Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Writing Wednesday: WTF are Subplots and Do I Need One?

Warning! Today's post is going to be both technical and opinionated. If you disagree with how I treat subplots in my work, that is entirely your right. You do you! But if you're interested in seeing how I think about/manage/plan the subplots in my books, stick with me, 'cause shit's about to get specific!

Ready? Let's go!

Writing Wednesday: How to Write a Subplot

It doesn't have to be this complicated, but it can be if that's your jam...
(All credits to XKCD! See the original graph in all its high resolution glory here.)

“Subplot” is one of those writing vocab words that a lot of people toss around, but I’m not sure many writers actually know what it means.

Technically, a subplot is any storyline that happens in a book that is not the main plot. These can include romantic subplots, which are love stories in books that aren’t actually Romances (where the romance is the main plot). Character subplots, which happen when a secondary character is having their own plot line in addition to the novel’s main plot, (like Marci’s gangster problems in Nice Dragons Finish Last). Also popular are setting subplots, which are story lines that run simultaneous to the main plot in the wider setting of the novel, but are not (or, at least, not in the beginning) actually part of the main story. A good example of a setting subplot would be a Fantasy novel where where the protagonist is ostensibly doing his own thing, but the author keeps mentioning a brewing war or political struggle in the background. These mentions are often disguised as exposition or worldbuiling until, all of a sudden, the budding war/political conflict bursts into the main plot with a vengeance, forcing the main characters to deal with new problems.

These are just a few examples of common subplots you find in genre fiction, but really, any story thread that exists on its own merit outside of the book's main plot can be a subplot. Note that “outside” here doesn’t mean the subplot is isolated from the main plot, because a good subplot always comes back around to be an important factor in the main plot or the novel or the series.

Why is this? Well, I try never to set down hard rules in my writing, mostly because the moment I say “X is always true,” I’ll instantly find five books that fly in the face of whatever I just said. But speaking practically for the vast majority of successful novels, it’s pretty much impossible to have a subplot that exists purely its own sake and never ties into the main plot without the storyline in question feeling disconnected and superfluous. Because, you know, it is.

So if subplots must reconnect with the main plot as a general rule, why bother with them at all? Why not just wrap everything into the main plot from the start and call it a day? Well, you can definitely do that, and many authors do, but ignoring the subplot mechanic in writing cuts you off from an enormous world of complexity in your stories. This is because, while the purpose of the subplot isn’t to stand on its own, the introduction of plots outside of your main story opens up new avenues that you as a writer can use to show viewpoints and events your main story might otherwise never touch.

When you cut it down to the bare bones, a main plot standing by itself is often relatively simple. Even if you're dealing with a very complex plot or world, there’s only so much a main character can get their hands into before things just get too complicated and the plot turns to soup. Subplots are a way to get around this limitation. By introducing a new story thread that runs parallel with your main plot, you are free to introduce all kinds of new situations, events, threats, world building, and other extremely interesting story stuff that might otherwise be beyond the realistic limits of your central story. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The Long Tail -- What Happens When Nothing Happens?

Hey guys, I'm sick as a dog today, so I'm turning the blog over to my incredible husband and business partner Travis Bach (aka, the one who actually does all the non-writing work in this house). As always, he came through in spades and wrote an incredible post. It's almost enough to make me wish I was sick more often! (THAT'S A JOKE, UNIVERSE. DON'T DO IT.)

Anyway, the tissue pile is getting dangerously high, so without further ado, here's Travis to talk about the Long Tail and why it matters for authors.


Hi Folks!

Its low tide time here, so I thought that I'd take advantage of the sleepy sales days to talk about a term we hear about all the time, but seldom get a clear definition of: The Long Tail

This was the most graph-like lemur I could find
I've mentioned the Long Tail Effect on the blog before, but every time I try to find a good link that explains how the Long Tail works for publishing, I struggle to find one. SO! Today I'm going to explain what the Long Tail means for authors, how it works, why you want it, how to get it, and so on.

(Surprisingly, this will not be a super-graph heavy post, despite the mathyness of it all. You're welcome!)

What is the Long Tail?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The 3 Things You Need for Killer Dialogue

A while back when I asked y'all what you wanted to see in a craft post, I saw at least two requests for a post on dialogue. I initially didn't want to write about this topic because, to be honest, dialogue has always come naturally to me. It's the one bit of writing that I've never struggled with, and thus is the one bit of writing where I don't actually understand exactly what I'm doing because I've never had to dig in and fix a problem.

Ironically, that was the realization that bugged the hell out of me. I hate not knowing why things work. Whenever I have a problem with my writing, the first thing I do is stop and look at the parts--plot, characters, tension, etc.-- to see what's wrong. And then there's the issue where you can't use a tool to its fullest potential if you don't actually know what it's doing or how it works. True mastery only comes from inside out knowledge, you can't have that if your answer to "Why does this dialogue work?" or "Why did you write it this way?" is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

These are the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head over the last few months, and during that time, I've really tried to pay more attention to what I'm doing when I write dialogue. What are the forces that shape the words that pop out of my character's mouths? How do I keep conversations on track? Likewise, how do I know when a conversation has gone on too long? These are the questions I wanted to answer, and after a lot of poking, I think I've found what I was looking for.

Disclaimer. Up until this point, I've written all my dialog--10 published novels worth--just by going with what felt right to me, so obviously winging things is a perfectly valid strategy! If going with your instincts is working for you, too, that's great. Stick with that! This isn't meant to make you feel like you're doing something wrong. Everyone writes differently, and if you're having success with whatever you're doing (even if you don't quite know why) there's absolutely no need to change your method.

But if you're struggling with putting words in your character's mouths (or if you're just interested in the invisible forces that drive character interaction), then these are some things to think about that will hopefully make your dialogue writing a lot easier and more enjoyable. Either way, I hope you'll find the conversation interesting!


Writing Wednesday: The 3 Things You Need for Killer Dialogue

Dialogue in a novel happens any time a character talks to someone/thing. Characters talking to each other, characters talking to voices in their heads, characters typing text messages, characters talking to glowing lights in the sky, characters giving speeches to huge crowds--are all forms of dialogue. There are even times when characters talking to themselves can be dialogue, though unless the self talking takes the form of a conversation, I'm more inclined to call this a rumination, because reciprocity--talking to someone/thing and having it talk/react back--is the defining aspect of dialogue. 

That reaction, that reason to speak instead of just thinking, is why dialogue exists. It's also the key element to the tension and drama of any dialogue scene. When Character A expresses his/her/its opinion/beliefs, Character B is going to have an opinion/beliefs of their own, and the interaction of these (along with all the other outside factors created by the rest of the plot/setting) is the alchemy of good dialogue. Set those scenes up well, and you can turn a few seconds of dialogue into the pivotal interaction of your story (see "No, I am your father.")

So, obviously, good dialogue is powerful and important! How do we write it? How do you actually get characters to talk? (Or, more importantly, talk about what you want them to talk about.) Well, not surprisingly, you get characters to talk the same way you get them to do anything else--you harness their motivation and history.

Great Dialogue Tip #1 - Understand Your Characters

"Duh, Rachel," you might be saying. "I thought you were going to tell us something new?"

"Just because something seems obvious doesn't mean it's easy," I'd reply. "Just hear me out."

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Writing Wednesday, Throwback Edition: If you tell the truth, you don't have to have a good memory

So today's blog post is a bit of a cop out since the dentist took way longer than I thought it would. But first, an update...which is sadly also a cop out. #winning at life today, guys. -_-

SO, I've got good news and bad news. The good news has to do with contract work. As the name would suggest, contract work is writing you're hired and paid to do. This kind of writing includes everything from ghost writing (where you write a book and let someone else, generally famous, have the credit while you take the paycheck) to writing your own story in a popular franchise, like the authors who write the Star Wars novels.

Now, traditionally, I've stayed away from contract work because I know I don't play well inside other people's ideas. I have to be freeeeee! This time, though, a contract fell into my lap that was so unique, so once-in-a-lifetime-awesome, I couldn't say no. I can't share this contract yet (but oh god, when I can, it will be ALL I TALK ABOUT), but trust me when I say it's very good news...and also kind of sucky, because taking the contract means accepting other people's deadlines whether they fit with your plans or not.

All of this is a fancy way of saying the third Heartstriker novel, (originally titled A Dragon of a Different Color, but now changed to No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished for reasons that will be very obvious upon reading), won't be out until Summer, hopefully in July. I'd really really hoped that I could have it out in March, but in order to meet my contractually obligated deadlines for this new project, the Heartstriker manuscript had to be done and out the door by the end of December, and it wasn't. This was entirely my fault. I was on schedule, but then my plot fell through (as plots sometimes do) and everything got thrown off schedule. Normally I'd just keep writing, but since I signed a contract, I have to put my own book aside and honor that.

This really sucks and I'm really sorry. I hate making you guys wait, but I swear I will make the book worth it! Heartstriker fans will not be disappointed, but you will have to wait just a little longer. Again, mea culpa, but hopefully when finally I'm cleared to announce this contract project, you'll all agree it was worth being a few months late on Heartstriker Family Drama!

And speaking of late, my entire morning blog time got eaten up by the dentist (don't forget to floss, kids!), and since my schedule is already stupid, possibly inhumanly tight this month, I'm coping out and doing a blast-from-the-past repost of a blog I wrote long ago for the now dead Magic District group blog. If you've never looked around, this was a super cool blog I did with lots of then new, now pretty famous authors including N.K. Jemisin and Diana Rowland. Definitely worth a look!

So without further ado, let's set the Wayback Machine to 2010 and have a look at important writing lessons as learned by Rachel Aaron, baby author. Enjoy!

Writing Wednesday, Throwback Edition: "If you tell the truth, you don't have to have a good memory."

This fantastic pic of Judge Judy becomes relevant in a few paragraphs, but is always awesome.

Originally posted on The Magic District, 2010

So my series, starting with The Spirit Thief, comes out on October 1, followed by The Spirit Rebellion in November and The Spirit Eater in December. So many books! But don’t they make such a lovely little set? Anyway, while all this is going on, I am busy at work on Book 4 in The Legend of Eli Monpress (The Spirit War), and I am running into some interesting situations.

See, way back when I wrote The Spirit Thief, I knew it was going to be the first in a series, but I didn’t actually know much about that series other than how it ended, which was very far from where it began. Over the course of three books, I’ve had to get a lot more specific and detailed. This has caused more than a few problems because I’ve never written a series before and I was wholly unprepared for the level and amount of detail I ended up having to keep track of. Thousands of little decisions made over years of writing that have to be kept in mind because, in the world of the books, they are now history, irrefutable, and completely un-fudge-able should I find them inconvenient later down the line.

Some of this was alleviated by keeping a wiki for my dry, bookkeeping kinds of details, but more and more as I dig into book 4, I find myself face to face with decisions I made about my characters months or even years ago. Some of these were well thought out, and some were decisions I made in the heat of the moment and now don’t actually remember making.

I remember hearing a story about J.K. Rowling writing her later HP books and having to go into bookstores to buy the earlier ones to check things because she didn’t remember what she’d written. The first time I heard this, I thought it was stupid. What kind of author doesn’t remember what she writes? But I owe Ms. Rowling an apology, because I’m now in the same boat (albeit a far smaller, less grand boat). I have an ARC of The Spirit Thief on my desk at all times that I use to constantly check things, and search is my favorite feature in MS Word. But as my story grows, the process of self checking gets trickier and trickier. How does one search for a motivation? How do you fact check a personality or way of thinking?

This is a question I've had to get very good at answering. But even though I do try to check everything I'm remotely unsure about, what I've discovered in the process is that my first intuition about whatever I don't remember usually turns out to be right. I’ve been wondering lately why this is. Does some deep part of me remember writing this paragraph two years ago? Am I clairvoyant? That would be nice, but I think the actual reason if far simpler and, by extension, more reliable.

One of my favorite ladies ever, Judge Judy, always says that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory. Tuns out, this is equally applicable whether you’re suing your neighbor or writing fiction. My characters are the most interesting part of writing for me, and I put a great deal of thought and consideration into keeping them true to themselves. Sometimes this has the unfortunate side effect of characters bucking the plot when it asks them to do something they wouldn’t do, but while that can be annoying (and feel catastrophic while it’s happening), I think my books have always been better for it. But another lovely, unforeseen side effect is that by staying true to my characters--telling the truth of my people, as it were--I don’t actually have to have a good memory about what they’ve done in the novels. I just think of the situation in question and I know how they would have reacted, even if I can’t remember exactly how I wrote it.

I still check, of course. I'm not that confident! But other than a few dropped details, I've yet to find a situation where my instinct for the character was wrong. But this whole thing has taught me a really valuable lesson about writing, which is that it is totally worth the time to get to know your characters inside and out for practical reasons as well as artistic ones. Because sometimes miracles happen, ahnd you end up writing a fourth book when you only really expected to write one, and when that happens, you'll be really glad you took the time to build a firm foundation. Especially if you’re like me and Diet Coke has eaten your memory and you need all the help you can get.

Mmmmm… diet coke…

Poor baby author Rachel! I swear it gets better!

Thank you all for putting up with me today. I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past, and I swear I'll be back soon with actual new content and, hopefully, news about my Super Secret Project of Unstoppable Awesome (TM). Until then, please follow me on the social media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) for more book stuff and practical writing advice. As always, thank you so much for reading, and I hope your day is going better than mine!

Yours always,

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Pay Yourself First

2016 is upon us!
No, seriously! It'll be great!

2015 was a low water year here at Casa de Aaron-Bach. I put out only one book (entirely my own fault), but it did really well! So yay and thank you all for that! The good news, though, is that 2016 is on track to be a lot better. More Heartstrikers, more blog posts, and maybe even a secret project! What secret project? I'm contractually obligated not to say, but the moment I can, I promise you it will be EVERYWHERE. ^__^

So yeah, 2016's looking good so far! A huge thank you to everyone reading this. You guys make this crazy train possible and I love you for it!

Now, on to the writing post.

Writing Wednesday: Pay Yourself First

There's a popular saying in the personal finance world of "Pay yourself first." 

In money terms, this means that if you have a savings goal (such as putting money in your retirement account or saving up for a big purchase, like a house), you put that money aside first. Before bills, before obligations, before food. The moment that money enters your sphere, you shuffle it into your savings account. Once it's safely locked away, you then proceed with the rest of the month's finances as though that money never existed.

If you've ever lived on a tight budget, this probably sounds pretty crazy. Some months you need every penny just to get by. But paying yourself first is the mantra of many many financially successful people for a reason, because if you don't pay yourself first, chances are you'll never pay yourself at all. There are simply too many other things, so many other places that money "needs" to go. If you don't take your bite out first, then chances are by the time you're done handling everything the month throws at you, you have nothing left for your own goals and dreams.

We humans are generally pretty terrible at handling limited resources over time. We are creatures of the moment, which means our long term priorities system--what's important in the long run vs what's important right now--is very easily screwed with. For an example of this in action, just think of every time you said "fuck it" and spent money/ate something/skipped a class you knew you shouldn't. We know these actions are counter to our long term goals, but even the most driven, disciplined person can get overwhelmed and make decisions for short term happiness over long term progress.

This inherent weakness is why paying yourself first works so freaking well. By making that money disappear before you have a chance to spend it, you've taken willpower out of the equation. You can't mess up and spend your savings, because you've already saved them. Did the loss of this money make the rest of the month harder? Of course. But no harder than it would have been if you'd scrimped and denied yourself to land at the end of the month with the same amount. Also, you'd be amazed how resourceful and The entire idea of paying yourself first is to remove all those places where we get weak and screw up by never giving us the chance to be weak in the first place. You can't mess up and go out to eat/buy something fun with the money you're supposed to be saving if it's not there to begin with.

So that's how pay yourself first works when it comes to money, but (no surprise at all) the same idea also works wonders when applied to writing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Writing Wednesday: It's Not About Selling Books, It's About Earning Readers

Hello everyone! I'm still in the aftershock of Christmas and had zero idea what to write about today. Fortunately for me, my amazing husband/business partner/person who actually makes most of the business decisions Travis Bach appeared with this amazing post already written. Not one to overlook a belated holiday miracle, I looked it over, added a bit, and the result is the post we have today! True, it's a bit more business than craft, but I think you'll find the Writing Wednesday attitude still applies.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and Happy New Year! May we all write many awesome books in 2016. 

Without further ado, here's Travis!

Hi Folks,

Today I'd like to talk about the difference between readership and sales. But first,

Much to my surprise, several of my posts have garnered a decent amount of attention. I'm so glad that people like the more business
and numbers side of things. I just wanted to say Thanks! While this is always a writing blog, I'm very happy to be able to help Rachel out with keeping Pretentious Title loaded with fresh info.

Rachel and I yak the publishing business to each other all the time, so its also really fun to come on the blog and talk about what we've found and learned.

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks. Now, let's talk about an important distinction that needs to be made,

It's Not About Selling Books, It's About Earning Readers

How authors feel about their readers ❤
What's the difference between a reader and a sale?

A reader is someone who reads your book; hopefully all the way through. A sale is someone who bought your book. The two might sound interchangeable, but there is a world of difference between them when it comes to your career..

Someone who buys your book will give you a sale, and that's good! But a reader who buys and finishes your book will hopefully review it. They will hopefully read the next book. They will hopefully go find your other books and read those too. If they really like it, they will hopefully yak at their friends obsessively about how amazing your book is and secretly slip copies of it under their door and lurk outside their window so they can watch them read.

Okay maybe not that far, but you get the idea. Depending on how you got it, a sale may never open your book. For example, if you do a giant free giveaway, the vast majority of those 'sales' won't ever read the book. Another example is promoting your book in box sets, packages, or themed promotions that don't match it. There are lots of indie writers these days hitting the NYT from being in a big selling box set, but when you look at the rest of their books, they're definitely not at NYT Best Seller levels of readership. This is because things like box promotions focus on sales, not readers.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Turns out Christmas with a kid old enough to care about it takes a lot more work than other sorts of Christmases, so I'm afraid there's no post this week.

There are still books though! Including the lovely new print editions of my Heartstriker Series! I realize it's a bit late for Christmas shopping (and super too late for Hanukkah), but in just in case you're still in a scramble, ebooks make great last minute gifts. Yanno, just sayin' ^__^

Thank you as always for reading, and I'll see you all next week for a year end wrap up. Happy holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writing Wednesday: Are Short Stories Worth It?

Today's topic of commonly held writing advice is a question I've been hearing tossed around writing circles since I started this crazy business. As you will soon see, I have very strong opinions on the subject.


The cats look so creepy!

I hope you like your books thick, cause damn o_o
If you've been waiting for your very own physical copy of Julius's suffering, here you go! Enjoy!!

Now, on with the post.

Writing Wednesday: Are Short Stories Worth It?

Way back in the day (2004) when I first got serious about this writing thing and started researching How to Get Published (TM) as a Fantasy writer, there was one bit of advice that kept cropping up over and over again, and that was the idea that road to being a Fantasy author starts by writing short stories and submitting them to the SFWA approved short fiction magazines. The idea behind this advice was that budding authors could practice on short stories first to "hone your skills" and "get your name out there" before moving on the lengthier and more difficult world of novel writing for their main career.

As you've probably already guessed from the quotation marks in the paragraph above, I thought this was pretty bad advice even at the time. I mean, the idea sounds good in theory--short stories, being shorter by definition, do require far less overhead and have a faster turnaround time than novels--but anyone who's tried both knows that novel writing and short story writing are completely different animals. Sure they're both genre writing, but a good short story is NOT a novel in miniature. 

The art and purpose of the short story genre is all about brevity and artistry combined with perfect execution. A true-to-form short story delivers its one big, hooky, sublime idea or character moment like an unfolding treasure box that, when it ends, feels like it was exactly as long as it needed to be. A novel, on the other hand, is all about the journey, the change and scope of characters and events over time. A short story and a novel can be related. They can occur in the same universe or even feature the same characters, but the storytelling format, expectations, and markers of quality for each are fundamentally not the same. It's the difference between a picture and a movie, delivering a monologue vs putting on a play, baking a cake vs cooking a banquet, and so forth.

This fundamental difference is the reason I roll my eyes to the point of pain every time I read or hear anyone telling hopeful novelists that they should write short stories as a warm up to novels. As though short stories are somehow easier than novels purely by virtue of being short. Friends, this is absolute bullshit. Sure, the final product may contain fewer words, but a quality short story is infinitely HARDER to pull off than a quality novel precisely because you have less to work with. It's just like how, on my new favorite show The Great British Bakeoff (SHOUT OUT!), the final, most difficult challenge is always a miniature version of whatever they made for the first round, because doing things in miniature is harder. Just as there's more room for little mistakes in measurement and technique in a full cake than a cup cake, there's a lot more room for error in 100,000 words than 10,000.

But wait, there's more! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Writing Wednesday: "He never wasted a single failure"

I got dragons to write, so this one's going to be short and sweet :)

Writing Wednesday: "He never wasted a single failure."

So as you guys might know, I'm a pretty big anime nerd, and my current show of obsession is Food Wars (aka Shokugeki no Soma)!

This show is SO GOOD, YOU GUYS!

On the surface, it appears to be just another goofy shonen school fighting anime that picked cooking and rampant nudity as its hooks to stand out in a crowded market. I actually ignored it for several months because I thought it was all gimmick, but after one episode, I realized I was epically wrong. Food Wars is amazing! Not only is it a perfectly executed fighting anime with some of the best tension I've ever seen (trust me, give this thing three episodes and you will be obsessively binge watching anime characters cook rice just like the rest of us) and awesome cooking techniques that are based in reality, the writing is really freaking good.

This is noteworthy in and of itself. I'm a pretty big anime fan, but even I can admit that story, especially on the episode level, is sometimes a weak point in the genre. This goes double for a weird series like this that has so much else going on, but so far Food Wars seems incapable of screwing up. The tension mechanics at work so perfect it hurts and the large cast is both amazingly well drawn and expertly handled so no one gets lost. These would all be (and are) fantastic reasons to watch the show, but what really knocked my socks off was the dialogue writing. Even in translation, there are several lines that made me green with envy, but my stand out favorite of the first season was

"He never wasted a single failure."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing Wednesdays (Special NaNoWriMo Edition!): AMA Thread Highlights #4!

Wow, what a November! I think this was my most diverse and interesting NaNo thread ever. Seriously, the questions were awesome. Here's the last set of highlights for the year, and super big thanks to everyone who participated!

I hope you enjoy!

Writing Wednesdays (Special NaNoWriMo Edition!): AMA Thread Highlights #4!

First up, we have a question from R Beckett about naive characters and "gotcha" endings.
I have a character who is a puppet master for the events of my story. He also happens to be my main character's best friend/love interest. So since I am telling the story through her eyes, there is not much hinting to his devious ways since she is blinded by her love for him to see it. Is it going to be too off putting to readers to reveal he was the bad guy the whole time? Or put into a broader question, how much of a "Gotcha!" can I get away with.  
Actually as I am writing this I realize Disney did this kind of thing in Frozen. I should watch definitely go watch that and earn another Procrastination badge today... But I would appreciate your thoughts as well. 
My answer:

You pose a very interesting question. For me, this kind of thing is all about execution. A good gotcha is something the audience should be able to see coming...if they know what to look for. This is where the execution challenge comes in. You have to balance your information reveals just right. Show too much, and the audience will see the bad guy coming from miles away, causing them to lose respect for your heroine when she doesn't pick up on the clues as quickly. Show too little, and the villain reveal will come out of nowhere, making it seem like a cheap "gotcha!" trick you pulled out of your butt rather than something you'd always had planned.