Monday, June 18, 2018

The Minor Character

A minor character is a character who makes one or two appearances in a story, or if he has more appearances, he has no real character growth. He can be anything from the stable boy who tends the horses to the best friend’s brother who has a few comic moments.

Here are things to consider when you have minor characters in a scene. 

If all the characters in a scene are minor to the plot, you need to ask yourself whether you need the scene.  

If the minor character scene is only there to tell readers something about the main character, then you should move it to a scene that is necessary with characters who are more important.  

If the person is familiar to the point-of-view character, very little physical description is needed unless the physical description has importance in the scene.  

For example, Jim studies his friends and decides to take Fred with him to meet the bad guy because Fred is built like a linebacker and is good in a physical fight.

However, if it's in the heroine's viewpoint, and she's introduced to the hero's friends, she will pay attention to what they look like and their names so more physical detail is needed.

If the scene needs a waitress who adds nothing to the scene beyond taking the food order, you can use some line like "the waitress took their order and left."

If the hero is flirting with the waitress to make the heroine jealous, then a bit more of a physical description may be needed and a bit more personality if the character flirts back.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Character Change and Backstory

QUESTION: My main character used to be a bad guy, but now he’s not.  He’s gone elsewhere and changed his name.  How much of his past should I include?  Do I need to write scenes from his past?  Will readers believe he has changed?

If his past (backstory) is important, and it probably should be, you don’t have to include scenes of that past unless you think the reader wouldn’t understand him or his backstory is really complex.  Usually in a case like this, his past life must impact his present one, and backstory scenes are interlaced with the present day.  

Remember that every time a scene from the past is inserted, the reader stops dead to get his mind into the past then must stop dead again to get back in the present.  This kind of back and forth is not a good thing in popular fiction like fantasy.

Backstory can be inserted easily enough during present time scenes through dialogue, thoughts from the main character, and events.   

He could be in a tavern to meet another character and hear a drunk nearby talking about his former identity's bad-ass behavior and think — “He'd piss his pants if he knew he was sitting a few bar stools away from me."  Then you could have another character say, "But (insert former name here) was decent enough.  He'd never fight around civilians and that time he rescued the child from the burning house instead of taking the money.  You wouldn't see (insert new bad guy's name here) do that." 

Sooner rather than later, you’ll also need to tell the reader why he chose to change.  Again, it need not be a huge info dump.  

As to whether readers will accept a bad guy as a good guy, part of this is determined by genre expectations from its readers.  A truly despicable character would never be accepted as a hero in a romance, but, elsewhere, readers have a lot more forgiveness about this.  In your reading of the genre you are writing, do you recall characters who switched moral sides and did it work and why?  

Two superhero movies I can recall where the bad guy turned into the good guy are MEGAMIND and DESPICABLE ME. The change in their characters was the story. 

And think also of Magneto in the X-Men series.  As a bad guy, he is morally and emotionally complex, and he's helped his former friend Charles Xavier more than once to save the day for everyone's sake. 

Usually, bad characters who change sides have already shown they are capable of good behavior with the bad behavior.  That makes it more believable.  A psychopath who changes to become a hero is totally unbelievable.


The trick is making your character's choices and changes believable.  If you do, the reader will accept them. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

State Your Full Name for the Jury

When I started writing, one of the standard rules of a novel was that the writer should tell the full name of a main or viewpoint character in their first viewpoint appearance.  Mary may be Mary for the rest of the novel, but her first viewpoint scene should have her as Mary Smith in that first mention.

This rule seems to have fallen by the wayside in many of the novels I read, and that’s a pity.  

I write mini-reviews of every book I read and share it with some of the reader lists I belong to, and I’ve spent lots of frustrating time trying to find a main character’s full name.  Somehow, just a first name doesn’t seem enough when talking about a character to me.  

Even more frustrating is an author who refuses to give any name to a viewpoint character.  One well-known paranormal suspense writer has gone to the extreme in this.  Her series is a paranormal version of CRIMINAL MINDS with psychic FBI agents and bad guys.  Many of the characters have viewpoints in each novel, and members of the FBI team makes appears in some novels as minor characters with viewpoints.  In an attempt to increase suspense or to be annoyingly coy, she will often not use the character’s name until late into the novel although who that character is doesn’t change anything when his name is mentioned.  

This is so beyond frustrating that I want to grab her lapels and tell her to stop it.  

One of the most important commandments of genre fiction is that the author does nothing to stop the reader in his tracks and jerk him out of the dream of the novel, and this kind of nonsense definitely does that.

Now, there are exceptions to always using a name.  If your bad guy has a viewpoint and you don’t want to reveal his identity yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to identify him as “he” or some other way.    Just be sure that the reader has some means of telling that “he” is the same person each time.  

Monday, May 28, 2018

Too Much or Not Enough Information

QUESTION:  Is it okay to leave the reader a little confused so that later on, when I reveal the secret to them, it’s surprising?  My main character withholds secrets from others and from the reader.   


It depends on what you mean by confuse.  If you are leaving out information so that what is happening makes very little sense or the main character is behaving in a bizarre manner with no real clue why she is, that’s a very bad thing.  If you give the reader more than a few “what the heck is happening, and why is she behaving like this?” moments, then the reader stops reading.  

If you mean not giving the reader all the information, that can work, but it is a tricky dance between giving the reader enough information and lying to the reader by withholding too much.  

With a major viewpoint character it works to leave out information if that character isn’t thinking about something. Readers don’t feel cheated if there’s really no reason for that character to be thinking about this subject, but, if this subject is up front and center in her thoughts, then the reader would feel cheated if important information is left out.

As a very broad example, imagine the heroine thinking during her first meeting with a guy who is attracted to her, but later, it is revealed she’s lesbian.  That’s leading the reader astray in a dishonest way.  If, however, she was married to a jerk who beat her, this information doesn’t have to be revealed until later unless there is a reason for her to fear the guy who is attracted to her.  

If it feels dishonest not to tell the reader something, then the surprise isn’t worth it because you may have lost the reader before the surprise is revealed, or the reader feels betrayed and lied to.

If you are confused about what to do, do it the way you feel works then trust your beta readers or critique partners to tell you if this works or not.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Goal, Cost, and Motivation

Have you ever started a novel where the main character decides to face an impossible task and an implacable enemy with the odds so far in favor of the bad guys that success, let alone survival, is minimal at best?

Sounds like a great novel, doesn't it?

Here are two novels I read where the main character deals with that impossible situation. In one novel, the hero must save his young daughter from a very ugly death. In the second, the heroine must find out the truth about the death of a young woman she's never met, and the outcome appears to have no real value to her. She's not even working for money.

I zipped through the first novel like a speed-reading lunatic to find out how the hero managed to save his little girl. The second novel I very nearly tossed away after the first few chapters because I hate stupid and suicidal main characters who have no real reason to go forward in an impossible situation, but I persevered out of curiosity and a fondness for dissecting author mistakes.

After over half the novel, the author of the second novel finally lets the reader know why the heroine has continued forward in the investigation, but by then, the damage has been done to the novel and the reader's reactions to the heroine. The reader also realizes that the author has cheated by withholding vital information which an author who is fair would not. 

At this point, the odds of the reader picking up the next book by this author are slimmer than the original chance of the hero's survival.

As an author, you must balance goal, cost, and motivation. If the goal and the probable cost for the main character is great, the character must have motivation that equals both.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Pace and Emotion

Action and a fast pace don't preclude emotion, and a story can't be all hack and slash.

Years ago, when the INDIANA JONES movies were so wildly popular, a publisher created an action/adventure book series with the pace of the opening scene of the original INDIANA JONES where disaster builds upon disaster upon disaster with no real stopping for breath.

I read the first book, and it was bloody awful because the action became boring and silly at such a lunatic pace, and there was so little personality to the main character or any of the other characters I didn't give a damn one way or the other what happened.

EXAMPLE: A bear chases the hero up a tree, he thinks the tree is safe, but it's rotten, and the bear begins to shove it over, the tree lands in the river, but it's infested with alligators, and there are bad guys on the other side of the river, and a bear on this side. He out swims the gators to a bridge and begins to climb up a vine growing up its side, but, ooops, there's a large poisonous snake right above him, and....

Needless to say, that series vanished without a trace after a few books.

Pace isn’t just violent act after violent act, or the characters moving from one place to another. It’s mixing characterization and elements that move the emotional and action plot forward. It’s giving the reader continual questions about the characters and what’s happening and answering a few of those questions as you move along.

It’s emotional consequences.

It’s having a quiet moment of introspection or a brief comic moment in the heat of a long battle that reminds the reader why they’re reading the story or why they like these characters.

Monday, May 7, 2018

I Am a Camera

In my blog entry on participant viewpoint , I talked about the dangers of using camera viewpoint in writing scenes, but the idea of a camera shooting the action can be useful when you are writing description.

As you describe a room from a character's viewpoint, imagine that the character is that camera as he scans the room as he enters. 

In a scene which doesn't start with high action such as a fight, he would scan right to left or left to right, and the important objects would be described in relationship to those near it. The character would see the piano, then the bar, then the poker tables on the far side. 

If some object or person is important--the character is looking for it or meeting him, etc., then that object or person is described first with the general impressions of the room then the details of the room can be filled in as needed. For example, if someone is coming at the viewpoint character with a sword, he won't notice the piano or the bar except as possible objects to hide behind.

When writing that description, the idea of the camera shot can also keep you from making a mistake in visual pacing.

For example, you are describing the room, then you put in a character's brief mental comment about something, then you go back to describing the room. That's the equivalent of beginning to pan the room with a camera then jerking the camera toward the main character's face, then the camera returns to panning.

By thinking of the visual description as camera work, you are less likely to make mistakes in visual and action pacing.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Bad Blurbs in the Real World, Part 6

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.  

ACTION/ADVENTURE

It’s 1931 and men are desperate for jobs. A lucky few will get to work in the searing heat of the Nevada desert on the massive Hoover Dam, the single largest public works project in history. Their goal is to tame the mighty Colorado River with a dam that towers sixty stories high from the base of the canyon to the crest of the dam. In doing so they will create the largest man-made lake in the world. Nothing like it has ever been built.

Backstory and background do not a blurb make unless this is nonfiction.  Who are the main characters?  What are their goals? How is this an action/adventure story?

FANTASY

I've got two choices. Join the Undercover Protectorate. Or die.

This is a log line rather than a blurb, but it’s a very bad log line because it has an obvious answer with no payoff on what the book is about.  So I have two choice, read the book or not.  I would choose not since I have no clue what the book is about, and the author knows nothing about creating suspense so the book will probably be a dud.

YOUNG ADULT

Barnabas Tew is a detective in Victorian London, although he is not nearly as successful as he dreamed he'd be. In fact, there are times that he fears that he may not be very good at the detecting business, after all. Everything changes, however, during a visit to the museum, where an encounter with a none-too-friendly mummy whisks Barnabas away from everything he knows. It seems that the Egyptian afterlife is in turmoil and the fate of the entire world is at stake, and Barnabas has been sent for by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, to save the day. Barnabas is in over his head but determined to prove himself once and for all. With only his trusty assistant Wilfred at his side, will Barnabas manage to solve the case and save the Egyptian afterlife? Or will the dangerous and unpredictable Egyptian gods get the best of the intrepid duo?

Wordy with too much information about unimportant things.  And, once again, questions are asked that have obvious answers which suck whatever suspense may have been created.  The book is listed as young adult yet the character talked about is an adult with the boy barely mentioned.  

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE

The police were beside themselves this weekend. What with missing teens and a drug cartel on the loose, they had their work cut out for them. And with the phones not entirely reliable due to the weather, they weren’t able to warn anyone of the dangerous Russian thugs running along the coast. Maybe if they had, our lovely historical society president might not have been so happy to help the mysterious Russian who showed up on her dock in the middle of the storm. That would have been a pity, since it turns out they knew each other from way back when. They’ve sworn to never love again, but then again—Never Say Never.

“Beside themselves” is an old-fashioned phrase used about oneself, and, these days, it would be said by an elderly society woman who is beside herself because her rival wore the same dress to church.  No cop would ever be beside himself or herself about anything.  The sentences seem to be from two different sources so the language and even tenses vary.  Neither really fits a romantic suspense description.

HORROR

Loyalty Kane is a boy with a heavy secret to bear. His life has never been a happy one, but the bags beneath his eyes, and his stooped shoulders, are signs of a burden greater than unhappiness. The solace he finds in school will soon be gone, as summer rushes toward him. Loyal fears and loathes the hot summer months that most children love.

This description is so vague about what Loyalty faces that it could be anything from being the victim of a pedophile to a bully to a demon.  Surprise is nice in a book, but you want your description to target the right audience.  This one does not.  

ROMANCE

Harley is a rebel soul, lashing out at his family because all they care about is their social standing. They are destroying him piece by piece. He is a biker on a downward spiral with his world falling apart.

Together with his man servant, Garrett, he sets out to discover himself and look for the angel in his visions. This is his story about failure, redemption and his search for Mari.

“Together with his man servant, Garrett” totally ruins the rebel against wealth and family vibe the author is trying to present.  “They are destroying him piece by piece” also makes him a victim, not a hero.  Most of the sentences are weak writing, as well.  

GENRE?  

A good story has to bring out all our senses. A good story has the feeling of a true story is being told. A good story will cause the reader to think.

This is one of the worst blurbs I’ve ever seen.  It tells nothing about the subject, the genre, or the characters.  I doubt this writer has a clue what a blurb actually is.

FANTASY

Scorned by her family. Banished by her kind. Hunted by zealots. Where does an exiled Fairy Queen hide? A remote mountain cabin, the seedy underbelly of a metropolis, or an uninhabited island. All would be good choices, but after hundreds of years on the run, the daughter of Oberon, King of the Wild Fairies, signs a binding contract with the zealots that hunt her. In exchange, they allow her to settle down in the last place anyone would look for fairy royalty…

Blurbs are short.  Don’t waste space telling what the book isn’t because you won’t have space to tell what the book is.  The blurb gives no real clue about the type of book this is.  Will the Fairy Queen find love, solve a murder, start a revolution?  Who knows?

FANTASY

Some say this book has a harry potter feeling, but it's a completely novel story and unique magic world. The world is beautiful because it's full with magic elements of seven types, each in a designated color - just like the rainbow code! That said, those colors could only be seen by some special eyes, such as Soarame's! 

Many animals in this world possess magic power, so they were called "magimals". A well-known example is dragons, and we all know how strong they are. However, they are still not the most powerful kind of magimals, because each type of magic has a king kind - and never underestimate a magimal just because it looks cute and little!

What isn’t wrong with this blurb.  Poor grammar.  A ridiculous comparison.  (Hint: Never compare your book to the Harry Potter series because almost everyone will sneer.)  Worldbuilding description with no characters, goals, or plot tells nothing important about the book.  The language is also wrong for fiction.

PARANORMAL MYSTERY

Daniel’s temporarily stepped into the shoes of his murdered cousin, former Sheriff Mac Allen. Before it’s over, of course, he’s going to need her services—both investigative and psychic. He’s hell-bent to catch Mac’s murderer with the unwittingly amusing help of irascible Fletcher Enloe. (Author’s name) ratchets up the supernatural factor when super-psychic MaMa Allen tells Promise a spirit haunting Fire Mountain is leaving the mountain to prowl among the living.

Whose service is Daniel going to need?  From details I picked up on the book series’ Amazon page, it is Promise who is listed at the bottom of the blurb.  Who exactly is Daniel?  Don’t assume that the reader knows as much about your book or series as you do.  


Monday, April 23, 2018

What Goes into a Novel?

If you're not sure about how to construct a novel, you need to take a novel or two apart.

You do this by going to your keeper shelf and finding several books of the type you want to write.   These books should be fairly recent, no more than a year or two old.   Pick one by a familiar name writer.   Another should be by a fairly new writer with a few books out in that genre.

Here's how you take each novel apart.   Start reading the book with a pen and notepad beside you.   After each chapter, write down the major plot points and events that happened in that chapter.   When you're done, you'll have a good overview of how much goes into that size novel.   

Do this for several novels.   If you know of a book that is close to how you imagine your book’s plot, be sure to take that book apart chapter by chapter, as well.

Some writing instructors go so far as to say you should analyze the amount of dialogue, narrative, character interiors, etc. To do this, take a number of different colors of highlighters and code each color for a specific aspect of the novel (dialog, interiors, love scenes, etc.) then highlight away.    

You need only do this for a few chapters, and you can make copies of the pages if you don't want to mess up the book.  You can usually find the first chapter or two on the author's website.

This type of analysis is especially useful for series romances from Harlequin and Silhouette.

I did the chapter analysis of a Dick Francis suspense novel before I started my first suspense, and it was an eye-opening experience about how much goes into a novel.

I know a few writers who have actually used the chapter by chapter analysis of another book to write their own.   The result wasn't suitable for selling but few first novels are, and the writer learned a lot about constructing a plot. 

If you think your copycat book is sellable, remember that, if you followed the plot and other elements too closely, you may be guilty of plagiarism which is a very bad way to start a writing career.  

Monday, April 16, 2018

Fantasy and Reality

In my dream, I walked into the snack bar of the student union of my alma mater. Daniel, the hero of my first novel, sat at one of the tables. He melted me with a sexy megawatt smile and purred, "Hello, Penn."

The awake part of me cringed--Penn was the heroine's name--and muttered, "You're going over the edge, Byerly. Writing is a form of schizophrenia." 

"Uh..., hello, Daniel." I sat down beside him and decided, to heck with mental illness, I was going to enjoy myself. 

Even after many years, that dream remains vivid. It was my first encounter with the gray shadings between fantasy and reality in a writer's life. I know the difference between the two, every writer must. I've also learned their interplay enriches my characters and my life.

Parts of me litter my novels like confetti at a party--Tony Chaucer wore the ratty man's bathrobe I refused to stop wearing, Ariel at five snuggled with my teddy bear, and David had my vermouth dry sense of humor. Those parts help my characters live.

But each character is more than just chucks of me. They have thoughts and wisdom I've never had. 

I've borrowed Daniel's genius for quick puns and dear Nelson's serene wisdom and faith when my own was sadly lacking. In this manner, my characters have given back as much as I've given them.  Almost like real friends. 

Are you wondering what happened in that dream about sexy Daniel? We sat and discussed his own college days. You see, fantasy like reality doesn't always have the expected ending.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Cue the Sunlight and Golden Retrievers

One of my guilty pleasures is reality ghost shows like THE DEAD FILES and MY HAUNTED HOUSE.  One of these shows is AMERICAN HAUNTING.  

In each episode, some poor family has the show’s cameras put all over their house to record ghostly happenings, various experts like mediums and researchers are brought in, the violence ratchets up to the point that they realize something a lot meaner than an annoyed and dead former owner is around, then an exorcist, priest, or psychic exorcist comes in and kicks out the evil thing.  

Most of these shows are filmed in the darkness and even the filming in daylight tends to be in dark tones, but after the evil whatever has been removed and the miasma of dark nastiness is lifted, the outside and inside of the house are shown in much brighter light.  

At the end of one show, the family is sent away while the psychic exorcist is at work, then they return.  As expected, the sun is bright, and the house is filled with light, but very unexpected was the presence of two golden retrievers waiting for their family to come home.

Since there had been no golden retrievers present during the filming, I was flummoxed.  Other episodes had cats wandering around and an occasional small dog as well as dogs in outside pens.  Why hadn’t they shown the golden retrievers?

I thought about it for a while and realized that it’s hard to think of evil in the presence of golden retrievers, the dog equivalent of dolphins or friendly angels, so the producers of this show had them removed from the house during the filming.  

This got me thinking about writing and how most writers fail to use images and metaphors that offer such a visceral reaction.  Even though a writer thinks about creating dark images during the unhappy times in the story, she may fail to offer light images when the unhappiness has been banished.

Sure, some images like sunlight and golden retrievers are a bit cliched, but that’s because they are honest images that convey emotion.  

Consider this the next time you are rewriting those scenes after things change for the better or worse.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Descriptions: Going from the Specific

To give the reader the right image of what is happening, you should always be specific.  This is particularly important in the first description of a person, place, or thing.  

Look at the sentences below, and the introduction of the heroine’s dog, Digby.


Eager for their run, Digby whined and tugged on her leash.  

Jane laughed and began to jog down the greenway that ran behind her apartment.  

The dog kept pace until they reached the wooden bridge across the creek, then the golden retriever jerked to a halt and growled.  

Sentence one is fine.  “Whined” and “leash” tell the reader that Digby is a dog; however, the reader has no sense of what the dog looks like.  It could be a poodle or a Great Dane.

Sentence two is okay if bland.

Sentence three, however, starts with the general term “dog” which still doesn’t give the reader a clue about the dog.  Not until the end of this sentence does the reader learn that the dog is a golden retriever.  By this time, the specific jars the reader who may have already visualized the dog or has decided the dog isn’t important because of the vague description.

How could these sentence be improved?

Eager for their run, Jane’s golden retriever Digby whined and tugged on her leash.

Jane laughed and began to jog down the greenway that ran behind her apartment.  

The dog kept pace until they reached the wooden bridge across the creek then jerked to a halt and growled.  


The reader instantly knows Jane’s dog is a golden retriever so the writer can now use more general terms like dog. 

Just a few words used at the right time makes a difference between pulling the reader into your story or throwing them out.