Posted On April 2, 2014 by Print This Post

Party fèves: the charms baked into the batter with Damon Suede

Do you have books that have grabbed your because of one line? A scene? The way an author depicts a setting? Those little gems are what keep you riveted in the story and keep it on your mind day after day, month after month. Damon Suede comes to us with a fascinating discussion on how to make this happen. Welcome Damon!

 
What is special about your writing?

Seriously: if someone cracked your most recent book open to any page, what would grab their attention and make it stand DS-Spring12 200out from every other author working today? This subject keeps coming up in convos with colleagues because all of us know just how much competition and noise has exploded in the romance genre. Often this topic gets umbrellaed under the rubric of “breakout” novels or “bestseller” rules, but I think those are dopey oversimplifications.

When does a book generate dazzling word of mouth in unexpected audiences? Why do some characters electrify readers? How do I know that a story will take me somewhere astonishing? What makes a series an autobuy? Why do I stick with an author even when one of their books falls flat? Which writing excites me and what’s a snoozefest?

Often one line, one moment, one kiss will bury itself in me so deeply that I don’t want to remove it. Enough of those glittering moments and a book owns me forever. They are buried treasure and I enjoy finding them as much as I enjoy experiencing them. The stories we love come down to powerful, unforgettable specifics.

With RT looming a month away down in New Orleans, I’ve also been thinking a lot about growing up in the Gulf. Though I grew up in Houston, I have a tons of family all over Louisiana, in New Orleans especially. I learned to party at Halloween and Mardi Gras.  It sounds like a cliché, but southern childhoods can seem freaky, abusive, or pagan. We come by it naturally because the South is a bizarre hodgepodge of cultures, cuisines, and immigrant groups.

Anyone who spent a chunk of their early years in the Deep South drinking iced tea in buckets and eating moon pies will know what I’m talking about. Holding doors, ma’am-and-sir, June bugs, four hour dinners… no matter how far we run, that stuff never washes out.  I have family in two Mardi Gras krewes, so parades and balls taught me how to party. Sweet hurricanes and strip clubs are for the tourists. I’m all about the King Cake.

kingcakeNow, King Cake migrated by way of French Catholics. Traditionally, it’s served after Epiphany up till Fat Tuesday, but over time it’s evolved into the kind of big tacky, colorful carbo-nightmares of which kids dream. Baked into the batter are trinkets (aka fèves), which turn every King Cake into a fancy Cracker Jack box. Though it was originally a bean or a coin, the fève became a little porcelain baby/king, and whoever found it was crowned for the day and got to pick their consort.

Over time, the little prizes have multiplied because everyone wants their shot, right? A modern King Cake might contain a king, a baby, a dragon, a coin, a kitten… you name it. Likewise, these trinkets have crossbred with wedding shower “charm cakes” and the pudding dolls in English Christmas puddings. Some fèves have acquired little predictive meanings. The King-finder often has to bring next year’s cake, the coin means wealth, the heart means a flirtation, etc. Curiosity and the primal human urge to discover things create a little sizzle of suspense as people hunt for the prize.

So what does that have to do with romance or publishing?

One of Agatha Christie’s central rules was that every page in a story must reveal a new piece of information that changes feve-babies by Molly McNamaraeverything that has gone before. By default, this creates page turners because readers learn to expect these little nuggets of suspenseful goodness. Christie might have one dazzling payoff in that novel, but ideally each chapter, each scene included a charm to be discovered. Mystery addicts the world over can attest the compulsion of the “one more page…” insomnia created by that kind of precise craft. In essence, Christie baked a specific fève into every page.

Want to know why people get bored with blockbuster movies but kids keep buying tickets till they wise up? New dogs, old tricks. The same damn Cracker Jack prizes show up every damn time: dudes fighting over stuff until it blows up. Fart jokes and fat shaming. Splatter movies with snark. Sex scenes in slo-mo. Bad guys who fall down and underwear models who get hitched. Snore.

When I was still scripting full time for film/TV/theatre, I knew that the only way to hold producer interest (and by extension actor and audience interest), was to insert little sparkly treats that kept folks in their seats. I deployed all the whammies and razzmatazz I could muster and changed the tune as often as I dared, anything to keep them excited and curious.

Batter Being Whipped with MixerAs I transitioned into fiction, I tried to do the same thing: salting my wordcount with dialogue, images, and situations that escalated the story. And since each work is its own beast, I had to invent new sparkly trinkets for each project. I sat and chewed on the charms, to get at what made them work.

Above all, fictional fèves are unforgettable and specific. They escalate. They charge situations; they incite action and inspire transformation. They hint at a larger, unseen picture. As a set, they show variety and scope. These are the moments we recount when we’re recapping a story we love. Don’t take my word for it! Think about the movies, the books, the anecdotes you love. Try to pinpoint the tiny shiny details that make them stay with you.

In the past couple years, my process of burying little treasures has become more conscious, not in the sense of predetermined bon mots or nonsensical eye candy, but looking for the specific charm in every page, every scene, every chapter of a book. Hey: a Cracker Jack box without any prize pisses people off. Language, imagery, detail, and research can all become little treats for your reader that drags them under and won’t let them go. Can I always manage it? Oh hell no… but I try.

I’ve started actively mining the little gems that readers want as conscious part of my drafting process. I find them in exercises, research, and free writing. I hunt down clichés and hammer at my habits. And because they are shiny trinkets, I never need to get precious or defensive about them. Some will get cut so that better ones can take their place.

By little treasures, I don’t mean the ugly, clever darlings that we must kill pronto for everyone’s sanity, but rather the miraculous bits that feel like they’ve come not from us but through us, that stick in the mind like dazzling burrs. Even the most formulaic plot, the most generic situation becomes incandescent when we charge it with unforgettable specificity.

Pacing and spacing matters! Piling a bunch of whammies on top of each other numbs the reader. I’m always checking to see where the fèves land and if they’re spaced and placed for maximum effect. Nobody wants the King Cake prizes in one lump because everyone misses out. Best part: these little fictional prizes are completely idiosyncratic and personal. My charms and yours can never and will never be the same even if we were crazy enough to try.

I don’t want to repeat myself let alone someone else. If I’ve busted out some freaky/dazzling bilingual banter, then next Feves 123109 004time out that’s off the table. If I unleashed a crazy orgy in a gummi bear factory, then I’m not likely to revisit the fruity goo anytime soon. If I want to shock folks, I can’t regurgitate the same shocking reveal ad nauseam. M. Night Shymalan had this exact problem and it ruined him: he baked the same creaky, crummy fève into every one of his cakes, even when no one would cut into them, let alone eat them. Very quickly, his charm stopped being charming.

When I’m in edits, I make sure that those fèves are pulling their weight. Like the different charms, I let these bits do the work of foreshadowing and texturing, and punching deeper into characters. Again, because they are by definition small, they can pack a real wallop without wasting wordcount. Even if I fail, I’m trying like hell to dig deeper for the stuff that sparkles. You know when you’ve found one. We’ve all written a smile, a line, a description that anchors a beat or nails the emotional truth. We defend them life and limb. Rightfully so!

So, the next time you’re baking, think about how your King Cake slices. Consider what charms you choose, how they work together, and where you’ve folded them into the batter. Look for the things that sparkle and polish like hell.

We all have our beloved desert-island keepers that keep us sane and save our lives, and I’ll bet you a zillion dollars that all your faves come down to fèves.

 

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So what little gems do you put in your book? What are ones that have stood out to you in other people’s work?

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Friday – Handsome Hansel is back at RU!

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Bio:

Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.

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15 Responses to “Party fèves: the charms baked into the batter with Damon Suede”

  1. Forget the trinkets, I’ll take the frosting! Seriously, though, Cracker Jack prizes and prizes in cereal boxes have nothing on a cleverly dropped clue or a subtle touch of foreshadowing. It’s the author’s voice that brings me back, more than anything else, but those little surprises are a nice treat.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 2, 2014, 12:33 am
  2. Wonderful post! I’m just starting out on my journey as a writer and learning my craft. I love writing dialogue and have been told I’m very good at it. Every so often something will come out of a character’s mouth that is so surprising and yet so perfect that I get a grin on my face that can last all day. When they read it, my critique partners will say “That is so you!”

    Can one of those little charms be a line of dialogue?

    Posted by Carol Opalinski | April 2, 2014, 9:10 am
    • Absolutely!

      I think lots of books stick with us because of glittering dialogue. Consider the following:
      * “To be born again, first you have to die.”
      * “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”
      * “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.”

      Stellar dialogue has a way of lingering in the mind, because it’s the words readers wish they could conjure up on the spot. We’ve all felt the wisdom of the staircase. :)

      I think the tricky thing with dialogue is to make sure that it’s the characters talking and not us being clever for the sake of a perceived audience.

      Posted by Damon Suede | April 2, 2014, 9:23 am
  3. Morning Damon!

    Great post! I always loved reading Janet Evanovich’s books…she always had a surprise around every corner – things you wouldn’t expect, situations people got themselves in to. Her books definitely kept me up late many nights, trying to read just one more chapter before I fell asleep.

    Now I think back on my other favorite authors and try to think of the little prizes they’ve left in their books….Some write amazing dialog, some have action or humor, but you are right, little snips of glitter that keep people like me up way past their bedtime.

    =)

    Thanks for a fab post!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 2, 2014, 9:25 am
  4. Hi Damon,

    The clue queen is Agatha Christie. Every answer is in plain sight. Just follow the crumbs.

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 2, 2014, 9:35 am
    • Word! Her skills at planting nagging details is unsurpassed. :) Ruth Rendell is another one who knows how to salt in devastating specifics in crime fiction, so that you can’t shake a story loose when it’s done.

      Posted by Damon Suede | April 2, 2014, 11:13 am
  5. Hi Damon,

    Your remark ‘that stuff never washes out’ has me thinking about how our own experiences diffuse into our writing. When a reader opens a book, they embark on a journey of discovery (sorry, I know that sounds so cliche) and it’s incumbent on the author to develop a believable character through backstory, dialogue, etc.

    As a reader, I love discovering tidbits about the character as the story progresses. What’s the motivation behind their actions, their likes and dislikes? And as a writer, it’s an opportunity to give the reader insight into the character. Annie, a pastry chef, eat Hostess cupcakes. It’s her comfort food. The reader accepts that and moves on, but this factoid gives me an opportunity to add dimension to the character. Maybe Annie eats them because her father always packed them in her lunchbox and it’s a memory she cherishes. And maybe this cupcake thing opens the door to her relationship with her father.

    My characters experiences are drawn through my own and while their experience may be totally different, it’s the inspiration from those experiences that makes the character real, relatable, and I hope, memorable.

    Thanks for another insightful post. From now on, I doubt I’ll be able to bake a cake without thinking about this post!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 2, 2014, 6:30 pm
    • Fantastic, Jennifer. I’m so glad. At some point, I gotten into the habit of gathering little fèves…even if I’m not sure when they’ll get used. My journal has gotten fat with little sparkly oddments that are gonna wind up stirred into something,if they have their way.

      As Becky said above, I think it comes down to voice. And in a lot of ways these little charms are what make our voices clear.

      Posted by Damon Suede | April 3, 2014, 12:04 am
  6. This girl from da parish loved your lesson! I think I’m a little older than you because there was only one kingcake baby in the cake when I grew up. It was the wedding cakes with all the charms the bridesmaids pulled out – remember those?- but I digress.
    Now I’m thinking of all the sparkly and dangerous things in my writing that could delight or choke a reader.And I’m looking for ways to drop the clues and twist the plot on every page. Thanks for this! I hope you’ll be back on RU with more.

    Posted by Pamela Mason | April 2, 2014, 9:10 pm
  7. Great post and terrific advice, Damon. We need to constantly remind ourselves to find the thing that sets our writing apart and on fire (well, not literally!), that makes our soul sing when we read it. And not our little darlings as you said. Those, generally, need to be done away with. ;)

    I have a very specific moment, two lines from my first novel, that has made me cry (in a good and sad way) several times when I think of it. It made me weep when I wrote it because of the way it touched and surprised me. I don’t think I’m alone in that, which is what we strive for.

    I will continually remind myself to put their equals (as much as I can – that was a particularly “inspired” moment) in all of my work. Thank you!

    Posted by Kelly Byrne | April 2, 2014, 10:06 pm
    • Thank you!

      It’s funny how we just KNOW those things. It is like fire! :)

      Once upon a time, I had a commission for which I knew the last line of the first act was the exact right line, but the entire script was…wrong. LOL I had to rewrite the entire first act to “earn” it. Almost killed me, but it made the play, and the challenge made me a better writer.

      Posted by Damon Suede | April 3, 2014, 12:00 am

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