I’m at the RWA national conference in Orlando right now, where there’s always something more to think about, learn, or analyze about writing or romance publishing. In particular one writing craft panel I wanted to highlight was yesterday I attended a great panel workshop given by four New York Times bestselling authors: Lexi Blake, Cynthia Eden, Laura Kaye, and Rebecca Zanetti. The topic was on creating a large cast of characters to carry a series and the room was packed.
The discussion ranged over various details from the nuts and bolts of creating a series “bible” to keep all the details right from book to book (character eye color, favorite catch phrases, back stories, each character’s hidden secret or flaw, etc) to developing secondary characters into primary ones when “their turn for a book” comes.
I didn’t transcribe the entire panel since I was trying to focus on absorbing things relevant to me, but two questions in particular I got down almost every word, and I’m posting to share it with everyone.
Laura Kaye acted as moderator, asking the leading questions for the panel and then finishing off giving her own answer.
First she asked the panelists to describe the pros and cons of working with large casts.
Cynthia Eden: We’ve all heard the expression that no man or woman is an island? Characters don’t exist in isolation. You’re never just writing about one individual. You are by circumstance always writing about a cast of characters. You give them an instant background with their family and friends. With my romantic suspense novels I like to use teams. I write FBI teams. You’re going to need a lead investigator, a profiler, an ME, etc. You’re going to need all these people. So that’s a major pro. And any cast leads to sequels. That’s the biggest pro because it has your reader eager to go on to the next book.
Lexi Blake: Pro of a large cast? It’s fun! I like to write a lot of dialogue and you get a lot of dialogue when you have a big ol’ cast of characters. The con is… I guess there isn’t one. Well, maybe it’s that you have to make each character unique. That can be a challenge. (But that’s fun, too.)
Rebecca Zanetti: A large cast is great to show characterization. You act differently with different people. I have one sister I tease like crazy and one that I can’t. You can show different facets of a character and that’s one I like a lot. Also the slow burn character, I love. That person who shows up in book one and they build up for a long time before they get their story. You can develop them over a series. The con is you sometimes get too many people on a page. Even if you’re on book 4 or 5 of a series, you hope new readers are picking them up. You don’t want to confuse that new reader with too many new characters all at once.
Lexi: Well, and as you write the books they get longer because you keep having to put everyone’s favorite characters in there. Then you have to do the backyard BBQ scene to get them all in!
Laura Kaye: I agree, on the backyard BBQ. The thing that is great about having all these characters is you have the built in relationships where it’s easy to have humor, and it’s easy to have stakes because there are many people who could be hurt or feel lied-to or betrayed. Lots of emotional hooks for your readers. Not just for your sequels where they buy into a beloved secondary character, but for the tertiary characters who can manage to hook interest and get pulled into the story. You can expand a series if it takes off and starts doing well. It gives you the flexibility to do spin-offs. The cons are that your POV characters can’t just absorb a tennis match of other people talking. They have to be engaged in the conversation. Then there’s the giant pronoun problem when you have, say, five military guys on your team planning a mission and you have to figure out the mechanics of writing that dialogue so it’s not monotonous to the reader. The other con is if you’re going with a traditional publisher and you have 5 main characters, but your publisher stops after three books. You can end up with disappointed readers on your hands.
What are some tips for developing such a large number of characters? What are some tips for distinguishing them?
Rebecca: One thing I like is nicknames, if he calls her honey or sweetcheeks makes a difference. Also their motivations. If you play a joke on one friend, they laugh, another one never forgives you. They’re different. There are the little tidbits you put in. I have one guy that likes grape energy drinks and if I don’t put that in readers will write and say does he not like those anymore? Also their wounds. What hurt this guy, what is he still afraid of?
Lexi: if you don’t know those characters, the reader won’t know them. I think you don’t have to know everything before you start, but you have to know what makes them laugh, what makes them cry. I’ve written a lot of small town romance. And getting to know the neighbors and walking through the town can pull you in. But even an office building can have a sense of place. Put your characters around a table and see who talks first. If you’re just putting traits in a notebook and there’s no real emotion behind them it’s going to show. I love using dialogue. Some speak, fast, some slow, and you need to be able to hear them in your head.
Cynthia: I like to work with opposites on a team. You’ll have one guy who’s the hothead and always jumps right in. Then I have a team member who likes to sit back and get all the info before jumping in. So she and the first guy are going to have a clash. My action-first character, if he’s angry, he’s not just going to sit still. He’ll be pacing and clenching his fists and all that. All this body language that this character is doing with reveal his personality. The one who is the analytical sort? She’s not going to just kick in a door. She’ll be trying to talk the person down. Those personality styles lead me into what they should do in each scene. You don’t want them doing something that isn’t their normal nature without a really, really good explanation. Be aware, though, I’ve had New York editors tell me that the way I talk isn’t real, people don’t say that. I’m Southern. Something that seems so normal to me was something they didn’t like. But I think bringing in realistic dialect is a great way to distinguish the characters.
Laura: Think of it as a shorthand for your character. I learned a lot about creating unique characters from reading JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. One is the blind king who wears the weird sunglasses. And one is the sarcastic one with the dragon tattoo who sucks on lollipops all the time. Then there’s the black-eyed, scarred one who is soulless and never speaks. I don’t even have to use their names: they’re immediately distinct. And when all twelve are in a room having a briefing session, you don’t have to use their names, because you know when so quickly from their distinguishing characteristics who’s who. Also, what are things that make the reader see them as endearing or real, that make the reader fall in love with that person? That grape energy drink or they’re a dog-lover or whatever. The more you can create those personal things the better, beyond scars and tattoos, beyond eye color and hair color. I have a lot of guys who swear but they can’t all say “Aw, hell.” Only one of them can say that and the other guys have to say something else.
As usual, the conference has been fantastic. If you are writing romance, or any kind of commercial fiction, I highly recommend attending one of these if you can afford it. In romance, I really feel I can’t afford *NOT* to be here!
Mirrored from blog.ceciliatan.com.
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Hestia set the first claw in it, of course. Now she crouches on the back like a demon rabbit, staring out into the world with wide gold eyes. Autolycus leapt onto the cushions, prowled, sniffed carefully all around, and then took possession of a stack of displaced boxes of slightly greater elevation. I am sitting on it with my computer like a sensible person. I could sit on it and read books. I could drag the coffee table over and watch a movie without being at my desk. I could, some afternoon, fall asleep.
Yay, having furniture.
Over the last decade, Orbit US, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, has quickly established itself as one of the premiere publishers of science fiction and fantasy, and a reliable source for everything from innovative works of science fiction to blockbuster epic fantasies. To celebrate the milestone, a selection of landmark Orbit titles is currently available on Nook for just $2.99 each, but we wanted to do more than point you toward some great titles, so we asked Orbit’s publisher, Tim Holman, to share a bit of history. Below his comments, you’ll find a timeline of key dates in Orbit’s history.
I met G. Scott Huggins almost twenty years ago. We were both published in Writers of the Future XV, and we ended up in a writing group together for several years. He was one of the folks who helped me grow and improve as an author. I published one of his stories in Heroes in Training a while back.
I love the premise and setup. Dr. James DeGrande is a veterinarian in a land that’s been taken over by a Dark Lord, and the whole thing is written with a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor. The book is made up of several distinct but related stories, showing the growth of James and his partnership with his assistant Harriet (a physically disabled almost-witch).
Here’s part of the publisher’s official description:
Everyone says it was better in the Good Old Days. Before the Dark Lord covered the land in His Second Darkness.
As far as I can tell, it wasn’t that much better. Even then, everyone cheered the heroes who rode unicorns into combat against dragons, but no one ever remembered who treated the unicorns’ phosphine burns afterward. Of course, that was when dragons were something to be killed. Today I have to save one. Know what fewmets are? No? Then make a sacrifice of thanks right now to whatever gods you worship, because today I have to figure a way to get them flowing back out of the Dark Lord’s favorite dragon. Yeah, from the other end. And that’s just my most illustrious client. I’ve got orcs and trolls who might eat me and dark elf barons who might sue me if their bloodhawks and chimeras don’t pull through. And that doesn’t even consider the possibility that the old bag with the basilisk might show up.
The only thing that’s gone right this evening is finding Harriet to be my veterinary assistant. She’s almost a witch, which just might save us both. If we don’t get each other killed first.
I appreciate writers who take traditional fantasy and flip things around to present a different perspective. Just as I enjoy clever protagonists, like James and Harriet. (And while this may come as a shock, I also like fantasy that tries to have fun.)
There’s one bit I need to talk about. About 80% of the way into the book, we meet Countess Elspeth Bathetique, an incredibly neglectful pet owner and generally unpleasant person, and we get this exchange:
“Dammit, my lady, you’re not even a vampire!”
“How… how dare you? I identify as a vampire, you filth! You cannot dream of the tragic destiny which is ours!”
“What? Suffering from vitamin deficiency, malnutrition, keeping out of the sun for no damn reason, and torturing your poor pet basilisk? If I dreamed of that, I’d seek clerical help!”
I don’t believe it was intentional, but seeing language generally used by transgender people played for laughs by a wannabe vampire threw me right out of the story. I emailed and chatted with Scott, who confirmed that wasn’t the intention. The Countess was meant to be a darker take on Terry Pratchett’s Doreen Winkings. But he said he understood how I or others might read it the way I did.
One of my favorite parts of these stories are the veterinary details. Huggins’ wife is a veterinarian, and there’s a sense of real truth to the protagonist’s frustration with neglectful pet owners and the various challenges of keeping all these magical animals healthy. It helps to ground the book and acts as a nice counter to the humor.
I couldn’t find an excerpt online, but there’s a promo video on YouTube.
Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.
1. On the very crowded Red Line around five-thirty this afternoon, I saw two girls—late high school, early college, one white-looking and one not—practicing what they called "subway surfing," keeping their balance without recourse to poles or hangers or fellow passengers as the train rocked and bucked between Harvard and Davis. I appreciated what they were doing; the car was so sardine-packed that I couldn't get near a handhold myself, plus I was carrying a couple of books from the dollar-sticker carts outside the Harvard Book Store (I sense a theme) and a halva brownie from Tatte's that was trying to melt through its paper bag. It was a miserable commute experience and they were making the best they could of it. I did not appreciate the male commuter about my age who turned around as he got off the train at Porter to yell at the girls for "screaming in [his] ears." They stopped subway surfing after he left. They separated and found different poles to hang on to and did not try to talk to one another across the thinning space of commuters between them. The thing is, the guy had not even been their neighbor. He'd been standing right in front of me the entire time, holding on to the pole I couldn't find room on. He could legitimately have yelled at me for breathing into the nape of his neck, but even had the girls been shouting at the tops of their lungs, thanks to our respective positions their conversation would still have had to travel through me before getting anywhere near his ears. So when the train ground to a halt between stations—because there was another train on the line, because the T never has enough money, because Charlie Baker would rather privatize public transit than allocate it any reasonable amount of public funds and incidentally fuck the unions—and there was a brief lull in the racketing noise, I attracted the attention of the nearer girl and told her that she and her friend were great subway surfers, that I'd seen and appreciated them, and that the guy had been completely out of line. I hope it didn't weird her out. I wanted to give them a reality check. The guy annoyed me. Congratulations, you don't like being on a sardine car at rush hour—neither does anyone else, but at least those girls were getting something fun out of it. They weren't losing their footing and banging into people. They were laughing. Don't yell at people when they're trying to make the world better. I feel this lesson can and should be generalized.
2. I did not expect to find myself explaining the technicalities of 70 mm to a completely different set of kids at the door of the Somerville Theatre, but they all bought tickets for Dunkirk (2017) and showed interest in the upcoming 70 mm festival—they wanted to know not just about the format itself and whether it would look different from a DCP of the same movie (spoiler: yes) but the system on which the film would be shown, which I could at least explain was not a Hateful Eight retrofit but a pair of Philips Norelco DP70s designed for just this format, installed in this theater well before Tarantino started shooting in Ultra Panavision, lovingly maintained, and capable of magnetic rather than digital sound. Then I got asked how it was possible to show 70 and 35 mm on the same machines and at that point my knowledge of down- and upconverting degenerated into "I'm not the projectionist! I don't even work here!" (After the conversation was over, I promptly went upstairs and bugged David the projectionist about the specifics just in case this ever happens to me again. I hate being asked technical questions for which I have only partial answers; it makes me feel worse than having no answers at all.) Mostly they seemed concerned that they wouldn't be able to appreciate the beautiful information density of the format if it was filtered through a system that wasn't built to handle it, the same way the high fidelity of a recording is immaterial if all you can play it back through is some crackly laptop speakers. I could reassure them that was not going to be the experience at the Somerville. I realize that programs for movies are not so much a thing anymore, but I'm thinking for this one maybe it couldn't hurt.
3. I like the photograph of this person who looks like they are wearing a spell of the sea: Taylor Oakes, "Rhue."
4. I am delighted that I have now read multiple poems employing Wittgenstein's concept of language-games, also specifically this ambiguity: Veronica Forrest-Thomson, "Ducks & Rabbits."
5. In unexpected and welcome writing news, Clockwork Phoenix 5 is a finalist for a World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. I have a story in it, so obviously I hope it wins, but the rest of the list is full of extremely cool people and the extremely cool things they have written and I wish everyone luck!
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