Monday, March 27, 2023

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, March 20, 2023

Finding Your Character's Weakness

According to Greek myth, Achilles' goddess mother dipped him as an infant 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.


Monday, March 13, 2023

How Not to Lengthen Your Novel

Many of us in our writing careers have had a novel that simply wasn’t long enough.  Sometimes, it is poor planning on our part when we misjudge exactly how much word length each element of the plot entails.

Other times, it is due to a market shift-- a publisher who wants one length either closes down that line or rejects your book so you have a book with no home to go to.  

This problem has been solved to a certain extent with the advent of self-publishing and ebook publishers, but, if you want to sell to one of the major publishers, you must either rewrite to fit the available markets or shelf the book.  

I recently read a Regency historical which was obviously written for the defunct short Regency market then had around 20,000 words added to make it fit the historical market, and it’s a classic example of how not to lengthen a book.  

Novels have a certain rhythm to them, and most of us sense when the end is coming.  Plot ends are being tied up, the bad guy has been thwarted, and the emotional problems, particularly between the hero and heroine, are being settled.  

When I felt the novel coming to a close with many pages yet to go, I realized what this author had done.  Instead of adding another subplot to make the novel longer, this author had chosen to leave the short Regency basically untouched except for a few extra sex scenes and to continue on with the story.

This choice meant that the novel came to a complete stop because all the plot points had been answered, and the hero and heroine had come to a certain emotional closure so they were worthy of their happily-ever-after.

The author then lured the reader forward with standard honeymoon events and sex for several chapters then family matters and villains who had appeared to be handled reappeared and trashed their relationship once again so it was back to square one for them.  

This was not only annoying, but it also gave a lie to the possibility that these people would ever have a happily-ever-after if they couldn’t get past their emotional issues.  

Even if they seem to solve them this second time, it’s more likely that these problems will reappear again.  Like a bad monster movie where the monster may rise again, the final page seemed to say “The End?”

When that short novel needs to be longer, resist the urge to leave the main body of the book alone, and, instead, work in subplots to make it one whole book.  It will make a better book and won’t annoy your reader. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Second Book Syndrome

Second book syndrome has several definitions.  One refers to the writing process of the second book after the successful publication of the first book.  The writer fears that they won’t be able to write as good a book as the first.  Or, they fear that the first book was a fluke, and they really don’t know what they are doing.  Some authors become so frozen with fear that they can’t move forward with their writing.  

The other definition refers to the time after the second book has been written and published.  The reading audience discovers the writer’s paranoia about his skills were right, and the second book fails to deliver what the first book did.

Margaret Mitchell was so terrified of failure after GONE WITH THE WIND she reportedly decided not to publish another novel.  Robert James Waller who wrote the phenomenally successful bestseller, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, proved to be a one-hint wonder.  All his other books failed to even remotely achieve the success of this novel.  So, yes, second book syndrome does exist.

I’ve discovered a new kind of second book syndrome in a series.  In the last month I’ve read two urban fantasies that were a second in the series, and both failed badly for the very same reason.  Up to sixty pages at the beginning of the book were nothing but clean up between the plot ending of the first book, and the plot beginning of the second book.  

Minor unresolved problems were answered, and characters discussed their relationships and careers that have been changed because of the first book's events.

I imagine all this was vastly important to the author and some readers, but it was a massive brick wall to a majority of readers.  

A second book should start like any book.  The reader should be immediately shoved directly into the book with an important plot goal and engaging characters and should be kept there for the remainder of the book.  

If you think some things should be clarified or expanded, wait until a bit later and have the character explain to a friend why she no longer works for the police, or why she fears her friends may be targeted by her enemy.  

Also, let the reader intuit some changes.  If they read the first book, they can usually guess why things have changed, and if they didn’t read the first book, they won’t care as long as you give enough information to cover the current situation.  

And, remember, this holds true for all the books in a series.  Successful series writers never maunder about at the beginning of each novel, and neither should you.  

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Final Confrontation

The final meeting between the hero and his opponent must be more intense than any other battle before, and to be the winner, the hero must risk everything and lose something of inestimable value in order to win. It is not only a physical battle, but an emotional one.

In this confrontation, the hero's special skill, be it magical, a talent for fighting, or personality, should make the story stronger, not make the hero invincible. Think of Superman, Kryptonite, and the danger of invincibility to a story. Here's two story final confrontations --

STORY A: Several world leaders are held hostage by Lex Luthor who has tied them to Kryptonite poles. Though weak, Superman manages to rescue them and gets far enough away from the Kryptonite to regain his strength to defeat Luthor.


STORY B: Several world leaders are held hostage by Lex Luthor who has tied them to Kryptonite poles. They are surrounded by cameras so the whole world watches.

Luthor wants Clark Kent to act as hostage negotiator, and if anyone else, including Superman, comes near them, an explosion will kill both leaders. Clark approaches but sees the Kryptonite in the poles. If he goes forward and becomes weak, Luthor and the world will know he's Superman. If he backs away, Luthor will kill them immediately.

Superman/Clark’s dilemma -- save two important leaders or lose his identity as Clark Kent.

But Clark Kent is more than a role, it's his humanity. Clark belongs to Earth and fellow humans, and he has a relationship with them. They see him as an equal.

Superman, however, is a superior alien who can never have an equal relationship with humans who see his powers and are afraid or uncomfortable. If he is no longer Clark, he will be totally alone.

Losing his identity as Clark Kent is his greatest emotional fear. What should he do?

Which story is stronger and more interesting? I'm sure you'll say the second one because more than physical danger is involved. Clark/Superman must risk something of great emotional importance to win, and by winning, he will ultimately lose.

To make your story and its ending stronger, find the main character's greatest emotional weakness and hit him there with your plot in the same way as you hit him with his physical weakness.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Murderers and Methods

The type of fight and the type of characters control all elements of a fight or a killing.

A professional killer will handle a murder very differently from an amateur murderer or someone who pulls out a knife during a heated argument.

The killing will also be different according to the victim's abilities in self-defense, their weapon or lack of weapon, the amount of surprise in the attack, etc., etc.

The way the knife is used can tell a great deal about the killer.  Did he put the knife into the heart without hitting a rib?  Did he grab the victim from behind in a certain way and hit the artery in the throat for a quick kill? Was his killing method distinctive enough to mark him as a pro or someone trained in a certain military skill?  Was his knife unusual or a standard hunting knife used by most local hunters? Was it sharp and well-maintained, or did it bruise and tear because it was dull?

A murder or killing should be as distinctive as the victim and the murder, and all elements of their personality, weapons skills, and location will determine the type of murder.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Viewpoint in the Catacombs

In last week’s post I discussed how to write viewpoint in a battle.  I’ve never written a large battle of armies, but I’ve written a number of multi-person fight scenes.  Below is a scene from THE ONCE AND FUTURE QUEEN, a now out-of-print space opera.  My viewpoint character and hero is Captain Valerian Grant.  He and three of his ship’s crew have gone into the catacombs under the capital city to help locals find the kidnapped queen of the planet, and, yes, the locals use swords.  

Notice how I switch back and forth in Val’s viewpoint from personal awareness to situational awareness of his group and their opponents.  This allowed me to show both what is happening to and around Val.  

After about ten minutes of travel, they reached a wider portion of tunnel where they could all walk almost abreast.  They fell into groups of two and moved more swiftly.  Prince Gregory came up beside Val, and they stayed close to Patrick at point.  Following behind, Smith and Adam kept a constant eye on their sensors.  Wadja guarded their rear.  

Patrick hissed a warning, but before Val could half unsheathe his sword, the enemy was on them from behind.  He tossed his lighted torch toward the wall to get it out of hand and from under foot, and brought the Lady's Sword out as someone huge, human, and armed with a sword materialized from the darkness in front of them and attacked.  

He had a bare moment to be aware his group was outnumbered and surrounded on both sides before he parried a blow from his opponent.  The swords clanged together, sparks flying in the half darkness.  

Recalling Adam had never handled a sword and couldn't use a stunner because of the booby traps, Val spun and kicked his opponent's groin.  He didn't have time to fight fair right now, but he'd apologize to the man's corpse later.  

The man bent double, and Val smashed him across the face with the hilt of his sword.  The man went down, and Val dodged his body as he studied the melee around him.  

Patrick and Gregory fought back to back a distance away in one of the widest sections of the tunnel.  Around them lay at least three wounded men, and they fought about four more.  From the ease in which they relied on each other and worked as one fighter, Val could tell that part of Gregory's training with Patrick had been for situations such as this.  Patrick's skill, which surpassed Gregory's, sparked a moment of speculation as Val searched for his own people.

With four wounded men at their perimeter, Wajda and Smith had their backs to the wall with Adam between them.  Wajda with his deadly skill struck and darted like a snake at the two men who harried him, but Smith who'd never had training in swords depended on her superior Pandori strength to combat her three more experienced opponents.  

She battered at them, and at each parried blow, the huge men staggered back under her brutal onslaught.  Over a foot shorter, she forced them into awkward blows while she took advantage of the angle of attack by striking at undefended areas.  One of her opponents was bloody across the lower chest and a second limped.

Adam, who had the wisdom to stay out of Wajda and Smith's way, employed his own great height by gigging and prodding the enemy with his sword.  It wasn't the prime way to fight with a sword, but the men who fought Smith and Wajda had Adam to contend with too, and several had bloody heads, and one of the wounded on the floor had an upper shoulder wound only a giant like Adam could have dealt.

Val wondered at his own unpopularity as an opponent since he'd attracted only one fighter, then decided he'd been separated from the others in the first rush of the enemy.  Careful to avoid the wounded who still had enough life to be dangerous, he advanced toward Wajda and Smith. He shouted a Viking cry he'd learned from Adam.

As the catacombs echoed with the frightening and demoralizing summons to battle, two fighters spun toward him.  Val crouched, letting them come to him away from his people, then he exploded at them.  

Visceral response and years of training took over and the next minutes became a blur of dodging and assaulting his two opponents who were both excellent fighters.  Apparently, the bad fighters had all been wounded in the first round of battle.

These two opponents were far too wily to let him pull the same trick he had on his first enemy so he bashed the hell out of them while he sought an opening in their defenses.  

Finally, the one to his left slipped on the damp catacomb stone.  As the man tottered, Val kicked him in the knee.  With a nasty but oddly satisfying crunch, the kneecap broke, and the man fainted, falling toward the other swordsman.

His other opponent dodged and stumbled.  Val swung his sword like a ball bat toward the man's throat.  The man's head tumbled off his shoulders like a lopsided ball, then the body crashed down.  

Val sidestepped the head and body to avoid the slippery, gushing blood.  In the dancing light of the dropped torches, the catacomb tunnel was littered with bodies and wounded, and around him, he could hear moans of pain and cursing.  He counted important intact heads.  

Patrick and Gregory, surrounded by fallen bodies, stood where they'd fought, and Patrick stanched a wound on Gregory's right forearm while keeping an eye out for enemy.  Adam's blond hair shown in the half light as he bent toward Wajda who, standing, held his bleeding upper left shoulder, and Smith towered before them at guard.  Her fine head fur bristled on end, her teeth bared in defense posture, she watched the fallen enemy and the passages to either side.

With a wordless, heartfelt prayer of thanks for everyone's safety after being attacked three to one, Val grinned and blew the Pandori female a kiss, then with his sword at ready, he made his way through the wounded and bodies toward Patrick and Gregory.