Turning a Beat Sheet into an Outline

(This post originally appeared as a guest spot on Jami Gold’s site. For her introduction or her many plotting resources, please visit her website.)

I’ll start with a brief history of my plotting evolution, so you can understand why I do what I do.

When I started writing, I thought I was a plotter.

I mean, I had a one-to-three sentence note for all six chapters of the short story I had in mind. Isn’t that an outline? (Those of you who actually outline can stop laughing now.)

But as I wrote and the middle of the story expanded, I had to keep bumping plot notes from one chapter to the next. By the time I finished my “short story,” I had a novel of 104,000 words that included all my original notes, plus a lot, lot more.

Does Our Story Have Structure?

Then I heard about plot beats and story structure. No worries. A story is structured however it is made, isn’t it? And I had beats. I could prove it…

I took several different story-structuring methods that mostly made sense to my warped brain and smooshed them together into my own little chart (which I will discuss later). Then I reverse-outlined every chapter of my book and marked every plot beat.

That proved something all right, but not that I had proper beats. So I revised the entire book.

Are Goals Pulling Our Story Forward?

Then I learned about chapter goals for characters and chapter page-turners. Did I even have those? So I created a second chart for my little reverse-outline.

It became very obvious why my story slowed down in the middle. I had four chapters that had the same (boring!) chapter goal.

Oh, sure, there was important stuff in the chapters. There was funny stuff. There was… too much stuff without something happening to make the reader care. After deleting half of those chapters and rewriting the rest, I had to redo my reverse-outline.

By the time I revised that book enough to be good (and 15,000 words shorter), I had outlined it so many times. Outlining up front—once—was becoming a more attractive option.

Next time, I could do better, right?

We Learn What Doesn’t Work

For my second book, I planned the beats in the handy chart I invented for reverse-outlining the first book. Then I got the book half-written (in random chunks), realized I was trying to stretch too little story over too much book, and had to redo half the organization.

What had been the midpoint moved to the first quarter, and a whole new event landed in the middle. And, thankfully, my plotting chart let me realize I had problems before I wrote the entire book wrong. Yay!

Discovering the best writing process for us often means figuring out what *doesn’t* work. I also noticed that one of the things that made me write more slowly for the first two books was trying to figure out the “steps” of a chapter as I was writing. Sure, I knew where I was going, but how do I get there?

So for book three, after completing my charts, I also tried outlining a little more detail for each chapter. After a little experimentation, I aimed for about 10% of the anticipated finished words for each chapter. (Your mileage may vary.)

Now it’s time to discuss my actual method…

How to Turn a Beat Sheet into a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline

As I describe it, I want you to keep one thing in mind: You can stop after any step that makes you feel ready to write.

Maybe you’ll make it all the way to the end. Maybe you won’t. You won’t hurt my feelings. *smile* Use what works for you.

Step #1: Define the Story Concept and Beats

First, I write down my concept. What’s the one or two sentences that tell me what my story is about? That goes below my Beat Sheet chart for reference.

Screen Shot of Marty C. Lee's Beat Sheet Chart

Next, who are my point-of-view (POV) characters? I write with four POVs in my YA fantasy series, but this still works with only one POV. Each POV character gets a vertical column (and I add a column for anything special, like a romance subplot), while each beat point gets a horizontal row. (Stay with me, I’ll get to the beats.)

Now, looking at my concept sentence(s), how does each character end in the book? That goes in the last beat slot for “resolution.”

What is their opposite starting point (in some way)? That goes next to their name in the top row. The differences between the two rows are the character arcs.

Between the beginning and the resolution, I have seven beats. I have to hit:

  • the Hook (10%)
  • the Point of No Return (25%)
  • the Midpoint (50%)
  • the Crisis (75%)
  • the Climax (90%)

Optionally, I can add Pinch Points at 37 and 62%. When I’m writing, those percentages are just estimates, and I might hit the beats early or late depending on the needs of the exact story.

You may know these beats by other names or use other percentages. That’s okay. I have seen beat sheets with many more beats. (Jami has some great examples.) They tend to make my brain explode, so I stick with this list.

Step #2: Get Creative with Brainstorming

Now is crazy brainstorming time. What are some things that could happen in this story to my characters?

I make a list of as many ideas as I can think up, without discarding anything yet. Once I have a long list, I go through and mark events that could force my characters through their arcs, or that could turn the story in interesting ways, or that will just plain be exciting.

Next to the ideas I want to include, I write the name of the character most affected by that event. Then I play around with the events to see how they would work in different beats.

  • The Climax should be the most exciting, physically and/or emotionally. (Emotionally is harder to write, but I prefer it.)
  • The next most exciting beats should be the Hook and the Midpoint.
  • Sometimes I just go with Pixar’s strategy: Everything gets worse until the end.
  • Whether or not I include Pinch Points depends on how many great ideas make the cut.

By this point, the story is starting to come alive in my mind.

Step #3: Adjust If Multi-POV (Skip Step for Single POV)

Because I write multi-POV, I have another step that I started with book three.

  • First, I highlight each character’s column in a different color and number the beats in order.
  • Then I cut the chart into little pieces (one box per piece).
  • I place the colored boxes in a rough sort of order, making characters take turns somehow.

I keep early beats before later beats for each character, but one character’s Midpoint might come before another’s Pinch Point, for instance. Whoever is the main POV for the book gets roughly half the chapters, and the rest are more or less evenly divided among the other three. (That is just my style for this particular series and might change in the future.)

I make sure the major beats are POV-centric, but some of the minor beats for one character might be seen through the eyes of another character if space requires. This part of my process tends to take a while as I arrange and rearrange. If you have a headache right about now, I unfortunately empathize.

Step #4: Add More Definition to Story Ideas

Once I have the order of events and POV settled, I start my Summary Sheet chart. (Remember, you can stop anywhere in the process you like.) The second chart contains a horizontal row for every chapter, and several vertical columns.

Marty C. Lee's Summary Chart

  • Section Goal gets one entry per book quarter.
  • The plot/character beats go in the Summary column, though sometimes they copy to the Question/Surprise column later.
  • The Summary and POV columns are the ones I always fill out before I write, based on my first chart.
  • Other than the chapter number, the Chapter/Timeline column stays blank for now.
  • The other columns might not get filled out until I write, for story analysis as needed.
  • Chapter Goal is for character goals, not author goals. What are the characters trying to accomplish in that chapter?
  • Success means “did they get what they want?” and answers might include “yes” (rarely until the end), “yes, but (made it worse),” “no” (semi-rarely), and “no, and (made it worse).”
  • The Question/Surprise column is where I look if my chapter endings are boring, and frequently derives from either the Summary or Success columns.

Step 4: Outline

Now I start my actual in-text outline. For each chapter in my new book file, I type whose POV it is in and the Summary/Beat info from the second chart.

Then I go back and brainstorm each chapter. “If this is the beat/chapter goal for the chapter, where does the chapter start? What are the characters trying to accomplish? What’s the setting? What happens first? Next? After that? What clues need to be in the chapter? Etc.”

I work in random order, with lots of bouncing around, until I have about 10% of my finished words in rough summary. (I’ve been known to write things like “they argue,” or “add emotion,” or “drama llama, struggle and smash” for a fight scene.)

What If This Isn’t For You?

Some of you pantsers might be cringing about now. That’s okay, you keep pantsing. I admire your crazy brain. I started doing this because wandering was too time-consuming for me. You might have a better sense of direction than I do.

Even with this outline, I still have enough wiggle room to make my pantsing brain happy. Sometimes my 10% outline ends up wrong and I wing the chapter anyway, but I know the most important parts to include. Sometimes a little planned part expands unexpectedly. (“Oh, one of the diplomats is his cousin? He has a cousin? And she’s going to show up in the story again? Cool!”)

Some of you plotters might also be cringing. “My outline is half the length of my book,” you cry. “I hit twenty-five beats!” That’s okay. You keep plotting like a maniac. I admire your crazy brain, too. I wish I were as organized as you. As for me, my crazy brain finds this mishmash of a method to be just about right.. *smile*

Whether you plot or pants, I wish you happy writing and a perfect amount of “outline.”
Marty C. Lee

Favorite Historical Books, #2

I’ve been dividing my favorite history books into three sections for you: 1) ancient history, 2) medieval and renaissance history, and 3) 1700-and-later. More or less. 😉 You know I’m not always very precise…

So here’s the Medieval/Renaissance History Favorites randomly within each category:

Juvenile

Ming Lo Moves the Mountain, by Arnold Lobel (picture book)

Brave Margaret, by Robert D. San Souci

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell

A Murder for Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner

Dragon Cauldron series, by Laurence Yep

Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander

Dragon Keeper, by Carole Wilkinson

Young Adult (several of these are “fantasy in historical setting”)

The Case of the Marble Monster, by I.G. Edmonds (short Japanese mysteries)

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, by Barbara Cohen

Waterfall series, by Lisa Tawn Bergren

The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley

The Squire’s Tale series, by Gerald Morris (starts off hilarious and ends up so sad, fair warning)

Outlaw Princess of Sherwood, by Nancy Springer

Stravaganza series, and The Falconer’s Knot, by Mary Hoffman

The Ranger’s Apprentice & Brotherband series (plural), by John Flanagan (fantasy in semi-historical setting)

Rhiannon, by Vicki Grove

The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner

Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson

The Cassaforte Chronicles series, by V. Briceland

Sisters of the Sword, by Maya Snow

The Wild Orchid, by Cameron Dokey

The Edge on the Sword, by Rebecca Tingle

Kingdom of Aggadorn series, by Liz McCraine (fantasy romance)

Samurai Detective series, by Dorothy Hoobler (based on the real Judge Ooka, who also appears in The Marble Monster, earlier on this list)

Adult

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (and here I’m going to let down you traditionalists by recommending you find an abridgment that cuts out all the political commentary of the day)

Seven Women: And the Secret of their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas (crosses time periods) (non-fiction)

Other Heroes in The Book of Mormon, by Jay Fullmer (non-fiction)

Simon the Coldheart, by Georgette Heyer (romance)

Firebird, by Mercedes Lackey

MacLeod and de Piaget series, by Lynn Kurland (romance)

Ladyhawke, by Joan D. Vinge

Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

 

There you go! That should give you enough for a few days. 😉 Did I miss something that should be on the list?

Happy reading,
M. C. Lee

Writing Conference 2020–Business

I hope you will forgive me for postponing this post while I talked about other things. 🙂 I didn’t drop it entirely, and here it is!

From my writing conference notes, there were way too many classes to include all of them in one post, so I separated out the business ones. If you’re not interested in the business side of being an author, I recommend you skip this one. For the rest of you, here you go, in rough notes. Disclaimer: NOT LEGAL ADVICE. If you need legal advice, get a lawyer! Or maybe an accountant, if more applicable.

How to self-publish
Read contracts carefully.
Don’t spend more than you expect to make.
First-free doesn’t work. (If you query this, you’ll see a huge controversy.)

Amazon SEO
Cover images might be searchable in the future.
Covers will be more important.
To profit on Amazon ads, must have 1000 keywords.

Covers
Check best-selling in category
Keep cover promises
Make sure element that defines your book the best is visible on thumbnail
Use a release for copyright / contract
Pay artists to have legal standing to their work
If you can’t judge book by cover, time is wasted
Covers need to intrigue readers
Purpose of book cover is to attract matching reader
Amazon is changing rules: must be able to read title in thumbnail
Covers are identifiers.
Pay for a professional
Need to have contrast, boldness to draw eyes
Put tropes on cover to convey story
What gives zing factor?
Update every 5-10 years to stay current
To see what people are buying, go to www.yasiv.com (Visual map, compare to comp titles)
Does your cover convey tone, etc of story?
Sometimes cover doesn’t convey scene, but something else.
Cover should change for foreign countries
Pay attention to composition
Give 6 examples of covers you like to designer

How to avoid rookie mistakes
Get an editor
Learn from your mistakes
Go 3 days without responding to flames
Don’t mortgage your house
Remember your family
Backup your work
Ask dumb questions
You have never “arrived”
Marketing can’t copy word of mouth
Keep improving craft
You are your agent’s boss
Fight for your work /dream /etc
Take ownership of your business
Don’t say yes to the first opportunity unless it is right for you
Take advice with a grain of salt
Accept that you are a creative being and will be better when you are creating

Taxes for Authors
Writers will be audited by 2 types of auditors: those who want to be writers, and those who want to catch you red-handed.
Several gray areas: income from books is passive income, so some auditors want you to account for it as rent/royalties up to $65K (no SE tax).
Hire an accountant.
Be aware of state taxes & regulations.
Book advance is same as rent/royalties.
You will receive 1099s for each short story published and from each distributor.
PayPal is not rent/royalty. It’s regular royalty on schedule C, including teaching/presenting.
Offset income with expenses.
Tax deductions: Conference fees, mileage, meals at certain percentages, hotel, computer & software (if you replace regularly, takes 3 years to deduct), office space outside home or part of home used exclusively for work (percentage), phone (get separate phone/plan), internet, research (books, movies, travel, Netflix).
You are a professional writer if you can show you’re actively writing & working toward pro.
Use one credit card for business only. Keep receipts (or make own).
Itemize expenses & income.
Make sure to overpay taxes by few hundred dollars to prevent audit of prior years.
If auditor says you can only have loss for 3 years, ask them to show you the law (no federal law).
Take trip to do research but be careful it’s applicable.
Get an LLC to protect copyrights.
LLC can hire spouse in business (give 1099).
If you get income from other countries, you might have to pay tax there.
Quarterly taxes: don’t worry about <$10K? (Disagreement–some say worry about anything.) Always estimate your best.

Embracing imperfections
Be flawsome
Write it first, fix it later.
Like reality
Be consistent

Business Writing
Treat it like a job, not a hobby
Trad pub: 99.9% rejection rate
Indie: you vs 100K authors. How do you get audience?
Use your business background in your business.
Be prolific: the more you do, the better you get; the better you get, the more people will like you.
Always create more products.
You make money off your backlist. Longer is better. New books remind people to look up other books & keep you on the lists. Need 10 books for backlist to be productive.
Agents take 15% of what you make. Don’t need one.
Always review contracts with contract attorney, $2-300.
Contracts: read & understand! A lot of publishers are predators. What rights are they getting, for how long, non-compete clauses & right of first refusal.
Sublets: to publish in other languages (do not sell UNLESS they specialize in other language)
Dramatic rights: movies, tv, etc. (do not sell without good reason)
Audio: don’t sell rights unless publisher does it well (research on Audible)
How long will they hold rights? Maker sure rights will revert. If publisher goes out of business, you lose the right to publish.
Ebooks: rights might never revert.
Taxes: pay! Talk to attorney re: S-corp or LLC. In Utah, most writers are S-corps.
Deduct reasonable business item.
Pay quarterly taxes once you start making good amounts of money. Work with CPA.
Work out schedule for new books. Schedule your time appropriately for you.
When you lose money by going to work instead of writing, it’s time to quit your day job.
Branding: create one for yourself so fans will follow you. Be yourself.
Marketing: What’s your product for? Success breeds success.
Advances: come from future royalties, paid in thirds.
1 book out is okay, 5 is good, 10+ is really good.
Should family member be employee? Probably not.
Quarterly reporting: min $600 income
Backlist sales: series vs stand alone: make sure 1st book has solid happy ending
Series is where the money is. Give 1st book satisfying conclusion.
Epic fantasy series: people won’t start until it’s finished. Do in timely manner for next book.
Business taxes change all the time.
Indie cover sells the book. Spend $300-500.
Go to bookstores to promote yourself. Be positive! Promote other writers books, too
Ancillary products: related to business & brand: games, comic books, kickstarters

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Favorite Historical Books, #1

I think I’m going to divide my favorite history books into three sections for you: 1) ancient history, 2) medieval and renaissance history, and 3) 1700-and-later. More or less. 😉 You know I’m not always very precise…

So here’s the Ancient History Favorites randomly within each category:

Juvenile & Young Adult

Great Myths & Legends, by Childcraft

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park

Mara, Daughter of the Nile, and The Golden Goblet, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Deborah, by H.B. Moore

Behold Your Queen, by Gladys Malvern

Hercules and Other Tales from Greek Myths, by Olivia E Coolidge

Mark of the Thief series, by Jennifer A Nielsen

Alphabet of Dreams, by Susan Fletcher

Nobody’s Princess series, by Esther M. Friesner

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare

Adult

The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World, by Christ Stewart (crosses time periods) (non-fiction)

Researching History for Fantasy Writers, by Dayle A. Dermatis (non-fiction)

The Whole Armor of God, by David C. Belt (non-fiction)

The Robe, by Douglas C. Lloyd

The Lance of Kanana, by Harry Willard French

The Donkey’s Gift, by Thomas M. Coffey

 

It seems I need some recommendations for good historical fiction in the pre-medieval time period! So, tell me, all you historical readers— what do you recommend? 😀

Happy reading,
M. C. Lee

Wave of Dreams is available!

Celebrate with me!

My third book just came out in ebook! It’s available in many online retailers and at libraries (if you get the librarian to order it through Overdrive, Bibliotheca, or Baker & Taylor).

It’s the third in the series, though it’s more “the further adventures of” than “the continuation of the story.” It does continue the story in a way, but Wind of Choice is a complete story with no cliffhanger ending, and so is Seed of War, and so is the the new one, Wave of Dreams.

As before, I  switch main characters to someone else in the group. This time, we spend the most time in Nia’s head. It’s kind of fun, I think, because Nia is full of drama and excitement. Even when other people think she should take life more seriously. I mean, where’s the fun in that?

This one is still fantasy, but I threw in a bit of romance and a treasure map to a cursed island. Oooooh… And if you ever wondered what happened to the Seals from book 2, at least part of the answer is in this book. 😉

It’s already listed in Goodreads, with at least a couple of nice reviews. Thank you, nice ARC readers! (If you want to BE a nice Advance Reader, you can sign up on my website and get free copies of my new books. Say it with me… Ooooohhhh…)

And speaking of nice reviews, here’s an endorsement for you:

Such a fun read! The characters felt real. The adventure was gripping and a thrill to read! I loved how real their problems felt, even though they had special abilities; they still had to work together to overcome the conflict. There were plenty of surprises and twists to keep me on the edge of my seat. I loved the dynamic between the characters and their flaws and unique strengths. This story was a real page-turner and enjoyable from start to finish!
— R. L. Perez, author of the Timecaster Chronicles (coming soon)

So, what’s the book about?? I’m so glad you asked…

****************************************************

For sixteen-year-old Nia, the best part of becoming an adult is the party. Even while holding it on land for the sake of her gill-less friends, she can flirt with all the cute boys.

But her mom’s gift is unexpected— an old treasure map and the news that her long-lost dad might be alive.

With her friends and a cute suitor, Nia follows her missing dad’s trail across the ocean waves to a supposedly cursed island. Will she find adventure, answers, and even love?

Maybe. Unless the curse is real.

Romance and danger swirl with the tide, and undercurrents could sweep her away.

***************************************************

Happy reading,
Marty C. Lee

Sports Stories

Since May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, I thought I’d give you some sports stories I liked. As you can tell, this is not a big category for me…

Diary Queen series, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

One-Handed Catch, by Mary Jane Auch

The Secret Journal of Brett Colton, by Kay Lynn Mangum

The Brooklyn Nine, by Alan Gratz

Fight Game, by Kate Wild

Ladies Night, by Jill Tunney

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand

Shift, by Jennifer Bradbury

Playing With the Boys, by Liz Tigelaar

Keeping Score, by Linda Sue Park

Things Invisible to See, by Nancy Willard

The Infinite Arena, by Terry Carr

Chance for Home, by Tracy Hunter Abramson

Ranee S Clark

Payback Time, by Carl Deuker

That’s it, folks. Play ball!
Marty C. Lee

Writing Process, Book 3 (Part 2)

I just realized I haven’t given you any updates on my writing for a while. Hmm. Well, a lot has happened since… *checking post* … last year. Wow, that has been a while. Shame on me.

Remember those old melodramas that would say, “The last time we saw our hero, he was…” and review all the suspense before moving on with the current drama? Let’s do that. 😉

“The last time we saw our author, she was” finished with the first draft of book 3, Wave of Dreams, minus chapter headings and swear words. (Author’s  note: they aren’t real swear words. Honestly. Nia says things like “shipwreck” and “sparkling jellyfish.” Ludik says things like “furball.” It takes me a long time to write Nia’s because she keeps using new ones, the rascal!) Anyway, I had the first draft done.

Since then, I ran the book through two writing groups, fixing problems as I went. (If you know an author who says they never have problems, there are a few possibilities. They might have written fifty or a hundred books. They might be lying. Or they might be very mistaken.) I just admit it and then try to fix everything.

I went through several major drafts and too many minor tweaks. I rewrote the first chapter (more than once) based on feedback. I enhanced the romance and the character arcs. I filled in plot holes and smoothed dialogue. Yeah, all that boring stuff. You might not appreciate the process, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate the result. 😉

Fortunately for my peace of mind, I didn’t have to redo my plot outline this time around. It seems my new outlining process has been moderately effective. Yay! I also had several beta readers tell me how cruel I am, which is another good sign. Before you raise your eyebrow at me, let me explain. If I make you love the characters enough that it bothers you when bad things happen to them, then I’ve done my job right. And, before you ask, yes, I have to do bad things to them, because everybody being happy all the time is great to live but boring to read about. Before you throw tomatoes at me, I’d like to point out that I believe in happy endings, so just keep reading…

At some point in the process, I finished the chapter headings. If you don’t read those kinds of things in other books, I suggest you try a few of mine. I try to include information that isn’t absolutely necessary to reading the book, but many times, it is stuff that enhances the story. And they’re short…

I also spent a lot of time working on artwork with my graphic designer before she left the country for a while. She doesn’t do my front covers, but she does all my chapter pictures and digitizes the maps and stuff like that. Usually, we work on things a bit at a time, but since she was going to be out of reach, we had to do quite a bit at once, for both book 3 and book 4. (BTW, if you haven’t noticed the maps in the front of the books, you should look. They’re pretty cool! So are all my lovely little chapter pics!)

Anyway, at the time of this writing, I’m waiting for the last round of beta readers to tell me if I fixed the last problem. By the time you read this, the book should be in final edits and formatting. Oooh, I’m so excited! I’ll be sure to let you know when the book comes out. Hint: it’s Nia’s story, with romance and pirates (but not romance WITH pirates, because that’s just gross).

Do you have any questions you want to ask me about my writing process that I haven’t answered?

Happy anticipating,
Marty C. Lee

Favorite Beast-Tales

Let’s start with a definition of beast-tales. They are stories where a main character is an animal (or sometimes a monster). Most of them have the point-of-view of the animal, although occasionally I will cheat on that definition.

The Redwall series is an example of beast tales. Yes, I like Redwall. No, it doesn’t make my list of favorites, mostly because I struggle with the accents too much. The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic example of a beast tale. I like it, too, but not enough for this list. 😉

So, in random order, here are some of my favorite beast tales.

Children’s Books

Skippy Jon Jones series, by Judy Schachner

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss

The Serendipity series, by Stephen Cosgrove

The Saggy Baggy Elephant, and The Tawny Scrawny Lion, by Kathryn Jackson

The Pigeon series, by Mo Willems

Juvenile/Young Adult

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith (no, not the Disney version)

The Town Cats and Other Tales, by Lloyd Alexander

The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little, by E.B. White

Man o’ War, by Walter Farley

The Sign of the Cat, by Lynne Jonell

The Underland Chronicles series, by Suzanne Collins (ever so much better than The Hunger Games, in my opinion)

The Unicorn Chronicles series, by Bruce Coville

Dragon of the Lost Sea series, by Laurence Yep

The Cricket in Times Square series, by George Selden

Dragon Keeper series, by Carole Wilkinson

Adult

The Donkey’s Gift, by Thomas M. Coffey

The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford

There you go! It doesn’t look like a long list, but several of them are series, so it should keep you busy for a few days. 🙂 Curl up with your favorite furry friend and read a book about animals.

What’s your favorite beast tale?

Happy reading,
M. C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Character & Setting

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.

Poison 101
Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).

Oaths & honor
Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.

Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc)
Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.

Lost Technologies
Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.

Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough
What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?

When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?

Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.

Casual Violence
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues

Horses
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Programmable.
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.

Dragons
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.

I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!

Happy writing,
M.C. Lee

Mystery Books

I like mysteries, though I prefer the kind without gore. In fact, my second book is a fantasy/mystery mash-up (but we aren’t talking about that today). Here are some of my favorite mysteries. I’ve sorted them by approximate age group, but otherwise they are in random order.

Juvenile (there’s cross over between here and YA)

Robert Newman’s Case of… series, which has loose ties to Sherlock Holmes (but is better) (I had to buy these second-hand because I was borrowing them too often)

The Case of the Marble Monster, by I.G. Edmonds

Sammy Keyes series, by Wendelin Van Draanen (until the last one)

Brixton Brothers series, by Max Barnett

The Puzzle Book & Mathemagic, Childcraft

The Mysterious Benedict Society series, by Trenton Lee Stewart

Echo Falls series, by Peter Abrahams

The early Box Car Children books, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Cat Royal series, by Julia Golding

The Happy Hollisters series, by Jerry West

Encyclopedia Brown series, by Donald J. Sobol

A Murder for Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner

Young Adult

The Agency series, by Y.S. Lee

Enola Holmes series, by Nancy Springer

The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Knight & Rogue series, by Hilari Bell

Montmorency series, by Eleanor Updale

Rhiannon, by Vicki Grove

Too Much Information, by Dale Britton

Blossom Culp series, by Richard Peck

The Golden Goblet, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Trixie Belden series, by Julie Campbell  & Kathryn Kenny (it’s hard to get your hands on the later ones)

Stranje House series, by Kathleen Baldwin

Samurai Detective series, by Dorothy Hoobler

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

Adult

The early Aunt Dimity books, by Nancy Atherton (the late ones aren’t BAD, just a little duller)

Meg Langslow series & Turing Hopper series, by Donna Andrews (who really should finish the Turing series! *hint hint*)

Sherlock Holmes series, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Frank Shaw series, by John D. Brown (I’m afraid I could never finish his fantasies)

The Falconer’s Knot, by Mary Hoffman

Mrs. Pollifax series, by Dorothy Gilman

Sacred Ground, by Mercedes Lackey

The Lady & the Highwayman, by Sarah M. Eden

The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Clifford Stoll (true story)

Mary Russell series, by Laurie King (IMO, the best new Sherlock Holmes series for adults)

This Just In, by Kerry Blair

Brother Cadfael series, by Ellis Peters (also a TV series which isn’t bad)

 

So, did anything look interesting to you? What is your favorite mystery?

Happy sleuthing,
Marty C. Lee