Monday, April 5, 2021

Description: From Specific to General

To give the reader the right image of what is happening, you should always be specific.  This is particularly important in the first description of a person, place, or thing.  

Look at the sentences below, and the introduction of the heroine’s dog, Digby.

Eager for their run, Digby whined and tugged on her leash.  

Jane laughed and began to jog down the greenway that ran behind her apartment.  

The dog kept pace until they reached the wooden bridge across the creek, then the golden retriever jerked to a halt and growled.  

Sentence one is fine.  “Whined” and “leash” tell the reader that Digby is a dog; however, the reader has no sense of what the dog looks like.  It could be a poodle or a Great Dane.

Sentence two is okay if bland.

Sentence three, however, starts with the general term “dog” which still doesn’t give the reader a clue about the dog.  Not until the end of this sentence does the reader learn that the dog is a golden retriever.  By this time, the specific jars the reader who may have already visualized the dog or has decided the dog isn’t important because of the vague description.

How could these sentence be improved?

Eager for their run, Jane’s golden retriever Digby whined and tugged on her leash.

She laughed and began to jog down the greenway that ran behind her apartment.  

The dog kept pace until they reached the wooden bridge across the creek then jerked to a halt and growled.  

The reader instantly knows Jane’s dog is a golden retriever so the writer can now use more general terms like dog. 

Just a few words used at the right time makes a difference between pulling the reader into your story or throwing them out.  

Monday, March 29, 2021

What Do You Describe?

How do you decide what to include in your description of a scene?

Remember that you're in a character's viewpoint. Ask yourself what is important to that character. 

A cop entering a room where a gunman may be hidden is seeing different things than an interior designer who enters a room a rival has just decorated. The cop doesn't give a damn about the charming shade of blue in the wallpaper, but he'll notice the large pieces of furniture someone could be behind, the amount of light and shade in the room that makes seeing movement tricky, and the possible exits.

At the same time, the character will be aware of the sounds and smells in the room-- the faint smell of gun oil, the Chanel No. 5 of the wealthy woman who owns the home, the tap of the nails as a toy poodle moves across the oak floor, and the slight rustle of something moving behind a curtain. 

With just the right specific touches, the room will come alive for the reader and at the same time you're building tension and giving character details, and you're not stopping the action with too much description.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Using Dialogue to Explain Worldbuilding

 QUESTION:  How do I use dialogue to explain worldbuilding?

If you want to use dialogue, you can sprinkle the information through a series of scenes so the reader gradually gets the information.

The method most writers use is what I call "inform the outsider.”  The outsider can be a newly turned vampire, the human love interest or ally, etc., and one of the vampires tells him/her about their history. 

Or one character can disagree with another one's version of the story so they argue about it while informing the reader. 

Another excellent trick is to give the information emotional value to the character receiving it.  If the info matters to that character, it should matter to the reader.  

Or you could have one of the characters find a written history or story that's inserted into the story via dialogue.  That's the most awkward method.  

Or you can sprinkle in tiny bits of information in relation to what the characters are talking about so that the reader can add together the information to get the bigger picture.  Having the reader figure it out himself is far more enjoyable to him than having an info dump.  

One thing you need to consider is how important that element of worldbuilding is to the reader.  You may have a clever new form of vampire, but unless the reader absolutely must know how that came about or the story won't make sense, the reader needn't be told all that information.

Monday, March 15, 2021

How DIfferent Should Your World Be?

 QUESTION:  Here’s what I'm wondering as I'm setting up my “alternate earth.” If the reader’s suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy your writing, how do you know what kinds of things might be too much for your readers? Might pull them out of the story as they puzzle over why someplace that’s earth-yet-not-earth has *that*?

If your world has internal consistency and follows its own logic, most readers will accept that world.  Readers want to believe your world.  That's why they buy your story.

Things like dogs, cats, and pine trees are just simple shorthand to make that world comfortable for the reader as well as make it easier for him to connect with it.  

If the reader has to learn everything from the names of the trees to the five different kinds of six-legged beasts of burden, and they really have nothing important to do with the story, he will be seriously put off.  Readers like comfortable, shorthand things like pine trees and horses.

Touches of the strange will liven up a scene to give it a sense of elsewhere, but there need only be touches.  In a scene where the hero and his friends stop at a staging inn to rest their horses and get a meal, you can have the usual things like the tavern, the stablehands, and the horses, but you can also mention a corral filled with hippogriffs who are fluttering their wings and snapping their beaks as one of the servants tosses them dead rabbits.

But detail for the sake of detail will delay the action and cause the problem you mention.  For example, the hero is walking through the woods, and a tree of living flame stops him in his tracks because of its beauty.  It begins to sing of the glory of the wind and the majesty of the rain.

The hero finally moves away and promptly forgets it, and it has nothing else to do with the story.

The reader will wait the whole novel for that scene to make some sense with the plot, but it never does so the reader gets angry.

If, however, that singing tree gives the hero a riddle he must understand to achieve his victory, then the scene is very important, indeed.  

Somewhere along the way, it would probably be best if the reader learns why the tree gave him that clue so the plot has some internal logic.

You also need to decide what your story is really about.  If it’s about the unusual political situation in this world, then most of the extra details and information should help focus on that.  If it’s about the world’s magic and how it is failing, then that’s where the details and the weirdness should be focused.  

Most of this boils down to not overwhelming your reader and avoiding info dumping to show off your incredlbie worldbuilding skills.  

Monday, March 8, 2021

Creating a Fresher Monster

 QUESTION:  I write vampire novels.  It seems like creating a paranormal or fantasy race is almost like a catch 22. If you stray too far from the norm, readers dislike it, but if you stay too close to the norm, it is seen as a been-there, read-that type of thing. What is the best advice you can give for making your race of creatures/humans/ etc. something believable, yet fresh?  

Study what other writers have done in fiction and media that is similar to what you want to do.

If you want an intelligent alien, think about the signature aliens in our popular culture.  What is it about Spock that attracts and fascinates us?  Or Dr. Who?  How about ET if you're looking for cute and cuddly?  

Or, if you want a scary alien, analyze the ones that scared you to death.  The alien in the movie of the same name?  The Daleks?  The Borg?  Why are they so scary?

When you find the core elements that push your and other readers' emotional buttons, then you have the key elements for your own race of beings.  That's far more important than building an extremely different race for your book.  The outer elements are only window dressing.

When you write one of these creatures as a viewpoint character, you must remember that the reader connects with the human elements of that character, not its difference. Spock, for example, became so wildly popular because he was the outsider, the misunderstood one on the Enterprise. Viewers, many of whom considered themselves the outsider, connected with that element of Spock even though Spock never complained about being the outsider.

In other words, when your creature is the viewpoint character, write it as a person, not a monster.  Write visceral emotion when you are writing about monsters who aren’t viewpoint characters.  

For vampire novels, your biggest selling points are the voice of your main character, the intensity of your storytelling, and the level of your craft. Difference is further down on the importance scale so don’t let that be your only guide to what you write. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

The BIg Picture

 QUESTION:  What’s a good way to describe events going on that no one is aware of? Do I do a prologue explaining it? It is important the reader understands the context of the story I'm telling.

One narrative choice is to have a prologue that's strictly overview, kind of like the scrolling words in the first STAR WARS movie. This may work in a sprawling epic fantasy or an historical novel, but it's so old-fashioned that most modern readers won't get past it to get to the real story. For any story that isn't an epic, it absolutely won't work.

You also have the talking heads method where characters who know the overview have a chat about the subject.  Again, this is old-fashioned and boring to the modern reader.

The real question is whether the reader needs this "big picture" information, or do you need it to get the big picture straight in your head?  Most often, in the case of an inexperienced writer, it’s for you, not the reader.

Readers are smart, and they are interested in what is happening with the viewpoint character--what is his goal, who is thwarting that goal, what are his emotional reasons for doing what he is doing, etc.  The big picture isn't so important at the beginning.

Instead, you broaden the knowledge of the main character as he goes along so that he knows why doing what he needs to do is as important to the bigger picture as it is for his own personal story.  Or, even better, have him discover that what he wants works against the big picture so he must choose to do the right thing or the selfish thing.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

From Result to Cause

Often, when you are worldbuilding, or creating a character, a supernatural race, or whatever, you know what you need for the story or the world to work, but these elements must be an organic part of the whole, not just something stuck in.  

For these elements to make sense to the reader, you have to work backwards to find the causes that fit your results.

I’ve used this method many times to discover what happened in a character’s past that makes a character like he is, to build back plot, or to world build.

When I started writing STAR-CROSSED, my science fiction romance, I had a few ideas about my alien world that were dictated by plot necessity.  Its gravity would be slightly heavier than Earth’s so human men would be weaker than the planet’s women.  It would be fairly close to Earth in living conditions and weather because it was a science fiction romance, not science fiction, and the audiences are different.  The wildlife would make it almost impossible for a human to survive on his own in the wilderness so Tristan escaping into the wilderness wasn’t a viable option.  

Beyond that, I really didn’t think out the specifics of the planet’s wildlife because it wasn’t needed for the novel.  

In the first scene with my heroine Mara, I decided to give her an alien pet to make the scene more otherworldly, and I chose an animal similar to a cat but with long rabbit-style ears because I wanted the pet to be relatable to non-science fiction readers.  

Floppy, the rab-cat, hopped up onto Mara’s lap and promptly told me he was as intelligent as a human, he would take care of Mara--no human male needed, and he was in the story until the end.  

Being well-trained by my pets to be obedient, I agreed with his assessment of the situation, and I realized I needed to work backwards from Floppy to make sense of rab-cats in relation to the other parameters I’d set up for myself for the world.  

I ended up writing an interview with Floppy which details my choices, and since it is more entertaining than a bland recital, here it is.  

Floppy, the sentient alien kitty, from STAR-CROSSED was kind enough to let me interview him.  His interpreters were busy, but, fortunately, he is quite proficient at writing human Basic so he typed his answers on my laptop.

Floppy is a bit larger than the average Earth cat and has a solid black, smooth coat, emerald green eyes that dance with intelligence and mischief, and elegant long ears that resemble a rabbit's.  Those ears move with grace as he speaks in his own silent language.

"Thank you for letting me interview you."

I am always happy to talk to my biographer.

"Biographer?  STAR-CROSSED is Mara's story."

No, it isn't.  It's the story of how I helped her find happiness with a true mate and children of her own.

"I guess it is.  My error."

She deserves every happiness, and I could not find my own happiness until I knew she was happy.  I kept her safe through our adventures.

"I thought Tristan did that."

He helped as did others.

"Very gracious of you.  I'll start with some questions others have asked me about you.  Here goes.  What's with the bunny ears?  Cats don't have bunny ears."

Humans call my race rab-cats, but we are not Earth cats, and we're not rabbits.  We're the sentient cat race on the planet Arden.  

"Cats from another planet?  That's ridiculous."

The cat is the perfect predator.  Why shouldn't it evolve on more than one planet?  Many planets have a vermin similar to a mouse so many have some form of cat to keep it in check.

"That still doesn't explain the ears."

The most feared predator on my world is the tyrlin.  Tristan compares it to the Bengal tiger on Earth.  It kills and eats every creature which crosses its path, and, if it is not hungry, it kills for the pleasure of it.  It hunts more by sound than scent or sight.

"So its prey evolved into absolute silence."

Yes.  No cries or songs, and stealth in its movement.

Rab-cats also hunt prey so we had to evolve with excellent hearing as well as sight and smell.

"And the big ears help you hear quiet mice?"

Exactly.  We also developed intelligence, and we created a silent language by using our ears.

"Clever kitties.  What do you think of Earth cats?"

Mara is owned by a cat.  Sheba was very kind to me when I first came to Mara's house from the vet hospital.  She licked my face, purred, and slept curled around me to comfort me. 

"You were nearly killed by a tyrlin when you were a kitten."

Yes.  It killed my mother and was trying to kill me when Mara lured it away and blasted it.  She took me to human doctors then brought me to her home to live.

"I'm sorry about your mother.  Why were you two alone in that meadow with tyrlins about?"

An earthquake destroyed our home and killed my father, my brothers, and sisters.  There was nowhere safe to live or seek refuge.  The earth would not stop shaking so no den was safe.  

Our only choice was to cross that meadow and reach the rab-cats who lived in the hills beyond.  My mother hoped the tyrlin would be busy looking for the dead of the quake.

"How horrible!  I'm so sorry."

It was a long time ago, and my heart mother healed me and loved me after my fur mother died.

"Heart mother?"

Her heart chose me although she is not rab-cat.

"Back to Sheba and Earth cats.  Do cats talk?  And what do they say?"

They are not as evolved as we are.  They talk, but they have little to say to others.  Feed me.  Hold me.  Leave me alone.  That is all they feel they need to say to humans.  They speak with their voices and with their bodies.  A slight twitch of the whiskers and a flick of the eyes in a certain direction can say volumes.

"I know.  Pan, the cat who owns me, will twitch his ear to beckon me toward him, then glance down at himself then up to me when he wants me to pick him up and hold him.  He's only vocal when he's starving to death after being away from his food bowl an hour or so.  If he's silent, I know he just wants to be held."

He doesn't need to be vocal for most of his needs because you read his body's language.  Some humans only understand a loud meow, and others don't even understand that.

"Some humans are pretty blind."

Yes.  You did not know I was sentient when you began my story.

"No, I didn't.  I thought you were an alien pet, there to make Mara's first scene obviously not on Earth.  But you set me straight when you jumped up on Mara's lap and took over the plot."

I do my humble best to set humans on the right path to happiness.

"One thing I don't understand.  After I realized you were sentient, I wanted to change your name to something more dignified than Floppy.  Why wouldn't you let me?"

Floppy is a perfectly dignified name.  In fact, in my native language, my kitten name meant almost the same thing.  My ears were quite long, and I hadn't quite developed the strength to control them completely.  

My parents never lived long enough to give me another name so Floppy I will stay to remember them.  

"I can understand that.  It's amazing that Mara chose a name for you so close to your real name."

Mara sees with her heart so she sees truly.  I forgot that for a time when Tristan entered our lives.

"She is an extraordinary person.  Thank you for this interview."

Monday, February 15, 2021

Fantasy Creatures in the Real World

Werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural beings have become a staple in current genre fiction. One problem I've seen in many of the fight scenes involving these creatures is created by a flaw in worldbuilding.

Consider this scene from a contemporary novel.  The vampire protagonist is in a dangerous part of a major city, and he's attacked by a large pack of demon-possessed humans. He fights them off until some of his vampire friends arrive, and all the demon-possessed humans are murdered. Fortunately, no normal humans saw the fight so the vampires' existence remains a secret. They stalk away into the night.

What's the problem? Simple. How can a race remain a secret for long with widespread killings and the sheer number of combatants on both sides? Wouldn't the police become a tad suspicious if the murders kept building up? Wouldn't a medical examiner suggest that someone with superhuman strength ripped these guys apart? And what about that weird DNA found on the ripped throat of one of the victims?

The fight itself can be perfectly choreographed and written, but at its end, when all the bodies are lying there, and the vampires are leaving the scene, some readers will go, "Wait a minute. What about the police? What about...." If you leave that kind of question, the fight scene has failed.

In a recent urban fantasy novel, the human-shaped demons spent the novel taking human prey while the vampires were killing the demons and the vampire hunters were killing the vampires, yet the humans and the police were apparently totally clueless about the existence of any of these creatures and unconcerned at a body count that fit a war zone, not an American city.

For a race like vampires or werewolves to remain secret, they must have very small numbers because a large number of anything can't be kept secret, or the race rarely makes contact with humans.

If they take human prey, they must dispose of the bodies so no evidence of the deaths will ever be found. Their prey must also be on the edges of human society so that their loss won't be obvious. In other words, vampires should attack a homeless person, not the beautiful young countess surrounded by friends, retainers, and family.

Vampires definitely shouldn't attack tourists in a town which supports itself with tourism. Considering the incredible national coverage and outrage caused by just a few tourist deaths in places like Miami and New Orleans in recent years, it's highly unlikely that dozens of tourists becoming monster chow wouldn't cause a similar outcry and intense scrutiny.

Real world logic applies even to supernatural characters. Make the fight and its outcome logical, or you've failed.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Love in Action Scenes

 In my last blog, I discussed how sexual attraction can detract from an action scene--a person facing an enemy is more likely to die if they are thinking about sex with their romantic and fighting partner so such thoughts in fiction makes the scene unrealistic, and the pace of the action scene is also ruined by the constant interruptions.

Long declarations and discussions of love or long introspective moments when a character is fighting are no more appropriate, but, surprisingly, the emotion of love isn’t such an interruption if used correctly as motivation. Love, particularly a love that makes the lover’s life more important than his own, will make a character do unexpected things in a fight. 

She may be so busy keeping an eye on her lover that she isn’t protecting herself well enough. He may be so concerned about keeping her safe that he doesn’t trust her to fight as she is capable of doing and interferes disastrously in her fight.

Love as a motivation in battle can make the strong weaker, and the weak stronger. It can be the Achilles heel of a powerful fighter if the enemy recognizes it.

A life-threatening moment can also be a revelation for a character. He may not have realized the intensity of his feelings for the woman until her life stands in balance. 

She may know how she feels, but never said anything until the fight is over, and they cling to each other after nearly dying, then she blurts out her feelings without meaning to. 

Love is the most powerful motivation in the world, and using the characters’ feelings for each other can make an action scene even more powerful.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Sex and Action Scenes

Recently, I read a paranormal novel about a romantic couple fighting demons. During the action scenes, they were so busy fantasizing about the other’s crotch that I wondered at the brains and survival skills of these people. In the real world, a fighter who is busy thinking about sex before and during a fight is a dead fighter.

The pace was also ruined because the constant sexual elements and sexual introspection distracted from the peril.

Brief bits of body language--a touch, a smile, or caress, as well as brief snippets of romantic dialogue can keep the sexual tension and caring evident without bringing the story to a dead halt.

Wait until a lull in the fighting to put your couple in a safe hiding place where they can repair their wounds and chase each other around the bed.

The important thing to remember is that even in a romantic story, sex shouldn’t be paramount in action scenes, but after the battle is won, all that extra adrenaline is a nice appetizer to sex. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Types of Editors

 Most new writers hear the word “editor” and think of the acquiring editor of a traditional publisher who will call you with the news that the publisher wants to buy your book, send you the legal documents to sign, then lead you through the process of rewrites until the book is ready for prime time.  

Editors, however, are diverse in skills and roles in both traditional and self-publishing.  If you want someone outside of the traditional publisher to help you create a publishable book for either traditional publishing or self-publishing, you need to look for different types of editors. 

First, you need a developmental editor who will look at big picture things like plot, structure, characters, facts, etc. of the entire novel.  Here’s where those pages of rewrite suggestions appear.  

Once you and the developmental editor think your work is sound, you will need a line editor or proofreader who will do a close edit for grammar, spelling, and clarity.  Some fact checking may be added to that mix.  At this point, the book may be ready to send to a traditional publisher.

For a more in-depth look at this part of the process, read Sandra Wendel’s article on the subject.

For self-pubs who will publish to places like Amazon Kindle, a format editor may be worth the cost so your manuscript doesn’t have unexpected format issues as it’s translated.

NOTE: Good writing teachers will help you perfect the small elements, critique partners will help with the bigger picture as you work, and beta readers are your manuscript’s final look, but it’s the professional editor who can help you polish your work to a pro standard so don’t skimp on paying the pros.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Career Paths

 Author career paths aren’t always the same.  Over the years, I've watched too many friends and authors I enjoy have their career, through no fault of their own, crash and burn over the idiocies within Big Publishing. (Dirty Big Publishing secret:  Everything is the author's fault even if the author had nothing to do with it.  A bad cover, a literal train wreck which wipes out most of the West Coast book deliveries for that month so sale numbers tank, a failed within-house promotion--all the author's fault.  Toss that author out.)   

Most authors get back up, reinvent themselves with a new name, and start a new series, a new genre, or a new publisher.  I traded updates with a best-selling, award-winning friend at Christmas.  She's reinvented herself or started a new mystery series four times, and her newest very successful series has been cancelled because her publisher has decided to stop publishing fiction.  She's got her rights back so the next book will be self-published because she’s tired of publishers who can't get their own sh*t together.  

Other friends sold that first book that was their first book and blazed ahead like the golden children they were to finally hit a minor roadblock.  They got pissy and promptly quit writing.  

Sometimes, authors stagger up after yet another career hit because of bad luck or a publisher's ineptitude and walk away.  After over 30 years of being hit and yet another publisher destroying any chance for my new book’s success through their ineptitude, I walked away, and I'm okay with that. I decided I was too burned out to bother with self-publishing so I'm watching my publishers die, two in the last year, and my books disappear off the virtual shelves. I'm fine with that, too.  

Publishing isn't for sissies, and it's okay to whine or walk away for your own sanity.   

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Woman as Warrior

 Movie and TV heroines have a lot to answer for in action/adventure scenes. Some writers see these women as realistic female fighters, and they aren’t even remotely realistic either as women or human beings in fighting methods, stamina, and strength.

Maybe your warrior princess or action babe in leather and overpriced stilettos is as tough as any man, but she will have certain physical limitations. Use those limitations to be creative in fight scenes.

During a TV showing of one of the AVENGERS movies, the fight coordinator who trained Scarlett Johansson talked about Black Widow’s fighting style.  Johannson is 5 ft, 3, so the director wanted her fighting to be as realistic as any superhero movie is for such a tiny woman.  That’s why she used her legs to kick and scissor choke big men.  With her much shorter reach with her arms, a punch or martial arts move would be easily avoided or blocked by a man with a much longer reach.  

The strongest woman is rarely as strong as the strongest man, but she may be faster, smarter, or more supple.  She may be trained in combat when he isn’t. Use her realistic strengths rather than using unrealistic strengths.

Many women are pragmatists, as well. The rule that both parties must use the same weapons for the fight to be “fair” has nothing to do with reality, and pragmatists know this. If a huge man with a knife charges toward your action babe, she should shoot him and not feel bad about it later.

In CAPTAIN MARVEL, this attitude is shown perfectly in the last showdown between Carol Danvers and the Jude Law character.  He tries to sucker her into a physical fight where he has all the advantages, but she blasts him into a mountain instead.  That’s not cheating, that’s smart.  That’s a woman fighting.  

Monday, January 4, 2021

Formatting Telepathic Dialogue

 QUESTION: I have a character who is a telepath. Should I italicize what she picks up from others' minds?

If the characters are "speaking" mentally, I've often seen authors italicize the conversation.

Mary thought to Matt, What happened to my son?

He fell into the river but grabbed a log.

If, however, Mary is picking up the images from Matt's head, I'd do something like this--

Mary tilted her head and concentrated harder on what Matt was trying to show her with his thoughts.

Darkness. A river surging past. A hand reaching out of the water and grasping a log. Then her son's head coming up out of the water as he pulls himself up onto the floating log.

"He's not dead," Mary sobbed and rubbed away her tears. "Billy's not dead."

I’ve also seen writers use colons for mental dialogue in the same way as you would use quotation marks. 

Mary thought to Matt, :What happened to my son?:

:He fell into the river but grabbed a log.:

The advantage of using the colon is that there will be no confusion about when speakers change.

Pick any of these methods and stick with it through your whole work.