Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Austenesque Lesson: The Sequel

Austenesque novels typically fall into one of three categories: variations, alternate universe, or sequels. All three have their own set of pit-falls the author must avoid for the story to be worth reading.

In my mind, the sequel is the easiest to sell to the reader, but the hardest to write. Readers want more of their favorite characters; that's why this genre exists in the first place. However, Jane did a wonderful job tying up loose ends, so it's hard to find an actual plot to work with. After all, plot requires conflict, and the pictures of perfect domestic felicity we find at the end of her novels might seem, at first look, to negate the possibility of the lovers ever suffering discord.

To get past that, the sequel author needs to remember that Jane Austen painted a realistic picture of people and life. People are not perfect, even when their love story has the perfect ending. For instance, I imagine that Emma continued to meddle and Knightley did not stop chastising her for it. Both were improved by the events of the book, but neither were perfected. It is the task of the Austenesque author to find which foibles of personality would carry on into marriage, and how that might affect the couple's future happiness.

In Mr. Darcy's Secret, Jane Odiwe excels at this. Her Darcy and Elizabeth are every bit as much in love with each other as we imagine them to be from Pride and Prejudice's conclusion. However, like all newlyweds, there are things they don't know about each other. Elizabeth in particular is troubled by letters she's found that indicate Darcy might once have loved another lady.

At the same time, his decision that Georgiana must make a good match disturbs Elizabeth. She knows her sister-in-law has formed a tendre for a landscape artist, and the marriage Darcy has in mind for her will not make her happy. Darcy's insistence on an alliance of equal fortune and importance seems hypocritical to her, given that he gave up both to marry her.

Both of these plots are very true to the characters. The story progresses in a manner that allows us to learn more of all our favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice, as well as getting to know Georgiana better yet. By the end, of course, all the misunderstandings are resolved. Life at Pemberley is happy once more.

And that is the true art of an Austen sequel: It takes our characters from the happily ever after we see at the end of the book, through another conflict, and brings them back to a happiness made more complete by a greater understanding of one another. If you wish to see this in practice, I highly recommend Mr. Darcy's Secret by Jane Odiwe.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Looks Like a Duck

These two fine mallards might not bear any resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy, but I assure you, there is a symbolic connection. 

You're likely familiar with the inductive reasoning test, "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." This dictum works equally well for fiction. When authors create a character, we give them a set of things they do and say. That's how readers recognize them as they read the book.

In writing a Jane Austen sequel, the characters form the core of your story. One of the questions I asked on my first editing pass was, "Does this sound like Darcy?" I can tout my book as "A Mr. Darcy Novel" all I want, but if I don't get him right, none of what I say will matter.

Kindle sample chapters make it even more imperative to show your grasp of character from the first paragraph. Readers of Jane Austen sequels open the sample with one question in mind: "Will I recognize the characters?"

Today, I'm putting that question in your hands. I haven't shared any of HIS GOOD OPINION with you--yet. Here is the opening chapter, as it currently stands. What do you think? Is Darcy, Darcy?

Chapter One

"I will never understand, Darcy, why you insist on going out in Society only to be displeased with everyone you meet."

Fitzwilliam Darcy poured two glasses of brandy and handed one to his friend before he took the chair opposite him. "I go out because it is expected of me, Bingley. You know that."

Charles Bingley pointed at him. "Ah, but that does not answer the question, does it?"

Darcy conceded the point with the barest shrug of his shoulders. Here, in the comfort of his own study, there was no need to pretend. "I admit that I find little in Society of which to approve."

"Only because you are determined to disapprove!" Bingley protested. "What of the young lady you sat out with tonight? Let me hear your opinion of her."

Darcy ran his fingers down the side of his glass. "Her aunt approached me and said her niece had sprained her ankle, and would I be willing to keep her company? Courtesy forbade I refuse, though you know how little I enjoy making conversation with someone I am not intimately acquainted with. I have not your ease of speaking on subjects in which I have little or no interest." His lips curled in disdain, and he took a sip of brandy to wash the sour taste from his mouth.

"That is a commentary on your own character, not the lady's."

He ignored the familiar needling. "After two minutes of idle chatter, I inquired after her injury."

Satisfaction gleamed in Bingley's blue eyes. "Ah, you are capable courtesy after all!"

Darcy leaned forward, his forehead creased in a frown. "Perhaps you will not be so victorious, Bingley, when you hear the rest of the story. She did not understand what I spoke of. When she returned to her aunt shortly thereafter, she did not have a limp. The entire incident was manufactured so she could gain my attention. No doubt they have heard that I do not dance often —"

"Or ever."

The leather chair creaked in protest when Darcy stood. He took Bingley's glass and strode to the table, glad to have something to do, even if it was only refilling their drinks. This topic never failed to rile him, and he could not sit still. He poured the amber liquid and found a measure of calm in the action.

"They sought a way to get time with me, and they found it. You wish to know why I so seldom give my good opinion to those I meet; it is this dishonesty, this deception of which I cannot approve. I cannot — I will not — marry a woman I do not trust."

Bingley took his refilled glass, and Darcy noted his frown with some vexation. "You are being a bit presumptuous, Darcy. How can you be so certain she wished to marry you? It was simply a dance."

Darcy set the decanter down on the tray with a hard clang. "Surely even you will acknowledge that a single woman in possession of no brothers must be in want of a husband."

Bingley shook his head and laughed. "You can hardly claim that to be a universal truth."

Darcy ran his hand through his close-cropped dark curls. Has it truly escaped his notice that he too has received such attentions? Though it was this very ability to see nothing but the good in people that recommended Bingley to him, at times his amiable nature bordered on naiveté.

"Perhaps not universal, but a truth nonetheless." He paced the confines of the study. The dark walls, usually calming, pressed in on him tonight. London always worn on his nerves, but this Season had been worse than most. "I need to get out of Town, Bingley."

Bingley eyed Darcy over the edge of his glass. "You sound as if you had a plan in mind."

Darcy stood in front of the empty fireplace and tapped his fingers on the mantle. "I believe it is time I visited Georgiana in Ramsgate."

"Is that what has made you so tense of late? I know you take great care for her."

Bingley's insight startled Darcy. "Yes, I imagine so. I trust Mrs. Younge of course or I would not have consented to the plan. Still, I will feel better once I see for myself how she is getting on." He turned back to his friend, at ease for the first time in weeks.

"When will you leave?"

"Tomorrow morning."

Bingley raised his eyebrows. "That is rather spontaneous, Darcy — indeed, it is the kind of precipitous decision you often tease me for."

Darcy tossed back the rest of his brandy before he answered. "In truth, I have been thinking about it some weeks. I just did not realize it until tonight."

"Well, if you are decided, then I wish you safe travels."

Bingley returned home soon after, and Darcy retired for the night, content with the knowledge he would soon be free of the artifice of Town, once again in a comfortable family setting.

His Good Opinion can be purchased in e-book format from AmazonBarnes and NobleSmashwordsAmazon UKAmazon DEAmazon FRAmazon.IT, andAmazon.ES. The paperback is available from Amazon.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's Not a Radioactive Meteorite, But...

Look, in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's... SUPER NANCY!!!

Super Nancy types faster than a speeding bullet. Her prose is stronger than a locomotive. She edits long chapters in a single session. But, just like Superman, Super Nancy has a vulnerability. No, not Kryptonite--let's call it Descriptionite.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my tendency to recycle settings. In the comments, I confessed that part of this stems from my struggle with physical description. Sensory details just don't come naturally to me; as a result, my rough drafts are almost all dialogue, action, and internal dialogue. In this draft, Descriptionite sucks the life from my writing, just like Kryptonite kills Superman.

I didn't realize how much of a problem this is until my last beta reader (hi, Paige!) kept pushing me for detail. "I can't see this scene. You should mention what it looks like/what he's doing/what the food tastes like," and etc. Finally I created a system, which became my turquoise draft.

As I'm doing my final pre-critique edit, I keep a check list beside me with these categories: Color, Shape, Texture, Object, Sound, and Taste/Smell. My goal is to include at least three in each scene, and focus on one. I also try not to overuse the simple ones like color and sound. Texture is my new favorite--I love adding a tactile layer to the book.

Do you know what your Kryptonite is? How do you compensate for it?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I've Got a Dream: Mr. Darcy

On Monday, I used Flynn Rider as an example of a character whose dream changed. Mr. Darcy is exactly the opposite--his dream stayed true, but in order to achieve it, he had to change.

Darcy does a superb job of hiding his growing attachment to Elizabeth. This is largely because he thinks he can't possibly marry her, and therefore it wouldn't be right to show more affection, knowing he can't follow through with a proposal. His attentions are more overt in Kent, but by then, Elizabeth is so convinced he dislikes her that she misreads them completely. The first clue she has of his dream is in his proposal at Hunsford.

Disastrous! He's at a crossroads now; he can either give up on his dream of Elizabeth, or he can work to become a man capable of pleasing "a woman worthy of being pleased."

He of course chooses the latter, which is why women world over have fallen in love with him. Months later, after misunderstandings on both sides, he turns to her in response to her thanks for his actions regarding Lydia and says, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever."

This is the story arc I'm in the middle of right now. He tells her later in that same passage that though he was angry with her at first, "my anger soon began to take a proper direction." Her words, "had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner," started a transformation inside him, but it didn't happen over night. That gradual change from indignation to regret isn't easy to write. I begin to think Jane knew what she was doing when she followed Elizabeth rather than Darcy!

So today I have two questions. First, how long did it take Darcy to get past his anger, and second, what was the inciting incident that turned his thoughts in another direction? I already have some ideas on the latter, but I'm interested in your opinions.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Like Everybody Else, He's Got a Dream

I watched Tangled with some of my Janeite friends a few weeks ago, and midway through the movie, I realized the hero, Flynn Rider, has something in common with Darcy. Like all well-written characters, there is one thing they want more than anything else.

Almost every writing how-to book will tell you that you must know what your character wants. Motivation goes a long way toward understanding who they are. It's not just what does he do, but why does he do it? Chances are, your plot will follow one of two courses--either your character's dream will change because of what happens to him, or your character will change as he pursues his dream.

Flynn Rider from Tangled is an example of the first option. Here's a clip from the movie; pay attention to his dream.

Of course, it doesn't take long for him to wonder if hanging out all by himself on a beach might not be all it's cracked up to be. As he sees the world through Rapunzel's eyes, he realizes the thug was right--his dream does stink.

For the first time in his life, he's found someone he can trust with who he really is. That changes him, and the change inside him changes what he wants most. It's the classic rogue to gentleman character arc.

When he and Rapunzel are watching the lanterns later, she turns to him and asks a very perceptive question: What happens when you achieve your dream? His answer summarizes the movie. "You get to go find a new dream."

Of course, the challenge when writing this kind of story is to make the transition believable. What could happen in the story to change someone's deep-down dream? Have any of you written this kind of story? How have you handled this?

For other Disney insights into writing and Jane Austen, check out these blog posts:

Prince Phillip by Jessica
Prince Naveen by Kaydee
The Beast by Rebecca

Tune in on Thursday for my post on Darcy, a perfect example of a man changed by his dream.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Taking chances

Last month, fellow author and blogger Julia blogged about an exhibit she saw of Dale Chihuly glass. She was particularly struck by the artist's trust in his audience: There are no walls or barriers protecting these fragile pieces from the public. If something were to happen, irreplaceable art would be destroyed, but apparently he views that as an acceptable cost. His goal is to allow the public to truly interact with his work.

From trust, it's only one small step to taking chances. I believe I'm pretty transparent in my work. I think and talk as Darcy when I'm writing, so there's little room for me to be vulnerable myself. But taking chances... seizing opportunities that I'm given... I could do better there.

In the Jane Austen's House Museum, there is a pianoforte that guests are welcome to play. I looked at it longingly several times, but my keyboard skills are similar to Elizabeth's: I would not play at all amiss, if I practiced more. There were other people in the museum, strangers. Could I play in front of them, expose my lack of skill to their critical ears?

In the end, I shied away. I felt a mild pang of regret when I left the house without touching the instrument, but it wasn't until I read Julia's post that I realized I'd let an opportunity slip through my fingers. Who cares how well I play? I could have played the pianoforte at the Jane Austen's House Museum!! Why didn't I?

This is my year of taking chances. Self-publishing is a huge step into the unknown. Will people like my book? I don't know. All I can do is write (and edit, and rewrite) the best book possible and then put it out there. I know if I don't, I'll regret it--just like I regret not playing the pianoforte.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing Roadblocks

I'm a writer. In a good week, I spend 20-30 hours a week working on my novel, blogging, and connecting with writers and friends on Twitter. Editing is done by hand, but everything else is computer work.

For my day job, I work at a library. I spend 40 hours a week handling heavy books and (yet again) working on a computer.

There's little wonder that I've developed Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) in my right hand. It's not carpal tunnel, if you're wondering--but it's very similar. Some weeks my wrist hardly bothers me at all, and others... Well, Aspercreme is one of my favorite inventions ever.

My RSI has flared up since I returned from England. I can't avoid the computer work at the library, and I have to keep working on my edits. That means the only place I can really cut back is with blogging and tweeting. I'm scheduling blog posts out through the end of May, and starting next week I'll be very circumspect with the time I spend on Twitter.

I'll still be replying to comments here and checking my email daily. I can't cut myself off from the world completely, and I don't know if I would even want to. However, I know that if I want to get my book out on time I need to take care of myself now.

Does anyone else have something similar that gets in the way of their writing plans? It would be nice to know I'm not alone.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Tangled Mess of a Story

It was 10:40 on Tuesday morning. In a rush to get to work, I grabbed my comb and ran it through my hair, from the roots down. I don't have time to comb from the ends up, I told myself. Well, as the saying goes, "If you don't have time to do something right the first time, when will you find the time to fix it?" I spent more time working the snarls out of my hair than I would have if I'd just been patient and done the job right.

Editing is much the same. Last week I was stuck in the middle of Chapter Eleven with no sign I'd ever finish. I desperately wanted to skip ahead to Chapter Twelve, just to feel like I'd accomplished something. When you're writing your first draft, this is acceptable. You can jump around as much as you want in the story--the main point is just to get the story down.

However, revision is when you're supposed to be working tangles out of your story. If you put your comb in the wrong spot and just rip your way through the story, you will only create problems for yourself. When editing Chapter Fifteen, you may decide your main character really loves peanut butter sandwiches. That reference back in Chapter Ten to never eating anything but turkey sandwiches? Oh... right. I missed that.

Revision is also when we smooth out relationships. Does their romance progress too quickly? Too slowly? Should I add tension here, or an additional scene there? If you're skipping around, you miss the big picture.

Chapter Eleven happens to be the Netherfield Ball. It required a lot of editing, because this is the moment when Darcy finally realizes he loves Elizabeth. I had to strike the right balance between being hopelessly in love and yet absolutely unwilling to consider a relationship with her. I could have skipped ahead to Chapter Twelve, but I would only have created a mass of tangles to work out later.

I was euphoric when I finished the purple draft of Chapter Eleven. Not only was I done, I knew I'd done the job right.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A certain sameness

Every city I visited in England is situated on a river, and I managed to walk beside all of them at least once. Of course, picturesque riverbanks just invited photographs, so I came away with quite a collection.

When I looked at my pictures after I got home, I noticed a certain similarity to them.



Do you see it? Every single picture features a willow tree. True, there were willow trees along all the rivers, but couldn't I choose something else to frame the photo?

I notice the same thing when I'm revising. During my last project, I actually wrote, "Find someplace other than the library!!!" across the top of a chapter in block letters, because every other important scene happened there.

In the Netherfield portion of HIS GOOD OPINION, my setting of choice was a garden walk. Any time Darcy needed to think--something he did far too much of--he took a walk through the gardens. By the time I reached the last scene, I knew as I wrote it that it would need to be moved. (Another garden scene?) shows up right in the MS.

Now, for all you members of Over-Thinkers Anonymous, this is not something to worry about during your rough draft. You notice that even though I caught it, I still went ahead and wrote the scene.

However, when you hit the revision stage, things probably need to be reworked. In my writing, if multiple scenes are set in the same place, it's often a clue that I've written the same scene more than once. That was the case with HIS GOOD OPINION. Like I said, there were way too many scenes where Darcy wandered off to think. Is he a thoughtful man? Yes. Does any man think that much about love and relationships? No. Therefore, I cut the love bit out of the first scene and then combined the second two into one.

The other possible reason is (sorry to say) laziness. This was my excuse in my earlier project. I didn't want to think about the setting any longer, so I didn't create other places in that world. I'm not one of these writers who can build whole cities out of nothing. My best work is with characters. Painting the backdrop for them to live on is tedious work to me, and sometimes that shows.

I'm working on both of these flaws. When I get to Pemberley, I will spend some time just thinking about the estate and the house itself. How many floors, how many rooms, what would the rooms be used for? If I have a clear idea going into that section, I'll have a much easier time moving things around and describing them.

What about you? Do you find yourselves leaning on a setting the way writers sometimes do a certain word or phrase?