Tag Archives: Characters

Character Gender and Binary Norms

One of the most common questions I get, as a male writer, is “How do you write female characters?” Sometimes it’s asked as a compliment, by someone who thinks I write very believable female characters. Other times it’s asked with the implication that I don’t know what I’m doing and that my characters aren’t realistic. And sometimes it’s another writer who wants to write their own characters more effectively even if they’re a different gender.

My usual answer is that I focus on writing each character as an individual, rather than as a representation of their gender (or for that matter, their race, religion, or sexual orientation). If I tried to write a character to be what I think is a realistic, acceptable portrayal of a Caucasian/Italian teenage lesbian woman, I’d end up with a walking stereotype. But if I write Gabby Palladino, she is an individual, and if there are aspects of her that don’t fit with someone’s expectations, well, that’s life. Not everyone fits within the norm.

Which got me to thinking about how different a lot of my characters are when it comes to where they “fit” when it comes to masculinity/femininity, sexuality, their gender portrayal, and so on. And I realized that each of my main female leads is completely different, so much so that the question “How do you write female characters?” becomes completely irrelevant.

During the course of Manifestation and its upcoming sequel Contamination, there are five main female characters who get significant “screen time”: Gabby Palladino, Tock Zipporah, Dr. Patricia Caldwell, Maelyssa Southeby, and Minori Tsujino. And looking at them, I find it impossible to pin down a single common trait that all five share that could be used to define what makes them female.

Gabby is a feminine, shy, gentle person. She’s a lesbian. She wears feminine-style clothes, skirts, and so on. And she has conservative attitudes towards sex.

Tock is much more masculine, plus she’s a loudmouth and someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s bisexual. She dresses in practical clothes, jeans, flannel shirts. And she views sex as no big deal; if it feels good, do it.

Dr. Caldwell is classy and professional. She wears business-style clothes, but opts for skirt-suits rather than pants-suits to add a touch of femininity. She has no time for romance because she is a career-minded woman.

Mae is a punk rock skater girl. She wears cut-off denim, heavy metal t-shirts, dark makeup, and lots of (stolen) jewelry. She’s straight, but she hasn’t ever dated and she doesn’t really know much about sex.

Minori is a highly religious, spiritual, pure person. She dresses in conservative, simple, modest clothes. She’s asexual. She believes premarital sex is a sin.

These characters have almost nothing in common. Their personal styles, the way they portray their gender, their views towards sex and relationships, all of it is unique to each individual. And I didn’t make them like this on purpose. Each character simply developed with their own unique traits.

So maybe next time someone asks me, “How do you write female characters?” I should ask them, “Which kind of female characters?” Because no two are alike. Just like no two real people are quite alike. I don’t know what traits people are looking for in a “female character” that they think will define whether that character is believable or not. Or what it is that they think makes me, as a male, incapable of writing a female. Because it doesn’t matter if I write characters who fit into people’s normal perceptions of masculine or feminine traits. What matters is whether people like Gabby, Tock, and the others for who they are. None of them are defined by their gender. And I hope readers will look at them all with an open mind.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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Villains Killing Themselves to Keep the Hero Sympathetic

Some heroes are killers. They save the day by defeating the bad guy in an epic duel, leaving their enemy crushed and defeated so that they’ll never pose a threat again. When the villain is especially evil, this can be very satisfying for the audience, because they want to see that villain taken down for good.

Other times, however, heroes refuse to kill. Some heroes have a moral code that simply won’t allow them to take a life. Or in other cases, if they do take a life, it’s rare. Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are prime examples of heroes who usually don’t kill. Looking at the movies (since I’m only semi-familiar with the comics), you can see that most of the time, they send their villains to jail instead of killing them. Lex Luthor escapes prison again and again to continue being a thorn in Superman’s side. In the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, the Scarecrow escapes again and again so that he has a role in all three films. There are some exceptions to the “no killing” rule, such as in Man of Steel when Superman snaps General Zod’s neck. But in general, you don’t see these heroes killing very often.

In the comic books and other long-running series (such as TV shows and cartoons), keeping the villains alive serves the purpose of making sure they can appear again in a recurring role. But in the movies, each villain is usually limited to one film. The above examples of Lex Luthor and the Scarecrow are exceptions; in most other superhero films, each villain appears once and once only. Consider the original four Batman films before the Christopher Nolan reboots. We go from the Joker in the first Batman movie to Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns to Riddler and Two Face in Batman Forever to Poison Ivy, Bane, and Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. You only see the same villains again when the series has been rebooted. The same with the Spiderman movies; the three Toby McGuire movies each had a different villain, and while the reboots with Andrew Garfield might reuse the same villains from the old set, they don’t repeat any within the new series of films.

A common trend in these, and other films, is for the villain to bring about their own death. This allows the closure the audience needs and clears the way for a new villain in the next film, but without getting the hero’s hands dirty. Again, there’s exceptions, but quite often the hero isn’t the one who kills the villain. Here’s a few examples:

-In the first Toby McGuire Spiderman movie, the Green Goblin tries to ram Spiderman with his bladed hoverboard. Spiderman jumps out of the way, and the Green Goblin impales himself on his own weapon.

-In Spiderman 2, Dr. Octopus sacrifices himself to save the day after he realizes the error of his ways, declaring that he “will not die a monster.”

-Red Skull from Captain America dies when he grabs the Tesseract and i tears him apart.

-In Batman Returns, the Penguin kills himself in his attempt to kill Batman.

There’s some other examples that could be seen as “gray area,” where the villain’s death is technically an accident. For example, in the first Batman movie, the Joker falls to his death after Batman tied his leg to a gargoyle to prevent him from escaping, in Batman Forever, Two Face falls to his death after Batman distracts him during a coin flip, and in The Dark Knight, Batman is trying to save a child from Two Face and ends up knocking him off a ledge and falling himself. Whether you count these examples as “Batman killing the villain” or the villain dying by accident depends on whether you consider motive or intent, since Batman definitely didn’t mean for the villain to die in these cases.

There will always be heroes like Jack Bauer who simply aren’t afraid to kill, who do what it takes and let the ends justify the means. And even the most “pure” hero might end up having to take a life in some cases. But if you have a character you want to portray with more complex morals, someone who you just think won’t kill someone intentionally, the accidental death is a trope you might want to consider. And if you write a character who keeps their hands clean 99% of the time, when when they finally do cross the line and take a life, it’ll be all the more shocking and suspenseful.

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Sexist, yet Sympathetic?

CheersLogoI’ve been marathoning Cheers on Netflix lately. It’s one of the greatest sitcoms of all times. The bar where everyone knows your name. Filled with loveable characters (who never drive home drunk; the show was praised for frequent portrayals of Designated Drivers). It’s also a show that was full of all kinds of sexism and negative gender stereotypes.

And yet, we still love it?

I’ve been paying close attention to the way Cheers depicts the main character, Sam Malone, played by Ted Danson. He portrayed as the stereotypical “hunk,” a trope you may know I really get annoyed with. Yet I don’t get annoyed with Sam, even with his incessant flirting, the way he treats women like sex object, and the way all the men in the bar treat him like he’s a role model because of the number of women he’s “conquered.” By every measurable trait, Sam Malone should come off as a sleazeball, a character I’d hate, and someone you would never tune in to watch week after week. So how can be be so sexist, yet still remain sympathetic?

CheersThe theory I’ve come up with has a few key points. I’ll list them one by one.

First, Sam Malone gets shot down constantly.

It’s true. Watch a few episodes of Cheers, and you’ll see Sam in usually one of three situations: pursuing girls who are better than him, pursuing girls who are equal to him, and pursuing another main character (such as Diane Chambers in the first five seasons). When he’s pursuing girls who are better than him, his advances almost always fail. These are usually educated women, those with careers, strong morals, and other positive personality traits. They reject Sam because his advances are always childish and crude, usually involving a lot of innuendos and excessive bravado. When confronted by such a woman, Sam gets shot down again and again, which shows us that a strong, confident woman won’t fall for Sam’s ploys. In a way, it almost makes Sam a sort of clown; he makes a fool of himself for our amusement. It’s just that instead of taking a pie to the face, he ends up scurrying away with his tail between his legs. He’s not seen as “threatening.” He’s more like a pathetic puppy who keeps begging, seeming all the more sad the more he is denied.

Other times, he’s dating some random girl who usually isn’t too bright and who is usually portrayed as being fairly dumb, unsophisticated, and “easy.” When he’s dating this sort of girl, the girl is always portrayed as wanting Sam as much as he wants her. It seems to me that we don’t lose sympathy for Sam as a “skirt chaser” in this context mostly because he’s pursuing only the girls who want to be pursued. Sam himself is always portrayed as dumb, unsophisticated, and willing to sleep with anyone, so a girl who is portrayed in the same fashion is seen as his equal. And because the girl desires it as much as Sam does, it seems to make it okay.

There’s a quote from The Wheel of Time that explains this quite well. One of the characters in that series, Mat Cauthon, is also a “skirt chaser.” But at one point one of the other characters notes that Mat only ever seems to pursue women who want to be pursued. That, in many ways, is the difference between a man who is seen as a sexist pig, versus a man who is seen as charming.

Here’s an example: say some random man in the street calls a woman “sexy” as she walks by. He’ll be seen as a pig for “cat-calling,” and most women won’t give him the time of day. On the other hand, if a man in a relationship calls his girlfriend sexy (and if she likes that sort of compliment), it could be seen as acceptable, even desirable. The fact that it’s desired makes all the difference. Similarly, other behavior like physical contact is only acceptable if it’s desired and consensual. A total stranger who slaps a woman on the ass is a pig who deserves to be smacked himself, but some girls may enjoy a flirty spank as part of foreplay from someone they’re in a relationship with.

Diane ChambersWhich brings me to the third type of relationship Sam Malone is seen in: long-term, complicated relationships like the one he had with Diane Chambers. With Diane, Sam’s childish behavior and advances never succeed. On more than one occasion, she rejects his advances until he stops acting like a horny teenager and finally confesses his true feelings for her. Only when we see some deeper sign of maturity and affection from him does Diane allow things to proceed to the next level.

These variables are interesting to consider when looking at them from the point of view of a romance novel. It should be possible, in theory, to create a “Sam Malone” type character as the male lead of such a novel. Someone who constantly pursues all the wrong women, never finding satisfaction in any relationship and constantly being rejected by the women with deep personalities, intelligence, and strength. Until one day he cleans up his act and stops acting like sex is all that matters. Then, perhaps, he would find a deeper connection with someone (the female lead, naturally). He could grow past his juvenile ways and become more mature, while still retaining the charm and flirtation that (once he finds someone he respects and only flirts in the way she desires) will still help him be portrayed as a sexy and desirable man.

There’s sure to be a lot of flaws to such a character, but then again, flaws are what make a novel’s character’s fun. There would definitely be a lot of growth potential. Sam definitely grows over time, gradually becoming less of a womanizer. Mat Cauthon also develops into a more mature person when he meets the woman he ends up marrying. I think that growth is necessary, otherwise the audience would lose sympathy for the character and grow tired of his childish antics.

And, of course, there’s no reason why these roles I’m describing have to be stuck in a male/female binary. You could take any character, male/female/trans/etc, and have them start off as immature, pursuing relationships with all the wrong people and constantly getting rejected. Until they find the right person, someone they respect, someone they’re willing to grow and change for, and they take the steps necessary to make themselves a better person.

I think it would be challenging to write such a character, since you’d always be walking the line between portraying the “Sam Malone” of your story as either a charming scoundrel or a chauvinistic pig. But it might make for some interesting storytelling, since, if nothing else, a character like this would be a prime source of conflict. And conflict would keep the story moving forward, up until the final moment when “Sam” either wins the girl/boy/etc, or gets the final rejection and slinks away in defeat (hopefully having learned some valuable lesson along the way).

Either that, or Ted Danson is just a damn good actor.

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What I Learned From #NaNoWriMo

Winner-2014-Web-BannerAs I mentioned, I recently won #NaNoWriMo 2014. It was a long haul. I had quite a few nights where I was up until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. My back is killing me. I spent several days in a daze, barely able to focus on anything else.

The novel is complete. At 160,484 words, it’s both the biggest NaNoWriMo victory I’ve ever had and the longest novel I’ve written in the series. As you can see by the progress meters on the sidebar to the right, it’s 28,000 words more than the previous novel. This was more-or-less what I expected, and the reason why is the first “thing I learned” from NaNoWriMo:

I learned to better estimate word counts

When I first wrote Manifestation, I had no idea how long it would be. I also didn’t know how the story would shift away from any original plans I had. These shifts can lead to longer word counts on some drafts, since the story expands in places I didn’t expect, then shorter word counts in revisions, when I cut scenes that end up not fitting the new direction the story went in. One of the consequences of these unexpected turns is that the structure of the novel can change.

For example, when I first started the series, I already knew where the third volume, Collapse, would end. I had a scene in mind for the climax and what consequences it would bring. I started writing with that goal in mind from early on, always trying to move Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, the two main characters, in that direction. But at the time that I started writing, I thought that would be the end of volume two, not volume three.

I had originally planned Manifestation to stop in a place that is now somewhere around the middle of the second book, Contamination. I had a story arc planned out for Gabby that would take her through various family dramas, build on her romantic relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough, and help her grow from the introverted teenage girl we see at the beginning into, well, you’ll have to wait and see what she becomes. But when I was moving past the 100,000 word mark on Manifestation, I realized I needed a lot more time to get Gabby to the point I wanted to take her in. So I devised a new climax for Manifestation, finished the first book, and started the second one.

Then, when I was near the end of Contamination, the same thing happened again. I had a point where Gabby’s relationship with Callia was really just getting off the ground, where Gabby’s understanding of the supernatural changes to the world around her are finally coming together, and where Gabby’s growth as a character was reaching a major turning point. But a turning point isn’t a climax, and I realized I needed another 50,000 words or more to get Gabby the rest of the way down that path. Like with the first book, had I not come up with a different ending, the total length of the book would have been over 170,000 words. Instead, I started the third book, and about halfway through Gabby reached the point of character development I’d originally planned. It was mostly smooth sailing after that to finish the third book, reaching the climax that had originally been planned for book two.

This year, I went into my writing expecting and planning for a length of 150,000. I came up with this number by considering the various story arcs of the previous books, how many main characters had leading roles in each, and how much world building had to be done. When I crossed the 130,000 word mark, I reanalyzed based on the number of scenes left, and adjusted my word count estimate to 160,000. The final total word count was only a few hundred off of that second estimate.

I plan to consider these variables when working on future books as well, so that I’ll have a better idea of how much will “fit” in one book. That way I’ll be able to avoid major restructuring like I went through in the early books.

I learned the difference between a “romance” and a “love story”

As you may have seen by recent blog posts, I’ve been studying romance novels lately. I have a few serious problems with the common romance tropes I’ve seen. Examples include characters who seem to constantly profess their love in the narration without me seeing love in their actions, characters who are too perfect (perfect bodies, perfect hair, flawless morals, etc), characters who fall in love too quickly without enough development of their relationships, and the unrealistic nature of the “happily ever after” ending. I’ve been trying to avoid abusing these tropes in my own writing, by either breaking them entirely, or at least approaching them from different angles in order to avoid being cliche.

However, a new variable was recently brought to my attention. I recently wrote a post about exploring infidelity in romance stories, where I considered the possible roles cheating might play in the development of a story. In particular, I cited novels like The Notebook, where the female lead started off in a relationship then cheated on her fiance with the male lead, who she eventually ended up with. After writing this post, however, one of my romance writer friends directed me to the rules of the Romance Writers of America, and I learned there are some things you can’t do if you want the story to be considered an official “romance.”

According to the RWA, a story is only a “romance” if it has A Central Love Story and An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending. That is, the love story can’t be a subplot, and it can’t have an ending that isn’t in the “happily ever after” category.

A happy ending, according to my friend, means things like no cheating. You can’t do anything to betray the relationship or make the reader stop rooting for the characters to get together. If the reader reaches a point where they wish the characters would break up, it’s not a “romance.”

An interview with Nicholas Sparks has another quote that I found interesting in relation to this idea. He responds to the question:

Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?

“Universal” means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. These are stories of everyday people put into extraordinary events that are also very real in ordinary people’s lives: accidents, a past you want to get away from, a husband that got violent.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with his entire view here, but what he’s basically saying sounds like “romance novels have unrealistic characters but love stories have ordinary people.” I wouldn’t call this a 100% accurate statement, but it touches on what I mentioned above. Most romance novels I read have people who are too perfect. They’re rich, famous, gorgeous, and flawless. Now, I think you can have a traditional romance novel that has believable, down-to-earth characters (just many of the ones I’ve recently read don’t). But if you go by Sparks’s views, romances are fantasies, while love stories are more realistic.

Even if you disagree with how sparks describes this difference, I do think that the distinction is related to the “no cheating” rule I already mentioned. Characters who cheat on each other would spoil the perfect fantasy of the ideal relationship. But characters who have to struggle to heal and forgive after an affair might better represent the kinds of people we see in real life.

I’ll probably follow up with some more things I learned in a future post. It was definitely a long and educational experience.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Infidelity and Morals in Romance Novels

Cheating is WrongCheating is a common trope in romance stories. It can add a lot of tension and conflict to a story, leaving the reader uncertain whether the couple will pull through and mend their relationship or if they’ll end up breaking up and being unable to forgive each other.

It’s easy to say, speaking very generally, that “cheating is wrong.” I doubt there’s many people that would promote cheating on your partner in real life. If you’ve been cheated on, it hurts like hell, and many people who’ve cheated on someone else end up wracked with guilt over it. Alternatively, infidelity could be rationalized by saying that the relationship was already broken due to other problems. If someone’s partner is abusive, uncaring, or for whatever reason doesn’t deserve them, then one might not care if they get cheated on because “they deserved it.” Though you could also argue that it’s best to end the relationship before getting involved with someone new. Oftentimes, relationship problems lead to people cheating because they’ve already begun pulling away from their partner even if the relationship isn’t over yet. As Jess said in When Harry Met Sally, “Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”

That symptom is fucking my wife.But when it comes to writing a novel, there can be a wide variety of ways to express infidelity. I’d like to explore four different angles: the Main Character as the cheater, the MC as the victim, cheating as a mistake, and cheating as the right choice.

The Main Character Cheated

In most romance novels I’ve read, the story is usually told in first person from the main character’s perspective (usually a woman; I haven’t yet found a romance novel told primarily from a male lead’s point of view). The basic formula of a romance novel is: they meet, there’s chemistry and attraction, the relationship grows more serious, then there’s some kind of crisis (which leads the reader to fear the relationship won’t work out), and at the end the crisis is either resolved or it leads to everything falling apart. The ending of a romance is almost always either “they live happily ever after” or “they broke up but learned valuable life lessons as a result.”

(Note: This formula is based on my personal reading experience, but if you’ve read any books that greatly deviate from it, I’d love to hear about them.)

The “crisis” that leads to the relationship either ending or surviving can come in a variety of ways. I’ve read novels recently where the crisis could be anything from a lie being revealed, to a betrayal, to an ex-girlfriend coming back into the picture and causing conflict, and so on. The main character cheating is, by this formula, just another source of conflict.

So what leads the MC to cheat? Well, as an example from a friend’s book I once read, it could be because the MC actually isn’t happy in the relationship and they’re subconsciously sabotaging it. In one novel I read, the MC cheated on her fiance with the fiance’s brother, then tried to cover it up, only to have the lid blown off the lie at the wedding. The relationship was torn apart, and the affair with the brother couldn’t last either. In the long run, the MC broke things off with both the fiance and the brother, and ended up making some major changes and starting her life over. While as a reader I was disappointed in the MC’s decisions, in the long run, I could see that she’d learned some valuable things and she was ready to move on. The ending left me with the hope that her next relationship would be more successful, because she’d learned not to “fake” being happy with a man she didn’t truly love.

Now, it’s possible a story could involve the MC cheating without suffering any consequences. It would all depend on how it was portrayed. But I think, as a reader, it’s important for me to see consequences occurring and lessons being learned. Because if the MC never even feels a twinge of guilt, I would just see them as immoral, and I’d likely lose sympathy. But if the MC changes their life afterwards, the cheating can be seen as a mistake that they overcame. If a writer wanted to show the other side, where it wasn’t even treated as a mistake, it would be important to show the MC’s perspective and help the reader understand why they don’t regret it. It would be necessary in order to keep the reader rooting for the MC.

The Main Character is the Victim

Alternatively, the MC might be the one who’s been cheated on. In this case, it’s more likely that the cheating will be painted as simply wrong. It puts the MC’s partner in the role of the villain, hurting the MC and ruining the relationship. The MC might break the relationship off and move on, finally leaving behind someone who didn’t deserve them. Or the MC might find it in their heart to forgive their partner after the partner works to make things right.

The difference here, regardless of whether the relationship is salvaged or ruined, is that the MC wasn’t the one who made a decision that led to the conflict. If the MC chose to cheat, they face consequences they must address based on their own actions. If their partner cheated, it’s more like a catalyst coming from an outside source. It could serve as a “wake up call,” letting the MC see their partner for who they really are. Or alternatively, if the MC was mistreating their partner and driving them away, then the MC might come to realize something about themselves. There could be introspection as they consider how they neglected their partner or in some other way allowed their partner to slip away. How this is addressed–whether the MC is seen as the wrongdoer or their partner is–will depend a lot on the MC’s perspective. For example, the MC might come to say, “I’ve been mistreating them, no wonder they sought out someone else,” or they might say, “Nothing I did makes me deserve this, they had no right to hurt me.”

The focus here, of course, is still on what the MC gets out of it, and what they decide in the end. They can choose to forgive their partner, or choose to end it all. What decision they will make will be the question that will keep the reader hooked.

Cheating as a Mistake

I already touched on this a bit in the above sections, but I’d like to go into more detail. Cheating might be seen as a mistake the MC (or their partner) made, and a sign that the character isn’t perfect. Everyone succumbs to temptation now and then, and there have been stories about seduction and weakness going all the way back to biblical tales and ancient Greek myths. Such affairs can have disastrous consequences, such as when Helen of Troy ran off with Paris, leading to the Trojan War (note: while the 2004 film depicts this as a voluntary affair, other versions of this story say that Helen was kidnapped).

There are several different ways to address the “cheating as a mistake” trope. One can be to make the affair lead to consequences, as in the example of Troy, above. Or the victim of the affair might resort to violence or murder, killing either the cheater, the person they cheated with, or both. There could also be less severe consequences, such as a divorce, a broken family, or public scandal if the characters are celebrities and the affair is revealed by the media.

In each of these cases, the consequences of the affair will be far-reaching, and will likely affect the rest of the plot. Though it’s also possible for the consequences to be more internal to the MC. Say, for example, the MC simply struggles with their own actions for the rest of the plot. An example of this is the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise going down a path of dangerous choices because he’s angry with his wife over an almost-affair (the wife confessed that she was tempted to cheat once, but never did). Early in the film, Cruise comes close to sleeping with a prostitute, presumably because he feels betrayed by his wife and he is driven to drastic actions. He stops just short of going through with it when his wife calls his cell phone while he’s at the prostitute’s apartment. Later, he finds out that the prostitute just found out she is HIV-positive, so Cruise barely escaped the serious consequences he would have been faced with if he had slept with her. His actions for the remainder of the movie still continue down a dangerous path, until he finally gets caught in the end.

Cheating as the Right Choice

I started this post saying that it would be hard to consider cheating as the right thing to do, but there are some examples in media that address it this way. One of the most famous is The Notebook. During the main flashback scenes that show the MC’s past, she has a short-lived love affair with a man named Noah, only to have the relationship end, partly due to interference from her parents. Years later, the characters reunite, only by that time, the MC is engaged to another man. It’s clear that the MC doesn’t truly love her fiance, and she ends up cheating on him with Noah, rekindling the romance they ended years ago. The fiance even offers to forgive her if she’ll stay with him, but in the long run, she leaves him for Noah.

Stories like this depict cheating as “the right choice” because the MC ends up with the person she truly loves and is meant to be with. It is still a struggle, and such stories usually involve a moment of indecision where the MC has to choose between their current partner and the person they’re having an affair with. Sometimes, they choose to leave and go with their true love. Other times, like in the classic movie Casablanca, the affair has to end because the characters know it can’t go on. This is the meaning behind Bogart’s most famous line in that film, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” This is Bogart’s way of telling her that she needs to stay with her husband and not be swept away by the fantasy of a passionate romance that will never work.

In any case, infidelity is a complex issue in many stories, and there are a lot of different ways to address it. Because not every relationship is guaranteed a happily ever after.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

#NaNoWriMo Progress and Updates


#NaNoWriMo is here. We’re going into Day 9. Words are happening.

I’ve written before about the Midnight Disease. I have it. It’s obsession. Insomnia. Mania. Ever have a book that was so good, you just couldn’t put it down? You had to keep reading until you found out how it ended? I’m that way right now, but with the writing.

Here’s my progress so far:

NaNoWriMo_2014_Nov_9I’ve written more in the first eight days than I did for the entire month in 2012, when I was working on the first draft of Manifestation.  I’m about as far now as I was 14 days into NaNoWriMo in 2013. I’ve had multiple days, including today, where I wrote over 10,000 words in a day.

The characters are a lot of fun. If you’ve read Manifestation, you’ll be familiar with some of these characters, particularly Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah. But there’s some new characters as well, like Jaden Farrell, my telepath. She’s a very different type of character to write. As a telepath, she’s very in-tune with other people’s thoughts and emotions. Her ability to contact people across distances with her telepathy allows me to bring distant characters into the same scene, without needing to use scene breaks to move back and forth between locations. It’s also interesting to explore telepathy as a type of magic. Magic is a very big part of my series, and each character’s abilities are unique. I’m having a lot of fun considering how a telepath will use her powers to overcome various obstacles, such as evading enemies, defending against magical attacks, or defeating magically animated living war machines.

I’ve also got another new character, Aeldra Dekara, the druid. I’ve mentioned her on the blog before, because she was in book five, Possession. I haven’t even gotten the chance to really delve into her capabilities yet, because my plans for her come into play in the second half of the book. But she’ll have a whole new set of magic to explore, melding healing powers, plant manipulation, earth magic, and cybernetic capabilities. She’s extremely versatile and has the potential to become quite powerful. She’s also a blast to write because she has a snarky attitude and she won’t take shit from anyone.

I don’t know quite what will happen in the next few days. If I keep going at my current rate, I might finish this book by around November 20th. Or I might crash and burn. Either way, it should be fun, right?

If you’re also working on #NaNoWriMo, I wish you the best of luck. But I don’t recommend staying up all night in a daze, writing until you drop. It’s neither healthy nor wise. But I’ve never claimed to be wise.

mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.


Series and Stand-Alone Books

#NaNoWriMo is about to start, so naturally I’m both excited and scared at the same time. The first year I did NaNoWriMo was in 2012, when I wrote Manifestation (which, two years later, is now a published novel). Last year, I wrote Contamination and Collapse, the first two sequels to Manifestation. I managed about 141,000 words.

This year, I’m writing the as-yet-untitled sixth volume of Arcana Revived. I’ve already done about 7100 words of preliminary writing (mainly because I’m also writing this novel as my Rowan University Master’s in Writing Thesis Project). I’ve had some early feedback on those first few chapters, and there’s a particular issue that keeps coming up.

See, since this is part of a series, I need to make sure that each book can serve both as a stand-alone volume by itself and as a continuation of the ongoing plot of the series. This is something you see done effectively in a lot of long-running series. Take Harry Potter, for example. Each book has its own internal conflict and its own climax, telling a complete story. But the whole series taken together lays out plot threads that don’t get resolved until the end. Yet, you could randomly pick up, say, book five, and still be able to follow everything that’s going on.

The trick to this is to re-introduce familiar characters and elements so that new readers will be able to understand who they are and what’s happening, without piling everything in via information dumps that will bore readers (especially readers who have already read the previous novels.

I’ve been struggling with this, and I’m trying to make adjustments based on the feedback I’ve received so far. Most of that feedback includes questions and comments like “What does this mean?”, “I’m not sure what happened here, but I guess if I’d read the other books I’d know”, and “I’m confused about how this magic works.”

As an example, here’s the first three chapters of the new work-in-progress. There’s two versions below: the original first draft, and the slightly-edited version I made to address the questions and critiques that were brought up. (Spoiler Alert: Obviously, since this is book six, anything below could be potential spoilers for the events in Manifestation).

            Gabby Palladino stood at the top of a hill, overlooking the abandoned suburbs that stretched to the north of the city once known as San Lorien. No one had lived in those houses for months and every house was falling into disrepair, most of it from the aftermath of the mana storm that had devastated the countryside and laid waste to everything within hundreds of miles. Wild animals, many of them once household pets that had been left behind after the storm, now roamed the streets. Cars sat abandoned along the suburban roads. Lawns and gardens were overgrown with weeds. And the only signs of human life were the military trucks, jeeps, and tanks that rolled through the streets, heading south towards the city.

            Gabby drew on her arcana and wove strands of light through the air in front of her. The air shimmered and warped as a web of light formed from the criss-crossed strands. A broad stretch of air twisted and blurred, then slowly came into focus, showing a magnified image of the distant army that crossed through the suburban streets. Warping light was a new trick for Gabby; it took far less effort and consumed less mana than some of her other arcane spells, but it required a lot more precision. It took her a few moments to bring the magnified image into focus.

            “I didn’t think there’d be that many of them,” a voice said from behind her.

            Gabby glanced over her shoulder at her squad. She’d brought four of the Manifested with her. Jaden Farrell was the newest of them, a fifteen year old telepath from Evesborough. She was also the youngest, three years younger than Gabby herself.

That opening basically sets the scene and introduces the characters, the setting, and the basic conflict. Right away, you know who the main protagonist is, you know this is a war-torn world, you know it’s a setting with magic, and you know a war is brewing. Pretty much covers the important points of an opening.

But there’s lots of questions that might be too confusing. What is the mana storm? What is arcana? What are the Manifested? Some of these questions might be things you’ll simply learn more about as the story goes along, but some are such basic, fundamental parts of the setup that they need to be addressed at least a little bit.

Here’s the revision, based on feedback from workshop sessions:

Gabby Palladino stood at the top of a hill, overlooking the abandoned suburbs that stretched to the north of the city once known as San Lorien. No one had lived in those houses for months and every one of them was falling into disrepair. Most of the damage was the aftermath of the mana storm that had devastated the countryside and laid waste to everything within hundreds of miles. The storm had raged worse than any hurricane the country had ever known, and it had carried with it arcane energy that had contaminated everything the storm touched. Wild animals roamed the streets, many of them once household pets before the mana contaminated them, mutating them into monstrous beasts. Cars sat abandoned along the suburban roads. Lawns and gardens were overgrown with weeds. The only signs of human life were the military trucks, jeeps, and tanks that rolled through the streets, heading south towards the city.

Gabby drew on her arcana and wove strands of light through the air in front of her. The air shimmered and warped as a web of light formed from the criss-crossed strands. A broad stretch of air twisted and blurred, then slowly came into focus, showing a magnified image of the distant army that crossed through the suburban streets. Warping light was a new trick for Gabby; it took far less effort and consumed less mana than some of her other arcane spells, but it required a lot more precision. It took her a few moments to bring the magnified image into focus.

“I didn’t think there’d be that many of them,” Jaden said from behind her.

Gabby glanced over her shoulder at Jaden and the rest of her squad. She’d brought four of the Manifested with her. Each of the Manifested had been touched by mana, either during the storm or before it, and had been changed ever since. Like Gabby, their manifestations had brought them arcane powers, though each person’s arcana was different from anyone else’s. Jaden Farrell was the newest of them, a fifteen-year-old telepath from Evesborough. She was also the youngest, three years younger than Gabby herself.

The edits here are minor, and each was made to address a specific concern raised by my classmates during workshop sessions. It explains that the mana storm was a disaster that spread magical mutations. It explains that the Manifested are people who were altered by the storm and gained magical powers. The explanations are brief and to the point, because I don’t want to info-dump. But hopefully, the second version explains enough that the reader won’t be confused (intrigued, curious, and questioning are fine, but confused is bad).

Hopefully as I proceed into NaNoWriMo, I’ll be able to keep these issues in mind, and always feed just enough information to the reader. Though I expect that I’ll have to revise more sections like this when critique partners and beta readers say, “I don’t know what this means?” I’m currently studying some other urban fantasy series, such as The Dresden Files, in order to see how other authors have addressed these issue. Hopefully I can learn from them and manage to do this right.

And hopefully I can wrote 150,000 words this November. Wish me luck.

mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Timelines and Continuity

The Doctor said it best. Time is a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff.

Especially when you’re on the first draft of a novel.

How a novel’s timeline works will depend a lot on the genre you’re writing in, how many points of view you’re alternating between, and whether or not your story takes place in multiple time periods (such as between a character’s present life and flashbacks to their troubled past). Even while working on a first draft, these factors are going to influence the decisions you make.

Some genres demand a more traditional linear narrative; romance novels, for example, tend to be very forward-moving in order to show the progression of a relationship, starting with the first meeting, through the first date, and into the complications that develop as the relationships grow. A mystery novel, on the other hand, is more likely to include flashbacks as key events are revealed while uncovering who committed the murder, where, and with what. A novel taking place in two time periods, such as a character’s adulthood and childhood, may alternate between each time period chapter by chapter. Likewise, a novel with two or more main characters may alternate between them, spending one or more chapters with a certain character before switching to the other.

But regardless of whether your novel is linear or not, you may find yourself having to make tough decisions about how to lay out the chapters. For one, it may be difficult to decide which character’s story to show first. For another, it may be difficult to decide when to move between the present and the past. Or you may actually decide to change the order that certain events take place in.


One way to make decisions can be to consider the emotions, themes, or motifs being represented in each chapter. You can then arrange the chapters to line up those that have thematic similarities.

The image to the right is a screenshot of my Scrivener file for Contamination, Volume Two of the Arcana Revived series and sequel to my first novel, Manifestation. The majority of the chapters are titled “Untitled X” because I haven’t yet picked chapter titles for them. If you look at the numbers, you can see I made some major changes to the order: 23, 24, 31, 25, 26, 32, 27, 28, 33, and so on.

There’s two main reasons why these chapters were reordered. One was to thread together the storylines of the two main characters, Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah. For example, 23-29 are chapters with Gabby, originally written all in a row and showing a series of events she went through in a single day. 31-38 are Tock chapters, also originally written as a single sequence showing what Tock went through. Part of the rearrangement was designed to interweave those two stories, since both sets of events take place on the same day. I felt that it made more sense to go back and forth between the two characters so that the reader can keep track of both of them and be carried along to threads of excitement, adventure, and tension at the same time.

The second reason why the chapters were rearranged is in order to keep chapters with the same emotional tone in the same place. For example, if there is a chapter with Gabby running for her life from mutant wolves and another with Tock fleeing from a military helicopter, those chapters have a similar emotional tone and tension. Later, there are chapters involving lots of combat, and even if Gabby and Tock are fighting different enemies, it makes sense to keep the action-oriented chapters back-to-back. And later still, there’s chapters where both characters are going through more emotional bonding (in one case as part of a romantic relationship, in the other, a budding friendship) and I wanted these chapters to be aligned as well.

These techniques keep the storylines in synch, even though the characters are in different places and going through different experiences. To see an example of this in action, consider the following clip from the movie Magnolia. It shows multiple characters in multiple different situations, none of whom interact, but all of whom are going through the same emotional journey.

The director of Magnolia has stated that his goal was to blend the experience of these different characters together so that it feels like one story, not eight. And he does an amazing job at it.

Another good movie to consider is Pulp Fiction. This movies uses a very nonlinear style of storytelling, and the scenes are arranged in an order that takes you on a certain emotional journey. The order of events builds on the emotions evoked throughout this journey, rather than worrying about the chronological order of events.

Of course, if you want to keep things chronological, you can also consider changing when an event takes place. For example, let’s say you’re writing a romance novel where two characters get together, build their relationship, have a huge fight, almost break up, then get engaged, go through turmoil with their families, then get married and have their happily ever after. You might decided that the emotional turmoil of the huge fight will go better with the conflict the characters are having with their families, because that adds additional tension from multiple sides all at once. You could therefore take the same fight and simply have it happen after the engagement, instead of before. Thus you’re rearranging the chronology to better serve the emotional journey.

These sorts of changes can be complicated, and it’s likely enough that you’ll go through several versions as you work through revisions. But I’ve found that reordering events can be an important part of improving a novel. Just be careful not to add more plot holes than you fix when you swap things around. There’s such a thing as being too timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly.

mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

How Two Gems Make A Novel

One of the most common questions I get asked (and I think most writers get this) is “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Image Source: http://drgretchentorbertphd.com/2013/05/21/my-brain-is-exploding-my-ideas-are-godly-ones/
Image Source: http://drgretchentorbertphd.com/2013/05/21/my-brain-is-exploding-my-ideas-are-godly-ones/

I’m on the record as saying that I get most of my ideas in the shower. But I don’t think that’s really the answer people are looking for (even if it IS a good answer!). Nor do they want to hear that my stories are taking place somewhere in an alternate reality somewhere and I’m simply watching them and seeing what happens (even though I believe this to be true).

Instead, I think what people really want to know is, “How can another writer use your own idea-generation techniques for themselves to create a good book?” Which is something a bit more substantial, and something I can actually go into detail about.

The first thing, in my opinion, is to start creating some fascinating characters.

Image Source: http://www.cgchannel.com/2014/02/autodesk-rolls-out-autodesk-character-generator/
Image Source: http://www.cgchannel.com/2014/02/autodesk-rolls-out-autodesk-character-generator/

I mentioned before that I’ve created some characters based on roleplaying games. This can be a good place to start. A game, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Storium, or an online roleplaying forum, can be a good way to delve into a character’s personality, goals, mysteries, and nuances. The more time you spend with a certain character, the more you’re going to get to know them, and the more depth they’re going to have. If a character already has a lot of depth and development before you start writing page one of your novel, you’re going to have a lot more to work with.

This is what I did with both Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, my two primary main characters. Before I ever wrote the first line of Manifestation, the first volume of the Arcana Revived series, I had written a lot of short stories and roleplaying scenes with both characters. I actually wrote over a million words on each character, most of which is now buried on some old forums deep in the web.

You can actually read a couple of the stories I was developing here on the blog. One of them, “A Hard Life in the Big Easy,” is actually the very first piece of writing I ever wrote about Gabby. It’s a short action/adventure piece showing her in a fight for her life. Of course, there are many differences between what you’ll read in that story versus what you’ll see in Manifestation (such as how that story takes place near New Orleans, whereas Manifestation is on a completely fictional world). But the heart of the character is still the same. (It also contains possible spoilers about Gabby’s role in the novel, just a warning.)

There were other characters I wrote about during those roleplaying years, but they didn’t all make the cut. For example, I had a lot of fun writing the crime lord Aamon Dukushu (especially when dancing ballet), but in the long run, his storyline didn’t feel like one I could reboot and expand upon in a new series. I also had another character who didn’t fit because she was an alien, one who didn’t work because he was designed more for a romance plot than an urban fantasy adventure, and another who didn’t fit because she was a lycanthrope and I didn’t want to include vampires or werecreatures in this series. All in all, I had over a dozen good characters with strong backgrounds and interesting plots. But I had to pick out the two gems of that batch who had the most potential for growth, the most passion, and the most ability to generate conflict.

I picked out Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah because they both fascinate me, and because they could not be more different from each other. Gabby is a poet, a gentle soul, and a girl who would never hurt anyone if she had a choice in the matter. She bears a lot of great burdens on her shoulders and she rises up to take on responsibilities that no one should have to bear. She can also get a bit sassy with a very punny sense of humor (something she uses as a coping mechanism when dealing with difficult situations).

Tock on the other hand, is a lewd, rude, crude mechanic who likes to get dirty, build things, fix things, and follow her urges. She also never takes shit from anyone and she won’t hesitate to tell you exactly what she thinks about you. Messing with Tock is generally a bad idea, though she usually won’t go out of her way to start trouble with others.

Once I picked out my two gems: the gentle poet and the shit-talking mechanic, it was a matter of putting them in a situation together and letting the sparks fly. But to get the most sparks, I had to make sure they were tied together.

Image Source: http://sincity2100.deviantart.com/art/Sailors-tied-up-in-ribbon-213386051
Image Source: http://sincity2100.deviantart.com/art/Sailors-tied-up-in-ribbon-213386051

I wrote a while back about the crucible, a technique for building tension by putting opposing characters in a situation where they’re stuck together. They’re either forced to deal with each other as family, as coworkers, or as people trapped in the same place and unable to escape each other’s company. This can mean either physically jailed or tied up and forced to stay together, or it can simply mean they’re stranded together, such as on a desert island. Or, in my case, in a city going through an unexplained supernatural disaster.

After that, I basically let the characters write the story for me. I had these two fascinating characters, the poet and the mechanic, trapped in a city filled with danger, magic, mystery, a touch of romance, and a dash of attitude. I could have thrown any two characters into that setting when the magical dangers started to appear, but having two characters who were both strong willed but had vastly different viewpoints made for a much better story.

It was also interesting to see how they each reacted to the dangers around them. After all, how do you think you would react if you found yourself surrounded by dangerous people with uncontrolled magical abilities, in a city held in the grip of fear and chaos? Gabby, the gentle soul, and Tock, the short-tempered mechanic, each react to those situations differently, and I feel like that adds a lot of depth to the story.

They’re my two gems, and I love them. That’s probably why I’m about to start work on the sixth novel with these same two characters, still going strong, and still completely different from each other.

mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.

Character “Speed Dating” with Gabby Palladino

“Character Speed Dating”? What’s that?

Well for starters, Cairn “Pile of Rocks” Rodrigues posted a speed-dating profile on her blog, discussing her character “Awnyx Tiell, Captain of the Fist.” (If you find this character interesting, you should check out Pile of Rocks’s book, The Last Prospector, on Amazon). Then, she tagged Alicia “I can’t remember what the K stands for” Anderson, who introduced her own character, Rolfgar of Two Lands a.k.a “The Nightmage.” A.K. then tagged me, asking me to give an introduction of one of my own characters. So, to keep this blog hop “hopping,” as A.K. put it, I’m going to introduce you to Gabby Palladino, main protagonist of my debut novel, Manifestation.

Gabby with bow and arcana eyes 4

Gabby Palladino is a teenage girl from the city of San Lorien, a metropolis in the fictional world I developed for the Arcana Revived series. She’s sometimes called “Boost” (for reasons that will become clear during the course of the novel), and she gains a number of other nicknames and titles as the series go on, but those will be revealed in the future when the sequels are released.

mani_promoThe story is set in the world of the Arcana Revived series, a modern-day world where magic and supernatural abilities are returning for the first time in centuries. Most of the people in this world don’t believe that magic exists, and that any stories about it are nothing more than ancient myths and fairy tales. They’re therefore completely unprepared for the consequences when magic starts to return and nobody knows how to control it or how to stop it.

There are a few important details about Gabby that are a key part of who she is. She’s the youngest of four children. She’s a high school senior. She’s very religious. She’s a lesbian. And she most definitely believes in magic. This belief is a big part of what sets her apart from others when the supernatural changes start coming to her home.

The central conflict of Gabby’s story is her attempts to survive when chaos erupts as supernatural powers begin manifesting all around her. She’s lost, alone, scared, and confused, and she seems to be the only one who realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. But how does a teenage girl do anything about the rebirth of supernatural forces that are beyond comprehension, especially when those same forces are bringing death and destruction all around her?

Her first goal is survival. But more than that, Gabby seeks understanding. She’s driven to figure out what is going on around her, and to understand why she is somehow caught in the middle of it.

If you’re interested in reading more about Gabby Palladino and the strange events that start cropping up all around her, you can read the first six sample chapters of Manifestation here on my blog, starting with Chapter 1: Magic. You can then follow the links below if you want to read the rest of the book and find out what Gabby’s ultimate fate will be.

And lastly, a big thanks to A.K. Anderson for tagging me and giving me the chance to share Gabby with you.

mani_promoManifestation is available on:

Createspace in paperback

and Amazon in ebook and paperback.