Writer Wednesday: Fresh Eyes

As writers, we should all be aware of the importance of feedback on our work. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s become obvious to me that some writers have no idea of how crucial constructive criticism is, or how to find it.

I see it over and over on writing communities. A new member posts about how everyone loves their writing so much, so why won’t agents agree to represent it, editors agree to publish it, readers buy it, and myriad other such questions. After a few pointed questions from others, the new member reveals that the readers who loved her work were all friends or relatives.

There’s a secret that takes some of us a while to learn – friends and relatives aren’t usually the best people to listen to for honest opinions of our work, for several reasons. They like us – or they should – so they’re likely to say they love it no matter what, to keep from hurting our feelings. They may not be readers of the genre we write, so the brilliance, or lack thereof, of our writing might escape them; they may not even read very much at all. They probably aren’t writers, so the finer points of writing craft will escape them – which is perfectly fine when we no longer need feedback that tells us why things aren’t working and how to fix them.

What’s a writer to do then? Find a way for other writers to critique your work. For some of us, it’s a real-life writing group in our local area, with regular meetings, where member work is critiqued by the group. The method has limitations, but is perfect for some. Getting a large piece of writing can take a very long time this way, as each member has a turn to have work looked at. It can be several weeks between having a chapter critiqued, and the group seeing the revisions. And your work may not be compatible with the group due to skill level or content.

If you’re like me, you might have to drive 2 or more hours to reach a group that will consider your work. The ladies group of the local church encourages its members to write, but I just can’t see them comfortably critiquing my Paranormal Romances with explicit sex scenes. “Mrs. Jones, how do you think Ardrianna will react when King licks her … you-know-where? Would she moan, arch off the bed, bite her lip… Mrs. Jones, are you okay?” as Mrs. Jones slumps from her seat onto the floor. Riiight. Not happening.

In that case, you’re pretty well limited to the internet – which is a fantastic limit to have. Imagine having no access to anyone outside your immediate community for feedback. The opportunities are extensive online to find readers qualified to critique your work and help you improve it.

I started out by posting a short passage on the Share Your Work section of a tiny little writing community, and read and commented on other members’ work. They returned the favor. There was one writer whose work I really liked, and she liked mine. We decided to exchange a few chapters and critique them for each other. It wasn’t long before we were established Critique Partners (CPs) working closely on both our stories. A couple of other writers occasionally joined us, then went their way when they had helped us and we had helped them. Now, A. and I are best friends, and still CPs. Both of us have grown exponentially in skill as writers and as critiquers – we often crit other writers’ work. Our skills, both in writing and critting, complement each other. We both seek other feedback as needed, but we always return to work together.

That path is but one of many possibilities. When you’ve found someone you think you might like to work with as CPs, how do you approach it? And how do you critique another writer’s work? In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring these questions, and more, about giving and receiving constructive criticism, and putting it to work. Keep checking back for updates in the Writer Wednesday Critique Series.

What’s your experience with constructive feedback, giving or receiving? Have you found someone you can work with on a regular basis? What works best for you, if you’ve tried more than one way? If you had the opportunity, would you change anything?

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Writer Wednesday: 6 Steps To Diversity In Fiction

Not so long ago, an American author could pretty much count on having an exclusively North American audience, unless their work was translated into other languages. It was the same for writers of other nationalities – the vast majority of their readers would be from their home country. Thanks to the internet and satellite communication, that is no longer the case. I speak regularly with friends and acquaintances from all over the world. South Africa. New Zealand. Namibia. Hungary. Great Britain. Argentina. The list is endless. They read many of the same books I do, in English.

The world grows smaller every day. I think it’s important that our work reflect the diversity of our readers. How do we go about doing that in a way that: 1.)isn’t offensive, and 2.)is realistic? Changing skin color and dialogue that conforms to racial stereotypes is certainly NOT the answer, even though some writers seem to think it is. Giving the character the “accurate” clothing and taste in music for their race isn’t the answer either.

The writer who chooses to use those “techniques” is either too lazy to do it correctly, or they just don’t know how. Either way, it’s poor writing. I’m not an expert, by any means, but I have picked up a few things. Making our writing racially diverse is much more complicated. The steps below will help, though they are not all-inclusive.

  1. Decide on a mix of ethnicities that fit your setting. For example, in a tiny town in rural Kentucky, you wouldn’t expect to see a group made of up Caucasian, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American teenagers. While such a group is possible, it is hardly the norm, which will make it a bit less than believable, if that’s what you’re going for. To help decide the ethnic makeup of your group, look up census reports for a community like the one you are writing about in a location as near as possible to your setting. The ethnic composition of the community will show you the likely makeup of your hypothetical group of teens.
  2. Once you’ve determined the races of your teens, it’s time to go deeper. It’s common for people who aren’t extremely well acquainted with people of other races to have stereotypical expectations of members of those other races. But the fact is, most people don’t line up neatly within racial stereotypes. Remember, your characters are people, with a specific gender and a specific age, before they’re members of races.
  3. Remember that hypothetical group of teens? You need to know their cultural background, as well as their personal history. Each ethnicity has its own history and culture, which is going to have some effect on who your characters are. Things as obvious as speech patterns and holidays, to how children are disciplined. When you know the cultural background of the character, you can decide how that background affects the character.
  4. Personal history will tell you more about the character. People raised in a large city will be different from those raised in a small town. The character’s family income will determine things like peer groups, education, career paths, etc. Those factors will also affect speech pattern, as well as behavior, beliefs and morals, tastes in music and clothing, etc.
  5. Your setting will also influence your characters, as it would in any type of fiction. A lone African American student in a classroom full of Caucasian kids is going to act differently than one in a classroom of mixed ethnicities. Crime rates, ethnic mix, economics and the like of the story setting will, to some degree, determine what the characters do and what happens to them.
  6. Of course, if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, or an alternate reality or alternate history, real ethnicities may be different from the ones you are writing about. Still, the same principles apply.

If you want to create dynamic, well-rounded characters, with realistic dialog and interactions, each character should reflect their individual racial, cultural, family, and personal backgrounds. When you know those backgrounds, you’ll be able to select which qualities your characters will have, rather than relying on tired old racial stereotypes that no one fits into.

Writing Sex

Sex scenes. They can be funny, embarrassing, or arousing for the reader. As writers, we have to decide which effect we want, though the funny and embarrassing aren’t always intentional. Years ago, I used to skip the sex scenes.  I had no interest in how other people did it.  Then I realized I was missing out on some of the development characters went through.  The sex scenes weren’t there solely to arouse, but to show important emotional or personal development of the characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first decision the writer has to make is whether to even include sex scenes. In one of the online writing communities I belong to, there have been a couple of heated debates about sex in fiction.  One side says it simply doens’t belong, is never necessary, and some say it’s absolutely wrong. The other says that if it shows character development or advances the plot, it’s entirely necessary.

I used to believe that writers included sex because, let’s face it, sex sells, and that there was no other reason.  Now, I know most writers inlcude sex because there’s no other way of showing what they need the reader to see in the character.  Or at least no other way that fits the story.  If it means the book sells better, then so be it.  Of course, there are writers who include sex because it sells.  That doesn’t make them worse writers, as more than one argument held.  It just means they’ll use all available tools to ensure the story sells.

When I decided I wanted to write romance, I also had to decide whether to fade to black, or to use every tool available to me to tell the story.  So, I made the decision.  I would use the sex between my characters to show their development, and to advance my plot. Then I had to decide how much and how graphic. Passionate kissing? Heavy petting? The sex act in sort of vague terms? All focused on the emotion? Or completely explicit? I decided, after much deliberation, and a ton of research, to go for completely explicit. I wanted to show the beauty of my couples’ love, their devotion and reverence, as well as things about each character that could only be shown in an explicit scene.  All I had to do was learn how to write a sex scene. Should be easy enough.

It wasn’t. Writing a good sex scene isn’t just recounting what the characters do with what body part. What they think and feel has to be included.  And the characters have to grow as a result of what they do and feel.  It has to be romantic and believable at the same time.  It has to fit the story and the characters.  A generic sex scene can’t just be plugged in anywhere.  I wrote a lot of bad sex scenes before I learned to do it right, and each one I write is better than the last.

When I first started trying to learn to write a sex scene, I was embarrassed. Felt like a dirty old man looking through my characters’ window.  Eventually, I got over that, and started to enjoy getting to know my characters at their most vulnerable.   Stacia Kane’s Be A Sex Writing Strumpet series helped me a great deal.  In it, she explores all the ins and outs of writing good sex scenes.

In the end, every writer has to decide for themselves if they’re going to include sex in their stories, and if they do, how much and how graphic.  We have to do what’s right for the best interest of the story, to tell it in the way that will have the most impact on readers.  For me, that means including sex when necessary. For some, religious beliefs dictate the decision. For others, it’s embarrassment, shyness, lack of knowledge, or even fear of the relatives finding out. We have to consider all that, and other factors, in our decision.

Do you include sex in your stories? How much? Explicit or not? How did you arrive at your decision?

Romance Novel Pet Peeves Part 2

This one really isn’t about the actual novels, but about those who criticize Romance as a genre. In recent months, various people, from writers of literary fiction to someone calling herself an expert in psychology, have publicly bashed Romance.

Romance novels have been called everything from unrealistic and unimaginative to outright dangerous. The image of romance readers as vapid housewives fanning themselves and eating bonbons while reading about a pirate ravishing a virgin still prevails in some minds. The so-called danger comes in with accusations that Romance novels cause readers to have unrealistic expectations for their relationships. Readers supposedly expect their balding, slightly overweight accountant husband to behave like the virile, dashing hero. When the hero doesn’t fulfill those expectations, the reader becomes dissatisfied with her life.

While other genres are allowed to be blatantly unrealistic, with elves and fairies, aliens and spaceships, Romance is criticized for being unrealistic. The characters and relationships, the central focus of the book, bears the brunt of this criticism. A hero who is willing to listen to his heroine, or put her before himself, or even have her best interests at heart, is too unrealistic, as is the man who swoops to the rescue. Well, duh! The idea is to take the reader to a different place, where her dreams of the perfect man are realized, not where the man would rather watch the game and drink beer than spend time with her. The heroine draws her share of the hate, too, never mind that she’s meant to be the kind of woman the reader can wish circumstances allowed her to be.

And then there’s the belief that all Romance novels are written by the same formula. The only thing that changes, such critics say, is the name of the characters and details of the circumstances or conflict. This one is hard to refute at times, especially when some writers believe it as well. The fact is, some writers find a combination of factors that works for them, and continue to use it. Others start from scratch every single time. Part of what perpetuates this myth is that, in order to be a Romance, the focus of the novel must be the couple and their developing relationship, and there must be a Happily Ever After, or Happily For Now ending. Regardless of what other elements are present, if those aren’t there, it isn’t a Romance.

One of my favorites is the belief that Romance novels are easier to write than any other genre. People think all you do is plug the variables into the equation, add an exotic location, and viola, you have a Romance novel. Sorry, just not true. It doesn’t work that way. If anything, it’s more difficult to write a good romance, especially one of the many sub-genres. The author has to combine the romance with elements of another genre in a way that’s balanced, and satisfies the reader. A plot is absolutely essential. There has to be a source of conflict, either from outside sources, or internal – and in some cases, both. And the conflict must have a satisfactory solution.

And everyone knows Romance is full of poor writing and purple prose. Again, just not true. The quality of the writing in a Romance novel is just as high as any other genre. Sure, it might not be full of convoluted sentences and obscure words, but the standards are high for both traditionally, and e-published, novels. (Just like in any genre, self-published, or indie, novels vary in quality, depending on the ability of the writer and whether they’ve put the in the necessary time and work to prepare the book for publication.) As for the purple prose – yes, Romance novels written 20 or more years ago commonly used euphemism and purple prose to refer to the body parts and actions in intimate scenes. Social mores were different then, and the frank language of today wasn’t tolerated as well then. Today’s romances are written with mature language and eschew purple prose as much as any other genre.

To all those critics of Romance as a genre, I say: Our readers are educated and accomplished, from powerful CEOs, trial attorneys, teachers, parents and grad students. Our characters are as solid and well developed, maybe more so because of the very nature of Romance, as those of any other genre. Our stories are as well plotted and imaginative, and well written as those of any other genre. Our vocabulary is as complex and varied as as that of any other genre – with the possible exception of the fact that we don’t normally use obscure words that require our readers to stop every few sentences to refer to their collegiate dictionary. Yes, we write about fantastic heroes and heroines that our readers can imagine themselves in the place of. Rather than creating unrealistic expectations of relationships, our stories often inform readers of the ideal relationship. Sometimes, they have no other point of reference for ideal relationship standards. Yes, we do write fiction that allows our readers to escape their every day life for a while. Doesn’t everyone?

The following links are from both detractors and defenders of Romance as a genre.

What do you think? Are the critics right about Romance? Is their position founded on fact?

What’s In A Name?

The names of characters in novels has been a topic of discussion among some writers recently, so I decided to give my $0.02 worth, and get yours.

For decades, ever since I started reading romance novels as a kid, the names of heroes and heroines, particularly in romance novels, has been a subject of some derision. Other genres were guilty to a certain extent, but not as pervasively as romance. Historical romances were the worst back then, but the new historicals I’ve read recently have seemed to have more appropriate names for the time period. These days, the odd names are running amuck in paranormal romances.

I’m not beyond guilt myself with the paranormal names. The hero in BLOOD DRAGON is named, Kiellen – not exactly an everyday name for an adult currently, at least to my knowledge, but I know of several children with that name. The heroine’s name is Jaden, which also isn’t exactly common, but not terribly unusual either.

As a vampire, Jaden changes her identity every few years to maintain her secret, and so she chose her name. Kiellen, with an incredibly long lifespan as a weredragon, also changes his identity, but he stubbornly clings to his given name. His father’s name was also Kiellen, and since his father died before he was born, he desperately holds on to that connection with his family.

When odd names are justified – a parent’s obsession, a family name passed down, a name given later in life for a characteristic – I can accept them more easily. I’ve personally known many parents who gave their children names that seemed absolutely insane. Using a word that the parent likes the sound of, regardless of it’s definition, is fairly common. Passing down a name from several generations ago is also fairly common.

I completely revised my opinion about names in historical romances, though, when I began researching my own family history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, I found the following names in my own family: Prudia, Lonia, Honor, Comfort, Obedience, and Zipporah (pronounced Zippry) were all females. Zandle, Carliss, Xeno, and Bater were males. Those are just the ones I can remember  off-hand, so there may have been others. With names like those in my family, I suddenly no longer felt qualified to judge character names too harshly. 🙂

I try not to give my characters terribly unusual names, partly because I want to avoid the stereotype of odd names in romance novels. But I can partly forgive the authors who do use out-of-the-ordinary names. Such names weren’t completely unheard of in the past, and they certainly aren’t uncommon now. If our characters are extra-ordinary, the impulse, maybe instinct, is to give them names as special as they are.

What do you think of the prevalence of unusual names in romance novels? Have you come across any that you particularly loved, or hated? What’s your favorite?

Writer Wednesday: You Write WHAT!?!?!

Okay, so a while back, I mentioned something about new features here. Since then, I’ve done absolutely nothing about it. Until now.

Starting today, on Wednesdays, I’ll post something related to writing. I have several topics in mind, from networking, writing queries, to writing craft and adverbs. If there’s something in particular you’d like to see, leave a comment. Some of these topics will hopefully be of interest to readers as well as fellow writers.

Now, on to Writer Wednesday:

You Write WHAT!?!?!

When I tell people who’ve known me for a while that I write fiction, they’re usually not too surprised. After all, I’ve been writing since elementary school, one way or another. Then comes the ‘What kind of books do you write’ line of questioning. Depending when a person first became acquainted with me, they expect different things: western, horror, YA, fantasy, picture books, and some even seem to expect literary of me. But they almost NEVER expect the real answer.

Their surprise when I say paranormal romance runs the gamut from the fascinated ‘Oh?’ to the outraged ‘WHAT?’ with boggled eyes. The next question almost always seems to be about whether sex scenes are included. Apparently that sort of thing is entirely unexpected of me. Maybe because all through school, my primary interests outside school mainly involved horses, and then I became a preschool teacher. If I add that my most recent work is erotic paranormal romance, I get anything from stunned silence to moral outrage that I’m writing ‘porn’.

If I can get them to listen, I try to explain the differences between erotic romance, erotica, and porn. Sometimes it all falls on deaf ears, but not always. I’m offering my explanation here, in the event any of you need to use it. Not that I’m an expert, or anything, but this is what works for me. Sometimes it even convinces people that I’m not a social pariah to be kept away from civilized people. Oh, and this is pretty much just my opinion, not hard and fast rules, but at least some other erotic romance authors share similar opinions.  Even if you don’t write any sort of erotica or romance, maybe it’ll clear up some misconceptions for you, or someone you know.

First of all, porn is just sex. There are no relationships, or if there is, it isn’t the central focus. There is no story. No emotion. Just one sex scene after another. If there is some sort of story, it is very rudimentary, and only serves to connect the sex scenes. There is little or no character development. The words used are often crude, and the sex acts might not even be physically possible. Let’s face it, readers of porn are not looking for great story or character growth. They’re looking to get off.

Erotica has a lot of sex scenes, too. The language may not be as crude, and the sex scenes might be a bit more physically possible. There may be a relationship, or not. There is a story, with fully developed characters. Maybe the main character is female executive sleeping her way to the top. Maybe she finally realizes that she could have gotten to the top without spreading her legs. There may be some emotion. She could be angry that she chose sleeping her way to the top. In well-written erotica, the story is complex and the sex is woven intricately into it, and the characters are fully developed.

In erotic romance, most of the sex is between the characters involved in the relationship that is central to the story, though there may be scenes involving other characters. Like any romance, the main focus of the story is the relationship and its progression to a Happily Ever After, or Happily For Now, ending. The sex scenes must move the story forward, or show character development. The emotional aspect of the sex is shown, and the scenes may range from violent desperation to achingly sweet. The words used are more often the slang of the time period of the story. An erotic romance has all the elements of any other romance, and it explores the sexual activity between the characters in a more graphic and explicit way than other romances.

My first two paranormal romances had a pretty high heat level, but they didn’t quite cross the line into erotica. As I wrote them, it was a struggle to keep them on the right side of the tracks. Currently, as I contemplate rewriting them, one of the things I plan to change is to allow the characters free rein with their sex lives. If I don’t like the results, there’s always DELETE.

There were a couple of reasons for keeping my earlier books on this side of the erotic line. First and foremost, I live in a very small, very conservative community. I don’t want my family members being looked down upon because of what I write, and that would absolutely be the least of the consequences. I was also uncomfortable with writing sex scenes. But the books and characters kept insisting they needed more heat.

After a long conversation with hubby, I decided to give it a try anyway. I practiced writing sex scenes until I was able to do more than Tab A goes into Slot B scenes. Finally, I concluded I could write erotic romance, and BLOOD DRAGON was born.

What about you? Does your writing ever offend the sensibilities or morals of others? Because you write about sex, or violence, or mythical beings, or something else?

© Copyright Kenra Daniels 2011

BLOOD DRAGON is officially FINISHED!

I’ve finished the last of my edits and revisions of BLOOD DRAGON!! AND sent it to the editors who were interested in it from the RomanceDivas NGTCC pitch.

Now I have to decide what to focus on next. I have several ideas for new vampire/weredragon romances. I’m developing a new paranormal creature. And there are tons of ‘Really Should Do NOW’ things on my ToDo list.

Whichever, I’ll be working all the above. I’ll just have to decide which gets the majority of my time and effort right now. The focus can change, depending on many other factors.

And before I get tied up in any of it, I’m going to take a few days off and spend some extra time with my family. We’ll see if I make it more than 3 days before I give in to the internal pressure to get back to work. I seriously doubt it. 😀 I simply can’t just sit and watch a TV show, I have to also be DOING something. And that’s usually working on something writing related.

Do you ever have trouble deciding what to work on next after completing a major project? What about time off at the end of a major project – can you do it, or do you find yourself NEEDING to work?