My new non-fiction book on building worlds for writers is now available in both print and ebook format. It’s only fifty pages – but those fifty pages are packed with information on how to build your own worlds when writing fiction. Each section steps you through questions that, when answered, will give you a world beyond imagination. You can get it at Amazon. For only six bucks, it’s a bargain. 🙂
Tip: Don’t use complex words when a simpler one will do. Just because you won the fifth grade spelling bee or read the entire dictionary doesn’t mean you need to use unusual words (unless it’s a character thing). Instead of: preowned automobile – used car; chemical dependency – drug addiction; correctional facility – prison. And so on. Use common words people will recognize. No, you don’t have to “dumb it down”, but you shouldn’t need a college degree to read a good story.
Thought: All you need is a blank piece of paper and a pencil – Seymour Mann (father of Erica Jong).
Teaser: This is National Puzzle Day. Puzzles come in all sizes, shapes and formats, from easy word-searches to furniture. Imagine you are in the business of creating puzzles and have to come up with something new. What would it be? How many pieces would it have? How big is it? Do you need tools to assemble or a dictionary to solve? Is there a prize for the first solver? Let your imagination puzzle the facts out.
In reading over several manuscripts, I ask myself, how does this writer introduce information about the characters? How much belongs in the first chapter?
Handling background information is one of the trickiest parts of writing. The general rule is to include only what’s needed up front, then gradually provide additional details. The problem is, how do you know what’s needed?
You want to involve the reader immediately with the story and characters. Anything that slows down that process, unless the information is essential to the scene, should be pared. However, the reader needs to feel grounded. Where are we, in what time period, and roughly how old are the characters (just a hint — don’t have to be specific)? Gender’s important, too, especially if you’re writing in the first person.
Don’t drop information in an awkward lump. It can be subtle. We know it’s present day if a character uses a cell phone. If she’s an atypical eighty-year-old who text messages, provide other clues.
Warning: avoid the cliché of having the hero or heroine see him/herself in the mirror. If someone’s shooting at the heroine and she’s running for her life, she might reflect that, beneath the streetlights, her blonde hair is probably turning her into a target. Or, in a different situation, she might compare herself with someone. For instance, she considers her friend’s shiny dark hair much more striking than her light brown curls. Or have someone else comment on her coloring, height, etc.
Make sure details reveal character. To say the heroine’s wearing a business suit or a cocktail dress is often sufficient, but if she’s klutzy, she’ll have a stain on that outfit. If she’s wearing a business suit at a cocktail party, perhaps she’s a workaholic, or an absent-minded exec.
Furnishings, too, should be relevant. If she’s an impoverished heroine in a Regency romance, show the threadbare sofa and chipped porcelain bowls.
Drawing the reader into the story immediately is essential these days. Unlike in the 19th century, when novels could begin at a leisurely pace, we have to compete with TV, DVDs, videogames, and cell phones. In commercial fiction (literary fiction has its own rules), what are we trying to accomplish on Page One?
Make the tone fit the genre. If it’s scary, make it tense or eerie. If it’s funny, keep the tone light. Aim for sparkling prose and dialogue. Prune clichés and chitchat. In a romance, introduce a hero or heroine that the reader can care about. If we can’t tell the protagonists from the secondary characters right off the bat, you’re in trouble. Establish a clear point of view. Try to keep it to a single point of view per scene. Watch out for frequent shifts, also known as head hopping, especially on the first page.
What you want to do is make your beginning draw the reader in. Actually, you want to do this with the entire book, but it’s especially important in the beginning. If you don’t get them then, you’ve lost them completely. Most people don’t have time these days to wade through a hundred pages to get to the good stuff. Put the good stuff up front, and keep it there throughout the story. That will win you readers.
One of the first questions you should ask when you’ve finished your book is “What is my book about?” Try to boil it down to a sentence or two. This is the basis of your plot.
Plot is what your story is about. If you just string together a group of sentences that have no coherency, you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story. You just have words. In order to have a plot – and, therefore, a story – you have to be writing about something, preferably something that is includes conflict. If you write romance – the basic plot is: boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back (usually with a bit more action thrown in for interest.) Or you can think of it this way: plot is two dogs with one bone.
It is important to have a plot that draws the reader in – and keeps him or her reading. Proposing hypothetical questions the reader may ask does this. Consider the following passage from my story, “Prime Time”:
Deena studied the newest crop of lunar tourists and transports milling around the huge domed reception area as her partner began his spiel for his audience. On the far side of the shuttles, she caught a quick glimpse of Security leading out a sorry-looking group in binding collars.
One of the prisoners broke from the line and dashed for the shuttle. He never had a chance. The guards triggered his collar and took him down before he got ten steps. Deena winced as they dragged the unconscious man to a cart and dumped him. She hoped for the prisoner’s sake he never woke up. He’d be much better off. The guard glared at her and she turned away. She was here to do a job and forget whatever she might see. She could do nothing for them. Nothing.
The questions that arise are: What is Deena doing there? Why can’t she help anyone? Why would it be better if the prisoner never woke up? Is Deena a prisoner? What is going on here? Each question leads to another – and thus, the beginning of a plot.
Plot can take two basic forms, or even a combination of the two. It will usually be either a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end), or, from Joseph Cambell’s writings, be a mythic journey. It can also be a combination of the mythic journey within the three act structure.
In the three act structure, you have the beginning (Act I) in which you introduce the character(s), set the tone, establish the setting, introduce the story problem and urge the reader to move on to the next section.
Act II is where you expand on these issues and set up the final moment of the story.
Act III is the final battle, the tying up of loose ends, and leave the reader satisfied.
The Mythic Journey, as explained by Christopher Vogler in his book (which I urge you to get), consists of:
Hero in his ordinary world
The call to adventure
Answering the call
Tasks and challenges
Allies and opponents
In addition to these structures, most plots can be boiled down to patterns:
The quest – Indiana Jones looking for the Ark of the Covenant
Revenge – Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”
Love – choose any “chick flick”
Change – Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”
Adventure – Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz” or Luke in “Star Wars”
The Chase – “The Fugitive”
One Against – Batman in “The Dark Knight” or Erin Brockovich
One Apart – Rick in “Casablanca” or Han in “Star Wars”
Power – Lord of the Rings
Death Overhanging – death can take three forms: physical, emotional, or professional. For physical, “Titanic”; emotional – “Inception”; professional – “Pretty Woman”
Sometimes it helps to have something in the ending reflect back to the beginning of the story. You can do this with an object or with a situation that mirrors one in the beginning. For instance, if you had a story about a blackout, you could have the hero flicking the light switch at the beginning and – nothing. He goes through the apartment searching for candles. The story continues and on the last page, he flicks on the light switch and gets light – then turns it off and lights a candle.
Or you could have the very nervous heroine entering a particular building and at the end, she enters that same building, but this time, everything has changed, especially her.
When checking on the plot line, ask yourself what is the hero/heroine’s goal? If he or she doesn’t reach the goal, so what? Why should the reader care? What makes the goal so important that we need to read? If the goal or conflict is too simple, you’ll end up with the reader saying “they could have done that on page one”, and if they could have, that’s not a good novel. If the goals aren’t important, neither is the story. Having your character take a shower merely because she wants to isn’t a compelling action. It only becomes important if she happens to be staying at a place called “The Bates Hotel”. (If you don’t understand that reference, check out a little movie called “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock.)
Once you’ve set the stakes, raise them. And raise them again. And again. Keep the story growing.
In a full length novel, you will probably have several sub-plots as well as the main plot. A sub-plot is similar to a plot, but may involve secondary characters. Even with other characters, they should have something to do with the plot, a link that ties them to the main story line. Like a plot, they must be tied up at the end.
Next week – Part II of Plot
That’s what my dad was yelling when he was hunting with my two brothers. Question is, was he telling my younger brother, Jack, to shoot? Or my older brother to commit fratricide? Or is it a statement of frustration?
Okay, bad example. Try this one: Try it on Otis.
Do you mean to say: Try it on, Otis. As in having your friend Otis try on a piece of clothing?
Or: Try it on Otis. As in – try to pull a fast one over on Otis (or some other thing you want poor Otis to get stuck with?
And we’ve all heard about “Eats shoots and leaves” – Let’s hope there’s no comma in there or we might be dealing with a hungry gunman.
Punctuation. As soon as I say the word (or write it in this case), I see eyes glaze over and people find other places they need to be in a hurry. But without punctuation, things can get real confusing real fast, as seen in the above.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the proper way to punctuate things. To keep from muddying the waters too much, I’m going to use American standard for this blog and my manual of choice is the Chicago Manual of Style. Why do I need to state this? Because different countries have different ways of punctuating things. And different style guides even differ on their rules. Though most publishers lean toward the Chicago Manual of Style, many of them have their own style guides that may deviate somewhat from even that standard of style.
So why should we care about punctuation? Because it helps clarify the meaning of sentences. Take the above. Without punctuation, there can be multiple meanings to the sentences. And you can’t always get the gist of the sentence with the context of surrounding writing. It can also convey emotion. For instance, the ending punctuations of periods, question marks, and exclamation marks.
You failed the test.
You failed the test?
You failed the test!
Hmmm. The first could be a teacher with a student. Or one girlfriend talking to another about a pregnancy test. Then the second is a boyfriend’s reaction. Or the third is a husband’s reaction. By changing just that one little thing – the end punctuation – the entire meaning of the sentence is changed.
Then there’s the common little comma. As a dozen people about where to place commas and you’ll get a dozen different opinions. I’m not even going to try to explain them because the rules are different with different houses. But generally (and I’m using the term loosely), commas go between lists of things, after prepositional phrases, or wherever there’s a pause. Follow whatever style your house uses.
There’s a lot more to punctuation than just these few things. I’ll go into some more of them in a later blog, but please, do yourself, your editor, and your readers a favor and learn how to use punctuation.
I’m going to talk about an event that’s going to take place this week for myself and my friends. We will all be jumping in our cars and driving 3-4+ hours to reach an incredible place where we will spend the next three and a half days at a writing retreat.
This is a time of fun, getting together with like-minded friends who also happen to be writers – and writing. Lots of writing. Or editing. Or brainstorming. Or outlining. If it has to do with writing, we do it. There are no workshops to attend, no agents or editors to impress, no schedules to adhere to (well, almost none, but I’ll get to that.) It’s just an intense time of writing and is something we look forward to all year. This will be our tenth year of doing this.
When we first started the retreat, it went from Friday evening to Sunday morning. So actually, we only had one full day of writing. It was fun and we got a lot done, but still… one day. That wasn’t much. So we expanded it to now include Thursday to Sunday right before lunch (though most of us do leave right after breakfast because of the distance involved).
Now you may think that two days isn’t much time to get anything done. But you’d be wrong. You’d be surprised how much you can get done when you have nothing else to worry about. We stay in a hotel-like establishment. Our meals are provided for us as well as snacks. For those who need breaks, there are hiking trails (though at least two of our members are no longer permitted on them without a GPS – a story for another day), exercise and activity rooms, and a small museum on site. The only schedules we adhere to are meal times. And we do take some time both Friday and Saturday evenings for a little relaxation and time with each other (but those are optional – if you’re in the middle of an intense scene – keep on writing!).
We go full of excitement and anticipation; we work hard, play harder and return exhausted and brain dead, but usually satisfied with what we accomplished.
So my suggestion to you is… plan your own writing retreat. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as ours. Can you get away for a weekend? Or even just an hour? Yes, you can have a retreat for an hour. You go into your room/office/place of writing – turn off the internet and other distractions and concentrate on nothing but your writing.
You might be surprised what you can get accomplished – even in just an hour.
In addition to the birthdays, quote and tips, I’m happy to announce the print version of my futuristic romance, Danger on Xy-One, is available from Ellora’s Cave Blush. It’s been available as an ebook, but now will be in print format as well. The publisher is Ellora’s Cave found in their “Blush” line (the non-erotic portion of the site). It is a futuristic romance full of danger, mystery, and, of course, romance. A story in the Hunters for Hire series.
Aleksia Matthews is an asteroid assayer who would like nothing better than to be left alone. Her life is soon turned upside down when a band of ruthless pirates attack her ship. Shemanages to escape, but fears the worst for her brother. Ali swears revenge. Although well-trained by Fleet Security, she knows she can’t do the job alone. When she literally runs into a stranger, Jason Cole she knows she has met the perfect partner — in more ways than one.
Special agent and Bounty Hunter, Jason has spent the past year tracking the pirates who killed his brother Zack and Zack’s family. He’s always one step behind, too late to help the victims. There are never any survivors — until now. It is up to him to keep Ali alive and out of trouble until the gang can be captured, and maybe longer. Buy here: http://www.ellorascave.com/danger-on-xy-one-1.html#
Birthdays: Mark Handley, Michael Resnick, Howard Pyle
Tips and Teasers: Go to your nearest public library and browse the stacks. Check out areas you don’t normally go. What can you find that’s new and different for you?
Thought for the day: “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.” – Erica Jong.
Today is “Hug a G.I.” day – actually, for what they do and endure, that should be every day. Thank you to the men and women of the Armed Forces.
Birthdays: Alan Sillitoe, Johann Wyss
I’m not overly familiar with Sillitoe, though I should be, but Johann Wyss? Even if you don’t know the name, I know you’re familiar with his most famous work – The Swiss Family Robinson. Sillitoe was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, plays, and more.
Thought for the day: “The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn in this business that she may not come back at all.” – Terry Brooks
Tips and Teasers: What is your book about? Boil the answer down to no more than two sentences. This becomes the basis for your pitch to editors and agents.
Birthdays: Emile-Auguste Chartier, Sidney Lanier
Okay, I have to admit, I’ve never heard of either of these authors. But I did look the up when their names appeared on the birthday list. Interesting people. Go ahead, check them out. Lanier was a well-known American poet who has a school in Alabama named after him. And Chartier was a French philosopher and essayist who wrote under the name “Alain”.
Thought for the day: “I know some very good writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts” – Anne Lemont.
Tips and Teasers: If you are not hearing impaired, try watching TV without the sound on, using closed captioning. What do you feel like you’ve missed, if anything? Write down your feelings about going all day without sound.
Birthdays: John Irving, Philip K. Dick, John Jay Chapman, Theodor Geisel
Okay, I’ve heard of all of these, but my favorite is Theodor Geisel, aka Dr.Seuss. His lessons in silly rhymes educated and amused me for years, and still do. As a young librarian, my students used to challenge me to see how fast I could read “Fox in Socks” (a lot faster than I can now) and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” went to each of my children as they graduated, and has become a classic gift for that event for thousands. And can anyone forget Horton and his care over eggs and tiny Who’s? His birthday (today) is the inspiration for Read Across America.
Thought for the day: “Sometimes, it’s simply best to rip it all up and start over.” – Chuck Leddy
Tips and Teasers: Find a Dr. Seuss book (or several) and sit down and read it – to yourself, or someone else, it doesn’t matter – listen to the words – the sounds, the rhythms. Then write your own Dr. Seuss story.