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.