Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Author Carolyn Jewel: Paradox Lost and Paradox Regained

By Carolyn Jewel

One of the things I enjoy about the How They Do It column is seeing how other authors approach writing. It's especially fun when their approach is radically different from mine, because that helps prove something I'm a firm believer in: there is no right way to write. There's just your way.

Today, Carolyn Jewel is going to share her thoughts on this. I agree with her 100%, and love the way she approaches this topic. Proof that even when you agree, there are still different ways to tackle the same idea.

Carolyn Jewel is an award-winning author who's been writing stories ever since she could scribble. Now that she's grown up (mostly) she writes historical and paranormal romance because she loves history and imagining the lives of people who lived in years past, and because she's fascinated by the loves and travails of the not-exactly-human in any time period. Her new novel, My Dangerous Pleasure, releases today, so go check it out.

Take it away Carolyn...

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that no craft-of-writing advice should ever be accepted as a How-To. There is no single “how-to” when it comes to writing a novel. There is no set of rules that, when followed, guarantee success, and there’s no writing rule that can’t be effectively and brilliantly broken.

Therefore, as you read this, you should think not about steps for you to follow, but whether what I have to say gives you insight into your writing. Even a conclusion that it doesn’t help in the least should, in fact, be helpful.

Your challenge isn’t to follow my advice but to privately reverse-engineer this article. Tear apart what I’m saying. Deconstruct it. Put it back together. Make the knowledge yours.

If you do that, I promise you’ll have something more valuable than a few words about what Carolyn Jewel thinks she knows about writing. Instead, you’ll know something more about your writing.

To that end, I’m going to talk about some writing paradoxes.

The Paradox of Achieving Success Through Failure
Every writing “failure” points you in the direction of success – because you are analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

If you’re fairly new to writing, or if you feel recognizing your failures is a weakness for you, spend some quality time analyzing someone else’s draft writing. This is an excellent way to learn how to look at your own writing with a clearer eye.

For this purpose, I don’t recommend analyzing published writing. You need to learn how to analyze and fix flawed writing and most published work has already had the flaws addressed.

You should spend HOURS on your analysis. Where did things break down and why? How would you fix it? I’m not suggesting necessarily that you share your entire analysis with the author. You need to provide that person with a constructive response that respects their writing and dignity.

When you’ve done this several times (not a few, several, possibly even dozens) you’ll be a better writer. You’ll have an easier time seeing the same or similar flaws in your own work.

Volunteer to judge contests. If you’re in a critique group, do not short-change your critique partners. The hours you put into analyzing what works and what doesn’t in a piece of writing is invaluable.

Every scene that doesn’t work is a scene you now know you need to fix or delete. The choice you made didn’t work out and now you know you need to do something else. There is now one less boring path to follow.

Stop beating yourself up about the sucky scene and give yourself a pat on the back for your realization that you need to do something else. And then, of course, do something else. Sucky scenes do not fix themselves, after all.

But back to failure. I’m not talking just about writing flaws, scenes gone bad and plot points that don’t advance the story. I’m also talking about how to use failure to arrive at the writing process that works for you.

By way of example, if you’ve tried writing extensive outlines and those outlines do not assist in getting you to a finished, publishable book, the take-away isn’t that you suck at outlining and will never publish a novel. Assuming your outlining efforts were carried out in good-faith and that you analyzed the impact of those efforts on your writing, the take-away is that you should stop outlining and do something else. Maybe ::gasp:: you’re a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer.

With a writing process, your ONLY criteria is whether a given approach works for you. If what you’re doing right now isn’t working, then try another approach.

Embrace failure because failure will lead you to success.

The Paradox of The Author
The goal of (most) fiction is to create a world in which the reader never once feels the presence of the author. The characters and the world are experienced as real. At the end of the book, your reader looks up and has that moment of dislocation in which she is shocked to remember the world she’s been in doesn’t really exist.

And yet, every word on the page is there because of the author. Despite the disappearance of the author from the story, she has left her imprint on the pages.

The old writing adage, “Kill Your Darlings” came about because those darling, favorite, beautiful turns of phrase are nothing more than authorial intrusion. They take the reader out of the story.

It doesn’t matter if the reader is thinking, wow, that’s the best sentence ever! The fact that the reader thought it means she dropped out of the story.

Authors can certainly craft prose that is beautiful, but that prose must be in service only to the story. Astute readers (which is pretty much all of them) will feel it when your words are there for more for their beauty than for the story. However much they admire that lovely prose, they will also have lost some of their belief in the story.

When you revise your work, make sure your prose helps your reader disappear into your story. Kill those darlings. Reshape the words until the beauty serves your story. (Nobody ever said writing was easy.)

Paradoxically, it’s when the prose serves only the story that we are most likely to encounter writing that takes our breath.

The Paradox of Genre-Vision
Genre-Vision (as I call it) is a sort of writing-related tunnel vision. It’s what happens when an author uses the conventions of a given genre and never questions, examines, or proves the reason for the conventions.

This form of writing-blinders tends to produce characters and situations that feel familiar and cliché. In a boring way, not a comfortable way. Genre-vision leads to editorial responses like “I just didn’t fall in love with the characters.”
Alpha hero? Check. Sassy heroine? Check. Sexually deviant villain? Check! And write!
Uh, no.

Genre-Vision produces a paradox because, although every genre-writer needs to be aware of the conventions and requirements of her genre, it’s equally important not to be blinded by that knowledge.

Despite the fact that the hero and heroine of, say, a Romance are described with sexual themes foremost, Genre-Vision causes, ironically, a distinct lack of sexual tension.

Genre-vision is prone to show us a hero who thinks about little except how hot the heroine is. The heroine thinks only about how soulful his eyes are. Clothing showcases their hotness and desirability. These characters are never whole unto themselves. Instead, every aspect of the story is referential to the genre.

In short, there is nothing that does not hit us over the head with the promise that they are going to fall in love, damn it! (or solve the crime, or catch the bad-guy or triumph over a High School nemesis.)

A story written with Genre-Vision tends to be structurally weak because the obstacles and complications that arise are about as solid as cardboard. The story and plot are predictable.

In keeping with my theme, the solution to this thinness of characterization and plot is a paradoxical one: Pretend you’re not writing in your genre.

In the real life of your novel, the hero does not know he will win the heroine, solve the mystery, save the world from terrorists, or defeat the evil mage. If, as you are writing, you are constantly thinking about how that will happen, that authorial certainty will creep into the pages and undermine all your hard work.

Therefore, for at least one pass through your manuscript, forget about genre. Do not touch or enhance a single genre-related element.

The heroine is wearing a baggy Mets sweatshirt because it’s comfortable, and the hero thinks, “I hate the Mets.”

When the hero meets the heroine for the first time, as far as he’s concerned, she’s some chick he just met.

By (temporarily) letting go of everything you have learned and absorbed about your genre, you will actually deepen the elements that make readers love your genre. Your characters will take on additional depth and a real-life complexity.

Now go out and figure out if I’m right, and why or why not.

About My Dangerous Pleasure 
TEMPT THE DARKNESS Strong-willed and independent, Paisley Nichols is used to taking care of herself. But when an insane mage begins tracking her every move and threatening her at every turn, she has no choice but to put her life in the hands of a demon.

RISK THE PASSION Burned by betrayal, demon assassin Iskander won't get too close to anyone. He spends his days serving his warlord and his nights indulging in carnal pleasures . . . and that's exactly how he likes it. But when a mage wages a wrenching psychic assault on his beautiful tenant Paisley, Iskander must defend her. Under his protection, she will be drawn irresistibly into his life and learn about her own mysterious powers. And not a moment too soon. The mage haunting her isn't acting alone-and he won't rest until he destroys both Paisley and Iskander.


  1. Interesting. This is the sort of advice I can sink my teeth into (for all that I'm not a big fan of vampire stories in general). I will certainly think about it.

  2. I love the idea of pretending I'm not writing in my genre! This should be fun. :)

  3. This is a lot to think about. I especially like the last bit, about pretending not to write in your genre. I can see how that'd shift the way you think about your story and make it stronger.

  4. I'm glad you all found something to think about. I spent far too much time staring in frustration and utter bewilderment at charts I was supposed to fill out to solve all my plotting woes. I wish I hadn't assumed for so long that there was something wrong with me instead of considering that the advice did not suit the kind of writer I am.

    I also hear from a lot of writers who seem to be looking for THE right answer and mostly, there just isn't one.

  5. "The goal of (most) fiction is to create a world in which the reader never once feels the presence of the author." I have never seen this articulated so well before, great thought!

  6. Phantomimic: Thanks! There is, of course, an entire class of fiction in which the author is meant to intrude. There have been a handful of books for me where, when I close the book, I can't believe the world was made up and the people and events were made up. It's an experience I try to recreate for my own work. I'm still working on it.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Carolyn! I think sometimes, the best advise is to just find what works for you and don't stress over what doesn't.

  8. This, indeed, is great advice. No two writers are alike, but they can share what works for them, and try new things to make their writing better. And as Carolyn says "If it don't work, change it."


  9. Thanks! Indeed, writers should try different approaches and use what works for them, not some other writer.