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Posts Tagged ‘Tippery’

The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

This over reliance on tea-and-conversation scenes is a hallmark of discovery or gardener writers like me. When we get stuck on what happens next, we just sit the characters down for a chat and let them figure it out. Needless to say, this is a time consuming bit of lazy writing, because while it may get us where we’re going eventually, we can spend literally thousands upon thousands of words over the course of a novel having the characters explain the plot to each other, and then we have to go back and remove all those scenes or make them more interesting in their final form (I spent a lot of time in Empire Ascendant in particular going back and making talking scenes more interesting. For real: in the first draft, the first 150 pages of that book was just people talking).

Since I started writing the Worldbreaker Saga, my goal has been to work hard on how I plot and draft novels so that I can write faster, stronger, and more readable stories. But when I was up last night putting in my 500 words for the new Nyx novella dropping on Patreon this month, I immediately caught myself falling into my old routine. After Nyx and her mercenary companions apprehend a rogue Death Magician in a nice action-packed opening, I wrote this:

Khos sat under a tattered awning, mouthing the words on the menu as a scrawny Nasheenian kid peered over his shoulder like a bird. Nyx saw a cup but no tea, nothing that looked remotely wet in that damn cup, sure as fuck not her either, and that annoyed her. He was always coming up with slim excuses to shirk off his work.

            He raised his big head, and had the sense to get up when she  came over the low fence surrounding the tea shop.

            “The fuck, Khos?” she said.

            “You found her?” he said.

            “No thanks to you,” she said. “I’m splitting this bounty with Anneke, cutting you out.”

            “I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said.

            “I don’t give a fuck what you think. Why are you always late to the game, Khos?”

            His glacial face moved into a frown. For all his bulk and careful movements made him seem slow, he wasn’t. Oh, sure, he wasn’t the best to pick up on social cues, but he wasn’t completely stupid. She didn’t like stupid people on her team, and she certainly never fucked stupid people, so he must not be stupid, even though she hated his face in this moment. 

            She reached for the teacup only to have her hand spasm. She shook out the tingling numbness and gripped the cup purposely. If anyone noticed, they said nothing. 

            Falling apart, she was.

            “Get me whisky,” she said, shaking the empty cup.

            “This is a dry town,” Khos said.

            She loomed over the scrawny kid. “Whisky,” she said.

            The kid took off.

            Nyx slumped into the chair across from Khos. “She had two death head beetles on her,” Nyx said.

            “Like the last one,” he said.

            “Want to get them back to Rhys,” she said. 

It just goes on and on like this. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this scene, the truth is I have written tea-and-plot scenes so many times that they bore the crud out of me. And I can’t imagine how much they bore readers, at this point, even with the hints of conflict and tension woven in here.

And while the scene achieves several things: we get a pause after the opening action to regroup; we cover next steps; we get some character moments – I found myself a couple hundred words in before realized I was leaning on my old go-to scene just to churn out a few hundred words and call it done for the night. It repeats information about the beetle, and the fact that they have apprehended the suspect. While I like that it sets up Nyx’s usual distrust of Khos – conflict is always good – I feel I can do this in a scene with a cooler setting that ties into the plot. This could be a shooting range, or a public pool, or a kitchen where Khos is learning local recipes, you know, something that does more than the invisible “tea and whisky chat.” While sometimes you DO have to have a “talk plot” scene, it’s far better to have a “walk and talk plot” scene (or sex-and-exposition scene, which the GoT TV series has become famous for. That’s their own lazy writing go-to for these sorts of scenes).  Better is to have this scene happen somewhere that ties into the overall plot/theme of the book: this scene should happen at or near a crematorium, or in a morgue where Khos is searching bodies to see if any of the recent dead are among the girl’s gang. Fixing this is a classic “pope in the pool” technique from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat ( was watching Mr. Robot recently and laughed uproariously at the first episode, because the main character literally saves a dog and I was like, Wow I can see how that conversation played out. “This character needs to be more likable. Have him save a cat or something!” And lo, the dog was saved. That likability probably could have been better achieved without inserting a dog into the show that then has to be mentioned again and again throughout; unless one is setting up the dog to serve some other purpose).

Leaning on your go-to lazy writing techniques happens even more when you’re writing fast, in short bursts. This is the trouble with giving myself short evening writing goals, and one of the reasons I prefer Saturday binge writing sessions when I can set everything up and write out what comes next. But I’m reserving my Saturdays for working on The Broken Heavens, and this novella won’t get done if I don’t carve out time for it. What this scene reinforced for me is the necessity of sitting down and writing out a couple of sentences about the scene I’m going to write before I write it, even if it’s only 500 words. Otherwise they are all going to end up like this. And while I can go back and fix it later to a morgue or crematorium scene, that’s a pain in the ass. Better to catch myself before I do it and fix it then. The more I write, the easier it is for all the writing to sound the same. Writing in a state of flow doesn’t always mean you write the best ideas, only the ones easiest for your brain to latch onto. While the may be great for the first couple of books, at some point your go-to stuff starts to feel like old hat. You have to start working harder, thinking the scenes through, figuring out how every piece works together and becomes resonant instead of just relying on your brain stew.

Remember that this is not BAD, to do. Plenty of people write the same book over and over and do well doing that. But I don’t want to be OK or even just Good. I want to be GREAT. And these days, with the competition that books have with other sorts of media for readers’ time, I don’t feel that I can afford to be “OK” or even “Good.” More and more, I see that there is only room for great, and everything else.

On Being Too Smart and Assertive in the Workplace

I’ve been blessed with some pretty great bosses in my time, folks who recognized that having somebody smart on the team who got things done made them look good, and meant they did less work because, you know, I was doing it.

But, being a woman in the workplace, it was inevitable that some boss, somewhere, was going to go after me for being smart and assertive.

In truth, being smart and assertive has gotten me into a few pickles, it’s true. I once told the President of a company I worked for exactly what I thought of an executive decision he made, all detailed in a rather brutally honest email (when a leadership team invites open communication, I’m open). He was pissed about it, but after I ground out an apology for my scathing honesty at the behest of my supervisor and we both cooled off, he brought me into a meeting that was basically, “Are we good?” and me, “We’re good.”

And then a few months later I got a 40% raise.

There are bosses out there who recognize when they’re getting good feedback, and that if they can find people willing to be honest and give it to them, those people are gold.

Every boss I had for years appreciated what I did, and gave me outlets for venting “honesty” inside the team. Once we’d hashed out a plan of action, I stayed the course, and we got some exceptional work done.

This worked out for me because I was great at what I did and people understood that. If they didn’t want to hear from me, it was pretty easy to just say, “Kameron, we’re not looking for input on this one. Just grind it out.” And I’d do that. But if you ask for my opinion of your project or your management style, I will give it to you. That’s who I am. I did learn to give my opinion once and not press the issue, because if I started pressing it was viewed as “not being a team player.” So I was able to make that concession. You hired me for my professional opinion. I’ll give it once. If you don’t follow it, no skin off my back. It’s your project.

But I did finally run into a boss who had had enough of my honest opinions at one point. They tried to coach me endlessly on my “tone.” And encouraged me to ask questions, and not come off as being so “smart” and “assertive” and “aggressive.” It was like listening to someone in grade school giving me dating advice, “Boys won’t like you if you’re too smart and assertive!”

It turns out there are plenty of people in the world who like me just as I am, who like me because I’m smart and assertive, including every other job I’d ever had, so it was a bit like living in the Twilight Zone. It was like walking into one of those many studies I read about online, where women are constantly told to step back and let others shine, to reign in their ideas, while guys are praised for the exact same pushy and gabby behavior – and rewarded for it with raises.

Here I was, another statistic.

After the first go-round about this, I went back home for a visit and listened to my dad on the phone with some of his managers. He’s a Regional Director for a national restaurant chain. And let me tell you, I get my management style from my dad – where is this? Why did you send this? Why didn’t you meet this week’s goal? And how are you going to fix this? Followed by clear, blunt, honest statements about performance – good and bad. When you are managing multiple stores across a region there is no time for bullshit. You get right to the point. And when they did well, when they hit numbers, there was praise and high fives all around, but if you aren’t performing, you aren’t performing, and there’s no use sugar coating it.

If something is not working, if a company is tanking, I have no interest in hiding behind niceties and girlish laughter. I’m paid to see the landscape for what it really is, and create marketing and advertising campaigns that turn things around. If I pretend we’re in a market position we’re not, I’m not going to create the right work. End of story.

After a while, I started “softening” my emails at that job by putting “Thanks!” (note the exclamation mark) at the end of each email. And though I knew the ubiquitous smiley face emoji was what everyone really wanted to see from me, the smiley face that’s on every fucking email from every fucking woman in middle management who’s ever been called “too assertive” I wasn’t going to stoop to that. It would be like ripping off my own face.

Eventually I was able to find a new position and put that instance of madness behind me, but to be stuck in the “too smart and too assertive” nightmare land where every competent female employee has spent time was agonizing. I can only scrub out so much of myself before I erase everything I am. And if you erase me being smart and forthright, you erase me being great at what I do, too. And I’m paid because I’m great at what I do.

The good news is that what a couple people said in grade school or what one boss in a dozen says is true is not absolute truth at all. There are plenty of people out there in the world who love smart, assertive women to pieces, and plenty of employers who appreciate us too.

I’ve said before that being in a bad job is like being in a bad relationship, and it’s true.  When you’re in it, you forget that there’s a sane world outside it. And you don’t know how bad it was until you leave.

If you’re stuck in one of these places, and you think being too “smart and assertive” is something you will get at every workplace, so you just put up with it, like there’s something wrong with you instead of something wrong with the fit between you and the company, I want to encourage you to explore your options. It’s true that the studies are bad, the statistics suck, but not every workplace is looking for a drone. There are places that are more than happy to pay you for your expertise, your honest opinion, and your exceptional work.

The truth is that nobody ever changed the world by being stupid and passive, no matter what gender bucket society tossed them in. And that’s what we’re all here for, right? Don’t let the fuckers get you down.

Keep up the good fight.



Who cares? On the importance of banter and character-driven narrative

I’ve been dutifully churning through episodes of Leverage, a sort of modern-day Mission Impossible where a bunch of thieves go about righting wrongs caused to individuals by The Man (big corporations). But though I enjoyed the concept, I just wasn’t getting into the show. I just didn’t care enough about the people involved in it. They didn’t seem to care much, either. I didn’t get any of them had anything better to do, anyway.

After the first episode, the show seemed to forget that it was about people, and just spent a lot of time engineering elaborate heists and double-crosses. I love a good heist as much as the next person, but if I’ve learned anything as a storyteller it’s that nobody cares how great your heist is if they aren’t emotionally invested in it, and they have no reason to be emotionally invested in it unless your characters are.

I asked Twitter if the show got any better, and Michael Underwood said it took him about six episodes to get into. This was way more episodes than I usually give a show, but because it wasn’t actively punching me in the face with overt sexism/racism/bullshit and I had no other shows queued up to watch, I figured I’d give it the six episodes and just put it on in the background while I was surfing the internet or doing line edits. I desperately wanted to fall in love with these characters the way I had the Firefly crew, but they just weren’t clicking – individually or as a team.

I know the moment the show shifted, because it was the moment I actually looked up from Twitter and gave the show my full attention. It was episode 5, and the team was working toward the retrieval of a child a family paid $120k to adopt and then had taken away from them. The hardcore thief of the group, about whom all we knew at this point was that she 1) blew up her house as a child because her dad was a jerk 2) liked money made some savvy observations about the kid’s behavior which confirmed he was an orphan. This was spoken the way it’d be from a foster kid who’d grown up in the system, and for the first time in 5 episodes I actually considered how, indeed, she’d grown up after blowing up her house. Ah, foster kid. This also ended up being the first episode where a character went off the plan for an emotional reason – the thief goes back to save all the orphans who’re being used as pawns in the huckster’s scheme, against the wishes of the team leader.

Ah, I thought. Here we go.

By the next episode, the writers had indeed remembered they were writing about people, not just heists, and suddenly there was witty character banter, and old enemies from their past showing up at weddings, and little emotional outbursts of affection for one another. Even my spouse, who’d been wandering in and out of the living room the last few days I’d been watching, actually looked up from his phone and watched the last half of the episode and said, “Wow. This is finally getting good!”

Here was the magical episode 6 where it finally all came together. It was almost eerie how abrupt the change was. It wasn’t like I watched 5 episodes and slowly started to care about them, it was all pretty much packed into an episode and a half of character banter and emotional decision making.

This shift got me thinking about the importance of character-driven narrative and banter in fiction. Very few readers are going to give you the equivalent of six episodes to get them to care about your characters. I often think the reason it took a lot of folks 50 pages to get into my first book wasn’t just because hey, weird world and bug-powered cars, but because it’s not until after the first 50 that the whole ragtag team of scoundrels comes together. That’s when you get to settle into the more familiar position of figuring out how they all love and hate each other. And oh yeah, do they let you know…

The setup for the other two books always started with figuring out the conflicts all the characters on the team had with one another – this person is Ras Tiegan, and this one hates Ras Tiegans; this one’s a drug user and this one hates drug users, etc. The snarky banter and often violent altercations and tension all sprang from those internal, character-driven conflicts I set up from the start.

I actually started to pay attention to character banter after attending Clarion  with Patrick Weekes (whose first book is out now, BTW), whose day job is writing for BioWare, most notably for the hugely popular Mass Effect series (BioWare games tend to be famous for the high quality of their character banter). At Clarion, he wrote astonishingly entertaining character banter that made you care. When I went back and looked at my own writing, I realized I was spending all my time trying to be a Serious Writer, and sorely neglecting all the humor and snark that makes life itself bearable. It was the revelation that maybe I should be spending more time figuring out snarky dialogue and fight scenes that eventually led me to write God’s War the way I did.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in something else – worldbuilding, or plot – that we forget about the people, and we forget that the world exists to make the people the way they are and the plot only exists because the characters move it. I did exactly this when I wrote the first pass of my latest book. I was so preoccupied with writing a well-plotted book (for once!) that I completely neglected character banter, then wondered why on earth it felt so flat when I’d so completely nailed the plot (finally!). Turns out focusing so hard on plot had given me a severe case of novel myopia. All I could see were the plot machinations, instead of the conflict and tension between the characters.

So I went back and teased out all the tensions between the characters. And I let them make fun of themselves, and each other, because let’s face it – you need humor most when the world’s ending. You can have the coolest plot, the coolest heist, in the world – in the universe! – but if your characters don’t care, or I don’t care about your characters, what’s the point? It’s just a bunch of strangers arguing about somebody else’s football team on the train.

What’s funny is that if folks do this right, you don’t notice it. You only notice it when it’s not there.  And then you just change the channel, or pick up another book.

Series and franchises work because you fall in love. I think one of the things we struggle with, as creators, is understanding what it is, exactly, that makes us fall in love. We think it’s about perfection, or beauty. But it’s not. It’s adversity. It’s passion. It’s watching somebody struggling to achieve something they care passionately about; somebody who’s not perfect at all, but who perseveres anyway. It’s watching people who are hurt, who are down, who get up again and go another round.

It’s people who care about the world, and each other.

Because if they don’t care about the plot, or what becomes of their comrades (good or bad) why should we?



On Sticking to Your Guns When the World Wants Posies

It’s no big news that I write a lot. Like, a lot. I’m attached to 400-600 projects a year at the day job. I do freelancing work for a couple of clients – blog posts, press releases, that sort of thing. Then I picked up an adjunct position at a local design school teaching copywriting (if you want to figure out your process and do a deep dive/study in copy, I recommend trying to teach it to other people. You learn a lot). Then there’s those pesky fiction books, which is the type of writing everybody wants to ask me about, even though it only makes up about 10% of my income in a good year.

And that’s the rub, there. I do a tremendous amount of work. About 80% of it is what I think of as “high churn” work – stuff that is pretty easy to get knocked out because I’ve done it so much and the folks asking for it are so specific.

When you do a high level of churn work, writing fiction is a real treat, because in my fiction I don’t have to please anybody but me. I can write what I want. Tell the stories I want. I can be as weird and brutal and disgusting as I want (I just had somebody come back on a project and tell me I couldn’t use the phrase “Get Lucky” because it was a double entendre. Well of *course* it is. That’s why it was interesting).

Big book deals and movie deals and tv deals are the stuff that writing dreams are made of, and I can’t help but see them all the time in the media, even knowing that they’re not exactly a good indicator of what happens for most of us. But when I look at what’s being picked up for that stuff, I can’t help but notice that it isn’t for the type of stuff I write. There’s a market love for YA right now, and… I don’t write YA (though it has drawn some excellent writers, further enhancing the genre’s appeal). And now houses are clamoring for BDSM Twilight knockoffs.

I can’t help but sit down every night at the keyboard, staring at this bizarre opening I have with this sentient plant life devouring a city while magical radiation rains from the sky and think: holy hell crap nobody is going to buy this shit. There is no market for it. There’s this part of me that feels this incredible pressure to both be weirder and better and crazier than GOD’S WAR while somehow creating some kind of perfectly palatable market-likey thing.

But I’ve been in this place before.

I was in this place when I first started writing. I read all these sword and sorceress stories, you know, like those ones in the Marion Zimmer Bradley anthologies, and I tried so hard to write stuff just like them. I tried to make my stuff sound exactly the same as those stories.

And you know? I hated every gut-slicing minute of it. I despised everything I read and everything I wrote. I wrote it because there was a market for it. Not because I loved it.

Writing fiction was the churn for me, then. The way that would surely deliver me from my boring life so I could travel, so I could be on my own, so I could actually live an interesting life.

But now that I make a living writing a lot of churn, I can’t bring myself to come home and write more churn. I can’t bring myself to write something I hate. Because readers can smell that a thousand miles away. There are people who love love love to write sexy alpha male erotic fantasy, and readers eat it up because they love it too. Love + love = sales.

I don’t want to be the writer somebody puts in a box. I don’t want somebody to put a stamp on my book that says, “Just like Author X!”

But I have to remind myself of this. I have to remind myself a lot. Because we see and know what’s currently “hot.” Because it all sounds so fun and glamorous. Because when you compare yourself to what other people do, you despair.

What I realized early on is that I didn’t start selling stuff – really selling stuff – until I started writing the sort of angry brutal women war atrocity fiction that I found interesting.  GOD’S WAR and its ilk are – Prime knows – a hot, hot mess. But they are mine. And nobody else could have written them but me.

It’s hard to hold onto that. It’s hard to watch the success of people you know, and have your family ask you about why you don’t have a movie deal, or more awards (is two not enough?), or why you haven’t signed with a “real” publisher or sold 100k copies, or why you haven’t quit your day job yet. It’s hard. I won’t lie. It’s hard for every one of us. Because there’s always somebody more successful. Somebody who sells more. Who’s loved more.

But I don’t want to be the writer that gets put in somebody’s box. I want to be the fucking person who CREATES a category. I want something unique. Something I own . Something that’s mine. I don’t need to ride on coattails and fads and chase what’s hot purely because it’s hot. I need to love it – the way so many people love the stuff they’re writing right now that just so happens to fit that niche.

There was this person who told me once in regards to a place I worked, “If you’re in a race and your goal is to keep up with the person in front of you, you’re going to lose the race every time.”

Yet most of us spend our lives this way, desperately trying to catch up, running after other people’s success, running in circles, wondering why we aren’t going anywhere; why we’re not getting ahead.

I’m not in a race on a track. I’m flailing around in the darkness, treading through brambles, screaming and shouting at clouds like some old dude, wondering what the fuck I’m doing trying to hack out my own path where there are plenty of paved ones all around me.

It sucks. It’s hard. I fucking hate it.

And you know, sometimes I find myself wading back toward that well-lit road, cursing and sobbing, I wander back, I crawl toward the light.

Then I stand up. I wipe myself off. I suck it up. And I turn away. I go back the way I came, machete in hand, and resolve to get just a little further this time.

Because if I can’t do it, I can’t very well expect anybody else to.

And I think this is what we need. As writers. As creators. We need this intense desire and courage to go someplace that nobody else thought of, or believes in. Because those things nobody believes in? Sometimes – only sometimes – they end up being the next big thing. They end up being the stuff that other people strive to imitate.

The rest of the time, of course, you die cold and alone in the woods.

But at least it wasn’t while you were churning out something you didn’t love with all your insane, squishy little machete-mangled heart.