Christmas Reading List

Since Christmas is coming, I thought I’d list some of my favorite “Christmas” books. Some are set at Christmas-time, some are about Christmas, and some are about THE Christmas.

Set at Christmas

Marian’s Christmas Wish, by Carla Kelly. Adult Regency romance. Less fluffy than some of the genre. What I like best: the heroine is brave and determined and makes the hero change his mind about what he wants (with her brain, not her fluttering eyelashes).

Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series. Adult mystery. She has several Christmas volumes out by now, so pick one. The mystery is good, the humor is better.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas, by Jenny Overton. Young adult historical romance. Annaple’s suitor woos her with gifts. Mildly sweet, heavily funny.

About Christmas (loosely speaking)

The Silent Bells, by William MacKellar & Ted Lewin. Juvenile historical fiction. The cathedral bells are silent, but there’s a legend that one day they will ring again if the right gift is presented on Christmas.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Historical fiction. You know, the one about Ebenezer Scrooge. Although a little heavy-handed, it’s also a classic for a reason.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. Juvenile contemporary. When the worst kids in town take over the annual Christmas pageant, the results are both absolutely hilarious and extremely touching.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. Juvenile poetry. If you’ve only seen the movie remakes, you are seriously missing out. (The cartoon based directly on the book is good.) This is the classic, and it’s a classic for a reason.

The Twenty-Four Days of Christmas, by Madeline L’Engle. Juvenile contemporary. Vicky’s baby sibling is due around Christmas, but she doesn’t want it if it means Mother will be gone. A sweet Advent book.

The First Christmas

Alphabet of Dreams, by Susan Fletcher. Juvenile historical fiction. A young lady (disguised as a boy) and her younger brother with prophetic dreams join the Magi to visit the newborn Christ. I read it as a Beehive Award nominee, and it was one of my favorites that year.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts. Adult historical fiction. This story of the Magi is not as well-written (a bit dry & awkward), but the characters are compelling and the story is touching.

The Donkey’s Gift, by Thomas M. Coffey. Told from the point of view of the rebellious donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem, this is another hilarious-but-touching story.

Luke 2, in The Holy Bible. The ultimate classic story of Christmas. 😉

What’s your favorite Christmas story?

Merry Christmas,
M. C. Lee

So You Want to Be a Writer?

I don’t know if any of you are prospective writers or not, but since somewhere around 80% of the people in the United States have thought about writing a book, I figure there’s a pretty good possibility. Some of you may already be writing and doing well (at the writing–I’m not talking about publishing today). This article is not for you. Today, I want to talk to those of you that are still wavering about whether or not to write.

If the idea of writing a book sounds fun, in theory, but you aren’t sure if you’d like it in real life, could I suggest a trial run? NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) made me think of this post, but since it won’t be published until late November, it won’t actually help you with the trial this year. (Note to self: plan ahead next time!) Nonetheless, the idea is sound.

Let me back up and tell you about NaNoWriMo. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month (an average of 1667 words per day). Writers and prospective writers all over the world participate. There’s an official website, Facebook groups, and more. There are badges to collect along the way, buddies to encourage, a tracking chart to see your progress. It’s kind of fun. If you win, there are usually cool digital prizes (mostly discounts on things). The best prize, though, is the progress you make on your book and the chance to discover if you like writing well enough to make it through an entire novel.

But you don’t have to do NaNoWriMo to get those last two prizes. All you have to do is write. Every day. For weeks, or months, or years. If that sounds like fun, you might be a writer. If that sounds like torture, or if you just don’t know… well, maybe you want to try that trial period I suggested. Pick a month, any month. (November is the official NaNoWriMo, and they have Camps in April and July if you want to participate in their buddy system, but the calendar also has nine extra months you could use on your own.) Pick a goal (50,000 words, 20,000 words, “X” words per day, whatever). Now, for that month, write every day (or at least almost every day). Track your word count. Don’t worry about editing right now, though you should certainly put that on your to-do list for a different month. Just write. Keep writing. Write more.

If you start dreading your daily writing session, then writing might not be the profession for you. Consider dropping it to hobby status and only writing when inspiration strikes. If you look forward to sitting down with a computer or pencil and find yourself plotting when you’re washing dishes or driving or supposedly working, then keep writing. Write the whole month. Write like a crazy person, if that’s your style.

At the end of the month, look at what you’ve accomplished. Did you write (almost) every day for a whole month? Did you meet your goal? Did you come close? Did you enjoy yourself? Did the writing become easier? Do you want to keep doing it?

Notice that I’m not asking you right now if your writing is any good. I’m assuming that you will let it sit and then edit it before you try to make that assessment. Besides, quality can be practiced, researched, and improved. Enjoyment and dedication are more inherent, and that’s what this experiment was about.

So, what do you think? Now that you’ve tried it, do you still want to be a writer?

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Thanksgiving Reading List

I’m very thankful for my family, so in honor of Thanksgiving, I decided to post a list of some of my favorite books about families. I’ve limited it to fiction (or easy-to-read biography), not nonfiction/self-help/parenting.

In random order, but categorized for your convenience, here are a dozen suggestions for your Thanksgiving reading pleasure.

Contemporary (or close):

Cheaper by the Dozen/Belles on Their Toes, by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (Biography. Hilariously funny, tremendously moving, and not even in the same class as the stupid new movies.)

Chickens in the Headlights, by Matthew Buckley (Biography. Also hilariously funny.)

Ramona Quimby series, by Beverly Cleary (Such an accurate portrayal of the ups AND downs of family life.)

Dear Lola: Or How to Build Your Own Family, by Judie Angell (A bunch of orphans face off the world to form their own family.)

North of Beautiful, by Christina Chen (A girl with a birthmark learns about true beauty and love.)

Historical:

The Glamorist Histories series, by Mary Robinette Kowal (“Jane Austen meets magic,” but so intertwined with family drama. Could also be filed under fantasy.)

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (A confined girl is finally set free of her rooms and discovers what family should actually be like.)

The Five Little Peppers, by Margaret Sydney (Okay, so it’s pretty old-fashioned, but I love the way the siblings love each other so much.)

Fantasy:

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway (When an ordinary girl is born into a magical family, what will they do with her?)

Castle Glower series, by Jessica Day George (When you’re an ordinary princess in an extraordinary family, how do you find a place for yourself?)

The Princesses of Westfalin Trilogy, by Jessica Day George (The 12 Dancing Princesses, but better. And the series continues with other fairy tale retellings, so how can you go wrong?)

The Leland Sisters series, by Marissa Doyle (Historical YA romance, with sisters who are always there for each other.)

What are you thankful for this year? What book has made you the most thankful for something in your life?

Happy Thanksgiving (early),
M. C. Lee

Rubber Duckies

I’m imagining your faces now. “What in the *world,*” you say, “do rubber duckies have to do with writing? Or reading?”

That’s a great question! 🙂 First, let me assure you that no ducks, real or rubber, were harmed in the writing of this article. Second, this is not an article about bathtime or babies. Third, this is a writing post, thought the general idea is actually applicable to life in many ways. Fourth, a rubber ducky falls under the “writing tools” category in a very special way (when it isn’t applying to other life situations).

A rubber ducky, in the non-bathtime way, is a person who lets you bounce ideas off them. The “bouncing” explains the rubber. As for ducky… I have no idea. Maybe it just sounds like more fun, or maybe it falls better from the tongue.

Let’s make up some FAQs about rubber duckies. 😉

Q. Why do I want a rubber ducky?
A. Rubber duckies help you think through sticky writing problems, provide randomly generated [fill in the blank] choices, provide a check for “would character X really behave like this?”, and solve a lot of other writing problems.

Q. Oh, so, I should choose a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky?
A. If you have a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky, count yourself blessed! But no, your ducky doesn’t have to be any kind of writer at all. It’s frequently helpful if they’ve read some of your stuff (or listened to you talk about it ad nauseum), but sometimes even that isn’t required. Your rubber ducky might be a complete non-writer who knows nothing about your story.

Q. Wait, I’m getting really confused. If my ducky doesn’t have to be experienced OR informed, how do they help me?
A. And now we’re back to the “rubber” part. A good ducky bounces ideas BACK to you, so you can hear how they sound from another perspective. By restating your problem or idea and/or by trying to anticipate your next step or how it links with your other stuff, they can help you find plot holes, logic mistakes, character anomalies, and so forth. Because you have to simplify your problem for your poor ducky to even follow your explanation, it forces you to boil everything down to the essence, and mistakes are less able to hide in the minimalist forest.

Q. So all my ducky has to do is repeat back what I said?
A. That might be enough. A really GOOD ducky, though, will follow up by asking you questions. I don’t know what questions, because it totally depends on your ducky, your story problem, and what you proposed as a question or solution. But they might ask how that would affect plotline A or what character B would think or how clue C fits in now. And that might spark your brain into the next answer and the next answer and the… where’s my notebook to write this all down? Or it might bounce your answer right back in your face so you realize that if you change THAT, it’s totally going to break THIS thing over here, so you’d better not do it!

Q. You’ve sold me! Where can I get a ducky of my own? A really good, top-quality one, please.
A. Alas, they are not found in stores, not even online. But look around, and you might already have one you can use. Pick a test question and start bouncing it off potential duckies. Make a note of who gives the most useful responses (which doesn’t necessarily mean they know the answers, just that they make YOUR brain start moving in the right direction). There, now you have a starting-level rubber ducky, all your own. As for the really good, top-quality ones, they’re always homemade. Take your level 1 ducky and train them to level up!

Happy duck hunting (don’t harm any real ducks, please),
M. C. Lee

Seed of War is out!

I try to write one book-related post each month, and one writing post. This one is supposed to be a book post, and I was struggling to come up with a topic (feel free to suggest some in the comments for the future) until I realized it’s a good time to make an announcement. I hope you’ll forgive me for making this post about a book I wrote instead of a regular book review. 🙂 I know I mentioned this last time, but this is the *official announcement!*

My second book just came out in ebook a couple of weeks ago! 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 sequel to my first book (not so oddly), 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.

I also switch main characters to someone else in the group instead of Ahjin. Yes, we still get his POV (point of view) in a few chapters, but most of the time, we’re in Ludik’s head.

And I mash up genres just a little. It’s still definitely fantasy, but I throw in a bit of mystery. If you liked the bits and pieces of shapeshifting in book one, you should read book two, because we spend the entire book in Darrendra and meet a lot of shapeshifters!

It’s already listed in Goodreads, with at least a couple of nice reviews. (Thank you, nice ARC readers!)

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

If you want an adventure with lots of fun banter and laugh-out-loud situations, or if you want a journey that will make you cry and think deeply about forgiveness, read Seed of War.
– M. L. Farb, author of The King’s Trial

If you want to read some of the book before you buy, you can do that with Amazon’s peek inside, or you can get a free sample at MyBookCave, StoryOrigin, or ProlificWorks. (The same applies to Wind of Choice.)

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

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Saving the world from feuding gods made eighteen-year-old Ludik miss his wedding. Now his second chance is here, and nothing will stop him from marrying his sweetheart this time.

Except maybe a dead body.

In a mad race to hunt a misguided witness, Ludik must confront a fierce wolf, follow the trail through hostile territory, and escape his own execution.

Even with the help of his outkindred friends–-a gilled translator, a fire mage, and the winged messenger of the Gods–- Ludik might not be able to prevent war from igniting between the shapeshifting kindreds.

Danger lurks among the trees, and if he can’t solve the clues, more than his marriage is on the line.

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

Happy reading,
Marty C. Lee

Writing Process, Book 2 (Part 3)

So I ran book 2 through two separate writing groups, trying to make sure I fixed all the problems. And it got a lot better! I mean, so much better. I love my writing groups. When I thought I had the book polished all shiny, I rounded up a few beta readers and turned them loose on it. Some pointed out a few little problems. Some loved everything except the cliffhangers and mean-author moments (which I promise I used for very specific reasons and not because I’m sadistic).

Then, after I thought all I had left was a little editing for grammar and so forth, my last, lagging beta reader turned in a blistering critique. Okay, I’m exaggerating. She was actually extremely polite, but she did point out what she thought were two *major* problems throughout the story. After licking my wounds, I asked a couple of trusted people which parts were true and which I could ignore. After some discussion, I decided that one problem could basically be ignored. She was judging it by a different ruler than I use. I did add a sprinkle of “fix it” for that problem, but mostly I crossed it off my list. The second one–well, unfortunately for me, she was mostly right. Sigh. I hate finding out that I did things wrong, especially when I think I’m done.

Anyway, I made a plan for fixing the problem that didn’t require me to rewrite the entire book (though it did stick its grubby fingers into almost every chapter and several chapter headings, and some chapters did get bigger rewrites). It took me two weeks to do the edits, and when I ran them by people, one of them pointed out another problem that my fixes had created. *bang head on desk* So I fixed that one next.

Then, as I’m running through “one last edit” to make sure I didn’t create more problems while I was fixing everything else, I ran into a couple more things that could be improved. Lucky me, they were pretty minor, but all this meant that I had to do another round, so I finished “final edits” a month later than I anticipated, and ending up working a lot of extra hours for weeks and getting to bed very, very late on the last day I had available. *no, don’t bother me, it can’t be morning yet*

Blech. There are some days I wonder why I write. Then my characters start talking in my head again and telling me how cool this next scene would be. (Come on! Shapeshifting spies! Pirates! Ooh, and…) And my small batch of fans ask for their next fix and tell me how my first book made it into their small collection of owned books. And I hover my fingers over the keyboard and take a deep breath.

Anyway, by the time this article posts, SEED OF WAR should be live in e-retailers all over the world, and available to e-libraries, too. As for me, I will be sitting at home steadfastly eating ice cream and telling myself that it will be fine. Really, it will be fine. I need another spoon…

Be kind to my baby,
Marty C. Lee

P.S. I don’t have an eating disorder. Really. But ice cream makes an excellent *occasional* stress reliever, and it tastes yummy. And I eat it out of a bowl, not the carton. With only one spoon, because I only have one mouth. 🙂

Strong Heroines

I was thinking about my last book post and that started me thinking about what makes a character, particularly a woman, strong. Now, I know men and women are just people, and a strong character is a strong character regardless of gender. (Did you stop throwing tomatoes yet?) But sometimes some people think a “strong woman” has to be strong physically, or good with weapons, or compete in a “man’s world.”

Since that’s never what I’ve thought, I wanted to talk about my definitions.

Let’s start with the difference between “strong” and “gentle,” since some people think someone can’t be both. Here’s what I decided. “Strong” is how well you resist pressure exerted on you. “Gentle” is how much pressure you exert on others. So while the terms are related, the direction of the pressure is important, and one person can be both at the same time.

Now, back to our heroines (and heroes). Is a strong warrior a strong person? Maybe, maybe not. The neighborhood bully that threatens people with his sword might be a strong warrior, but he isn’t a strong person. The unarmed traveler who gently refuses to comply with the demands of a robber is a strong person. (Possibly a dead strong person, but we can hope not.)

I’m going to borrow some of the heroes/heroines from last month’s post as examples. 🙂 And yes, I cheated and threw in a couple of men. Strong is strong.

In The Great and Terrible Quest, the two main protagonists (heroes) are a wounded knight and a young boy. The knight is physically strong enough to fight multiple enemies, climb a cliff without a rope, and keep moving after enemies split his head. That’s not what impresses me most about him, though. He continues on his quest for ten years(!) through near-death and total memory loss, not to gain a reward for himself, but to give his own inheritance to the true owner. Wow, that’s strength of character. As for the little boy, he has very little physical strength (he is just a little boy), but he defies his robber-baron grandfather and the entire robber band to save an injured cat and then the wounded knight. He risks his life (Grandfather is a dangerous jerk) to save others, and he leads the knight ever onward despite enemies at every turn and almost no help from the knight. His strong determination and faith carry the story, and I love it.

The Ordinary Princess, Amy, is like Cimorene in some ways, like not wanting to be a princess. (Enchanted Forest series, by Wrede. Add it to your list.) But in others, she is very different. Amy doesn’t have a spitfire personality. She never picks up a weapon and doesn’t know any magic or even how to cook. She never fights anyone and doesn’t have any enemies. Amy is a cheerful, gentle soul. But when her parents decide to hire a dragon to attract a suitor, she runs away to protect her kingdom and ends up working as a kitchen maid until she’s drooping with exhaustion. I call that strength.

In the Crown Duel duology, our heroine does fight with a sword (very badly) and ride a horse (adequately) and try to improve politics (oh-so-disastrously). She doesn’t even know how to read, but I can’t call her weak. She keeps trying against overwhelming odds, even when torture and execution seem the inevitable next steps. And (spoiler) she wins. Not by feat of arms or might of army, but by one voice saying the right thing for morally right reasons. How strong can you get?

The heroine of Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is another non-combatant. I almost said non-fighter, but she does fight. She fights for her family’s financial security with her wits. She turns enemies into friends or finds ways to render them helpless, and all without a weapon. By the end of the story, her father, long thought cursed because he had only seven daughters, is praising her name and counting her better than his brother’s seven sons. Smart and caring is strong, too.

I could name more, but I think I’ve babbled long enough. Which characters in books you’ve read impressed YOU with their strength? What kind of strength did they have? What strength do you wish you had?

Trying to be stronger,
M. C. Lee

Forbidden Words

If you’re a writer, or a prospective one, you might hear a lot about “rules” of writing. What you don’t always hear is a good explanation of when to follow the “rules” and when to break them, or even an explanation behind the “rules.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that lead to some really bad writing. I’ll work my way gradually through some of these rules, but the one I want to address today is “forbidden words.” (Did you hear the spooky theme music? No? Let’s try again… “FORBIDDEN WORDS…”)

You might think these are the kinds of words you disguise by typing on the top row of your keyboard, but that’s not what I mean. (Although you might want to watch those, too.) No, I’m talking about when other well-meaning people tell you to never use an adverb. Or an -ing word. Or was or were. Or “just,” or any other particular word. Don’t take their advice.

I’m not saying to ignore the advice, either. I’m saying you should understand it so you know when to take it and when to ignore it. I think it’s time for some examples. (Cue suspenseful music…)

If you search the internet, you can find lots of lists of “words to avoid in writing.” Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to look. Done now? They usually list words that are overused or nearly meaningless, like really, just, or completely. What’s the difference between beautiful and really beautiful? Maybe nothing, or maybe you want to use gorgeous as a stronger word choice for the second example. But sometimes you do need those nearly meaningless words. (They were invented for a reason.) For instance, “he slid into his seat just before the bell rang” is considerably more urgent than “he slid into his seat before the bell rang.”

Let’s look at adverbs for a minute. When shouldn’t you use them? When they merely reinforce a word that doesn’t need reinforcing. He whispered quietly. she smiled cheerfully, the bell dinged musically. Yup, we got the idea with the verb, thanks. When should you use adverbs? When it either clarifies something the verb can’t do alone (she painted frantically) or turns the verb on its head (“Death kindly stopped for me.”–Emily Dickinson).

In other words, if you CAN cut an adverb or a “meaningless” word, do, but if cutting it changes the sentence, keep it for the sake of the poor reader and your dear story.

Now let’s talk about verbs. You might have heard about “passive writing” and the horrible use of “was, were, and -ing.” Take a deep breath while I tell you the rumors of their demise ought to be greatly exaggerated. “If you can finish the sentence with ‘by zombies,’ then it’s passive writing and ought to be destroyed” (by zombies) is one I frequently hear. Okay, fine, I added the second “by zombies” because I wanted to make a point.

There are reasons to use passive sentences. Here’s one: you don’t know the acting subject. “She was murdered!” but we don’t know by whom. Here’s another: you don’t want the emphasis on the acting subject. “She was murdered!” and until we get over the shock, we don’t care who did it. Does that mean its okay to blithely sprinkle passive sentences all over your writing? No, I didn’t say that, either. Use them when you need to use them, and for the sake of your action, don’t use them when you don’t need them. (Which, really, is the basic rule for all writing techniques.)

One more point about was, were, and -ing. It might shock you to know that sometimes they are ACTIVE verbs, not passive! “The apple was red” is an active sentence. (Not a very interesting one, granted, but still active.) When you usually start getting in trouble is when you combine was/were/are and -ing verbs, because even if the verb is active, the sentence might not be as strong as it could be. “The robot’s eyes were glowing” is weak, while “the robot’s eyes glowed” is strong. But if you try to cut every being-verb in your story, you’ll end up with monstrosities like “She seemed a pretty girl, despite her plain brown hair.” She SEEMED pretty, or she WAS pretty? Don’t laugh; I didn’t quote, but I’ve seen sentences that were even worse, that didn’t make any grammatical sense at all because the author “heard WAS is bad” and cut them all without regard to necessary sentence structure. (Read the “pretty girl” sentence without either *seemed* or *was* to see what I mean.)

So, next time you see a writing rule, figure out the reason behind the rule before you start applying it wildly across your writing. Your readers will thank you.

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Books I Had to Buy

Obviously, I read enough that I can’t possibly buy every book I read. I can’t even buy every book I RE-read. That’s why I love my public library. 🙂

But there are some books that I bought from my teeny book budget because I couldn’t stand not having them around whenever the craving hit. Here are some of them.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. A classic for a reason. Despite being slightly light on characters, heart and meaning are written into every book. I have the original-order set, both for sentimental reasons and because they are more meaningful when read in the order the author intended.

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. I am permanently in love with the characters. Permanently. Don’t fight me on this, because I. Will. Win.

The Great and Terrible Quest, by Margaret Lovett. I had to search this one out on the internet, but it was so worth it. This one is less well-known, so let me tell you a bit about it. A young boy hides a wounded man from his nasty grandfather and his band of thieves, then decides to help the man succeed in his forgotten quest. And by forgotten, I mean the man has amnesia, but whatever memory he lost is important enough to keep him moving despite a split head. Because nobody in the story knows what’s going on for a while, it can be confusing, but it’s worth the wait for the reveal.

Minnipin series, by Carol Kendall. I like Gammage better than Glocken, I’ll admit. I love the spunky (but very ordinary) heroes, who don’t fit in but save the village BECAUSE of their differences.

Silver Woven in My Hair, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. It’s a Cinderella story (oddly enough, with a heroine who collects Cinderella stories), but I love the realistic romance and the heroine who keeps trying no matter what.

The Ordinary Princess, by M.M. Kaye. This is my favorite romance, even though it’s a children’s book. Really, truly. It’s actually marketed as a fantasy, which totally makes sense, because Princess Amy runs away when her parents decide to get a dragon to enhance her marriageability. But it’s a story of true love, and I adore it.

Crown Duel & Court Duel, by Sherwood Smith. Here is another can’t-say-die heroine. I feel a lot of empathy for her social awkwardness and her burning intent to do the right thing no matter what others say or how much trouble it lands her in. I always wince when those two traits wrap themselves around each other in the most troublesome ways, but oh, it makes a wonderful story.

Shattered Stone, by Robert Newman. I used to just check this one out from the library regularly, but then I moved and my new library didn’t have it. Can’t have that! This is a fantasy mystery about traitors and war and lost identities, but I also love the romantic ending.

Enchantress From the Stars, by Sylvia Engdahl. It’s sci-fi, but with a fantasy feel, with a heroine who is determined to do the right thing even if it kills her. Literally.

A Wrinkle in Time series, by Madeline L’Engle. Granted, I like some books in the series better than others, but I still own the whole thing. This is another classic-for-a-reason, and the movies totally miss the reason.

The Baker Street series, by Robert Newman. You can call it a Sherlock Holmes spin-off, which is accurate enough. Though they are mysteries, it’s the characters that make me return to the series over and over and wish Newman wrote a few more of them.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, by Barbara Cohen. A historical fiction about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to make her family’s fortune. Yes, I like strong heroines, and no, I don’t think “strong” means “good with a sword.”

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith. This is not the Disney version. Let me repeat, this is the original, not the Disney version. Disney made a cute movie of the book, but he lost the inherent sweetness of Dodie’s story.

The Belgariad and The Mallorean series, by David Eddings. I once stood in a bookstore reading part of the newest book and laughing so hard that everyone stared. Fortunately, I got to do my crying in private. More characters that I love ever so much.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Not for the faint of heart, I admit, but I’ve been hooked since I was eight years old. I’ve reread them so many times that my husband assures me I am a TERRIBLE person with whom to watch the movies.

Most of Georgette Heyer’s romances (with The Masqueraders at the top of the list). Heyer, in general, writes romances that feel real. Real characters, real situations (for the time), real reasons to laugh and cry, and most importantly, real reasons to love.

I’m sure I’ve missed something, but that should give you at least a few days of reading. 😉

What book did you HAVE TO BUY?
M. C. Lee

Author Goals vs Character Goals

This morning, I woke up realizing what problem was behind certain recurring issues in the books of a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m going to use her work to explain the difference between author goals and character goals, why they SHOULDN’T be the same, and how the conflict between them makes a better story.

Let’s start with a basic definition of character and author goals. Characters want “something” that will make their life better. The lover, the job, the house, the winning goal. Whatever it is, they think it will make them happy. Authors, on the other hand, want their characters to be unhappy. Temporarily! Because good stories are made of conflict against desires. It is the tug of war between what a character wants and what they get that leads us down story lane. Will they succeed or will life/villain/better team defeat them??

Now, on to the examples.

Example #1: Author “Jane” (name has been changed) has the goal of a big reveal at a dance. The reader knows earlier that character “Hero” is turning his life around and coming back to church, but the other characters don’t yet know that. Because Jane wants a dramatic scene at the dance, she decides that Hero must also wish to save the reveal until then. He feels nervous and secretive and unready to tell anyone about the changes in his life, but thinks unveiling the surprise at the big dance will be exciting. That’s great writing, right?

Well, no. There are a few problems. First, Hero is hiding things from people he’s close to, which is odd for his character. Second, Hero is hiding things from his desired “Heroine” which would knock down some of the barriers between them, AS HE HAS BEEN WISHING. Third, most people who are coming back to church are relieved and happy and want to share the good news with their family and friends. (There are exceptions, but those haven’t been set up in this story.) Fourth, if he doesn’t want to reveal it now, privately, why would he want to save it for a public event? So all this means that his idea of hiding everything until the dance feels very unrealistic.

Does that mean Jane’s hope for a dramatic reveal is sunk? Not at all! In fact, by acknowledging Hero’s desires, yet making his life detour according the author’s wishes, we can make an even more dramatic reveal. Let me illustrate how it COULD happen, with “old” and “new” examples from the story.

Old #1: The desire. Hero doesn’t want to tell his family, friends, or wannabe girlfriend because… they will tease him? They won’t be happy for him? He wants to shock them? This scenario, besides being poorly explained, makes him seem selfish and weak and makes his loved ones seem like jerks.

New #1: The frustration. Hero wants to tell everyone (notice the change in character goal and how it opposes that of the author). He decides to do so in person, as such good news deserves. Hero calls, gets a busy signal or answering machine, and doesn’t want to leave a message. He goes by in person, but people are gone or busy with the doctor (in the case of the friend in the hospital). Hero tries composing an email, but it just doesn’t feel personal enough. He will have to try later. This scenario has us rooting for Hero, who is trying to do the right thing and keeps hitting obstacles. When is the poor guy going to get a break? Now when Jane does the big reveal at the dance, we cheer that Hero finally gets to tell his family, and the author’s goal conflicting with the character’s goal has made a better story.

Old #2: The weekend. Hero attends a different church to avoid seeing his friends and family. Ouch! Again with the selfish and weak…

New #2: The unavoidable weekend. Hero is sent out-of-town for his job. Obviously, he won’t be attending church with his family, but it’s not his fault. Again, we get to root for Hero.

Example #2. In this case, Hero has been trying to find “Lady” who saved his life and then disappeared. Author goal: Keep the characters from realizing the other’s “secret identities” until the big reveal. Character goal: Find each other! Remember, the way we’re going to get the two goals to meet is not by aligning the character goals with the author’s or by letting them give up, but by yanking our poor characters off their chosen path and ramming them into obstacles until the only way left is the author’s way.

Old #3: The picture. Hero, who is a reporter, sees a picture on Heroine’s laptop that makes him realize she is probably Lady. When he says he wants to ask about “some picture,” (without mentioning Lady or the rescue), she tells him to go away, and he does. He’ll ask later. Wow, a reporter who gives up when his source isn’t cooperative? Since when? He gave up much too easily. Author goal has taken over at the expense of the story, and we no longer believe his goal is important.

New #3: The investigator. In this scenario, our intrepid reporter wants to actually tell Heroine which picture he’s talking about and ask if she is Lady. Remember, we’re going to FORCE Hero into the author’s path, despite his desire to follow his own goal. So, some ways to do this would be to have Heroine cut him off mid-sentence and walk away or tell him to mind his own business (she’s mad at him), or to have someone else interrupt with something that can’t wait, or to have his boss suddenly call with an urgent message, or… You get the idea. Keep the goal, create an obstacle! Now Hero can say to himself, “Well, if I can’t find out that way, I’ll put my reporter skills to work on the problem.” Jane will string Hero along for a while longer with more obstacles, while the reader chews on his/her fingernails. By the time we get an answer to the dilemma, we’ll be excited for it.

What examples (good or bad) have you found (or written)?

Happy writing,

M. C. Lee