Monday, June 29, 2020

The Reality Sniff Test

The comic urban fantasy started out fun.  The heroine had been a demon slayer in her teenage and early adult life, then she’d put aside her slaying tools and become a wife, then a mother of two small kids.  She’d never told her husband about her Buffy the Demon Slayer days.

Then a demon shows up at her home and tries to kill her.  She dispatches him.  Another, more powerful demon threatens her children’s lives, and he’s also in her home.  

At this point, she decides not to tell her husband about the demons after their kids or about her past because it would be awkward.

This is the moment when I stopped reading.  The author had failed my reality sniff test.  

Sure, this is a comic urban fantasy, and readers know that the kids will be okay, and the heroine will win against the demons, but the heroine has done something that, in the real world, most of us would find selfish, stupid, and unforgivable.  She is risking the lives of her young children.  

Books aren’t bubbles that have nothing to do with the real world.  Yes, we will accept wild premises like ghosts, vampires, and demons, but most of us enter a book’s world with our own beliefs and views of the world, and the author who errs in those common beliefs because she thinks that we will put them aside in her book is often wrong and loses a reader.  

When you are writing, consider the reality sniff test.  Do your characters act the way someone in the real world would?  Is that behavior acceptable in the real world?  Does your worldbuilding make sense in comparison to the way the real world is?  Does your world/society fit a society from our past, or can it be imagined as real?  If the answer is no to these questions or other reality sniff tests, then you need to do some rewriting.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Beware the Bumbling Bad Guy

I’ve written a great deal about bad guys and how to create them and use them, but one problem I see from other writers is defining the villain as a super menace then turning him into a bungling idiot so the good guy can keep escaping.

In the novel I just finished, the hired killer after the hero and his friends is billed as a professional killer with a military background who has killed dozens of people leaving no real trace.   In his first appearance, this assassin is in the audience of the man who is supposed to be his first victim in the story.  

The hero is a professional magician who “reads” the minds of the audience.  The assassin volunteers to be mind-read then tries and fails to kill the magician with a small pocket knife no self-respecting professional killer would use while a spotlight is on him in front of hundreds of witnesses.  

Later, the assassin has trouble killing an dottering, elderly couple, and the only way he can get to other victims who know he is after them is for them to be too stupid to live.  

Needless to say, this inept bad guy sucked the energy right out of the plot.

Don’t tell the reader that your bad guy is a super menace then have him show himself as worse than an amateur because you need the tension to keep the story moving forward.  Really put yourself in the bad guy’s shoes.  If he has a military background and training as an assassin, let him use it.  

Instead, let him fail through luck on the part of the good guys or a supposed victim’s unexpected skill or knowledge.  

Artificial suspense by telling rather than showing a bad guy’s skills is no suspense at all.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Cast of Thousands Syndrome

Have you ever been at a party or professional event where you have met a small group of the attendees some time back so you barely remember them, and there are dozens of other people attending as well?

You stood there with a glazed look in your eyes as you struggled to remember the names and relationships of the people you've already met while even more people are introduced to you, and you have to figure out how these people fit in with the first group.

A nightmare, wasn't it?

Yet many writers forget how hard it is to keep up with characters in a novel.  They insist on starting the novel with a group scene in which all the heroine's coworkers are introduced.  Each character enters the scene, does a little song and dance so you have some idea of who they are, then the next one enters and does the same thing.  By the fourth or fifth character, the reader is in shell shock if she's still reading.  

Then, the novel opens up, and even more characters are introduced.  

Other writers of series, particularly paranormal romance series, have an ongoing group of characters--usually the happily married heroes and heroines of past novels who have to have a cameo or minor role--as well as the new hero and heroine to include with their short term bad guys and minor characters, but, wait, the author really wants you to meet the half a dozen new hunks waiting for their own novels, heroines, and happily-ever-after as well as the bad guys waiting in the wings for their comeuppance.   

Some readers can keep up with all these people, but most of us can't.  We reach a point where there's so much character clutter that we can't connect with the major characters and the main plot so we close the book and vow never to read another of them.  

How do you escape this cast of thousands syndrome?

First, you must realize that while you spend many months with these characters and know them very well, the reader won't.  

Keep the introductions to a very few at a time.  Secondary characters should only be introduced when they are needed in the plot.  Those officemates of the heroine may play big parts in later books, but only the wacky receptionist who will introduce the heroine to her new love interest and play clumsy matchmaker will be needed in this book so only she should be introduced.

As great as the other characters are and no matter how eager you are to introduce them, don't.  

If you have characters from other books, don't bring them back unless they serve a specific plot purpose.

If you have new characters for the next book in the series, don't put them in unless they serve a very specific plot purpose.

If you are lucky enough to have readers wanting to know how Lance and Patty from your first book are doing and whether their baby has been born, you can write a short story or novella about them as a freebie on your website.  Fans love that.  

Many of us don't love the author tossing these former characters into the current novel with no other reason than to please a few fans.

Monday, June 8, 2020

How to Create Interlocking Questions

A work of fiction should be a series of interlocking questions.  Think of these questions as links in a chain that pulls the reader through each scene and through the novel.  

The questions within the book should be ongoing.  Before you answer one question the reader has, you should have several more set up so the reader doesn't say "oh, now I understand" and put down the book never to finish it.  

The questions can be action questions-- Will the heroine rescue the baby before it crawls into the well?  Will the hero kiss her now?

The questions can be character questions--  What happened to Mary that makes her so nervous around men?  Why does Jim hate Bill?

The questions can be setting questions-- What is beyond the next bend in the road?  Where is the dragon hiding?  Why does the lab have smoke in it?

The questions can be plot questions-- Will Tom rescue Pam from the burning building?  How will he do it?  What did the robber steal from the safety deposit box that the Mafia wants so much?

The questions can be minor questions which can be answered in a few pages-- Will Mary say yes when Jim asks her out?  

The questions can be major questions that take the whole book to answer-- Who killed Bill and why?  

Writing interlocking questions is a complicated dance between the writer and the reader.  The writer wants to give just enough information to involve the reader and urge her forward in the narrative, but not so much information that the reader becomes bored.

The reader sees the questions and their answers as clues and reading the story is a mystery she wants to solve for herself.  The reader not only wants to know what happens next, she also wants to make guesses at what will happen next and why.    

To see the power of interlocking questions, just consider the Harry Potter series.  These books were not only good individual reads full of interlocking questions, the interlocking questions extended through the series.  People talked about these questions, they puzzled over these questions, and they argued over these questions as each book came out.  

If JK Rowling had explained everything early on, the series would not have been so popular, and the readers would not have been so invested in the characters.  

How do you write interlocking questions?  

One trick is to think of yourself as the reader.  What will the reader want to know at that moment in the narrative?  What questions can you answer and what answers can be held back?  

When you are plotting your story out, you will be thinking about the who, what, when, where, and why of each event.  Decide what information from the Five W's the reader needs immediately, and what information can be seeded through the narrative as questions and answers.  

Every answer you give to an important narrative question should lead to more questions-- Jim couldn't possibly have killed Bill, but why has he confessed to the murder?  Could he be protecting someone else?  Who and why? (NOTE: The answers to these questions are in the examples above. A mystery to solve!)  

An excellent way to see how interlocking questions work is to study how a good author uses them.  

Pick a favorite author who really sucks you into their books and keeps you flipping the pages.  Go to the author's website for sample chapters, or you can screenshot Amazon’s previews.  (You are welcome to go to my domain and use my sample chapters. ) Print those pages, get the highlighter out, and mark every narrative question you find.  Notice how the small questions and the larger questions work together.  

Or you can pull out a favorite book from your keeper shelf and read it while paying attention to the interlocking questions.

During all this, remember that the writer and the reader have one important question foremost in their heads as they write and read-- What happens next?

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Problem with Avoiding Genre Formula

One of the pluses mentioned by authors who self-publish is that the author isn’t trapped by the formula insisted upon by the big publishers.  

Unfortunately, many don’t realize that this formula is more related to what the reader wants than what the publisher demands.

I read self-published books, and I see this problem with surprising frequency.

For example, I started a paranormal cozy mystery series.  The heroine sees ghosts and solves their murders so they can rest in peace.  A cozy mystery tends to be laid back with an amateur sleuth who uses nosiness and intelligence to figure out the murder.  Violence and the gross elements (the dead body, blood, etc.) are usually off page until the very end when the amateur sleuth faces the killer but prevails.  

In one book in this series, the amateur sleuth is heading to a Western ghost town which is now a restored tourist destination.  She falls asleep and dreams about a ghost taking her to the local town where she meets the sheriff and discovers that a little girl and her family have disappeared, probably trapped in a mine or lost in the desert, and the little girl is in deadly danger.

After the amateur sleuth wakes up, she arrives in town and discovers her dream was accurate.  The hotel is exactly as she dreamed, and the sheriff is the person she dreamed about.  People know the family she dreamed about were there, but no one realizes that the family is in trouble.  

At this point, you’d expect the amateur sleuth to tell the sheriff about the little girl in danger and to do everything in her power to find her.  She does not.  Instead, she acts like this is her standard cozy mystery and begins a very slow and casual investigation while enjoying her vacation. 

Later, she meets the owner of the hotel who knew the family had expressed interest in exploring dangerous mines in search of treasure.  The hotel owner finally realizes the family may be in trouble but won’t tell the sheriff.  The amateur sleuth then gives her three days to tell the sheriff or she will.  All this while the young family may be trapped in a gold mine or the desert without food or water.  

I was screaming at the main character at this point as well as the writer who took a thriller plot and inserted it into a cozy then failed to follow through with the changes.  Needless to say, I haven’t bought any of her other books.  

Another novel with a weird mix of amateur sleuth and thriller had the amateur sleuth trying to solve a crime while the police and FBI as viewpoint characters were attacking it from another angle so its plot resembled a regular deck of cards with a UNO deck shuffled in.  The frustrating mix not only destroyed whatever tension and mystery existed by giving away too much information, but it alienated readers who prefer thrillers or amateur sleuth mysteries.  

Romances with other elements like a mystery or the paranormal often lose sight of the romance and let the other genre drive the plot.  Part of this problem is poor branding or a misunderstanding of what a romance is.  

If you want to break the rules of a genre, you must understand them first as well as the audience’s expectations and then, very carefully, make your changes so that they make sense within the genre or genres.  Then you must brand the book as the correct genre or genre cross-mix so you find the right readers for your book.  

Those rules about formula are there for a very good reason.


Evaluation by Copyright Office of Section 512 (Safe Harbor for Internet providers): 

Dean Wesley Smith (well-respected sf/fantasy writer, publisher, writing business expert) compares traditional vs self-publishing as viable options:

Victoria Strauss (Writer Beware) on evaluating publishing contracts: