Tropes Are Not A Substitute For Substance

(This post was inspired by the comments on a recent Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review)

I’m sorry this is late. I had a crisis of confidence last week. But now I’m back!

canvas

I recently talked about the good side of tropes, and how they can be a positive tool to set expectations with the reader, and help people find stories that they like.

There is another side of this. Tropes are not always used for good.

Some writers use tropes in place of character and plot. These are not the same thing at all, but it can be easy to get confused sometimes.

A character archetype is a good place to start when building a character, because it helps to clarify the function of the character in your narrative. But it is not the whole character. You have to build facets and layers onto the archetype, to make them unique and fully-rounded. And it is an approach of building together the correct elements, like with cooking, not just mixing random things together and hoping it’ll come out amazing.

For example, you want to make a pasta. (In this example, let’s just say that pasta = wounded hero). Now, there are a lot of difference sauces that you can put on a pasta (and, therefore, many different types of wounded hero), with elements that you can shift and adjust as required. But using the right elements in the right amount is what gets you a well-made Carbonara, as opposed to a pickle and seaweed sauce. At that point, it won’t matter how well the pasta is cooked, no one will enjoy it. And if you only have one element to your character (aka the Original Trope) it doesn’t make for a very interesting character. No one eats pasta without the sauce; it’s too bland.

Plus, all the flavours/character elements have to match. You have to think about how all these pieces will taste/work together. And how the flavours will develop together when you cook them. One wrong element can spoil a dish, as much as any random collection of character tropes can’t make a character.

While a stripped back, simple character is not a bad thing, they still need room to develop and grow. The elements of the sauce can be added in stages. Or, your pasta can turn into a pasta bake, or a pasta salad! The character trope you use is only a base—a beginning. Not a whole meal.

Now, sometimes you don’t get it right the first time. Sometimes (during edits) you have to make the recipe again, adding or removing things as is appropriate. This is normal! But if you get it at least close to right the first time, it’ll be a lot less work for you later down the line.

Everything I’ve said here can also apply to plot, too. Everything must work together as a cohesive whole.

 

I hope this helps.

And now I’m craving pasta.

Guarding Sierra Free Excerpt

Soldiering On 2(4)

It’s only one month to the release of Guarding Sierra! I am so excited to share it with everyone.

Because patience isn’t my strong suit, here is an excerpt. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1

The roses were the colour of blood.

That was Sierra’s first thought when she saw the bouquet sitting innocuously in the hallway in front of her apartment door. The splash of scarlet was particularly vibrant against the two-toned grey of the walls.

She wondered if he had intended that.

Blood roared in her ears as she took a hesitant step forward. She didn’t want to get close. The rich array of flowers might have been a hissing snake for all she cared. She didn’t want to touch them.

As she got closer, her heart pounding relentlessly in her chest, she noticed the dark curl at the edge of the petals. The roses had obviously been sitting out there for a few hours. She hoped that meant he wasn’t nearby.

Maybe they weren’t even from him.

Sierra considered this thought. She pulled out her phone, still eyeing the bouquet nervously, and texted Gary. The two had gone out on a few dates recently before deciding to end it amicably. They both knew there was no chemistry there.

Did you send me flowers? She asked him. Nausea swamped her. She wanted to flee, but knew that was ridiculous. If she couldn’t face a bunch of flowers, then what good was she? Her nerves had been too highly strung for the last year; ratcheted up as she vacillated between being sure she was being stalked, to being certain that it was all in her head. Her paranoia pushed her closer to the edge.

Gary texted back almost immediately. No. Should I have?

Tension tightened in her gut, tighter now. Sweat broke out on her neck.

No. Thanks. It was all she could manage.

She had to know.

In a sudden rush, Sierra stepped forward and crouched down near the flowers. Her breathing was too shallow. Dizziness teased the edges of her consciousness. She deliberately took a deep breath, and reached out to touch a petal.

The world didn’t end; the building didn’t come crashing down. She was still alive. They were just flowers, and she felt increasingly stupid about her fear.

No turning back now.

The dam had broken once she’d touched the rose, so Sierra searched the bouquet for any note or card that might have been left. Nothing.

A sharp prick lanced through her finger and she reared back. Blood welled from a small cut on the pad of her index finger, sliding over the paleness of her skin. She glanced at the bouquet, looking closer without touching.

All the roses still had their thorns.

She fell back, landing with a thump on her butt and scooting away to the opposite side of the wide hallway. Not far enough. If she stretched her stockinged legs out in front of her, her feet would knock the bouquet over.

Those roses hadn’t come from a commercial florist. If they had, they would have trimmed the thorns off. Either the florist who sent them was sloppy at their job, or her stalker had gone to a lot of trouble to acquire roses with the thorns still attached.

Horror slammed into her. This was the most forward her stalker had been. Until now, for an entire year, she’d been unsure that he existed. But now, surely, this was proof. She wasn’t going insane. He was real, and he was a threat. An escalating threat.

Behind the horror welled a deep pit of fury. How dare he? How dare he terrorise her like this, make her question her sanity.

In a fit of bravery, Sierra scooped up the bouquet and strode to the window at the end of the hall. She’d lost her heels somewhere in her shock, so she padded softly in her stockings, sinking into the thick, expensive carpet.

She reached the window and looked for a way to open it. Nothing. It was just a pane of glass in the wall, not an operational window. Damn it. She was sure it was supposed to be a security measure, but it was inconvenient in her current rage.

Coasting on her fury, Sierra jogged to the elevator. A few petals slipped from the buds, drifting to the floor to make a trail behind her. She ignored them. Someone would clean them up, but for now she just needed to get this evil symbol out of her domain.

By the time the elevator had reached the ground floor, Sierra was trembling. Not entirely from anger, either. Fear had crept back in. A lump had settled in her throat.

She carried the bouquet towards the spinning doors at the front of the lobby. A thought occurred to her, and she stopped in front of the security desk.

“Sid?” she greeted the middle-aged security guard. He glanced up, a frown marring his brow as he looked at her. She must look a fright compared to her usual impeccable appearance. She tried to smile reassuringly. “Were you on duty when these flowers were delivered?”

Sid shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off her.

She tried again. “When did your shift start?”

“I started at midday. My shift’s nearly over now.” She glanced up at the clock ticking above his head, the sound loud in the quiet lobby. It was nearly nine p.m.

“You must have left this desk at some point during the day?”

He frowned at her. “Sure, but I’m allowed toilet breaks. It’s in my contract.” He sounded defensive, and Sierra felt immediately guilty. She hadn’t wanted to accuse him of anything.

“It’s okay. I just wanted to know who might have dropped these off. There’s no card.” She tried to look harmless. Instead, she felt like she was tipping over the edge into insanity.

“Oh.” He eyed her again. “Maybe they slipped in when I was in the john,” he conceded.

“Maybe,” she agreed, then turned away. She didn’t want to press the issue further.

She continued outside the building and strode over to the public bin on the sidewalk in front of the building next door. Her stockings were ruined, and her feet no doubt filthy, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

The thud of the pot hitting the bottom of the bin was the most satisfying sound she’d heard all day. The tension in her chest loosened just enough for her to breathe.

But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

She made her way back up to her apartment, shivering as she caught sight of the rose petals still littering the corridor.

She poured herself a large glass of white wine and drank it far faster than she normally would have. Particularly on an empty stomach. But she’d needed something to steady her nerves.

She needed help. She could admit that now. If he was escalating, then she could no longer pretend that he wasn’t real. Her instincts had been right all along.

Thankfully, she knew just the person to call.

 

Preorder at Amazon (US)

Preorder at Amazon (UK)

Preorder Amazon (AU)

Preorder at Amazon (CA)

Preorder at Kobo

Preorder at Barnes and Noble

How NOT to Introduce Your Character

suethomasfbeye2_600x338

I watched the first episode of an older show last night: Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. The premise was intriguing: a deaf woman begins working at the FBI, helping them using her lip-reading skills to catch bad guys. It’s based on the life of a real woman. The show stars an actual hearing-impaired woman as Sue (Deanne Bray), and co-stars the dishy Yannick Bisson from Murdoch Mysteries.

Despite having all that going for it, the first episode of the show was dreadful. And I’m going to talk about it a little bit because it perfectly illustrates a lot of writing ‘no-nos’ that some people get confused by.

 

Mistake 1: It doesn’t start in an interesting way.

The show starts with the protagonist, Sue, loading up her car with her parents’ help. There is a lot of clunky dialogue between them, but no real information is shared. For example, we know she is moving somewhere, but not where or why. We know she has never lived out of home before, but she must be thirty or so. We know she is going to pick up a “Levi” but not who that is.

This goes on for a full minute and a half.

So, in other words, this show that is about a deaf woman in the FBI shows nothing about her deafness, or the FBI, in the set up. I’m not sure if the writers wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’ moment or what, but nothing we find out about our lead character in that opening moment makes us invest in her or her story.

When writing a story, something needs to happen in the opening scene to hook the reader in. For me, this comes in two forms:

  1. Something happens to the character that changes the direction of their life
  2. They make a big decision

For both Station Alpha and Guarding Sierra, I went with option one. It’s an exciting way to start a book, particularly a book with lots of action in it. But it doesn’t have to be a life-threatening thing. The character may get dumped, or lose their job. They might get hit by a bus, or travel in time. It can be anything! As long it is a big external force acting on the protagonist.

This is a way to make the reader invest in the character. The reader gets swept up with the character, and carried away with their story.

 

Mistake two: Info-dumps galore!

If you ever want an example of why flashbacks are so maligned in writing, watch this episode. After that first scene (and another where she picks up Levi – her service dog) we are treated to multiple flashbacks about everything from how the character became deaf, to doctors visits, to how she was taught to talk, her time in school…There might have been more, but I feel asleep. Holy shit it was boring.

From when she left her house, to when she arrives at her destination, more than twelve minutes of screen time have happened, the majority of which are flashbacks. And the FBI still hasn’t been mentioned.

In those twelve minutes, the only thing that happens is she gets pulled over by a cop. This scene serves no purpose, since we already know that she’s deaf by this point. We found this out in one of the flashbacks. (Side note – if the writers had wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’, they failed at that. Plus, it’s kinda gross to treat a character’s disability that way.)

This means that nothing of interest has happened to the character for nearly fourteen minutes of screen time, nor has she made any on screen decisions. I would have turned the TV off by this point, but I hadn’t seen Yannick Bisson yet, so I stuck with it.

Please, I beg of you, don’t info dump your character’s back story like this. You know in Shrek, when donkey talks about the layers of the onion? That’s how backstory should be introduced. It should be sprinkled into the narrative at relevant moments, with the layers of the onion being peeled back as each new facet of them is introduced. It’s definitely okay to hint that there is more to your character than a reader might initially see, but none of what we found out during the flashbacks in this show was relevant to her current situation. We didn’t need to see how she became the person she was, because we hadn’t invested yet in present day Sue. They could have all been cut, and the only changes it would have made to the narrative would be for the better. Not only would that have made the beginning of the show more interesting, but it would have made us more intrigued about the character, too. We would have kept watching to find out all those defining moments in her life as they impacted her present life.

Additionally, the person she was telling the flashbacks to was Levi, her dog. Now, I love dogs, but this is a real missed opportunity. I like introducing elements of a character’s backstory by having them tell it to other people. In Romance, this is generally the character’s love interest. The reason to do it this way (as opposed to through an introspective moment), is that you can use it to build and strengthen the relationship between the two characters. Telling elements of your past to someone shows trust, and builds a level of intimacy between two people. It’s a valuable tool when writing romance.

 

Mistake 3: Repeating information we already know

So, we find out she’s deaf in the flashback. This is then elaborated on in the scene with the cop. After that, she’s finally arrived in Washington D.C. and we think something interesting and FBI-related might be finally about to happen.

But, alas, no.

Her car breaks down, and she goes to a nearby mechanic. We are then treated to another scene where she explains her deafness. Like, we know. If you are going to have her tell it to the mechanic, why tell it to the cop? Or in the flashback? We don’t need to hear it more than once.

I get that this is their way of introducing the mechanic character (because he shows up again), so cut the scene with the cop (who doesn’t show up again), or find another way of introducing the mechanic. Don’t tell your readers the same information twice.

(It is okay to remind them of things, and give clues to jog their memories, particularly later in the book. But having two scenes right after the other with the same information in it is pointless.)

 

Side note: at about 18 minutes, we finally get her first day at the FBI.

 

Mistake 4: Bad structure

Sue’s first day working for the FBI is pretty dull, for her and the watcher, but that would have been fine if everything else up until that point hadn’t also been boring. But it makes sense that not everything is going to go well on her journey.

Things start picking up once she meets Yannick Bisson (for me, too. That man is fine.) She gets involved in a case for him reading the lips of some bad guys on a surveillance video, and testifies at a trial about it. It goes well. The end.

Well, it was the end of the first part of the pilot.

She isn’t introduced to this case until 33 minutes into the pilot. Which means that this plot is introduced, worked through, and resolved in less than ten minutes of screen time.

When you write Romantic Suspense like I do, you have to be very careful to have the plot, the characters, and their relationship, all develop at the same pace. You introduce the characters and plot close together, and you resolve their character arcs, their relationship, and the plot close together, and every step that happens in between must progress at a similar pace.

That did not happen in this show. The ‘character development’/introduction happened for the first 30 minutes, and the plot happened for the last 10. It’s just bad writing.

 

I had a lot more issues with the episode going into the second half of it, but honestly I don’t want to rewatch it to pick out specific moments. I do remember thinking that Sue’s character was a bit uneven, but it was a pilot. I can forgive that.

I did watch the next episode of the show after the two-part pilot, and you know what? It improves a little. I might keep watching.

 

I hope some of this is useful. I know sometimes I learn better with clear, concrete examples of what to do or what not to do. I won’t link to an episode, but there are streams of the show available online (or DVDs from the official site if that’s more your speed).

The Appeal of the Wounded Hero

2016-05-02-1462174744-4924311-batb

Beauty and the Beast. Scarred Hero. Wounded Hero. Whatever you call it, I’m a fan. As I mentioned in my previous post about tropes, it’s definitely one of my favourites. In fact, my Soldiering On series is built around this hero archetype. The series features four heroes (and one heroine!), all wounded in different ways.

On lists of favourite romance tropes, this one shows up every single time. So I’m not the only one that loves it! The question is, what’s the appeal?

Part of it, I believe, is that it shows a hero that has conquered some adversity. Whether they were wounded in childhood, in an accident, or in war, they still experienced something difficult and survived. Resilience is a very admirable quality in a romantic hero. It hints at a depth of character and experience that most of us couldn’t imagine.

But it’s not just that. It is also what the trope represents, and the kind of dynamics that it usually plays to.

I like wounded heroes, because I like heroes that are a little less sure of themselves. (Beta heroes are my jam!) Usually in these stories it is the hero that falls for the heroine first. So, when I read a blurb about a wounded hero, I will often assume that the story will be packaged with two of my other favourite tropes—Hero in Pursuit, and the hero’s “unrequited” pining (that is really requited!).

In addition to this, it will often give the reader a hint that the hero is not all that confident in himself. Maybe he doesn’t think he’s good enough for the heroine. And that is such a refreshing dynamic in this world of arrogant Alpha Billionaires that it is something I actively seek out.

Sometimes part of the appeal is that the story is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale/Disney movie that many of us love. In this case, there is also a sense of nostalgia that can go along with the reading. Particularly when the story has been made sexier or dark, more grown up. It can be all the things that you love about the original with an adult flavour to it.

Another appealing element is that there needs to be a lot of character growth from the hero to be worthy of the heroine. He needs to grow in his self-confidence, learn to trust the heroine, and put himself out there in order to earn his happy ending. I find that a much more appealing character arc than a more arrogant man learning humility, but I know that’s my personal taste!

I might talk at a later date about why I think there are a lot less wounded heroines. And why the ‘wounded hero’ trope doesn’t show up nearly as much in movies as in books.

 

So, there you have it. This is a breakdown of why I love wounded heroes. Also, eventually, I will do a post about my favourite examples of the trope!

What’s your favourite Beauty and the Beast/Wounded Hero romance?

The Importance of a Guaranteed Happy Ending

tumblr_ls8ziolssa1qc2uo9o1_500

Following on from my post about tropes, I thought I would write about the single most important trope in romance: the Happily Ever After.

It is this that causes the most derision from people that don’t read the genre. “What’s the point if you know the ending?” they ask.

Well, firstly, these people can take their prejudice and stuff it. But secondly, the point is that we know the ending.

Getting emotionally invested in a book is like getting invested in a relationship – there has to be trust. When a reader knows that they will 100% be getting a happy ending, they know they can connect to the book and the characters emotionally without fear that it will betray them.

This means that writers can go deeper, angstier, and deal with far more difficult themes, and readers will follow them, knowing that on the other side of that misery the characters will triumph. Plus, it’s better storytelling. If a book with a miserable beginning and middle also has a miserable ending, then the story would be too one note and depressing. And if the book is all happy, only to have the characters end up miserable, then what is the point of that?

I could never read a Nicholas Sparks novel and have the same amount of emotional investment in it that I would if I read a romance novel. Some part of me would always be holding back, wondering which, if any, character that I was rooting for was going to die at the end. I couldn’t sink into the book, lose myself in it, because I would know that it might break my heart. My brain would protect my heart by keeping me at a distance.

And if you can’t get invested in the characters and their journey, then what’s the point of reading that story?

Romance novels have the right way of it. Promise readers a happy ending, and they will follow you anywhere.

I’m the kind of reader that likes the characters I invest in to succeed and triumph. I like them to deal with difficulties, and then come out the other side better people and in a better place. There is enough misery in real life. I don’t need it in my fiction, too.

This is why I hate writers that market their books as genre romance, but don’t follow to the HEA ‘formula’. They want the boost of the Romancelandia community and the romance dollars (because, as we all know, it’s the most popular genre in North America), but they don’t want to adhere to our most sacred tenet. It’s no wonder that readers feel betrayed and angry by this. They trusted this book – and the writer – to deliver what they were taught to expect. And the writer broke that trust, as sure as any bad news boyfriend.

So, writers, don’t do that. Deliver the ending that your readers expect (the one you’ve been building towards and your genre demands) or deal with the amount of angry and upset people you’ve caused.

And, readers, know that I am the biggest supporter of the HEA. You can trust that I won’t ever let you down in that regard.

Status Update: One Month Anniversary

status update

As of today, I have been a published author for one whole month!

It’s been a wild ride, and I’ve learned a lot. From writing itself, to marketing, to the self-publishing business, I feel like I’ve needed a crash course on about 50 different things.

I’m exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.

I came into this thinking I knew it all. I’d done my research and was brimming with confidence. But you don’t know what you don’t know. Most of what I’ve learned are things that nobody thinks to tell you, or are unique to my situation.

(For example – you can’t buy a kindle ebook if your address is listed as being in Qatar (where I live). It’s caused my friends some headaches, that’s for sure. It’s very sweet of them to want to buy and read my books, but Amazon is making it really hard!)

I do want to thank the people who have supported me so far, friends and strangers alike. I’m so happy with how well the book has been doing and the positive response so far. It means the absolute world to me! This is my life’s dream, so to have people buying and reviewing my books, or even just offering moral support, it’s helped more than you could possibly know.

So, thank you, thank you, thank you…

index

I still have a lot to learn. I don’t think I’ll ever be done.

I hope that I will always grow as I continue down this path. I want the book that I write at 90 to be the best yet of my career. It is what will make this endeavour so much more rewarding in the end.

But, for now, I am going to celebrate how far I’ve come already. It’s been a huge few months for me. A huge year, really. I still have a lot of work to do before December, but you have to allow yourself the small things. So, well done, me. And here’s to many more to come.

 

Final factoid: No one buys my books on Thursdays.

 

Buy Soldiering On: (Soldiering On #0.5)

Buy Station Alpha: (Soldiering On #1)

Preorder Guarding Sierra: (Soldiering On #2)