About Marcy Kennedy

Posts by Marcy Kennedy:

Are You A Jerk Without Realizing It?

Are You A Jerk Without Realizing It?By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

How do you react to someone who’s not as good at something as you are?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous posts on “My Dark Secret” and “Why Every Couple Should Play Video Games Together” my husband and I play World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player online role playing game.

I love playing WoW. It’s relaxing and fun to escape into a story you participate in while completing quests.

But I have to miss a large chunk of the content because I won’t play with strangers. Whenever a quest requires a group, I have to wait for my husband rather than asking in the chat box if anyone else nearby is already working on the same quest chain. I never use the random dungeon finder, which would add me to a group of people to run a dungeon. I’ve never been a member of a raiding guild.

You see, I’m a casual player. I don’t have the time to study stats, crunch numbers, and do the theory building of a hard core player. It’s a game. Life takes precedence. And that means I’m not as good a player as many others even though I try.

In other words, I’m jerk-bait.

Jerks pop up enough in random groups that I’ve learned to keep my distance. They’re the people who verbally attack another player because they aren’t doing enough damage per second, they miss a heal, or they lose threat as a tank (the class that’s supposed to distract the bad guy from beating on the squishier players).

These people assume you aren’t trying and that you suck because you’re unwilling to learn. They refuse to play with you anymore, and they try to get you booted from the group.

It happens on the forums too when someone like me asks a question. The jerks assume the person asking the question is lazy rather than that they just don’t know what they don’t know.

It makes me stop and think now before I react to people in life, people who aren’t yet as good at something as I am or who don’t catch on to a new concept as quickly as I do.

Do I want to be the jerk who berates someone who’s struggling? Or do I want to be the person who takes a little extra time to teach them and help them be better?

I want to be the latter.

I want to be the one who goes out of my way to help a newbie learn. I want to be the one who keeps helping them find a new way to understand a concept that’s evading them. I want to show them mercy and grace and kindness.

I’m not always good at that yet. We all have a tendency to assume that if something is easy for us, it’s inherently easy, and anyone who doesn’t get it isn’t trying hard enough.

But I think it’s about every day trying to grow a little closer to the kind of person we want to be.

Do you get impatient with people who are struggling to figure something out? Have you ever dealt with a jerk when you were struggling to learn something?

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Sneak Peek at The Amazon Heir

Sneak Peek The Next Big ThingBack in August, Debra Kristi tagged me in The Next Big Thing, where authors are supposed to answer a series of interview questions on the book they’re currently working on. I made a strategic choice to hold off until now to share because I wanted to tell you about the book that Lisa Hall-Wilson and I are finally bringing to a close. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming months.

What is the working title of your book?

The Amazon Heir

Where did the idea come from for the book?

In the summer of 2010, Lisa approached me wanting to co-write a novel and hooked me with the question, “What if the Arthurian legends originated not in Britain but near the Black Sea from an Amazon warrior’s pursuit of respect and a barbarian Scythe’s spiritual quest?”

Historians C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor wrote a non-fiction book From Scythia to Camelot, in which they proposed that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions didn’t actually come from Celtic mythology. They came from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia (what is now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes) known as the Sarmatians.

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the Sarmatians rose out of the pairing of Amazon mothers and Scythian fathers. Hundreds of years later, when the Romans defeated the Sarmatian cavalry and forced them to serve at Hadrian’s Wall, the Sarmatians took their folklore to Britain with them. The evidence was quite compelling.

We’ve developed the idea from that kernel together.

What genre does your book fall under?

We’re calling it historical fantasy.

The Scythians were a real historical society, and we’ve done our best to render them accurately based on our research. The Amazons are myth. The theory is that the legends of the Amazons arose among the Greeks because Sarmatian women fought alongside the men (and there’s archeological evidence that bears this out).

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I haven’t thought about it. If Lisa stops by, perhaps she’ll chime in down in the comments for who she saw in the roles.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Our catchy logline is Xena warrior princess meets Game of Thrones.

Zerynthia is an Amazon princess with more man-kills than any other. Tradition says that to take her mother’s throne she needs a female heir from a prince of Scythia, a nation feared by even the Greeks. If she doesn’t take her mother’s throne, the law condemns her family to death.

Kaduis, heir to a king with too many sons, is ordered by his father not to come home without a son from Zerynthia, but Kaduis’ secret faith in a foreign god forbids him from bedding a woman who isn’t his wife and carries a death sentence if discovered. And Amazons don’t marry.

When Kaduis’ brother devises a plot to cast doubt on the paternity of their child, the existence of both their societies is threatened.

He needs a son, she needs a daughter, only one can succeed, and time is running out.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Stay tuned. We’ll be making an announcement soon.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

We finished the first draft in about five months. We’ve on revision number three.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

We’ve struggled with this question. We’re coming at the Arthurian legends from an entirely new angle, and there are very few novels on the market about Amazons. We’re also looking to push the fantasy genre a bit by keeping our book fast-paced.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Zerynthia is notoriously known as the Lady of the Lake for rising from the water after defeat in her first battle to kill the enemy king—earning her acclaim among men and disgrace among the Amazons. In the Arthurian legends, the Lady of the Lake is the one who is said to have given Arthur Excaliber and to have raised Lancelot when his parents died. She’s depicted as always wearing white and is associated with the goddess Artemis and the protection of virginity. We had a lot of fun in the book putting new twists on those elements.

Had you heard of the Amazons and Scythians before?

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Three Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat Them

Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat ThemBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

What do we do about a character who speaks in a dialect? In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted? Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

Even if you’re normally confident when it comes to writing dialogue, these questions can give us hives as we struggle to find the answer. I hope to help chase the hives away.

What do we do about a character who speaks in a particular dialect?

If you’ve ever tried to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, you’ll know how frustrating it can be to slog through dialect written out phonetically. You don’t want your reader to have to work that hard. So how do we find the balance between authenticity and readability?

Just name it.

She had a heavy New York accent.

He sounded like he was from the Deep South.  

Is this telling rather than showing? Yes, but it’s one of the situations where it’s actually okay to tell. In fact, if you don’t know how to replicate a dialect well enough to do it correctly, this is the wise option.

This technique works most successfully if you’re choosing to name an accent your reader will immediately be able to call to mind.  

Filter it through the ears of another character who isn’t familiar with the dialect. I personally love when an author does this well, but it only works if your character isn’t familiar with the dialect.

Jim glared at her. “You spoiled him. And after all, that ain’t no real kindness.” It came out like You spiled ‘im. And arter all, t’aint no real kindness.

You don’t have to do this more than once for the reader to understand what your character sounds like when they’re speaking.

Point out a distinctive word here and there. This option works in the same situations as the one above.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.” When she said sorry, it sounded like soar-y instead of sari. I couldn’t get past the mental image of her covered in seeping wounds.

Forget copying it exactly, and instead think in terms of rhythm, word choice, syntax, grammatical mistakes, and missing words. Abileen’s chapters in The Help by Kathryn Stockett could be a master’s class in this. Listen to part of The Help’s first paragraph.

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

She uses “a” instead of “of.”
“I done” not “I have.”
“Them” and “they” instead of “those” and “their.”

Small but important grammatical mistakes.

Stockett chooses the word “mamas” over “mothers.” She chooses “toilet bowl” rather than “potty” or “bathroom” or “crapper.”

Syntax is basically about the patterns that form sentences and phrases. Stockett could have written, “I take care of white babies.” But she didn’t. She wrote, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” She reversed the normal and expected order.

And when you write dialect this way, you’ll not only make the read easy and immersive for your audience. You’ll also avoid stereotypes and condescension.

A great source for preliminary dialect research is http://dialectblog.com

In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted?

I asked this question to award-winning historical romance author Jody Hedlund during my interview with her.

You can read Jody’s full answer by clicking the link above, but in a nutshell, she said, “I don’t try to imitate the time period speech exactly. I usually pick out distinct words and assign them to particular characters to use throughout the book.”

When in doubt about whether a word is too modern, look it up. Jody suggested Phrases.org as her go-to. Dictionary.com will also often tell you when a word originated. You don’t have to stick solely to words from the era you’re writing about, but the closer you can come, the better.

A word might also sound too modern even if it isn’t. Occasionally, you’re going to run into a word that’s ancient but sounds modern. Technically you’re correct in using it, but I’d recommend changing it. Not all readers are historical scholars. They go by what sounds right. 

Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

In every critique group, fiction intensive, or mentorship class I’ve ever attended with other fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, this question has come up. And the class divided down the middle on the answer.

Those who felt contractions were acceptable argued that taking them out made the writing sound stilted and awkward. Those who felt contractions were unacceptable argued using them made the writing sound unauthentic and modern.

In a mentorship class I took from Randy Ingermanson, he pointed out that most languages, even ancient ones, had a way of shortening words or slang that made certain words and phrases easier and quicker to say.

Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman point out in their book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language that Old English used contractions. For example, ne is (“is not”) contracted to nis (“isn’t”) and ne wolde (“would not”) contracted to nolde (“wouldn’t). Contractions went in and out of fashion over the years, more so in writing than in speech. Even among the upper classes, contractions would have been used and tolerated in speech when they were considered unacceptable in writing.

So where does that leave us? We need to always strive for dialogue that sounds smooth and natural. If an excessive removal of contractions leaves our work feeling stilted and awkward, we should look for other ways to give an authentic feel.

We can instead rearrange the syntax of our sentences. We can remove contractions at key moments for emphasis (and downplay them throughout). We can replace modern-feeling phrases with ones slightly less common.

Do you have any other tips for handling these problems? What authors do you think handle them well?

If you missed out on the earlier installments in this series, click the following links to read 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks for Adding Variety to Your Dialogue, How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your Characters, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” button. You can also join me on my Facebook page.

Registration is now open for the next round of my Twitter course where I walk you through how to make the best use of your time on Twitter and save you from the learning curve. Click here to register.

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I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Source Code: Does What You Do Matter?

Source CodeBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do you ever wonder how many people could have made a difference in the world, could have changed things for the better, but didn’t…because they stopped believing they could?

In Source Code, Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up as Sean, a history teacher on a commuter train. Eight minutes later a bomb on the train explodes, killing everyone.

Colter wakes up again, this time in a strange capsule. He finds out that he’s part of an experimental crime fighting program known as source code. A complex computer program writes a code from the last eight minutes of a person’s life and allows Colter to re-live them in order to find the bad guy.

Colter goes back again and again into the last eight minutes of Sean’s life, and falls in love with Sean’s friend Christina, also killed in the explosion. He starts to think if he can just stop the bomb from exploding and catch the bomber, he can save Christina.

The source code creator tells him he can’t change the past. Christina and all the others on the train are already dead.

Though Colter manages to identify the bomber, in the process he’s found out the truth—he was killed in Afghanistan. All that remains of him is, essentially, his brain hooked up to a computer. He can never have a normal life again. He can either continue to live through the last eight minutes of other people’s lives or he can insist they disconnect him from the computer and allow what remains of him to die.

The problem is Colter can’t accept he can’t first save Christina. He asks his handler to violate orders and send him back in one last time and then to disconnect his brain from the computer at the exact moment the eight minutes end. Even if he can’t really save Christina, he wants his last memories, his final moments, to be spent trying.

His handler takes pity on him and agrees, even though source code’s creator wants to simply wipe Colter’s memory and keep using his brain against Colter’s wishes.

Colter goes back into Sean’s final minutes. He’s learned from his mistakes. This time he disables both the bomb’s main detonator and its back-up detonator. He catches the bomber, handcuffs him, and calls the police to tell them exactly where he is and what he planned to do.

Then he asks Christina, “If you knew you only had one minute left to live, how would you spend it?”

He kisses her.

And expects that to be his last moment.

But the moment when the memory should have ended passes. Colter can barely believe it, but he walks off the commuter train with Christina. He sends his handler a text…

“At some point today, you’re going to hear about a failed terrorist attack on a commuter train near Chicago. You and I kept that bomb from going off. If you’re reading this email, then Source Code works even better than you imagined.”

Against all odds, Colter made a difference because he refused to give up and refused to stop believing he could.

The refusal to stop believing is a quality shared by all the people who’ve changed the world. (Click to tweet.)

Some of them were leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King.

Some of them were normal people like Rosa Parks who simply did the right thing and believed it would make a difference.

Some of them didn’t change the world, but they did change the world for someone. Colter didn’t save the world, but he did do something amazing for every person on that train.

None of that would have happened if they’d stopped believing what they did mattered.

Never stop believing you can make a difference.

Do you ever feel insignificant and wonder if what you do matters?

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How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your Characters

How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your CharactersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do all your characters sound like you? Or an idealized version of you?

Do they all sound like each other?

Would you recognize if they did?

Try this – Could you delete a character and give their lines to someone else without a problem? Could you swap the dialogue of two characters in a scene without it changing anything significant about the characters?

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue.

Whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or something in between, you can benefit from figuring out three things about how your character would speak before you start to write or re-write.

Know the Regionalisms from Where Your Character Grew Up or Now Lives

Small touches in word choice make a big difference. Take my husband and I as examples. I’m a Canadian from Southwestern Ontario. My husband is an American from Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.

I say pop – He says soda.
I say supper – He says dinner.
I say chocolate bar – He says candy bar.

Along with small differences in word choice, characters from different regions will have different catch words. Stephen King’s characters from Maine say “Ayuh” as an affirmative. Canadians will use “eh” as both an affirmative and a question, depending on the situation.

If you’re going to use a regionalism, make sure you understand it properly or you’re going to disgust a large portion of your readers. Thanks to the internet, there’s no excuse for not contacting someone who lives in that region and asking them for some tips.

If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, regionalism can be a goldmine for adding depth to your world. For example, does a regionalism give away a character’s real nationality?

In the novel Lisa Hall-Wilson and I are currently working on together, our Amazon protagonist has no word for “brother.” In her society, all male babies are killed so brothers don’t exist. The closet she can come is saying “son of your father.”

Know Your Character’s Education Level, IQ, and Station in Life

While even the most highly educated among us rarely uses perfect grammar when we speak, grammatical errors, strategically used, say much about a character.

The character who says “I didn’t see nobody” isn’t the same as the character who says “I didn’t see anyone.”

A character who’s highly educated or well-read will also naturally drop ten-dollar words into their speech at times. (Don’t overuse this and send your readers running for a dictionary…or away from your book. As with grammatical errors, choose your spots for maximum impact.)

I’m a writer, married to an editor, and we’re both avid readers. Words we’ve recently used in casual conversation between us include egregious, deleterious, incongruous, tout, and insipid. (Yes, I know we’re weird.)

What if your character’s first language isn’t English?

My grandparents were born in Slovakia (the poor, rural side of what used to be Czechoslovakia). My grandpa spoke no English when he first came to Canada, and he struggled because Slovakian is different from English in a very fundamental way. It depends on changing the ending of a word to indicate the word’s function in a sentence rather than on word order. According to my grandma, he would make mistakes like saying, “Throw the cow over the fence to some hay.”

Non-Native English speakers also struggle with definite and indefinite article usage (“the” “a”) and subject-verb agreement.

If you have a character who wasn’t born in an English-speaking country, you can play with these issues (again, use a light hand) to set their dialogue apart. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, do your races speak different languages? If you don’t have a Star Trek-esque universal translator, how will you handle this?

Know Your Character’s Personality

Is your character the kind who always sticks their foot in their mouth? Are they well-meaning or just so self-absorbed that they don’t realize they’ve said something stupid? What do they do after they stick their foot in their mouth? Do they apologize and try to explain or laugh it off?

Is your character confident or does she second guess herself? A confident character makes definitive statements. A character who second guesses herself will add qualifiers—I think, maybe, most. They’ll end their statements with a subtle request for reassurance—Right? Eh? Don’t you think? She’ll also ask questions rather than giving her opinion directly—Do you think that couch might look better over there? rather than The couch would look better over there.

Does your character have a problem with authority? Are they a control freak? Or are they naturally curious about the way things work? These types of characters will want to know the why and the reasons behind something rather than accepting what’s said at face value.

Is your character a gossip?

Does he jump to conclusions?

Is your character a concrete thinker or an abstract thinker? (I’m not talking about psychological development here, but rather how we naturally think about and make sense of the world.) A concrete thinker prefers to talk about what is rather than what might be. They don’t enjoy plays on words. They take things literally. An abstract thinker takes what is and projects into the future what might be. They enjoy puns and word plays, and if you listen to them explain a concept, they’ll often use metaphors. Many writers are abstract thinkers and don’t realize that there even is another way of thinking.

What other tricks do you have for making your character’s dialogue unique?

If you’ve missed the earlier installments in this series, you can find them here: 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks to Add Variety to Your Dialogue, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Do You Like to Have the Last Word? The Story of Echo

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do you always have to have the last word in an argument? Do you know someone who does?

Echo, a mountain nymph in Greek mythology, had to have the last word in everything, and it was her undoing.

Echo was beautiful with a musical voice. People enjoyed hearing her talk. Eventually, this went to her head, and Echo took too much pleasure in having the last word in both arguments and normal conversations.

Greek mythology has two separate stories about how Echo’s unique ability to dominate a conversation became a curse that destroyed her.

In one story, Echo was a pawn, and in the other, she was a hero.

In the first version, Zeus, ruler of Mount Olympus, hired her to distract his wife while he engaged in one of his numerous affairs. Zeus’ wife Hera figured out what Echo was doing and punished her.

In the alternate version, Echo learned that Hera sought to wreak vengeance on the nymphs for the infidelities she believed Zeus had committed with many of them. Echo used her speech to distract Hera until the other nymphs escaped.

Both versions led to the same consequence.

“Because you’ve cheated me,” Hera said, “you forfeit the use of your tongue except to reply. You’ll keep your power to speak the last word, but will never know the relief of speaking the first.”

Hera doomed Echo to repeat forever the last words spoken to her.

Echo felt the sting of this especially when she met and fell in love with Narcissus.

When Narcissus exclaimed in disgust, “I should rather die than let you have me,” all Echo could reply with was a pitiful plea of “Have me.”

After Narcissus broke her heart, Echo wasted away until nothing remained of her but her voice, which continued to haunt caves and mountain cliffs.

The Greeks believed when they called out and heard a reply, it was Echo speaking to them. (Hence the origin of the word echo in our language for when sound reflects back to us.)

Whether Echo had a good reason for it or not, needing to always have the last word doomed her to a sad life. It may not destroy our lives, but it can certainly punch some holes in our relationships. And if we’re not the person who always needs to have the last word but we know someone who does, it’s important to know how to deal with it.

I’m a person who always needs to have the last word. If you’re like me, here’s what I’ve found helps.

Look back at when it started.

I’m very different from a person I was close to growing up. I’m a quiet introvert. He’s a charismatic extrovert. I have a dry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. He has a sarcastic, have-the-room-in-stitches-and-hanging-off-his-every-word sense of humor. I’m like the china cup, and he’s like the bull.

When we’d argue, he won by strength of personality alone. He’d talk over me and mock every logical argument I made. I never felt like I won a single disagreement.

As an adult, this translated into me wanting to have the last word in every argument because, subconsciously, I felt like that meant I was heard and respected.

The first step for me toward letting other people sometimes have the last word was recognizing that not everyone was like what I’d experienced. Other people would listen to me and respect my different opinion even if I didn’t have the last word.

Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As crazy as this might sound at first, I figured out one of the reasons I seek to have the last word is a control issue. I was afraid that if I didn’t have the last word, I was giving up all control of the situation, and that meant all the horrible possibilities I’d imagined were going to come true. Flawed logic, I know.

But if you find you need to control an argument or win an argument, ask yourself what you’re afraid will happen if you lose the argument. Express that to the person you’re arguing with.

If you’re not someone who needs the last word, but you need to deal with someone who is, here are my tips from the other side.

Realize that they probably just want to know that you hear them and respect their opinion. They want to know that you’ll consider their side rather than just walking all over them because you think you know better.

Pick a time when you’re not fighting to talk to them about it. They might not even know they always try to have the last word.

Accept that having the last word doesn’t really mean anything. They didn’t win the argument simply because they had the last word, so don’t let it get under your skin. Be the bigger person.

Give them the last word gracefully. Sometimes you’re going to get tired of arguing. The quickest way to appease a “last worder” is to ask something like “Is there anything else you want to add?”

Don’t assume that someone needs to have the last word just because they win most of the arguments/finish most arguments. Sometimes I’m not actually trying to get in the last word. Sometimes I just see a flaw in the argument just made and want to address it. Having the last word and needing to have the last word are not the same thing. Don’t be too quick to judge someone.

Do you feel the need to always have the last word in an argument? Do you know someone else who does? How do you handle it?

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Is Genre Dying?

Death of GenreBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

At the Writer’s Digest conference in New York last January, superstar literary agent Donald Maass proclaimed the death of genre. After the conference, my co-writer Lisa Hall-Wilson even wrote about her impressions of his talk on our now defunct Girls With Pens blog. Maass devotes an entire chapter to the same topic in his recently released book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

My guess is that when you read the words “the death of genre,” you had one of two reactions. You either panicked because you write genre fiction like romance, thrillers, or science fiction, or you felt a surge of excitement because you’ve always felt like your book defied genre conventions and couldn’t be classified.

But if you’re a genre writer, you have no need for panic. Genres aren’t going anywhere. They help readers find what they want.

And if you’re not sure how to categorize your book, you might not have reason to celebrate. Just because your book defies categorization doesn’t mean you’re succeeding where strict genre writers fail.

Here’s what I’ve figured out after mulling over not only what Maass said so many months ago, but also reading through the chapter on the death of genre multiple times.

“The death of genre” is a misnomer. It’s not about the death of genre at all. It’s about the evolution of genre, the next leap forward the same way our world experienced a technology boom in the late 90s.

Maass’ call to action is for all writers—genre writers, literary writers, and those who feel like their book doesn’t fit a category.

It’s not about categories. It’s about writing a book that will become a classic.

Genre writers need to learn beautiful writing from literary writers, and literary writers need to learn captivating storylines from genre writers. Story and art become equals rather than adversaries.

Maass writes, “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (13).

When the two come together, whether you call the book genre fiction or mainstream/literary fiction, it doesn’t matter because you’ve laid the foundation for what Maass calls high impact fiction. The kind that stays on the bestseller lists for months rather than weeks at a time.

As long as you add one secret ingredient to bind them together—powerful emotion.

Believable characters are the vessels for carrying emotion because through them we’re able to face themes that touch the rawest core of our beings.

This is one of the reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable. Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Part of what made the Harry Potter series popular was we could still relate to the stories even though we couldn’t perform magic and would never need to fight a dark wizard. The stories and characters transcended the details of the magical world to tell a story of a boy who longed for a family that loved him, who just wanted to fit in, who struggled to figure out the line between right and wrong, and who learned that some things are worth fighting and dying for.

The lessons in Harry Potter, while secondary to an entertaining story, are what made it so loved by people who wouldn’t otherwise read a fantasy. It’s also what makes them re-readable.

What all this really means is that we stand at a time of amazing potential. Not because of indie publishing, not because of social media—though those help amazing stories spread—but because we could be the next generation’s Dickens, or Austen, or Hemingway.

What it will take is the courage to not settle for writing books that are good enough. And settling for “good enough” is one of the major dangers we face as writers now that self-publishing is not only a viable option but a smart one for many writers.

Each of us has a decision to make. Maybe you don’t care about whether your book is high impact fiction as long as it sells.

But if you do care, before you consider sending your book to an agent or putting it out yourself, take an honest look at whether it has the four elements it needs.  

Beautiful prose.

A compelling plot.

Believable characters.

Themes that touch hearts.

I think when we make it our aim to hit all four of those elements, category will be less important to us and everyone who reads our book. And I think that is the phenomenon we’re seeing now.

I’d love to know what you think about all this. Do you think I’m right? Wrong? Will genre eventually die out completely? Which of these four elements do you find the most difficult to get right?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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What Lord of the Rings Character Are You?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A few months ago, I shared how an argument between my husband and I turned into a quiz on What Star Trek Race Are You?

Since not everyone is a Star Trek fan, I thought I’d create another one on The Lord of the Rings this time.

Read the descriptions below and write down the letter of the one that’s most like you. (Don’t look for it to be exact. Just pick the one that’s most like you.) At the end, I’ll tell you what character you picked

(A) You have a strong sense of honor and duty, and you thus have a difficult time letting go of mistakes made in the past. You fight for what you believe is right and defend the weak, regardless of the consequences.

(B) Your life experience has taught you where you’re weak, and so you show mercy and compassion to others. You’re kind and willing to sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others, and friends seek you out for your sound advice.

(C) You’re a hopeless romantic—a lover, not a fighter. You’ll do anything for the ones you love. You feel their joys and pains as if they were your own.

(D) You prefer the simple things in life—good food, fresh air, friendship. You’re practical, rather than adventurous, and you try to keep an eye on everything that’s happening so you’ll be prepared. You’re honest and loyal to a fault.

(E) You’re strong, ambitious, and a born leader. Along with those virtues comes a tendency to pride and arrogance, but when you hurt someone, you quickly make up for it, and you’re honest about your failings.

(F) You’re independent and prefer spending time alone to being in a crowd. This time alone gives you plenty of time to dream. You have strong emotions and melancholy tendencies.

(G) You’re curious, cheerful, talkative, and a little quirky, which means people often underestimate you. You look at life with a child-like curiosity. Your biggest challenge is keep from becoming careless and impulsive.

ANSWER KEY:

Aragorn Lord of the Rings(A) You’re Aragorn. Aragorn was the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, but lived as a Ranger because he didn’t want to repeat his ancestor Isildor’s mistake and let power and greed go to his head. He was willing to give up his life protecting the Hobbits and the people of Rohan, even though they weren’t technically his responsibility.

 

Gandalf Lord of the Rings(B) You’re Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey was a wizard and longtime advisor of Bilbo Baggins. He refused to carry the ring because he knew it would be too great a temptation for him, and he reminded Frodo of the need to show compassion to Gollum. When the Fellowship of the Ring ran into the Bolrog (a deadly creature of fire and shadow) in the Mines of Moria, Gandalf sacrificed himself so the others could escape.

Arwen Lord of the Rings(C) You’re Arwen. Arwen is the daughter of the elvin king Elrond. She gave up her immortality in order to spend a single lifetime with Aragorn.

 

 

Samwise Lord of the Rings(D) You’re Samwise. Samwise Gamgee was Frodo Baggins’ gardener and closest friend. Without Sam’s care, loyalty, and planning (he rationed their food, made sure they had rope, etc.), Frodo would have never made it to Mount Doom to destroy the ring.

Boromir Lord of the Rings(E) You’re Boromir. Boromir was heir to the Stewart of Gondor, who cared for the kingdom of Gondor in Aragorn’s absence. Boromir’s desire for the ring and the power it could bring to Gondor got the best of him, and he tried to take it from Frodo by force. He died honorably defending the other hobbits from an orc attack and making sure that Frodo was able to escape.

Frodo Baggins Lord of the Rings(F) You’re Frodo. Frodo Baggins became the ring bearer, the only one who seemed able to tolerate the corrupting power of the ring long enough to carry it to Mount Doom to destroy it. Before the ring came into his life, Frodo enjoyed long walks alone in the woods and had very few friends. After taking on ring, Frodo insisted that the burden was his alone to bear and tried to go alone to Mordor and Mount Doom.

Peregrin Took Lord of the Rings(G) You’re Pippin. Peregrin Took was the youngest of the hobbits to leave the Shire with Frodo. In the Mines of Moria, he knocked a skeleton down a well, alerting the orcs to their presence, and later stole what he thought was a pretty bauble from Gandalf, which turned out to be an evil object that almost got them all in trouble when Pippin tried to use it. In the end, Pippin distinguished himself by his bravery in the final battle.

My husband and I are still trying to figure out if I’m more Samwise or Gandalf. No question, he’s Aragorn.

What Lord of the Rings character are you?

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Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

Does Your Dialogue Deserve to ExistBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The biggest mistake writers make when it comes to dialogue isn’t what you might expect.

The biggest mistake we make is forgetting that dialogue—like everything else in fiction—needs a reason to exist.

If dialogue comes easily to you, then this is going to be something you need to watch. Because dialogue is your strength, your tendency will be to allow your dialogue to dominate your story.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can also trip you up. You’ll be prone to adding empty small talk or to depending on dialogue to the exclusion of other action, internal monologue, and description. A well-rounded story needs them all.

To give your dialogue a reason to exist, make sure every passage does at least one of these three things. (Bonus points if it does more than one.)

Reveal Character or Character Relationships

I’ll go into detail in my next dialogue post about revealing character in dialogue, so for now, think about how the way we speak to someone reveals our relationship to them.

Are they comfortable enough with each other to tease? To disagree?

If they give their opinion, do they do it in a way that shows they’re speaking to a superior, an equal, or an inferior? The way we give a suggestion to our boss is very different from the way we give a suggestion to our teenager.

People who are newly dating speak to each other differently from a couple who’s been married for five years. A newly dating couple will be more tentative, wanting to put their best foot forward. A couple who’s been married five years will have private jokes, old wounds, and a closeness that allows them to convey their meaning without explicitly stating it. If the marriage is good. How a couple speaks to each other reveals a lot about the condition of their marriage.

Whenever your character speaks to someone else, their dialogue should be tailored to who they’re speaking to. If you can swap the listener without changing the dialogue, you need to rethink how you’re writing it.

Advance the Plot

We hear the advice to “show, don’t tell” so often it’s almost clichéd.

Using dialogue to advance the plot makes our scenes more active, avoids author intrusion, and “shows.”

But what does it mean to say dialogue is advancing the plot? Dialogue can advance the plot by…

  • providing new information
  • increasing suspense, tension, or conflict
  • revealing new obstacles
  • reminding us of the characters’ scene or story goals

The trick to making this work is to avoid As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome.

A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.

E.g., “When our Aunt Edna died, I wasn’t upset because I didn’t know her that well.”

A character also won’t say something that wouldn’t come up in conversation because it’s common knowledge.

E.g., “Hi Mary, my best friend since childhood. Won’t you come into the new house I just bought?”

In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the easiest way to fix (and avoid) this problem is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.

Another solution is to pick a fight. Characters who are fighting will dredge up things the other character already knows and use them as weapons against each other.

Echo the Theme

Every good movie does this. According to Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, creating a line of dialogue to echo the theme isn’t negotiable—a movie must include it to work.

Good books will do it multiple times in subtle ways.

If you’re a regular reader of my Monday posts, you’ve watched me pull themes from books and movies and find a lesson for us.

In The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben is fed up with Peter acting out and shirking responsibility. He tells Peter that his father lived by a code: “If you can do good things for other people, you have the moral obligation to do those things.”

In Chapter 7 of The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss argue about which of them has the better chance of survival and of getting sponsors. Each believes it’s the other. Peeta turns to Haymitch (their mentor) in exasperation and says, “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”

Echoing the theme doesn’t have to be obvious. You can work your theme into dialogue using subtext and foreshadowing as well.

Does dialogue come easily to you? If so, do you find that when you revise you need to cut out dialogue that doesn’t have a purpose?

If you missed the 7 Ways to Add Variety to Your Dialogue and the 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, you can catch up by clicking the blue text.

Registration is also now open for A Growing Tweeter’s Guide to Twitter. If you’re new to Twitter or if you’ve been on Twitter for a while and just aren’t getting the results you want, this is a good place to start. The class is four weeks long and the Bronze level is only $50. A Silver and Gold level are also offered. Check them out on the Current Classes page at WANA International.

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How Much Responsibility Should We Take for Others’ Actions?

Responsibility for Others' Actions and VoyagerBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

How would you feel if you were being held legally responsible for someone else’s actions?

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Random Thoughts,” the crew of the starship Voyager is visiting the Mari homeworld. The Mari are a telepathic people who’ve virtually eradicated crime by outlawing violent thoughts.

A man bumps into Voyager’s chief engineer, B’Elanna Torres, while she’s on the surface negotiating a trade. Being half-Klingon and having the temper Klingons are infamous for, B’Elanna thinks about hurting the man who bumped into her. A few minutes later, he beats up another man in the main square and claims he doesn’t know why he did it.

B’Elanna is arrested for harboring violent thoughts. The punishment is a dangerous medical procedure called an engrammatic purge, which is designed to remove the offending images from her mind. The equipment isn’t designed for Klingons and could leave B’Elanna with permanent brain damage.

Captain Janeway argues with the Mari officer that B’Elanna can’t be held accountable for something someone else did.

“His mind was contaminated by the image,” the officer says, “and it resulted in a loss of control. He may have committed the physical act, but it was instigated by you.

B’Elanna barely restrains herself from going toe-to-toe with the officer. “Where we come from, people are responsible for their own actions.

I can see both sides of the argument.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about people being “infected by examples.” Studies have shown that when a suicide is highly publicized, the suicide rate skyrockets for a few days after. The effect is so powerful it even determines the mode of suicide. For example, if a single person kills themselves by driving into a pole, that kind of suicide increases. But if a person commits a murder-suicide instead, that kind of suicide increases. To someone who’s already troubled, another person’s actions make it more acceptable for them to act in a deviant way.

Gladwell gives an example we’ve all had experience with—jay-walking. You’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change…right up until someone crosses against the light. Somehow their law-breaking gives you permission to break the law, and you’re trotting across the road after them.

While I don’t think B’Elanna (or any of us) should be held legally responsible for someone else’s actions, I wonder if we don’t have some moral responsibility for the way what we do affects others.

Yes, we’re all ultimately responsible for the choices we make. None of us has the right to blame someone else for what we’ve done. But, on some level, aren’t we also responsible for how our actions hurt, help, or push someone else toward a specific path?

What do you think? Should we feel any responsibility for how our actions influence the actions of others? Or is what they do 100% on their heads?

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