybe a reporter trying to get a story and — i’m off on another book.
For years i couldn’t imagine what i would write about. Now i can’t figure out how i’ll live long enough to write all the stories in my head. Dig into a fantasy. Figure out what turns you on. Put your hands on the keyboard and write.
The photo above is one of the inspirations for my character, Jake Martin, in Genetic Attraction.