Monday, November 20, 2017

Flashbacks, Yes or No

QUESTION: Writers are often told that editors and readers hate flashbacks, but I see them, some of them full scenes, used all the time. What gives?

The first thing you must consider is the kind of book you're talking about. Flashbacks are quite common in literary fiction, not that common in genre (popular fiction).

Literary fiction and some mainstream fiction aren't concerned with plot and linear time (one event followed by another event). In fact, plot suspense is often tossed away by having the end of the book revealed at the beginning of the book.

Popular fiction, however, depends on plot and linear time, and the reader wants to see what happens next.

Flashbacks are a major speed bump which slows or stops the reader's forward movement through the story. The reader must pause and readjust at the beginning of the flashback and then again at the resumption of the regular plot. That pause can be fatal to the reader's immersion into the story.


Most flashbacks are poorly done, even in published writing, and the inexperienced writer would be wise to avoid them entirely because they give too much information which can be deleted without a loss to the story. Instead, the important bits can be sprinkled judiciously through the story with dialogue and interiors.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Too Stupid To Live

Readers of romance use the term "too stupid to live" (TSTL) to describe a character, usually the heroine, who does incredibly dumb things to further the plot.  

These characters are equivalent to the scantily clad bimbo in a horror movie who leaves a locked house to wander around outside bellowing, "Is anyone there?"

Of course, the really stupid or lazy person is the author who didn't bother to create a logical plot.

You're not sure if the heroine is too stupid to live?  Here are some examples.

A heroine may be too-stupid-to-live if she

Doesn't change her lock or improve security after a serial killer breaks in her home and leaves a threatening note.  Nor does she consider staying elsewhere.

Sends her guards home after the so-far-inept police decide they have captured the serial killer.

The heroine gets hot for the hero and does something about it when the bad guys are near.

The trained assassin is sneaking up on her professional bodyguard so the heroine, with no fighting training, attacks him herself rather than yelling a warning.

The "Full Moon Killer" is savaging locals.  The creepy guy next door reeks of Nair, wears flea colors, and buys large boxes of Milk Bones although he doesn't own a dog, but the heroine isn't suspicious because "werewolves don't exist."

The heroine has an entire troop of bad guys after her, but she doesn't call in reinforcements, seek help from the police, or tell the hero she's in trouble.  

She has the only copy of some incriminating documents, and she doesn't make copies, or put them in a safety deposit box in her bank.  Instead, she leaves them in her apartment.

The heroine's blind date drinks really red Bloody Marys, has a bad overbite, and stares at her jugular vein instead of her large boobs, but she isn't suspicious because "vampires don't exist."

The bad guy asks her to meet him to exchange the documents for the hero, and she goes without back up or a weapon.

Bad guys are after the heroine so she picks high heels instead of running shoes because she'd rather die than be unfashionable.

The heroine starts a verbal battle with the hero while they are trying to sneak up on the bad guys.

Someone is trying to kill her so she wanders around outside and in the cavernous mansion she’s staying at.  


What can you do to avoid a TSTL character?  If you need your stalker-chased heroine to appear on national TV, don’t have her on the kiss cam at a nationally televised football game.  Instead, have her save a child from a burning car, and the rescue is caught by someone with a cellphone.  If she must do something stupid, have her know that it is stupid or dangerous yet make all other options worse or impossible.  As Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”  This applies more to the writer than the character.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bad Blurbs in the Real World, Part 5



A book description or back cover blurb is the third-best promotion you have.  (The first is name recognition, the second the cover.)  The first two may get a reader to glance at your offering, but a good or bad blurb can make or break the sale.  

I receive a number of ebook promotion emails like BookBuzz and Fussy Librarian, and some of the book blurbs have been so bad that I’ve started collecting them.  
Here are a few with the author and book title removed to protect the incompetent.  My comments in italics are beneath each one.

NOTE:  To see how to write a good blurb, please read my article on the subject or do a search of my blog with the term “blurb” for links in my “Links of Interest” articles.  To learn how to figure out your genre, clink on this.  

FANTASY

In 2013, a gate to another world opened, and Elves used their magic to conquer Earth, crushing all resistance before them.

Three hundred years after the Conquest, the exiled Elven High Queen rules an orderly but stagnant Earth, with humanity forced to fight in the High Queen’s war against the traitors on the Elven homeworld.

This is worldbuilding information, not a blurb.  Worldbuilding is static, a blurb should be about action.  It should tell the reader the goal of the book and whose goal it is.

HORROR

It was supposed to be a vacation, but instead reporter Rebekka Franck confronts her most baffling case yet. When a priest’s exorcism goes awry, Rebekka must pick up the pieces and discover the mystery behind an evil force. Rebekka and Sune are on a vacation in Northern Zeeland when they suddenly find themselves involved in what turns out to be their most horrifying case to this date…

A blurb should be lean.  This one is full of redundancy.  Plus, big hint: ellipsis periods don’t heighten the tension.  

PARANORMAL MYSTERY

An antique dealer is killed for an artifact which has the potential to rewrite human history. With Griffin and Erik, Cassie is sent to hunt for clues. 

This blurb lacks dynamic action with its bland verbs and passive verb structure for the main characters.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE

The well-meaning and meddlesome Mr. and Mrs. Aden want nothing more than to protect their only daughter, Hannah. After her childhood kidnapping in Somalia and a final showdown in Italy against the monster responsible, nineteen-year-old Hannah just wants back the life stolen from her. She isn’t na├»ve like her mother believes. Frequent flashes of past terrors assure her that the healing process is far from over. At the same time, she’d hardly use her dad’s words and call herself ''strong'' or ''brave.'' That description belongs to Melissa Bennett, the woman who almost died saving her.

Back story.  Nothing but back story which doesn’t sell the book.  It’s impossible to tell who the main character is in the book, either.   

SCIENCE FICTION

A massive solar storm erases the world's technological infrastructure and kills billions. While the remaining humans are struggling to adapt and survive, they notice that some among them have...changed. 

This could describe dozens of standard dystopian novels.  Go for the particular about the book, not the generic. Ellipsis periods don’t add tension here, either.  

SUSPENSE

Years ago Seychelle Sullivan had the chance to save a person’s life. But on that summer night in Florida, lost in a world of teenage resentment and loneliness, Seychelle was not able to feel any pain but her own. Today Seychelle captains her father’s forty-six-foot salvage boat out of Fort Lauderdale’s New River. But she’s never escaped that one moment when she could have made a difference and didn’t.

And the suspense is?  This might as well be a mainstream novel, or any other type of novel.  No sense of conflict, plot, or danger.  It’s emotional backstory.

PARANORMAL

To secure her father's salvation, Gitta must travel to the depths of hell, accompanied only by a sexy, irritable vampire...named Scott.

The end of the blurb should be the most interesting part showing the big conflict.  Having a vampire named “Scott” isn’t even remotely a big conflict.

STEAMPUNK FANTASY

In a steampunk London that almost existed, where tinkerers and clockwork devices exist alongside handsome cabs and corsets, murder is still solved by traditional observation and intuition.

Historical fantasy is based on history, and a glaring error in your book blurb is a no-sale for many of us.  (It’s “Hansom cab,” not “handsome cab.”)

STEAMPUNK FANTASY

Final Fantasy meets Agatha Christie in this fresh steampunk fantasy.

These are two genres I never thought to see together, because, well, they don’t belong together.  It’s obvious this writer has never read any Agatha Christie which is a staid cozy or straight mystery that is the exact opposite of Final Fantasy, a roleplaying game that is mainly action/adventure.  Before you make comparisons, make sure you know the two things you are comparing.  

MYSTERY

Little did businessman and entrepreneur Michael Rossi know that the telephone call he answered on that fateful Friday would be the catalyst for his death, and the subsequent recovery of his body from the waters of Sydney Harbour the following morning. Unaware of her nephew’s fate, Esme Timmons retires for the evening, unsuspecting of the events about to unfold; events that will, ultimately, expose a grim lie, buried deep in the past.

Two passive events where a character can do nothing do not make a book blurb.  The mystery solver, not the victims, should be the focus of a blurb. If Esme is the main character, she’s presented passively.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Talking to Myselves

QUESTION: I am trying to write a dialogue scene in which a character is arguing with himself yet it seems that there are two distinct persons talking, almost as if the good side of him is arguing with the bad side. What is a good way to show this?

You could do it like regular dialogue between two people.  The "real" character could give his better self some kind of snarky nickname which you could use as a dialogue tag.

Jon sneered as his other self.  "Why don't you shut up, Angel Fart. I stopped believing in virtue and nobility years ago."

"If you stopped believing, why am I here?"

Or you could do it like normal internal monologue but with the good Jon’s comments underlined/italics.

Jon fought to ignore his inner voice.  He knew what he had to do, and he'd do it.  He'd stopped believing in doing the right thing years ago.


If you stopped believing, why can you hear me?

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Selfish Goal

A powerful novel needs a main character with an important goal he must achieve by the end of the novel. At all costs, the main character must achieve that goal or fail utterly with devastating cost to him and those around him.

A recent novel I tried to read reminded me of when that goal won't work.

Here's the premise. The heroine is the standard urban fantasy woman-- incredible supernatural abilities, snappy leather outfit and dialogue, sharp weapons, and a supernatural boyfriend. So far, so good.

Even better, she is the prophesied warrior who can stop the supernatural baddies before they can start the Apocalypse by opening the gates to Hell.

The Big Bad holds her innocent kid sister hostage, and the ransom is the keys to open all of Hell's gates to Earth.

She must decide whether to save her kid sister by helping the demons of Hell wipe out human life or lose her sister and save everyone else.

A no-brainer, right? She'd choose to save humanity.

Instead, she chooses to help the demons end life on Earth with the very faint possibility she may be able to stop them.

At this point in the novel, I said some rude things about the stupidity and selfishness of the heroine and stopped reading because this wasn't a heroine I could root for.

When you are thinking about your main character's goal for the novel, remember that it must be a goal the reader can root for. Saving a sibling is a good thing but saving a sibling at the cost of everyone else's life is a bad thing.

A hero's goal is selfless, not selfish.


Monday, October 16, 2017

What We Leave Behind

The phone call woke me.

“You probably don’t remember me, but I’m (name removed).  I used to work for your parents.”

“Of course I remember you.”

“I dreamed about your parents’ store last night, and I wanted to tell you.”  She then proceeded to talk about the store, but she kept repeating the same sentence through the conversation.  “And your momma told me I could do anything well.”  

I’m sure over forty years has passed since my mother complimented her, but that one kind and generous comment had stuck with this woman through all those years.  

Our stories are like that.  Readers remember the emotional glow of a character who has achieved her positive goal, who chooses kindness over cruelty, who wins against darkness.  It’s what makes some stories memorable and others quickly forgotten.  

The light, not the darkness, is what many of us leave behind when our stories are finished.


When things are bad, remember that.  It is a wonderful legacy.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Making Info Tidbits Palatable

No matter what kind of novel you write, you’ll face the problem of how to share bits of information with your reader.

These bits are minor plot or character clues that the main character and the reader need to know to go forward to a logical conclusion.

Often, these small clues come from different sources, but writing a scene for each bit of information often slows the pace to a crawl.  What to do?

One method is delegation.  Have your character delegate the task of finding out this information to a secondary character who will do it off page.  The secondary character will report back and in one scene present all the necessary information.  This method is often used in mysteries, but it can be just as effective in any genre novel.

The second method is finding a gossip, expert, or reporter who already knows the information.  To make this scene work, make that gossip or expert a bit larger than life, funny, or someone who knows embarrassing things about the main character so the scene is interesting.  

The most important thing to remember when doing this is to make it integral to the novel and to make it a logical choice for the main character to make.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Plagiarism

QUESTION:  What is plagiarism?  If I borrow an author’s style, is that plagiarism?  

Plagiarism is a very complex issue.  The most obvious example is a writer who has cobbled together many paragraphs of someone else's work with their own words as cement.  

A less obvious example is someone who uses someone else's work as a template to their own.  Each scene is a rewrite of a scene in someone else's novel.  

Another very common form of plagiarism is cutting and pasting text from a nonfiction source into a novel.

Famous writers certainly aren't exempt from being guilty of plagiarism.  Janet Dailey's flagrant plagiarism of Nora Roberts' novels is a perfect example.  (JD was proven guilty and had to pay restitution.)
  
Not so famous writers are also found guilty of the same thing.  Some years back, a teenaged novelist had her first novel pulled off shelves when readers found that she'd patched together several other books to create her own.

Copying someone’s style isn’t plagiarism as long as you aren’t copying content.  Many new writers try to emulate a favorite author’s style because they haven’t found their own yet.  After a few years, gained confidence, and the sheer difficulty of maintaining someone else’s voice, most develop their own style.  

As a reader, if you feel that the two books are so similar that it might be plagiarism, you should contact the publisher or the author, express your concerns, and let them decide whether this is plagiarism or not.  

Most authors have websites these day with contact information as do publisher websites.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

Taxes and Writers

For American Writers Only

NOTE:  I found a new article on taxes and decided to update my old article to include it as well as checking for dead links.  I discovered that many of these articles have been updated to include information for those who are self published. So, here is the update.

Did you know that you don't have to make a profit to write off your writing expenses?  You don't even have to be published or contracted to publish.  

All you have to do is prove that you are a working writer.  This can be as simple as having copies of your rejection letters.  

I'm not an accountant or tax attorney so here are some experts to give you even more information on writers and taxes.


Writers and taxes, General Information:









https://www.bookworks.com/2017/10/sales-tax-basics-indie-authors/


Deductions:





Monday, September 18, 2017

Finding Your Voice

I've read somewhere that an author doesn't have a voice or true style until they have written over a million words. This is true to a certain extent. By that time, we've stopped trying to copy our favorite authors or second guess ourselves, etc., if for no other reason than we're tired of doing that.

Some writers don't read the kind of fiction they write while they are working on a book for fear that they will start copying a writer's voice instead of using their own.

Voice is more than just the use or misuse of metaphors, etc. I know I choose the language I use because of the character's viewpoint I'm in. (I write strict third-person viewpoint.)

One character might see a small plane wreck and describe it in my narrative as

The plane's pieces were scattered over the valley like clothes dropped by a drunk on the way to bed.

Another character who is more analytical would think

The gouge of earth left by the plane's moving fuselage led him to a boulder. The left wing tip lay against it. The furrow veered violently left there, and bits of wing then fuselage littered the area around it. When there was nothing left of the plane to break apart, the gouge ended.

The author must also choose voice by the genre expectations of the readers. Choosing the wrong voice can be quite jarring.

Can you imagine a romance novel written like a noir detective novel?

I can say this for Lord Garven, he was built, built like Cleopatra's Needle, but I walked away alone in the dark, dank London fog. I had my partner to avenge, and he had a date with Lord Southby.

One big mistake I've seen used by beginning writers is emulating the wrong writers, especially writers from the past.

A friend had a thing for Sinclair Lewis who wrote in the early 20th century.  I had to explain to him that Lewis' style was hopelessly outdated with its languid pace, florid style, and sentence structure, and with the current tastes of editors and readers, he would find no readers.

It's equally disastrous to emulate the current literary style of the moment like writing in first person immediate or second person immediate.

I look at Lord Garven. He is built. Like Cleopatra's Needle. But I shake my head no and walk through the door. I must find my partner's killer.

or

You look at Lord Garven. He is built. Like Cleopatra's Needle. But you shake your head no and walk through the door. You must find your partner's killer.

By the time you're publishable, the moment is long gone.

What I'm saying is find the right voice for each work, and your own voice will emerge.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Finishing a Novel

QUESTION:  I keep starting novels but can't seem to finish them because I can't figure out how.  Help!

Writing isn't just inspiration. A novel involves a great deal of planning, thought, and preparation. Those who just write instead of doing some form of plan or outline are more likely to be unable to finish a novel, or their novel falls apart. 

Learn how to make that plan, if not an outline. 

To do this, read books on writing. Most are one-size fits almost nobody, but you may eventually stumble on the one idea or method that gives you an "ah ha!" moment. 

Mine was Ben Bova's WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS which helped me understand the relationship between plot and character. It's a good book even if you don't write science fiction. (It's been republished under a number of names.) 

Find a good teacher. The Internet has some wonderful online teaching sites.

Ask questions at blogs like this one.

And when you find novels you really like, reread them and try to figure out what the writer did and how the novel was structured.  

Take the book apart by writing a short description of what happens in each chapter so you can better see the structure.  

Don't give up if  you really want to tell the story.  Eventually, you will figure out how to finish it if you work at it. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Finding Your Character's Weakness

According to Greek myth, Achilles' goddess mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury, but the heel she held him by wasn't dipped.  As fate and story would have it, he died when someone shot him in that heel.   

Most people and the most interesting fictional characters always have an Achilles heel, that one weakness which will defeat them unless they overcome it.

As a writer, you must figure out what your main character's weakness is and attack it through plot.

That weakness can be fear of some physical danger.  If like Indiana Jones, your character is afraid of snakes, then snakes he must face to achieve victory.  

A better weakness is an inner one.  If your character prides himself on his dignity and fears ridicule, he must find the strength, at his high school reunion, to race across the room in his bunny underwear to protect his girlfriend from the same bullies who just stripped him.  

If he fears death, he must find the strength to risk dying for something or someone who is more important than life.

Minor weaknesses and disasters can add conflict to a scene, but that one Achilles' heel of your character and his attempts to overcome it are the heart and soul of a good story.