Genius: The Relationship Between Editor and Writer

by Monica Shaughnessy

red-pen-1422017The movie Genius, starring Jude Law and Colin Firth, is catching buzz in writerly circles. It’s the story of famed editor, Max Perkins, and his protege, Thomas Wolfe. Okay, so the reviews aren’t great. Ironically, one reviewer said the movie was overly long and could’ve used an editor’s red pen itself. 🙂 But that’s not going to stop me from seeing it, and here’s why…

A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that a literary biopic “usually describes sensationalistic yarns that cover every aspect of an author’s personal life — his or her sexual hangups, drug addiction, legal and economic woes — but hardly ever his actual job, writing.” This movie breaks that mold, and I find this refreshing – poor reviews or not.

You see, writing IS a job. It’s not a silly daydream or a gift from Heaven or the residue of angel wings or even what’s at the bottom of a whisky bottle. It’s thinking. It’s showing up and putting your rear in the seat. It’s planning. It’s debating, sometimes with yourself, sometimes with your characters. And it’s hard work. A lot of people who don’t write (and a few who dabble) think it’s purely art. If only that were true. So a movie that focuses on the actual job of writing, a movie that lifts the curtain and shows the struggle and heartache and emotion and finesse that goes into spinning words into prosaic gold needs, in my mind, a round of applause.

But that’s only half the story, isn’t it?

Genius asks the thought-provoking question: Would Thomas Wolfe have become an American Icon without the help of his editor? Likely not.

Enter one Max Perkins. The man was no ordinary editor, though. He worked with both Fitzgerald and Hemingway (my idols). Standing toe-to-toe with literary giants is, I imagine, no easy feat. To do so, one has to possess gifts of equal or greater value. Before anyone calls me out and says, “Hey, if that Perkins guy was such a genius, why didn’t I read his book in high school English?” Well…because editing is a completely different skill.

A reporter for the Houston Chronicle writes, “Of all the creative gifts, the ability to edit — that is, to edit text — is the least heralded and the least understood.
Most people have never been edited, and those who benefit from it most tend to forget that the editing ever happened. But the ability to see a shape within a mess, to recognize a structure before it’s in place, to understand on a first read what is there that doesn’t belong and what belongs that isn’t there — this is no casual talent.”

Disclaimer: I am a developmental editor.

Am I biased? Heck, yeah. Nonetheless, the Chronicle reporter hits the nail on the head. An editor’s job (at least a developmental editor’s job) is to see inside a story and interpret what the writer meant to say. Once that’s done, the editor must gently shepherd the writer toward the stronger version of their story, a version the writer must actually agree is stronger. Now if you’ve never been edited before, you might be thinking, “The only version of my story I’m interested in is mine! I won’t have someone telling me how to write!”  To that I say, keep calm and carry on. If an agent accepts your manuscript, you’ll be edited then. If they sell it to a publishing house, it will be edited a second or third time. And if you go straight to self-publishing, readers themselves will tell you how you should’ve edited it. Rarely does a book succeed without input.

If you’re a reader, I encourage you to marvel at the unseen hand of an editor the next time you consume a flawlessly executed book. If you’re a writer just starting out, considering hiring an editor to take your prose and plot to the next level. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Am I a genius? Nah. I’ll leave that to Max Perkins.

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Writing 101: The Character Arc

by Monica Shaughnessy

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If you’re a beginning writer or maybe a writer struggling with your second novel, you might be wondering how to construct the perfect character arc. Well, I’m here to help. First, let’s define it, shall we?

Character Arc: a character’s emotional journey throughout the story. 

This is completely different from (but intertwined with) characterization, which is the exploration of details about a character’s past and present that make them seem real and that help drive decisions (along with emotion) throughout the story. For instance, if your main character is autistic (characterization), it will significantly alter their emotional choices (arc). One feeds into the other. But for the sake of this post, let’s extract the character arc so that we may study it in detail.

At the opening of your story, your character begins with an emotional state. Here are some classic opening emotions:

Boredom – I wish something exciting would happen to me for a change.

Joy – I met the most wonderful guy last week, and now we’re dating.

Terror – I just woke up, and there’s a man at the foot of my bed.

Pressure – If I don’t defuse the bomb, the mall will explode.

Throughout the story, your character’s emotional state will vary, but the main emotion, the one you begin with, will drive the forward action of the plot because your MC will either be trying to rid themselves of that feeling or trying to maintain that feeling, despite roadblocks. So choose this state carefully and with purpose.

As we progress through the story, here’s how the above emotions might play out, depending on plot turns:

Boredom – I went looking for action, and I found it! Hooray! Except, it’s more dangerous than I thought it would be. And I have to be home in time for dinner.

Joy – My guy’s mother doesn’t like me. She’s trying to tear us apart.

Terror – I’m going to fight my way out of this situation. Again and again.

Pressure – I’m getting a little old for all this pressure. Do I even want it anymore?

As the story progresses, your character will continue to fight for what they want or they might begin to see what they’re fighting for isn’t worth it.

Boredom – Well, I’m not bored anymore. Because I’m in the emergency room with a broken foot.

Joy – I’m so confused. We were so happy once. Can we be that way again? Maybe, if his mother moves to Boca Raton.

Terror – I refuse to live in terror. I will make a plan, once and for all, to end this.

Pressure – You know, defusing bombs is kind of fun. And it beats working for the post office.

By the end of the story, your character will come to terms with the emotions they’ve been feeling since page one, and they will assess whether they want to maintain that initial state or not. Even if they don’t control the outcome of the plot, they can still choose their mental state.

Boredom – Things aren’t so bad at home. Especially when you compare them to a trip to the ER. I’ll take homework and dinner with my parents any old day! (character craves boredom)

Joy – Who needs a mamma’s boy? The guy was a jerk. Good riddance. (character realizes that joy is no longer attainable)

Terror – I defeated that crazy guy and reclaimed my life so that I can live in peace. (character overcomes terror)

Pressure – This job is totally worth whatever stress it gives me. I’m not ready to retire. (character accepts pressure)

You see? The main character will accept or overcome or reject or crave what they once felt. In all cases, the emotion is tightly bound by the plot, and the plot is tightly bound by emotion. If, once you write your story, you can’t easily change the plot without damaging what the character is experiencing emotionally, then you’ve nailed your character arc. Congratulations! But if you can easily swap out one emotion for another, say, lust for greed, then your story needs more work.

With a little hard work, I know you can get it right!

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Your turn, dear reader. Having trouble with a pesky character arc? Let’s talk shop.

 

Truly Bad Date? Share It and Win!

by Monica Shaughnessy

broken-heart-1316091“Love them or hate them, we’ve all had first dates…”

That’s the opening line of our blurb for First Last Forever: A Collection of First Date Disasters, and I think it’s one most people can identify with, no matter the culture or country. Even arranged marriages begin with a “date” – the wedding date! As we near the most romantic day of the year – Valentine’s Day – this is the perfect time to discuss such matters of the heart. Do you, dear reader, anticipate first dates with dry palms and nerves of steel? Or do you look forward to “getting them over with” so that the second date can begin, the date where you can relax and be YOU, the YOU that wears Converse high tops with dresses and puts Sriracha on pizza and sings off-key to “Ex’s and Oh’s.” (that’s not ME, I swear).

Before writing my own stories for the anthology, I didn’t give much thought to my past. I already had some plot ideas involving situations I’d never been in, like speed dating. No “plumbing the depths” necessary. But then this post arose, forcing me to catalog all of the firsts I could remember, starting with (eeek!) high school. After rummaging through the dusty filing cabinet in my brain, I came up with some truly awkward moments.

Take a look at my top four dating fiascos. I bet you’ve been in a few yourself:

  1. The Set-Up – “Oh, honey, he’s a nice boy, and we like his parents. You only have to go out with him once.” Oy. The small talk on this date was excruciating. Spanish inquisition-type stuff. But the joke was on me, because years later this frog turned into a prince.
  2. The Stand-Up – “Where could he be? Let me check my dial tone. Maybe he tried to call and couldn’t.” Mmm hmm. Bad connection. Gotta be. For anyone under the age of thirty, “checking your dial tone” equates to pinging your BFF with a desperate text asking if she’s receiving because he just. isn’t. answering.
  3. The Sit Down and Shut-Up – “Who is this guy? Certainly not the guy who asked me out. Because the guy who asked me out stopped talking long enough for me to to say yes.” This date was the OPPOSITE of the Set-Up. Too much talking. So much that I hardly got a word in edge-wise. By the end of the evening, I knew every possible thing about him…and he barely knew my name.
  4. The I Give-Up – “We should just be friends. No? Well, we should try. Really. Friends. You’re not getting the hint. Will you stop? Sigh. I guess one date couldn’t hurt.” Sadly, I have been on more than one of these. I am clearly a sloooow learner.

I’m sharing these to get the ball rolling, dear reader. Between now and February 10th, we’re hosting a contest to give away a copy of First Last Forever. We’ll select one winner randomly from the comments below. And I’m expecting my fellow Space City Scribes to stop by and share their embarrassing stories as well. You will, won’t you, ladies?

YOUR TURN: Tell us about your truly awful first date or funny first date or romantic first date, and you’re automatically entered to win a copy of our book. Thanks for reading! And good luck!

 

Acing Unlikeable Protagonists

by Monica Shaughnessy

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Tell My Story. I Dare You.

When I look back at some of the short stories I’ve written, many, many of them feature unlikeable main characters. I find deeply flawed people fascinating, and it’s easy to “get away with” telling their secrets in short form. Readers might not stick with them for an entire novel, but they’ll definitely stick with them over, say, ten pages.

Here are just a few of the evil/pathetic/bigoted main characters I’ve cast over the years:

Lydia Strichter (“The Trash Collector”) – A bigot with a big mouth who loves prying into other people’s business. Perma-free on Amazon.

Josie Kreneck (“Date From Hell,” First Last Forever) –  A fickle thirty-something who’s dumped more men than Madonna.

The Professor (“Hell Cent,” Lethal Lore) – An academician with a giant ego and a yen for strangling women.

Lydia Strichter, by far, has hit the most home runs with readers. Reviews mention her by name, either calling her out for bigotry or praising her journey. (I won’t spoil the ending!) The Professor comes in a distant second, but only because “Hell Cent” is part of a recently released collection and “The Trash Collector” is perma-free (and more widely distributed). We’ll see about Josie Kreneck. But I think her story will resonate with readers as well.

So how do you write an unlikeable character that people will tolerate, maybe even secretly like or identify with? Here are my top tips:

  1. Give them a past tragedy that evokes sympathy and let it drive the story. Lydia is a grieving widow. Josie is afraid of entering middle age alone. The Professor is out of a job. Even readers who haven’t gone through one of these major life events can at least imagine what it’s like to lose a husband, their youth, or their career. This evokes a sympathetic response from the start. It’s harder to hate (truly hate) someone when you know they’ve had a rough past.
  2. Give them a least one likable or admirable quality. Perhaps it’s a sterling work ethic (The Professor) or sentimentality (Lydia) or even bravery (Josie). Your unlikeable main character must have at least one winning quality. Why? Because that’s real life. And people love characters that read like real life. No one is ever “all bad” or “all good.” If you write them like that, you’re creating cardboard characters (which is WORSE than writing unlikeable characters!) Plus, it gives readers something to root for when things turn ugly.
  3. Give them a foible that is very, very common. If a reader has that foible, too, or at least knows someone with it, chances are, they will receive your protagonist more kindly. In the case of my characters, Lydia is uncomfortable with anything too “different.” Josie is desperate for companionship. The Professor is superstitious. I don’t know about you, but these traits resonate with me because I’ve displayed them at one time or another in my life. Luckily not all at once!

Okay, to show you all of these tips in action (and to prove they work), I’m going to give you some characteristics of a real person (now deceased) who has made a great unlikeable main character in both fiction and non-fiction in the past. And by the way, all of the bullet points below are factual. Can you guess who I’m talking about?

Our Protagonist was:

  • An aspiring artist and cartoonist
  • A student with unfilled dreams
  • A grieving brother
  • A decorated veteran with multiple war wounds
  • A vegetarian against the slaughter of animals
  • A loving husband
  • An electrifying speaker

I don’t know about you, but I can either identify with or root for many of these qualities, even admire them. Except, they all belong to…

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>

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Adolph Hitler.

Yeah, no kidding.

Which leads me to the very last tip:

4. Don’t make your main character so freaking bad that no tragic past/admirable quality/common foible can overcome their evil. In other words, it’s possible to wade too far into the deep end and create a character that prompts readers to shut the book on page one and curse your name. Er, like Hitler.

So don’t be afraid of casting bad guys in protagonist roles. Just do it with thought and planning and a little sympathy.

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How about you, dear reader? Ever cast a bad guy as your protagonist? Ever made your hero an anti-hero? Let’s discuss!

Romance Readers: A Dating Disaster Anthology!

by Monica Shaughnessy

UPDATE: Our Rafflecopter promotion is now live! Enter to win your own copy of our new anthology. Check out our Facebook fan page for more details. (ends Feb. 1)

The Space City Scribes are releasing a new romance anthology on February 5th, just in time for Valentine’s Day. But it’s available now through pre-sale on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99 cents. Months ago, we met to brainstorm fun romance ideas for the collection. We knew, however, that we needed to put a twist on what’s already out there. So the ever-creative K.C. Maguire suggested first date stories. But not just any first dates, bad first dates. Ah! How terrible could we make them? I’m boasting, of course, but I think my story, “Date From Hell,” sinks to a new low for lovers. You must read it, of course, to find out why a “hot date” isn’t necessarily a good time. Then again, my writing companions threw some pretty awful stuff at their hapless couples: hurricanes, bullets, community service, stalking…  Curious now, aren’t you?

FLF hands FINAL

Synopsis: Love them or hate them, we’ve all had first dates. From the blush of romance to the slamming of a door, nothing can capture—or repel—our hearts so fully. Do we swoon with desire? Hope for tenderness? Or does the first meeting shatter any chance of two souls connecting?

In First Last Forever, each story follows the passionate, sometimes accidental rendezvous between two people as they fight to overcome the one obstacle between them and happiness—the disastrous first date. Will they end with a promise, a parting, or a pledge? Read these stories to find out.

First:

“Valentine’s Date” by KC Maguire- Should we be friends?

“Salt to a Wound” by Mandy Broughton – First world dating problems

“Speed Freaks” by Monica Shaughnessy – Five minutes to find forever. Or just the next good time.

“Prima Facie” by Artemis Greenleaf – Say no to drugs and yes to romance.

Last:

“Date from Hell” by Monica Shaughnessy – Karma has never been so sexy.

“A Soliloquy of Survival or First Dates Suck” by Ellen Leventhal – Stalkers can be so hot.

“Dance” by Artemis Greenleaf – Killer dates come in small packages with excellent dance moves.

Forever:

“Cassie” by Artemis Greenleaf – High winds lead to high romance.

“In the Mood” by Mandy Broughton – Principal Charming

“Famine’s Daughter” by Artemis Greenleaf – Never force a woman’s hand.

“Auld Lang Syne” by Ellen Leventhal – Can we call a do-over?

Buy your copy now!

Holiday Goodies from the Space City Scribes!

by Monica Shaughnessy

I envy you, dear reader. You’ve already completed your holiday to-do list, haven’t you? If not, I bet you’ve completed half. Want to know how many people I’ve crossed off my gift-giving list? Two. TWO. If I didn’t have Amazon Prime, I’d be sweating my jingle bells off right now. And let’s not forget the biggest dilemma of all – deciding what I want for Christmas. People need to know, and they need to know NOW because they’re trying desperately to cross me off their list. If I don’t answer quickly enough (ie, before December 24th), I will certainly receive reindeer leg warmers or a battery operated pen that blinks when you write or a gift basket filled with cheese that doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Ho-ho-ho.

So forgive me if this post is quick and to the point.

This holiday season, the Space City Scribes are offering discounts and freebies to our blog readers (and all readers):

Monica Shaughnessy (that’s me!) marked down most of her Amazon.com books to 99 cents for the remainder of December:


Mandy Broughton is offering ONE free digital download from iTunes/iBooks in December, the book of your choice:

To receive your download coupon, email her:
To: Info [at sign] CypressCEUs [dot] com
Subject line: Free Mystery [insert title choice here]

Artemis Greenleaf marked down several of her titles to 99 cents for the remainder of December:

K C Maguire is offering a FREE piece of flash fiction for our blog readers. She manages to blend sci-fi and sexy in this stunning short about a man who’s desperate to please his android partner. Click here to read “Holo Imitation.”


And last but not least, we’ve marked Space City Six: Houston Stories from the Weird to the Wonderful down to 99 cents.

Like the holiday season, our offers end on January 1st.

Thank you for your readership and your support. We hope you remember to treat yourself before the new year. You deserve it! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shopping.

Lethal Lore Cover Reveal – Get Ready for a Spooky Read!

by Monica Shaughnessy

UPDATE: Lethal Lore is now live!!! You can buy it here just in time for Halloween.

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Just a quick note to share the cover of Lethal Lore: Four Twisted Myths. It’s not for sale yet, but I’m hoping to get it out ASAP — a week or two, tops. I’ve been working on these stories for awhile, and they’re different from anything I’ve published so far. But if you’re a fan of my work, know they’re written with the same attention to detail as my Cattarina books.

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Here’s a breakdown of the stories inside:

Killer Jack

Hardy Thibault bags more than he bargained for during a jackalope hunt. (campy horror)

Simple Math

When William Roberson’s doppelgänger comes to town, his troubles double. (sci-fi suspense)

Hell Cent

See a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have murder and mayhem. (contemporary horror)

The Bells of Bury St. Edmunds

The Green Children of Woolpit are here. Lock your doors and hide your knives. (gothic horror)

Happy Halloween!

Indie Blow-Out at the Indiepalooza Conference

by Monica Shaughnessy

chairs-1442847If you’re an indie author (or thinking about becoming one) and live in the Greater Houston Area, then you should definitely go to Houston Writers Guild’s Indiepalooza on September 26th at the Crown Plaza (Galleria area). I will be speaking during the first break-out session on “Adding Art to Your Words.” I’ll talk about spicing up your indie works with illustration and building digital picture books and bonus books (for adults) using the Kindle Kid’s Book Creator.

Here’s a summary of my talk:

Images, whether photos or sketches, take your project to a professional level. During this workshop, learn how to jazz up your novel’s interior with illustrations and graphics. You’ll also discover how to work with programs like Kindle Kids’ Book Creator to take your picture book from idea to digital reality. Then we’ll dive into graphic “bonus books” that push creative limits and package extra content for your fans. Lastly, you’ll get an overview of the tools you’ll need to make it happen. Find out why indie publishing doesn’t have to be black and white anymore.

If art isn’t your thing, there are lots of other break-out sessions to choose from. Take a look:

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For those wanting an extra networking opportunity, there’s also a kick-off cocktail party the night before with the Pulpwood Queen’s founder, Kathy L. Murphy. She’ll offer insight on the relationship between book clubs and authors.

If you’re on the fence about coming, don’t be. I went to a HWG conference last year, and it was a great opportunity to meet fellow Houston writers. And I learned a few things to boot! What are you waiting for? Sign up now!

Laboring on Labor Day

by Monica Shaughnessy

It’s a three-day weekend, and you know what that means! Time to do all those nagging house projects that seem too time consuming for a “regular” weekend! So much for Labor Day, a day of rest and relaxation. But I’m not the only one tackling the ‘to-dos.’ By tomorrow morning, nearly a third of the curbs in my neighborhood will overflow with evidence of a labor-filled weekend: the BIG garage clean-up,the home office toss-athon, the game room declutter…you name it. Which means the garbage collectors will have LOTS of fun in a couple of days.

But this is a blessing, I suppose.

Back in 1886, when Labor Day first began, workers were at the mercy of cruel employers and brutal government tactics. One only has to read about the Pullman Strike to understand. These were dark times. And while some of you may argue that employers are still crooked (some are) and government tacts are still underhanded (some are), they are nothing like they used to be back in the “good old days.” The fact that we’re yearning to clean out our garages this weekend, shows how incredibly far we’ve come as a labor force.

So whether you’re doing this today:

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Or this:

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…just be glad you have the choice. Many of our ancestors didn’t.

Happy Labor Day!

Flesh and Blood Angels

by Monica Shaughnessy

angel-1406127I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by angels. No, no, not the kind with wings and trumpets. The flesh and blood kind.

When a writing injury side-lined me (repetitive motion is a killer, folks!), many, many friends offered assistance. “Can I help you type? Can I help you format? Can I help you with errands? Can I help you with…anything?” they asked. I won’t embarrass them by naming them (they know who they are!), but I am grateful for their kindness. Some of the offers I humbly accepted, some I didn’t. But even the ones I didn’t made me feel like help was just an email away should I need it – a comforting thought.

My husband will most likely be canonized at some point for his role in my recovery. Without him, the house would’ve fallen apart. Then there is my doctor, the miracle worker who fixed me. I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to them all.

And since they’re angels, they don’t really expect anything in return. Well, except my doctor (cash, check or charge)! So I decided that instead of paying the help back, I would pay it forward and be someone else’s angel. But don’t let me have all the fun. You can do it, too.

Here are some small ways to start today:

  • The next time someone holds a door for you, hold a door for someone else later that day.
  • If someone lets you cut in line, give someone else a break on your next shopping trip.
  • Get a friendly smile and ‘good morning’ on the street? Give one out to someone least expecting it.

Well, you get the idea.

Really want to earn your wings? Be the FIRST person to hold the door, offer a cut, give a smile. If you’ve read this far into my post, you probably don’t need convincing. But if you do, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.”

– Lucretius

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For those who want to know more about repetitive motion injuries caused by writing, read my full post here.