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.


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.