Monday, January 15, 2018

How Different Should Your World Be?

QUESTION:  Here’s what I'm wondering as I'm setting up my “alternate earth.” If the reader’s suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy your writing, how do you know what kinds of things might be too much for your readers? Might pull them out of the story as they puzzle over why someplace that’s earth-yet-not-earth has *that*?


If your world has internal consistency and follows its own logic, most readers will accept that world.  Readers want to believe your world.  That's why they buy your story.

Things like dogs and cats and pine trees are just simple shorthand to make that world comfortable for the reader as well as making it easier for him to connect with it.  

If the reader has to learn everything from the names of the trees to the five different kinds of six-legged beasts of burden, and they really have nothing important to do with the story, he will be seriously put off.  Readers like comfortable, shorthand things like pine trees and horses.

Touches of the strange will liven up a scene to give it a sense of elsewhere, but there need only be touches.  In a scene where the hero and his friends stop at a staging inn to rest their horses and get a meal, you can have the usual things like the tavern, the stablehand, and the horses, but you can also mention a corral filled with hippogriffs who are fluttering their wings and snapping their beaks as one of the servants tosses them dead rabbits.

But detail for the sake of detail will delay the action and cause the problem you mention.  For example, the hero is walking through the woods, and a tree of living flame stops him in his tracks because of its beauty.  It begins to sing of the glory of the wind and the majesty of the rain.

The hero finally moves away and promptly forgets it, and it has nothing else to do with the story.

The reader will wait the whole novel for that scene to make some sense with the plot, but it never does so the reader gets angry.

If, however, that singing tree gives the hero a riddle he must understand to achieve his victory, then the scene is very important, indeed.  

Somewhere along the way, it would probably be best if the reader learns why the tree gave him that clue so the plot has some internal logic.

You also need to decide what your story is really about.  If it’s about the unusual political situation in this world, then most of the extra details and information should help focus on that.  If it’s about the world’s magic and how it is failing, then that’s where the details and the weirdness should be focused.  

Most of this boils down to not overwhelming your reader and avoiding info dumping to show off your incredlbie worldbuilding skills.  


Monday, January 8, 2018

Interlocking Questions

A work of fiction should be a series of interlocking questions.  Think of these questions as links in a chain that pulls the reader through each scene and through the novel.  

The questions within the book should be ongoing.  Before you answer one question the reader has, you should have several more set up so the reader doesn't say "oh, now I understand" and put down the book never to finish it.  

The questions can be action questions-- Will the heroine rescue the baby before it crawls into the well?  Will the hero kiss her now?

The questions can be character questions--  What happened to Mary that makes her so nervous around men?  Why does Jim hate Bill?

The questions can be setting questions-- What is beyond the next bend in the road?  Where is the dragon hiding?  Why does the lab have smoke in it?

The questions can be plot questions-- Will Tom rescue Pam from the burning building?  How will he do it?  What did the robber steal from the safety deposit box that the Mafia wants so much?

The questions can be minor questions which can be answered in a few pages-- Will Mary say yes when Jim asks her out?  

The questions can be major questions that take the whole book to answer-- Who killed Bill and why?  

Writing interlocking questions is a complicated dance between the writer and the reader.  The writer wants to give just enough information to involve the reader and urge her forward in the narrative, but not so much information that the reader becomes bored.

The reader sees the questions and their answers as clues and reading the story is a mystery she wants to solve for herself.  The reader not only wants to know what happens next, she also wants to make guesses at what will happen next and why.    

To see the power of interlocking questions, just consider the Harry Potter series.  These books were not only good individual reads full of interlocking questions, the interlocking questions extended through the series.  People talked about these questions, they puzzled over these questions, and they argued over these questions as each book came out.  

If JK Rowling had explained everything early on, the series would not have been so popular, and the readers would not have been so invested in the characters.  

How do you write interlocking questions?  

One trick is to think of yourself as the reader.  What will the reader want to know at that moment in the narrative?  What questions can you answer and what answers can be held back?  

When you are plotting your story out, you will be thinking about the who, what, when, where, and why of each event.  Decide what information from the Five W's the reader needs immediately, and what information can be seeded through the narrative as questions and answers.  

Every answer you give to an important narrative question should lead to more questions-- Jim couldn't possibly have killed Bill, but why has he confessed to the murder?  Could he be protecting someone else?  Who and why? (NOTE: The answers to these questions are in the examples above.)  

An excellent way to see how interlocking questions work is to study how a good author uses them.  

Pick a favorite author who really sucks you into their books and keeps you flipping the pages.  Go to the author's website and find the sample chapter or chapters of one of their books.  Print those pages, get the highlighter out, and mark every narrative question you find.  Notice how the small questions and the larger questions work together.  

Or you can pull out a favorite book from your keeper shelf and read it while paying attention to the interlocking questions.

During all this, remember that the writer and the reader have one important question foremost in their heads as they write and read-- What happens next?

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Very Vampire Christmas

With the traditional vampire, writers know vampires’ relationship to Christianity.  Crosses and Holy Water make them shriek and back away because vampires are demonic evil.  

These days, that’s not necessarily always true.  In Tanya Huff’s series about vampire Henry Fitzroy, he pals around with priests, carries a crucifix, and is the most religious of all the characters because he has seen true evil and wants to protect others from it.  

Charlaine Harris’ Stookie Stackhouse stories tosses in a bit of religion, mainly Stookie’s, in with the vampires and werewolves.  One of Harris’ short stories shares the name with this article as Viking vampire Eric tries to figure out Christmas so he can please his human girl friend.

Fictional monsters come in all shapes and kinds with a moral spectrum from light to dark and everywhere in between as it fits the story and the genre, and readers and writers are fine with that.

Then there’s stories based on the Greek and Norse mythologies.  Here’s where things have been getting weird with some writers.  Most of the Greek myth-based stories I’ve read have ignored Christianity and focused on the secular aspects of the characters. 

Or, in the case of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, people go to the afterlife they believe in.

However, some writers using the Norse stories have been making some strange choices.  I just finished a contemporary paranormal story where Norse gods were Catholic and celebrated Christmas!  

Then there’s a story where every warrior or strong soul, no matter their religion or ethnicity, are taken to Valhalla when they die so they can fight at Ragnorak which is the Norse Apocalypse.  This essentially denies the truth of any other religion.  

Does this mixing or ignoring of the most prominent current religions work?  Not for me because it was so shocking that it knocked me out of the story.  Your tolerance may vary.  

But it does pose a serious question you should ask in your worldbuilding.  How does contemporary religion and readers’ faith affect your story?  

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Christmas Songs Can Teach a Writer

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."  The only character more interesting than a villain is a villain who is redeemed.

"Oh, Holy Night"  A powerful story is often best told simply.

"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"  Sometimes, something innocent can become creepy.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"  A one-sided romantic relationship is boring.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"  The underdog with a reviled talent makes a great hero.  

"Frosty the Snowman"  A great character often deserves a sequel.  ("I'll be back again, some day." ) 

"Carol of the Bells"  Driving rhythm can pull the reader forward.  

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"  You can tell a story through dialogue.

"Silent Night"  A few simple images can create powerful emotions.

“Let It Snow, Let It Snow”  The quiet, homey moments are often filled with the greatest emotions and memory.

"The Christmas Song"  ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…." )  Setting alone can show strong emotion and story.

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”  A fantasy plot makes much more sense with lots of details.  (“There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage.  I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage.”)  NOTE: Best Christmas novelty song ever!

"Good King Wenceslas"  Sometimes, a character is remembered more for kindness than power or glory.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"  Home and family are two of the most powerful goals within the human heart.  

"Baby, It's Cold Outside."  "This is for your good, not mine" is a great seduction.

“Is that You, Santa Claus?”  Every good thing may disguise a bad thing.

"Jingle Bells" and "Jingle Bell Rock"  The times and tempo may change, but the story remains the same.  

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"  Sometimes, the character's emotions and the message aren't the same.  

"Santa Baby"  With the right voice, even Santa and a chimney can be made into a double entendre.  

“All I Want for Christmas Is You.”  Love is the greatest gift.  


SCHEDULE NOTE:  I’ll be spending next Monday, Christmas Day, with my family so there won’t be an article. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dealing with the Haters

QUESTION:  When I tell people my first novel is being published by an epublisher, they make fun of me and ask me why I'm not with a "real" publisher.  Ouch!  This really hurts me.  How can I handle the put downs? 


I've been at this business for over thirty years, and I am an ebook pioneer so I've seen it all.  The first thing you need to know is that whatever you write whatever publisher you choose whatever media you write for will have someone making fun of you.  

From your fellow writers and publishing professionals, you will face sneers and contempt.  If you are e-published, if you are self-published, if you write for Kensington rather than Pocket, or paperback rather than hardcover, or if you write romance or erotica or mystery or science fiction or any other sort of fiction, you are looked down upon by someone, and that person has no trouble telling you so.  

From the real world of family, friends, readers, and strangers, people will sneer at you for all the above reasons as well as a few more. Most people think Kobe Bryant works hard for his craft and has a natural born skill, but writers just put words on paper and anyone can do it.  

Over half the people who learn you are a writer tell you that they are going to write a book someday, and they think it will be published instantly.  People believe that most celebrities actually write their own books, and, therefore, if that idiot can write a book, anyone can. 

The most important thing to know is that THEY don't define you. YOU define you.  

I've discovered that my enthusiasm can win over those blank stares. The trick is to believe in what you are doing and who you are. If you give those people with sneers or blank stares the power to define who you are, then you've lost, and you are nothing. 

Instead, believe in yourself and what you are doing. Writing is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and if you succeed, then you are a success. Glow with it, and no one can belittle you. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Time Travel and the Never-Mind Factor

"I hate temporal mechanics!"  --Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE

Lately, it seems every time I start flipping through TV channels, I come across some old TV episode that involves time travel.  STAR TREK, in all its permutations, travels through time, the CHARMED witches travel through time, some poor fool on THE TWILIGHT ZONE travels through time, etc., etc.   It’s also playing a large part of this season of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

Time travel also seems to be one of the new spices added to different paranormal book series to spice them up a bit.  

The biggest problem with time travel, beyond the mind-numbing paradoxes, is the “never mind” factor when the author uses time travel to fix things.

Something really horrible happens to the main characters, more than a few die, evil starts taking over the world, and life as we know it is about over, then one of the good guys uses time travel to go back before it starts and stops whatever the original cause of the whole mess was.  Everything returns to exactly the way it was before the story started.

In other words, nothing really happened because nothing changes.  I always say “never mind” then something rude about the writing, and decide to find another TV show to watch the next time the writers pull out the time travel plot.

That “never mind” moment means you are cheating the reader of genuine experience.  If unhappiness, danger, and death no longer can be trusted to have meaning, the reader may stop caring when permanent changing moments happen.

The reader can also feel cheated to the point she no longer trusts anything you write, and may very well say “never mind” when your next book is out.


Monday, November 27, 2017

The Drama Queen Opening

Here’s how not to start your novel.  

One or more of the characters is acting like a lunatic because she’s so frantic about something she doesn’t mention.

Dire language about a vague disaster is used.

The other characters and the pace are as frantic.

Then all this drama proves to be about a minor problem, or one that is such a problem that the overkill of the scene would be best replaced with one that is considerably more informative and lets the gravity of the situation speak for itself.

Drama queen opening scenes simply don’t work because the reader realizes she’s been fooled which may make her put down the book, or she won’t trust you when genuine disasters happen.  

Often, too, the drama queen scene proves to be unintentionally funny which can set the wrong tone for the novel.