Dreaming in Character

G.L. Jackson

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Sticking the Ending

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

JK Rowling taught me a valuable lesson: in an ongoing series, don’t get too attached to any one character. The author might kill them off. The jolt I got after reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was palpable. I felt it in my gut. In my heart. Right then and there, I resolved to never fall in love with a fictional character again.

Of course, that didn’t really stick. But it did teach me that in anyone else’s fictional world, the ending is out of my control. I remember watching the finales of a few memorable TV series: Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy. These days I watch even less television than I did in the past. Part of that is because I have less trust in the writers to give me an ending that satisfies. Part of that is because there’s too much to choose from. Another part of that is my excuses: I should be writing my own stuff. I should be doing this or that. I should get away from a screen, any kind of screen, and interact with other humans face to face.

The latest show I watched in its entirety was HBO’s Game of Thrones. I know a lot of people who are extremely disappointed in the ending. Without getting into specifics about the show, the writers, and the expense involved in such a production, I will say that by last Sunday night, I finally felt I’d truly learned that lesson from back in my Harry Potter days. I had let go of any personal investment in the ending, and sat back and watched simply as a spectator to the story. Without caring overmuch about the fate of any of the characters, I watched. Looked for nuances. Saw various storylines neatly tied up while others were left dangling or largely unresolved.

I thought back to the other shows I mentioned above. I might be in the minority but I did love the ending to three of those shows (Lost, you lose, your last two seasons were so poorly executed). The final scene of Breaking Bad was a reference to Lost as well as a genuinely complete wrap-up for that series; The Sopranos had an ending that left a great many people highly unsatisfied, although I thought it was brilliant. We still have discussions about that in my home every now and then, and it’s been years since that aired. Sons of Anarchy was a Hamlet retelling, so its ending was inevitable. And while I am curious about whether or not George R.R. Martin is ever going to finish the series that spawned Game of Thrones and I would like to see his take on the end to his sprawling saga, I’m actually sort of relieved that the TV series is over.

Even though it didn’t stick the ending, the ending was someone’s version of fanservice at its most encompassing (and so was Endgame, if we want to bring movies into the discussion). There’s really nothing wrong with fanservice, but fans are a special breed with very distinct notions of what their story’s end should and should not be.

I watch all of this with rapt attention. Most of my friends who hated the ending to Game of Thrones are avid readers of the books. Then there were others who never read any of the novels and didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. It was just TV, right?

For me, as a writer, having a good ending is something of a moral imperative. I would hate to lead my readers along for hundreds of pages only to have an ending where the characters weren’t true to themselves, or the story didn’t wrap convincingly or successfully. I nearly always go into writing a book with the visuals for the final scene set in my mind, or at least the emotional requirements of that scene firmly established. I would hate to write the kind of book where someone said “oh, now I have to write fanfiction to fix that!”

To bring the lesson JK Rowling taught me home to roost, though… the fifth book in the Harry Potter series might have devasted me because of my attachment to her fictional people, but everyone still acted in character. I might not have liked what happened, but it all made sense with the progression of the story. In Breaking Bad I might not have liked who Walter White became, but it made sense. In Sons of Anarchy I might not have appreciated Jax Teller’s desperation, but it made sense given all the other occurrences. And in The Sopranos, I learned that what I wanted to have happened didn’t need to have happened. In fact, I don’t know what happened, and that was okay. The ending made sense given the rest of the story.

I won’t talk about Lost. That was disappointing, especially from a characterization perspective.

But without all of these examples, including the Game of Thrones adaptation, I would have less material to draw on when coming to terms with how I want to end my own series. I want the characters to remain in character. I want the arcs to be complete. I want the resolution to incorporate what came before, without introducing something new or having some Deus Ex Machina nonsense. Mostly, I want the ending to satisfy. I don’t ever want any of my readers to finish only because they feel they have to pick it apart, or to be thinking “wow, what a waste of time.”


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On Writer’s Block

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I have a love-hate relationship with the term “writer’s block.” Part of me likes it, because it makes for a convenient excuse. But another part of me doesn’t ever want to pawn off my own decisions or abilities on anything else–even a phrase.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ability to write, or not to write. Then I realize it’s not really about ability. It’s about willingness. Willingness to sit down and force words onto the page when I’m not in the mood, or when they’re not flowing for me. I’ve never been one of those writers who says I must write every day, come hell or high water. I have been one of those writers who says today’s words kind of suck, and writing them was like pulling teeth, and that makes me want to take a break from it. Sometimes I do take a break. Other times, I grit my teeth and battle my way through the obstinacy.

What I’ve come to realize, at least for myself, is that there will always be days when writing is a struggle and nothing is easy, where there’s little or no joy in putting words on the page. On those days, I give myself permission to try and fail. Or to not try. To do something else, unrelated to my work in progress, so that my creative well can refill. But I don’t blame those days on writer’s block. I take responsibility for them, and for my productivity or lack thereof, and get on with life.

The day hasn’t arrived yet when I’ve forgotten how to write. The day has arrived where I’m low on motivation or creativity, or hate what I’m working on and don’t want that to translate to the page. My way of dealing with that might be different from yours. I do know writers who write regardless and to those wonderful people, I say congratulations! I’m envious.

But I also know myself, and know that I’ll make up for it. I’m competitive with myself that way. And if I ever give myself a hard daily word count goal, I will meet it (I haven’t met a NaNoWriMo I haven’t bested yet). Like any other creative endeavor, the personal oomph I need to get it done well can sometimes be elusive. Since I’m a big believer in self-care, I try not to be too hard on myself on those days. Even as I take responsibility for them. I know the focus will return, and personally I’ll feel all the better for not blaming my lack of productivity on someone or something else. Your mileage may vary!

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Fear and Twitter Pitching (#amquerying)

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

Probably the single scariest thing I’ve done as a writer was to enter my first Twitter pitch contest. It’s like standing on the edge of a precipice knowing you’re about to jump, but all the “what ifs” crowd for dominance in your mind. What if I don’t make it to the other side? What if I miss the lake and end up on the rocks? What if the chasm is too deep? What if the ground opens and swallows me up? What if, what if, what if?

Then there are Twitter pitch contests. The fear with those is every bit as real, even if they’re on a more cerebral level. What if no one likes my tweet? What if my pitch is terrible? What if everyone laughs at my ideas? What if all the agents and editors snicker at my idea? What if I mess up? What if, what if, what if?

The truth of the matter is that if we want to be published, we have to put our words out there for people to see. Yes, a Twitter pitch contest like #KissPitch for romance manuscripts or #PitMad for all genres or #SFFPit for science fiction and fantasy can be a daunting thing. But it can also be really fun! #PitMad was the contest that started me on the roundabout path to my wonderful agent, Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary.

Before you jump in with a random tweet on a contest day, there’s a checklist you should pay attention to.

1. Do you have a completed, polished manuscript?

This is the most crucial element. If you’re sitting with an almost-finished manuscript, or you haven’t gotten around to doing those edits that your critique partners and beta readers suggested, or you know that saggy middle needs to be tightened up…don’t enter. You’re not ready. On the other hand, if your manuscript has been workshopped, edited, proofed, and you’re ready to query that sucker, by all means enter.

2. Do you have a pitch or three or four ready to go?

You only have 280 words to hook someone’s attention. That includes the contest hashtags, the genre hashtags, and any other hashtags you want to use. In general, the shorter the pitch, the more likely it is to be read.

Remember back in the days when we only had 140 characters per tweet? Remember Polonius going on and on about how brevity is the soul of wit? Forget the rest of Hamlet if you must, but when you’re crafting a Twitter pitch, remember those wise words. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Shorter tweets are easier on the eyes. They stand out in a flurry of other tweets. But whatever you do, don’t add graphics to your tweet. Unless the specific pitch contest you’re entering allows for that, it’s frowned on.

If you’ve got your pitches ready, by all means, enter.

Or be like me. Workshop the hell out of your tweets…then write flippant tired ones the night before and throw caution to the wind. Sometimes, the flippant tired ones are the best.

I could write a whole post on crafting tweets, but that’s a different beast so we’ll save it for another day.

3. You’re querying, or ready to query.

That’s great! It means your manuscript is ready to be evaluated by agent, editor, or publisher eyes. If that’s the case, by all means, enter. The pitch contest is a way to get your manuscript in front of agents, editors, and publishers that you might not have on your list.

But what about the fear?

Conquering fear is something we all need to do as writers. We have to put our words out there. If we’re going to be published, we’re going to have an audience. Some of that audience will love our words. Some will not love our words. It’s one of the truths of being an author: no book pleases everyone.

Don’t let that stop you.

At some point, you have to take the leap. And it is a leap of faith, but experience has taught me that this particular leap gets easier. It goes from paralyzing to scary to not so bad to downright fun. Remember those questions I asked up top? I’ll try to answer them.

What if no one likes my tweet?

That’s happened to me! And look, I’m still standing. An entire pitch event goes by, and not a single like from any agent or editor or publisher. It’s depressing, but it’s not the end of the world. The truth of the matter is that some concepts tweet really well. Others need a little more finessing.

If no one likes your tweet, make sure your query letter and synopsis do a better job of explaining your premise, Make sure your query doesn’t give away the whole book–it should end in a hook. Then query the agents on your list anyway.

What if my pitch is terrible?

We all write terrible pitches. If you think your pitch is terrible, rewrite it. Don’t be offensive, don’t be rude. Stick to the main plotline of your novel, give us stakes, hook the reader, and make it voicey. No problem, right?

Seriously, your pitch will only be terrible if it’s vague. “A pirate has to save the princess, or awful things will happen.” Now that’s a terrible pitch, because we really have no clue what’s at stake. But if you tell readers just enough to make it interesting, you won’t have a terrible pitch. “A dashing pirate must rescue his beloved princess from a fiendish tyrant before she’s bound to him forever, or the life essence will be forced from his body.”

That’s just one way to pitch The Princess Bride. I’m sure you can think of a million more. That’s not even a great pitch, but at least it has stakes! And a little personality! And it leaves a few questions: how will the life essence be forced from his body? How is a princess the pirate’s beloved? Why would she be bound to a fiendish tyrant? You get the picture.

Since you have multiple tweet opportunities in most contests, mix it up. Have a tweet featuring Westley, and have one featuring Buttercup. If you’re feeling brave, put out a tweet featuring the Rodents of Unusual Size too.

What if everyone laughs at my ideas?

They won’t. Promise. But if you can write a tweet that makes people laugh for the right reasons, it will be memorable.

What if all the agents and editors hate my idea and talk about it behind my back?

Trust me, they don’t have time for this.

What if I mess up?

You can’t.

Ultimately, the only thing you can do is try. If you’re ready to take that leap, do it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing. You’ll be no worse off than you are now. You won’t have ruined your chances. Remember, an agent’s inbox is open to your query regardless of whether or not they favorite your pitch.

Now, go on and take that leap of faith! The only way to lose is by quitting.

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Book Review: Dating by the Book, by Mary Ann Marlowe

Dating by the BookDating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I was reading this book (I received an ARC and yes, you should be envious) I kept thinking how sweet it was. How cute. How easy it was to read, and how relatable all the characters are. But once I finished and realized how many layers this book has, I was even more impressed. It’s still sweet and cute, and if you devour it in one sitting like I did, that might be all you need. However, there are similarities between happenings in the main character Maddie’s life and the selections she offers up to the participants at her failing bookstore’s reading club. Even if you’re not intimately familiar with those titles, you will be deftly guided toward seeing the parallels between them and the goings-on in Maddie’s life.

To complicate matters, Maddie’s sworn off romance but when her upcoming release under a pen name garners a harsh review from anonymous blogger Silver Fox, she breaks the first rule of negative reviews and argues back. As Maddie and Silver Fox become closer online, the potential romantic heroes of her day-to-day life become frustratingly difficult offline. There are a few mysteries thrown into the mix: could one of her bachelor friends be the mysterious reviewer, or is Silver Fox truly a stranger? And which one of them, if any, is sabotaging her bookstore? It’s not just the graffiti on the front door: a series of mishaps occur…could the person behind them be her ex-fiance, who has her over a financial barrel? The childhood friend eager to turn the bookstore into a cafe? The ex-boyfriend rock star who wants her back? Or the English teacher who’s allegedly only there for the sweets and free wifi, but clearly has something else up his sleeve?

As the complexities of Maddie’s situation broil and stew, her online relationship with anonymous reviewer Silver Fox heats up. Uncovering Silver Fox’s identity will be a delicious treat for readers of this book.

Five stars because it’s fun, breezy, and far more complex than it seems on the surface. Thank you, Mary Ann, for another wonderful book.

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Demystifying Querying

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

I know: querying is tough. Distilling our full-length novel into 250 words attractive enough to garner an agent or editor’s attention is a Herculean task. It’s a skill so separate from actual fiction writing that it boggles the mind.

Next to synopsis writing, it’s probably the most hated task a writer faces. (If you’ve ever tried to write a 280-character pitch you might argue that deserves top billing in the marketing writers have to do, but play along with me here). While we’ve all heard the sweet little phrases designed to make writing a query letter easier–“the hook, the book, the cook” or “personalize, introduce, and leave ’em in suspense” or whatever you might know–there’s still nothing that makes a writer sweat more than the idea that their work will either be dismissed, laughed at, or–fingers crossed–interesting enough for a request based on this short little cover letter.

I’m here today to help demystify the querying process. It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but the truth of the matter is quite straightforward: all you’re doing is applying for a job. Your query letter is nothing more than the equivalent of a resume or CV (granted, a very creative and clever one).

Let me say that again: sending out a query is applying for a job. And who in their life hasn’t done that?

Back in the days when I worked in offices, I applied for jobs all the time. Ask yourself what happens when you send in a resume for a job posting? One of several things.

  1. You get a request for an interview.
  2. You get a letter that says “sorry, we’re not interested/you’re not right/we’ve already filled the position.”
  3. You never hear a thing.

In the first case, yay! You get excited. Probably nervous. You set up a time for an interview, and go in hoping to knock the company’s socks off.

In the second case, you say “well, I didn’t want to work for them anyway!” with or without a few choice phrases attached. You throw away the letter, or file it, and find somewhere else to apply.

In the third case, there’s really nothing you can do. You can assume you fell into a black hole. You might contact the company to make sure they got your resume, or you might just assume they’re not interested in you.

If you’ve ever queried a novel, you probably see where I’m going with this.

  1. You get a request for pages, either full or partial.
  2. You get a rejection letter, either personalized (yay!) or form (boo!).
  3. You never hear back from the agent/publisher/editor.
  4. In the first case, you don’t keep the agent/editor waiting. You send in exactly what’s been requested in the format they specify as quickly as possible.

In the second case, you say “well, I didn’t want to work with them anyway!” and send out more queries.

In the third case, there’s really nothing you can do. You might wait a discreet amount of time and follow up to see if your query fell into that awful black hole, but probably you assume after some period of time they’re not interested, especially if there’s a stipulation on their website that no response means no.

And that’s the process. As with any job hunt, you don’t give up after the first few don’t work out. You keep going until you get that job. Or in this case, find that agent or publisher.

Remember, a query letter is absolutely a business letter. It’s a letter of introduction. But instead of lauding your skill set to help you land that job as carpenter, teacher, or sales force, you’re lauding your novel. Just because writing is a creative endeavor, though, don’t treat the query as another piece of fiction. There are myriad resources out there on how to craft a beautiful query letter, but at the heart of them all you’d do well to remember that this part of writing is all business, and you want to be taken for a professional (or at least someone who does a darn good impression of knowing when it’s time to be professional).

And by all means, have someone look it over for you before you hit SEND.

Three quick tips before we finish up:

  1. If you wouldn’t send a resume cover letter that says “Dear Prospective Employer,” don’t send a query that starts out “Dear Agent/Editor/Publisher” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” You want to show you’ve done your research, that you know who you’re talking to, and that you’ve at least looked at their website and know the preferred form of address. And please, don’t CC: all the agents you’re querying. You wouldn’t do that with a resume cover letter. Leave yourself some wiggle room and a little mystery. After all, if you attract the attention you want, do you really want that agent seeing a list of their competition? I don’t think so.
  2. If you wouldn’t send a resume cover letter written in character, don’t send a query letter written in character. This is the chance for you, the author, to show that you can market both your book and yourself in a professional and expected manner rather than in a zany or creative one.
  3. If you wouldn’t tell a prospective employer how your last job ended in a cover letter, don’t tell a prospective agent/editor how your story ends in the query letter. Leave them something to ask about, or leave them something to hopefully want to read.

Now go out there and query. Have fun with it, and don’t give up.


Know Your Genre

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

I write romance.

I also do a fair amount of critiquing for other writers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people talk about genre-straddling, or that they’re writing something that doesn’t fit into any particular genre. There is a time in every author’s life when they decide they either don’t need to fit into a genre category or have written something that defies genre categorization.

Trust me. Your work fits into a genre, and it can be categorized.

For the longest time, I didn’t know I was a romance writer. I knew I liked writing about relationships. The messier, the better. Newbie that I was, I threw everything at my characters. Romantic relationship? Yes! Dragons? Angels? Skateboards? Why not! Mystery and intrigue? Sure. A healthy dose of literary-style navel gazing? Absolutely. Bring it. I’d mash everything together, pour in all the things I could think of. Thankfully, my starter novels are lost to time. Like all starter novels, they were hot messes of inconsistency. No plot? No problem: I called it literary. No happily ever after? No problem, it was mainstream fiction with a strong romantic element and also spaceships.

Like a lot of beginning writers, I scoffed at the romance arc because I felt it constricted the entire genre. Why go into reading something, living through all that heartbreak and turmoil, if you know it’s all going to be all right in the end? I figured I could upend it with a non-traditional ending and call it a non-romance. (Note to past me: there’s a word for that type of story, and the word isn’t “romance.”) I read plenty of romance, but with the arrogance that comes from not understanding and definitely not appreciating the intricacies of the romance arc. Yes, at its core it’s A meets B. A and B fall in love, and it’s a love like no other. Then something happens, and A and B either break up or are torn apart by some terrible external circumstance. But eventually they overcome the terrible circumstance, learn to trust each other again, and live happily ever after. I thought, “how trivial. How dull. How expected.”

Being the sort of person who likes to buck tradition, I decided not to follow the romance arc at all. Which was fine. But what that really meant was that I wasn’t writing romance. I was writing something different–women’s fiction, or literary fiction, or a coming-of-age story. All of those genres already exist. Why try to warp them into something they’re not?

Now, as I sit toward the end of this year’s NaNoWriMo first draft (another romance! Score!), I can tell you that learning to work within the constraints of the romance arc is the best, most disciplined thing I have done as a writer. Yes, the arc is there because readers expect it. Beyond that, the romance arc is actually quite beautiful and quite complex. When I think of all the romances I’ve read, no two are exactly alike, even though the romance arc is the uniting factor in all these books. I have yet to see two authors independently pen the same book. Learning to work within the arc takes patience, understanding, and no small amount of skill. After all, nobody’s going to buy a book that treats the romance as a flat, boring, done deal. Even though we know the characters will be all right in the end, we read romance to live through the emotion of the arc with the characters. We get to experience them falling in love, losing that love, and working hard to get it back. In the meantime, if the author has done their job, the characters become so real to us that we root for them. We find ourselves yelling at them when they make some boneheaded move, or cheering for them when they get things right. Good romance novels are packed to the gills with emotion, so charged that readers often can’t put them down. We become invested in the characters, their lives, and their well-being.

Not every genre can make that same claim.

Once I’m finished with the mostly-finished books on my writing plate, I’m going to go back to a mystery I started during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. That, too, is an exercise in discipline, although writing a mystery is a challenge far different from the romance writing challenge. Will I be successful? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve learned my lesson about bucking the trend. Will my mystery have romance elements? Probably, because I’m a sucker for the human experience and believe that love is one of the most interesting topics a writer can tackle. Does it need a HEA/HFN (Happily Ever After/Happy For Now) ending? No. But the mystery has to make sense, and it has to be solved. If I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t actually be a mystery.

Know your genre. Read widely in your category. You’ll learn to recognize what makes a book a romance, what makes it chick lit, and what makes it women’s fiction. Yes, sometimes the lines get blurry, but there’s no shortage of information out there on how to find your genre. Probably the best thing you can do is find a group of other writers who happen to be working on the same type of story you are, and compare notes. Read for each other. Listen to their suggestions. Take their suggestions to heart.

After all this, if you find yourself writing a romance that doesn’t end happily, trust me: you’re not writing a romance. Go back and try categorizing it again.

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Happy #NaNoWriMo, Everyone!

It’s November–are you writing this year? I just started, and am hoping to finish the first draft of the last book in a series this month.

I’d like to introduce you to my NaNoWriMon, Sammy. Named after my female main character, one of my most anticipated things during NaNo is watching her evolve as my word count goes up. She began as a little egg, and hatched today.

gl-jackson's NaNoWriMon

Good luck to all!