Monday, May 20, 2019

How to Vary Sentences

QUESTION: It's recently been pointed out to me that I sometimes overuse "he" and "she" when referring to my characters in narrative as well as action. I also use direct referral by calling my characters by their names, and their general persons -- i.e, "Bob," "Jill," "the man," "the young woman," etc. -- but I find that these phrases soon become old too. What should I do?

Show what the viewpoint character is feeling and seeing. For example, Tom remembers giving flowers to Jane.

Tom recalled how Jane's face lit up, her cheeks equaling the pink of the roses she clutched to her breast. She had smiled shyly at him, and he'd fallen in love at that instant.

OR

Her face had lit up, her cheeks equaling the pink of the roses she clutched to her breast. Her shy smile had won his heart in that instant.

The second version is a more intimate viewpoint, and I've varied the sentence structure a bit.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't use a character's name as designation more than once a page unless it's a scene with a number of characters.

It's better to be a bit boring using the character's name, which the reader will skim, rather than to confuse the reader as to who is doing what action. This stops the reading process completely which is the one thing a writer should avoid at all costs.

Monday, May 13, 2019

How Long Should a Sentence Be

QUESTION:  I’ve just started writing, and I’m paranoid about my sentence lengths.  Too long?  Too short?  Just right?  Help!

Don't sweat the length of the sentences. Just write.  Sentence length and various style issues are part of the rewriting process.  It's also part of the growth process of being a writer.  The more you write, the more you sound like you.  

I believe that sentences should vary in length in most instances.  Too many long sentences are boring.   Too many short sentences come across as a tire with a bump on it.  Content.  Thud!  Content.  Thud!  Content.  Thud!  Too many noun then verb sentences have the same problem.  

The advice I always give on sentences is that, if you are in the viewpoint character's head, you will rarely go wrong on sentence length or content.  If your character is dodging bullets, he won't be thinking long, deep thoughts. If he's staring at the clue board in the precinct, he won't be thinking short, choppy thoughts.  


QUESTIONS, I TAKE QUESTIONS:  Have a writing question?  Ask me here

Monday, May 6, 2019

Make It Matter

I’ve talked a lot about various craft issues that make your book readable and approachable for readers, but one thing will mean the difference between a reader rushing through your book or putting it down and not going back.  

I call this idea Make It Matter.  

What is “it?” Each scene you write, every important character, and the book itself.

How do you make each scene, character, and the book itself matter to the reader?

The reader must care.  I’m talking not just interest in what is happening but an emotional investment.  

That murder being solved might be an interesting puzzle, but if it doesn’t have an emotional component for the reader and the main character, most readers won’t care.  

I’ve put down three different mysteries in the last month because the victim was such a pile of scum that I wanted to give the murderer a medal, and the sleuth had no emotional investment in solving the crime.  I didn’t care about any of it so I stopped reading.

In a romance, the love story should be life changing for the two characters and emotionally fulfilling for the reader.  Two people shacking up forever for great sex isn’t emotionally fulfilling.  Two people having a true meeting of the minds and hearts is.  

No quest in the world of fantasy will matter much if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, and the goal of the quest is selfish.

So, check every scene, the important characters, and finally, the book itself to make sure that you made it matter.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Do Writers Lie?

“Writers lie.”  — Chuck/God, SUPERNATURAL

Warning:  Spoilers for SUPERNATURAL’S “Moriah.”

In the Season 14 season finale of SUPERNATURAL, God aka Chuck the writer of SUPERNATURAL novels, comments that writers lie which proves not only to be one of many meta moments that this show is prone to but also foreshadows a total shift in God/Chuck’s personality from likable silliness and kindness to total dick.

Do writers lie?  I’ve been thinking about that over the last few days.  

I’ve pulled up some of my old articles which consider the point.


Fiction isn’t a lie; it’s the truth in parable form.  In the Bible, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets explained eternal verities by the use of stories.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example.  Is its message any less valuable because the Samaritan was a fictional character created by Jesus?
  
Fiction writers are telling the truth through their fiction.  They create the world as they see it and offer their own beliefs.  That belief may be as simple as "everyone has a true love and with courage and compromise can win that love."  Or it can be much more complex.

Is a novel any less valuable than the true-life story found in Reader's Digest which illustrates the same point?  I don't think so.  The only difference is the medium used to express that belief.

So, no, fiction isn’t a lie if the story is true to both the writer’s beliefs and the world within the story’s events.  

How about lying in the creation and depiction of a character?


Sometimes, in a series, a character will change from evil to good, or good to evil, but that change must be foreshadowed in earlier choices and decisions.  Bart the Bad may be up to no good through the early novels, but the reader should see that he chooses not to ambush the hero because a child is nearby.  This not only adds moral complexity to Bart, but also makes his move toward the light more believable.  

In the same way, a good guy's pragmatic or selfish choices will foreshadow the coming darkness.  

SUPERNATURAL’S writers use “writers lie” to justify Chuck’s complete shift in personality in one scene. There has been no foreshadowing of this up until this episode.  

This show has been perfectly capable of showing a character’s growth.  Take Rowena, as a recent example. She went from selfish evil to someone trying to do good to make up for what she's done. The change started with her son’s death and built to the point we believe she's changed in the last two seasons. 

“Surprise, I'm a manipulative dick” in one scene just doesn't work. 

So, do writers lie?  No, good writers don’t lie.  They build a world and characters from their own beliefs and worldbuilding so everything is true.

Bad writers who use sloppy or lazy writing to justify false behavior or world changes lie all the time.  


Monday, April 22, 2019

The Emo Dump of Horror

The heroine is grumpy.  Her cab driver is paying too much attention to the weird birthmark on her wrist although anyone who has seen it does the same thing so she should be used to it.  She is grumpy about this for several pages.  She gets out of the cab and spends several more pages thinking about how miserable the hot weather is, and how stinky her arm pits are now becoming.  

After finally paying attention to her location, an office building, she acknowledges to herself how stressed she is with little specifics for several more pages, then how she dreads seeing Mark for several more pages.  

She really misses her dead mom for about five pages.  Then she walks into the building.  Then another eight pages of minor info dump backstory about how her mom worked here, and how she really, really misses her mom.  Mark, Mom’s boss, shows up and apologizes that she must deal with being at her mom’s place of business.  She weeps on his chest for another bunch of pages.  We are now a long chapter into the book and nothing of real importance has happened.

But we know that the heroine who is supposed to be a kickass heroine in this urban fantasy is an emotional mess about bloody everything from the weather to her mom’s death. We also know that the writer doesn’t know spit about pacing and how to intersperse emotion with action.  

Readers, at this point, are stuck in the emo dump of horror where everything is too, too much to deal with.   

At this realization, most readers will decide that they don’t care to spend hours of their lives with this mopey, poorly written mess, and they won’t go forward with the book.

Sadly, this opening is from a book I just tossed after the first chapter, and it’s the third one with an opening emo dump in the last few weeks.  

And, yes, I know losing your mom is hard.  I’ve been through it, and I sympathize, but dumping loss across many opening pages like so much emotional sludge is poor writing.  It’s the equivalent for the reader of being forced to read a hormonal teen’s diary about how horrible and dramatic her life is.  A mother’s death and stinky armpits have the same level of drama.

Emotion, like information, needs to be given in little bits and pieces, particularly at the beginning of the story.  It also should be inferred by what the character does.  That heroine could have felt a tightness in her chest as she entered the building, straightened her spine, and forced herself forward.  The mother’s boss could have mentioned the mother’s death, and the heroine could have lost it for a few minutes.  All this is shown in action, not by a long inner monologue about being really, really sad.  It also makes the heroine appear strong despite her pain, and the reader would have sympathized instead of wishing that the drama queen heroine get a grip and move the story forward.

We want our readers to connect with our main character, sympathize with her, and admire her a little in that opening scene.  We don’t want them to take one look at a weeping drama queen and run far, far away.  

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Book Bible

I found the book bible for my first novel last week, and it reminded me of how handy one is to have.

A book bible is a paper or digital file that contains all the information collected before, during, and after the book is written.  

Most mentions of a book bible come from authors writing a series, but one is great for a standalone novel.

In POWER’s book bible, I had drawings of the layout of the hero’s house complete with all the secret hallways, trapdoors, etc.  The compass points were used so I wouldn’t have someone in a bedroom watching the setting sun when the bedroom faced east.  The outside of the house and grounds had their own map.

The horses two characters ride at the beginning have their descriptions and names listed.

Because the main character has a cousin and a brother involved in the plot, I did a family tree.  

Research sources were listed with Dewey decimal numbers and the library or the personal bookshelf where they were.  (This was pre-Internet.)  For later books, I created a file specific to the book in my browser's bookmarks.

I did drawings and descriptions of some of the magical memorabilia in the house, and I listed magical tricks I could use in various scenes.  

One page was nothing but names I could use for random characters.  Each name was dissimilar from the main characters so readers wouldn’t be confused by a similar sounding or spelled name.  I also picked names that were common in the area where the novel was set.  

Every character had their description, etc., with other details.  If I “cast” the character as an actor I’m familiar with, I’d write that down, too, so I’d be able to hear the correct voice in my head when I wrote dialogue for a character who had been elsewhere for a lot of pages.  

I started the novel with most of my info in the bible on the major characters, but I added info for them and others as I created it.  When I found research articles, I’d clip them including where I’d got them, and insert that into my folder.

I usually added information to the bible after I finished writing for the day, or I’d go back over it before I started writing so I wouldn’t lose my writing rhythm.  

Another handy page or two to have, particularly if your book is a fantasy, is a word bible.  Each character’s name, made-up words with a brief definition, place names, and unusual capitalizations are listed.  When your book is edited, this list will keep the copy editor from hassling you about words that may appear to be misspelled.   

Some pages were there for thinking through various plot points, considering possible scenes later in the novel, and general mental doodling.  

I also had clippings of people’s faces to remind me of specific characters.

All this may appear to be a lot of extra work, but it will be worth it for rewrites, etc., and, maybe, that standalone may turn into a series, and the bible will be worth its weight in gold for the time saved.  

Monday, April 8, 2019

Promotion Items at the Freebie Table

Last week, one of the writer sites I keep up with, Killzone, had a discussion on freebie/swag tables at conventions.  Here’s a link to the blog article by Laura Benedict, and I’ve put my own suggestions down below.  


I dealt with and watched over the swag tables at a science fiction convention aimed at readers for many years. A lot is left behind. I still have a big pile of really nice bookmarks from the very first WHEEL OF TIME novel. Must be a collectors item, now.

Some of the things I learned is that those expensive items should be promoting you and your series, not a specific book, unless it’s your first book, so you won’t be wasting money with leftovers. Flat paper of any type, book covers, etc., is never touched unless someone already has an interest in your product. 

If you have an expensive promo item, don’t put them all out at once. Stop by once or twice a day early in the conference, restock, and straighten up your goodie pile.

Bring those promo items and business cards to whatever event you speak at and offer them when you are introduced. Have a business card with your book and author info, and also have a business card with your private contact info for when you are networking. 

If you want to offer a free short story or book sample, put a QR code on your book mark or whatever. A QR is one of those squares full of blocks that a smartphone can scan for info. Some sites online can generate a code for you. I printed a QR code to my website on my author name sign for when I do joint signings.

As a reader, I’m more likely to be interested in an author from a free book or short story from a site like Bookbub or one of the author collectives than a bookmark so I’m not that enthusiastic about freebie tables. Your taste may vary.

Monday, April 1, 2019

How Not to Plot a Series

I read over a dozen fantasy series.

I’m currently reading the fourth book in an urban fantasy series I’ve enjoyed so far, but this book just hasn’t grabbed me as a reader, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  Some of my answers will help you as a writer, whatever kind of genre fiction you write.

THE BOUNCE-BACK BAD GUY

This bad guy is the super villain of a series or part of a series.  Whenever the main character kills him or stops him, he comes back in the next book.  

Sometimes, this works as in the case of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.  One of the reasons Voldemort works is because in the first part of the series he’s not really there.  Instead, bits of him are there in the person of one of his loyal followers who is trying to bring him back from the dead or as an avatar from a diary.  Harry and friends succeed in stopping him and his followers each time.  By the time Voldemort finally comes back, the reader is invested in the good characters and their goals.  Voldemort’s power keeps increasing in the following books and the good characters have goals to reach to stop him.

Sometimes, the super bad guy doesn’t work.  In the book series I’m reading now, the bad guy has died several times, yet he keeps hopping back as the same powerful bad guy in each book.  He just died again, and I’m not a quarter of the way through the fourth book, and his means of hopping back has already been stated.  This bad guy who will not die makes me less invested emotionally in him than if he were a whack-a-mole in the arcade game.  Same-old same-old doesn’t cut it for a bad guy.

APOCALYPSE DEJA VU

You can’t have some form of apocalypse looming at the end of each novel.  The end of the world is so big that it carries very little emotional investment in the reader who knows that the world won’t end in this novel because the series will end.  Instead, make stopping the apocalypse the final goal of the series and let each book work toward that major goal, one minor but important goal at a time.  

Make the goal personal or specific for the main character.  A loved one or an innocent child to be saved carries much more emotion for both the main character and the reader than some vague object as part of a treasure hunt of apocalypse-ending talismans.

STUPIDITY FOR THE SAKE OF THE PLOT


If there is a desperate situation and one choice to save the day is mind-numbingly stupid or suicidal, don’t let the hero choose that choice immediately.  Instead, let him try some of the obvious safer solutions first until he runs out of time and must try the suicidal solution.  Most of us don’t want our main character suicidal, stupid, or a stick puppet for author plot laziness.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Our World vs. Your World

One of the questions you have to ask yourself when you create the world of your fantasy or science fiction novel is how much of our world do you want to include.

Science fiction set in our future is easy enough to figure out.  Humans are humans whatever the time period.  More than likely they will drink coffee or some form of caffeine beverage.  Do you call it coffee or give it a new name?

Usually, the best answer is to just call it coffee if it’s in the background of the story because the reader has more than enough to keep up with otherwise.  Generic terms like “shuttle” and “matter transfer machine” which are often used in science fiction can also be used.  

Your created terms are best used for important elements of your world.

Fantasy is not as easy to figure out because, with the exception of some urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy, the world is built anew.  Some choices are easy.  A horse is a horse, a sword a sword.

Some common usages and terms, however, are jarring in fantasy.  In the last week, I’ve read about a character eating a “hoagie” and “poppers,” and another using modern psychological terminology.  Each time, the term knocked me right out of the story.  

A writer really needs to think about the words she uses in relation to our world and the one created.  Simple words like “sandwich” are jarring enough, but a term with a great deal of history behind it is a mistake every time.

We are always told to be specific in our language when we write, but, when we are creating a new world, going for the general term rather than the specific is often the best idea.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bad Blurbs in the Real World, Part 7

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.  

MYSTERY

Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Detective Luke McGinty has a closet filled with demons, along with a few skeletons; a steady job, but no steady partner or girlfriend; and is still married to his wife Sallie, even though she’s been dead for three years. Then his detective work takes a turn for the worse when a body is discovered at the downtown mall. One dead body isn’t enough, though, and another one turns up. When ties to a cold murder case in another county present themselves, Luke realizes that, if he doesn’t tread carefully, he could end up short more than just a few answers…

The first mistake is “closet filled with demons.”  These are figurative demons, not literal ones, but I thought literal until I looked at the book on Amazon.  Maybe that’s just me, but with a huge amount of paranormal mysteries and urban mysteries out there, I doubt I’d be the only one.  

The character building at the first is okay, but with so little space to explain the story, it would have been better to give more detail about the murders and the danger the detective seems to be facing. A mystery is first and foremost about the mystery.

VARIOUS BLURB COMPARISONS:

“Take The Equalizer, give him Mike Hammer’s fists, throw in some Pulp Fiction-like dialogue, add a splash of Bogie-Bacall banter, and you get Titus—a hard-knuckled action hero for a new generation.’'

“They are the 21st Century version of Nick and Nora Charles with adventures that go around the world.” 

“Thirty-something single mum Beth Haldane is forced to become Dulwich’s answer to Miss Marple when she stumbles over a murder victim on her first day at work.”

Most people under the age of seventy probably don’t have a clue about a majority of these comparisons.  This is the perfect example of why I’m not a fan of comparisons.  It’s more miss than hit with a possible audience.  

THRILLER:

A longtime friend has been arrested for driving drunk and causing a death. The friend also happens to be the District Attorney. Thaddeus agrees to meet. He learns about the DA's drinking. He learns that the DA's wife is on the prowl with strange men, and the DA is dangerously close to murder. Thaddeus sets out to defend. Two months in, he is savagely attacked. His office puts in a call to Christine Susmann. His old paralegal drops what she is doing and hurries to his side. Together again, Thaddeus and Christine mount their defense of the DA and mount their drive to bring Thaddeus back to health.

Would you read a book with such flat, blocky style?  I sure wouldn’t.  Plus, there’s no indication that the DA is being set up.  A drunk who kills someone isn’t someone I’d care about.  I’d root for the prosecution.

URBAN FANTASY/SUPERHERO

Dating in the city is hard. It’s too big. There are too many places to go. The clubs are too loud and the bars are too pretentious. It’s just so hard to make a connection, to find something real. Someone real...and it would all be so much easier if you could give it all up, but that’s the one thing you can’t do. So you have a choice, acquiesce to the enviable blind date from well-meaning friends and coworkers who just don’t get it or take matters into your own hands. Maybe if you play your card just right, you can do both.

No, I didn’t get the genre wrong.  It’s labeled urban fantasy/ superhero, but it has a romance blurb.  Talk about a disconnect.  Plus, urban fantasy and superhero stories are separate genres.  Here’s a hint.  Figure out what kind of book you are writing and who the readers are and aim the blurb at them.  Also, tell us about the book and its characters, don’t give the reader generalities.  

FANTASY

When a man seeks out an empath who he believes is hiding in a brothel in order to ease his daughter's suffering due to an alien infection, he soon discovers there's far more to the virus than he'd ever considered possible. 

Make that first sentence stop!  Please make it stop!  Bad writing in a blurb is not the way to attract readers.

SUSPENSE

Her husband stole her baby, beat her up, and tossed her out in the snow. She hunted for her daughter for years. She came to Atlanta on a vague clue and instead found the dead body of a girl. Is it her long lost daughter? Find out now.

The book’s title is SOMEBODY ELSE’S DAUGHTER.  Nothing says suspense like a question that is answered before it is asked.  (Sarcasm)  The summary’s punctuation is poor.  Also, when you have a sentence with a list of verbs, it’s best to list them in order of action.  In other words, “beat her up,” “tossed her out,” then “stole baby.”  And nothing says poor blurb writing like “Find out now.”  

URBAN FANTASY

(Blank space)

No, I didn’t forget to insert the blurb.  Sometimes, authors don’t place a blurb with the book cover in promotional material or free ebook newsletters.  A bad blurb is better than no blurb, at all.  If you want someone to, at the very least, look at your book, insert a blurb.





Monday, March 11, 2019

How Many Viewpoints?

QUESTION: How many viewpoint characters can I use? And must I have the bad guy’s point of view?

The point of view character or POV is writing jargon for the person whose head you are inside during a scene in fiction. With the exception of omniscient viewpoint novels, all current genre novels have only one character’s POV at a time.

The number of point-of-view characters you use in a novel depends on genre needs as well as the story you have to tell. If your choice of POVs isn't mandated by the market, you use the number of POVs you need. 

In STAR-CROSSED, I used six POVs because my story and worldbuilding were so complex, and the novel was big enough at around 130,000 words to allow so many characters.  One of the POVs was my villain.  

The problem with multiple point of views is that some readers have trouble keeping track of the characters, or the pacing is slowed with each new viewpoint as the reader gets into a new head. 

The writer also runs the risk of telling too much with so many viewpoints which can suck the interest and surprises right out of a story.  

I have also created complex suspense plots with only one or two POVs because the plot was so tightly connected that those POVs were enough.  

In a plot where you have an antagonist, you don’t need to include his POV.  The reader will still get a sense of the person because of what he does.  

The main characters are also discovering who or what this person is by following the clues of the crime or the situation.  As the characters learn about this criminal, so does the reader.  

If this person's crimes are methodical, this gives the reader a bit of information about him.  If he cuts off the victims' fingers with a surgical knife, the reader learns something else about him.  

By the time the bad guy is unveiled, the reader should have a very good sense of this character without a POV.  At the moment of unveiling, the reader will usually be given the final pieces of this character's emotional puzzle.

Some writers have trouble writing the bad guys because they are concentrating on the good guys and the plot needs of the novel.  I always suggest that a writer create a summary of the plot from the point of view of the bad guy starting with what leads up to the crime and move from that point to the final unveiling.

The bad guy's choices and his story must be as logical for his personality as the plot choices and story of the main characters.