Tag Archives: fiction

Beginner Is Not A Bad Word

Dan_Wheldon_2011_Indy_500Now that self-publishing is easy, inexpensive, and available to everyone with a computer and an online connection, a growing number of writers are trying their hand at producing fiction. But there’s a basic problem: these aspiring novelists don’t know what they don’t know.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in first grade. As I recall, the teacher was taking us through the beginning steps of learning to read. She put a word on the chalkboard (this was actually back in the dark ages when, yes, they still had chalkboards, and they were actually called blackboards)—something like cat. We were to think of words that rhymed. Easy-peasy.

After a while of this oh, so simple work, I tuned the teacher out and said something to a classmate near me. And that’s when the teacher called on me for an answer. We’d moved past the “rhymes with cat” exercise. Not only did I not know the answer, I didn’t know the question.

The truth was, I was a beginner. I hadn’t mastered a thing and needed to pay attention to every piece of the reading puzzle the teacher was giving us. I just didn’t know it. I thought if step 1 was so simple, surely step 2 would be also. Except, what I overlooked was that I actually needed to know what step 2 was.

I think a lot of writers who have a story in mind make the same mistake I did. They know how to write, and they have a story. What else is there? Well, actually, a lot.

Recently I used an analogy with one of my editing clients to make this same point. Generally adults in the United States know how to drive. Especially out West, there are miles and miles between places and little affordable mass transportation. Consequently we learn to drive and apply for a license as young as possible (not to mention that driving can make a teen feel very grown up).

Imagine that a driver who got his license when he was sixteen and has been driving for twenty years decides he wants to try his hand at auto racing. Is he qualified to do so? He thinks, Of course I’m qualified. I’ve been driving for twenty years, and during all that time, I’ve never been in an accident, never gotten a ticket. I’m a good driver! Sign me up for the Indy 500!

Here’s the problem. Yes, race car drivers do drive, but their type of driving is not the same as the kind of driving that the average commuter does on a daily basis. Race car drivers have much more to learn—about the car they’re driving, the race track, their competitors, the team they’re working with, handling a car at high speeds, safety regulations and equipment, emergency procedures, racing etiquette, and undoubtedly a host of other things I haven’t even heard about.

But Mr. Good Driver doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he’s ready for the races because he’s good at the level he’s been operating at. He doesn’t realize, however, that there’s another set of skills required of the race car driver.

In the same way, writers who have mastered written communication for their job or with friends and family, may be fooled into thinking they know all they need in order to write fiction. They don’t know what they don’t know.

One of the give-aways that a writer isn’t ready to publish their novel is that they are overly concerned about mechanics and formatting. They want to be sure they have all the commas in the right place and the right words capitalized. They want to know how long a chapter should be and if they are to set their margins at an inch or an inch and a half.

I’m not saying mechanics and formatting are unimportant, but they are down the list and are the things most easily fixed. The harder things act like worms burrowing into and eating away at the heart of a story—things like point of view errors, underdeveloped characters, weak description or overdone description, a lack of tension, or a bland voice.

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

The bottom line is this: if you’re just starting out, realize you are just starting out. Yes, you know how to write, but you are just a beginner when it comes to writing fiction.

There is no shame in being a beginner. It’s actually wise to realize you have things you need to learn. It’s wise to sit up, listen to the teacher, and take notes when necessary. It’s wise to practice, practice, practice. It’s wise to get evaluated from time to time in order to know if you’ve graduated from beginner to intermediate. It’s wise to be patient and learn what you don’t know so that you can turn that black hole into a brilliant star.

– – – – –

Photo credits:
Indy Car by Greg Hildebrand via Wikimedia Commons
Black Hole, unknown artist, in the public domain

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Filed under Writing Inspiration, Writing Process

Realistic Characters

As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should “suggest” rather than “dictate” characters. (Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, p. 9)

urban-traffic-768180-mReal people tend to be boring most of the time. They sit in traffic to and from work; they hunker behind desks day after day or drive the same delivery route yet again; they eat dinner with their family and spend the holidays with their relatives. The big excitement comes on the weekend when they go out to a movie or to a concert or party.

Most real people wouldn’t make good characters in books. Rather than attempting to make characters real, authors would be wise to listen to Ms. Brontë and make them realistic instead.

One thing that helps make a character realistic is a complex personality. This imagined person should have rough edges to go along with his heroic qualities. He should get on some people’s nerves some of the time. He should get cranky when he is tired.

But he should also be generous to a fault or so courageous he’s willing to risk his life without a second thought. And he should be selfless. In other words, when a character is a mixed bag of good traits and bad, he seems like a real person.

A second thing that gives a character the allusion of reality is when she has a good reason for doing what she does. In short, her motives make her actions seem logical and therefore believable.

Cop shows on TV often deal with unmotivated action, but they use it as a way to solve a crime. The murder victim does something that appears random, but that inconsistency triggers a hunt. Why was she in that parking lot at that time of night? There needs to be something that motivated her, and that something will give a clue to the identity of the murderer.

Mexicano_marioneta_louAll characters, not just crime victims, need motivation. Why did the gardener lie to his boss about the maid? If his motive isn’t clear, he will come across as the author’s puppet, not as a real person.

The third way an author can make her characters seem real is by giving them emotional reactions to the things that happen. Characters should feel guilty as well as scared, irritated as well as thrilled. They should worry about the test results from the doctor or get nervous before the job interview. And they shouldn’t get over the cause of their emotions too easily.

Characters, whether based on real people or created from scratch in the imagination of the author, are not precisely the same as living, breathing individuals. They are actually more. They face greater challenges, have higher goals, dare nobler deeds. And yet, they must be believable or readers will treat them like cartoons.

Hence, writers must give their characters checkered personalities, motivations for every action, and resulting logical emotional reactions. In this way, larger than life characters can still seem as real as the next door neighbor. Perhaps more so.

Hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!

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Filed under Action, Characters, Motive, Reactions

Know Your Characters

teen with attitude-1109209-mPerhaps nothing is more important for a novelist than to know his characters, and this fact is true regardless if the story is “plot driven” or “character driven.” In reality, the difference between those two types of stories is dependent upon the type of conflict that dominates the story–external or internal.

Clearly a story dealing primarily with a character’s internal flaw or need will depend upon knowing how that character is wired. But those stories aren’t the only ones that require an author to know his characters.

A story with external conflict front and center will have the kinds of events that deal with attempts to overcome this outside problem. Different characters will go about trying to solve the problems that confront them in different ways. Hence, an author needs to know what type of person he’s creating.

White_Collar_2009_logo.svgTake for example the main character in the TV show White Collar. He is a criminal working as a consultant to the FBI in order to stay out of prison. His methods of “consulting” vary a great deal from the detectives in a show like NCSI: Los Angeles.

He does what he does best–con, break and enter, forge, blackmail, things those on the legal side of the law can’t do. But is he nothing but a user? Something about him makes viewers care for him and cheer for him to turn from his criminal past.

Episode after episode, there is a criminal who needs to be caught, and our hero must work on behalf of the law by using his skills as a criminal. At the same time he has his own mysterious goals which sometimes put his actions on behalf of the FBI on a collision course with his actions meant to achieve his own ends.

The only way the plots for this show can work is if the writers know the character. What motivates him? What secret is he withholding from his handler?

When characters are involved, relationships develop. But relationships hinge on the inner qualities of each person. An author, therefore, must know how her character will relate to the various people in her story.

teen on cell-phone-959697-mWill a teen trust her new boyfriend or be suspicious of his intentions? Will a manager hire a yes-man for his assistant or will he find the best go-getter he can who might end up jumping ahead of him for promotion? Will a grandmother lie to protect her grandson from the policeman who accuses him of stealing from their neighbor or will she tell the truth, knowing he’ll be taken from her and put into the juvenile system?

In short, who are these people in your story? Not, what color eyes they have or how old they are, but what will they do when life turns against them, and why?

What makes them tick and how do they respond when they receive an expensive gift, learn they have cancer, watch their team win the Super Bowl, run into the boss who fired them?

As Art Holcomb said in a guest post at StoryFix, “We’re all predictably different . . . and so must our characters be.”

Unless an author intentionally crafts them to be different, however, they well might end up being stereotypical teens, or managers, or grandmothers. But if they are different, even quirky, they must have a believable reason for being different from the average person in their same shoes.

What separates them from others and why?

The better an author knows her characters, the deeper the story and the more impact it can have on readers.

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Filed under Characters, Concept And Development

Heart Surgery

Pig_heart_bypassWhat mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?

Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.

How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.

Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.

Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.

The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.

The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.

What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.

  • Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.

Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.

Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.

In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?

  • Characters also need to be properly motivated.

Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.

The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?

  • Finally, characters need to be unique.

Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.

A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.

In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?

Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.

sunglasses by-the-poolThirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.

The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?

By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.

This article is a re-post of the  original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.

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Filed under Action, Character Developmet, Motive, Revision, Voice, Worldview

When Showing Becomes Tedious

Timmy_Lassie_1961As I’ve mentioned before, fiction writers hear from the start, “Show, don’t tell.” The problem is, good fiction needs both showing and telling. Too much showing, or showing the mundane as well as the important, becomes tedious.

Writers further along on the journey understand this. But showing can be tedious in other ways, too.

Showing is tedious when the action is expected. For example, here’s where they kiss. Or now there will be a car chase. No matter how well a writer shows these scenes, they are tedious because they are predictable. To avoid tedium, showing must present something unexpected.

Showing can also be tedious if the action is a repeat of a similar action that happened earlier in the story. For example, after nearly drowning in the river, Timmy now nearly drowns in the pool. Thank goodness Lassie saved him both times. Yawn! To avoid boring readers, a writer must avoid show repetitive actions.

A third way that showing can be uninteresting is by going on and on and on. The point of showing is to spark the reader’s imagination, not give a blow-by-blow report. A carefully placed detail here, a particular shown there, and a scene unfolds in the mind of the reader. A good deal more that happens in the scene, then, can be communicated through narrative summary.

Here’s an example from Merlin’s Blade, Book 1 the Merlin’s Spiral series by Robert Treskillard:

The arrival of Uther mab Aurelianus, High King of the Britons, would have been a grand affair if not for the somber mood of the people of Bosventor. Oh, the other monks eagerly anticipated the justice they’d receive against the druidow, but the villagers were downright glum. [narrative summary]

One man, whom Dybris hadn’t met during his brief time at the abbey, stood near and complained to those around him, hooting, “A crock o’ ants, he is! Tregeagle cares nothin’ but fer tribute and Uther’ll be the same. You’ll see.”

The others nodded, and an old woman said, “Sh, Uther’ll not care for tributes when he gets a sight o’ our Stone!”

The Stone. What would Uther do with the Stone?

So when the battle horns blasted and people turned to see Uther’s war band rounding the side of the mountain from the east, Dybris prayed for deliverance from the Stone and its curse. [narrative summary]

Merlins_Blade_coverThe principle focus in this scene is on the Stone and what the king will do about it. If the author had shown him riding into the village with his war band rather than summarizing it, the emphasis would have shifted to something less important.

This touches on a fourth way that showing can be tedious. If the story is stalled by a lot of showing, it is boring. In the above scene, readers will be wondering along with the priest Dybris what the king will do about the Stone. If the author uses valuable pages to show something completely different, the reader may be tempted to skip all the “fluff” that isn’t connected to the question the author has raised.

Of course, an important something might delay the story’s forward movement, but the author then needs to give a clear motivation for this delay. Getting caught up in showing a scene simply for the sake of showing, isn’t a good reason.

Showing is certainly an important technique in fiction, without a doubt. But there’s more to showing than we often think and less need of it then we often realize.

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Filed under Show Don't Tell, Writing Rules

Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Filed under Action, Backstory, Plot

Who Hooked You And How?

466523_jamaican_fisher_manLast week we looked at the opening paragraphs of ten novels to see which hooked readers most often. I find these exercise informative. What was it that grabbed readers’ attention and why?

The poll results are in. Only one vote separated our top two entries.

In the top slot was Choice B
I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

In second place was Choice C:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

And now the big reveal: who are these authors and from what books did these openings come?

Choice A Storm by Evan Angler
Choice B Fathom by Merrie Destefano
Choice C Prophet by R. J. Larson
Choice D Cracks in the Ice by Deanna Klingel
Choice E Crosswind by Steve Rzasa
Choice F Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard
Choice G The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell
Choice H Soul’s Gate by James Rubart
Choice I The New Recruit by Jill Williamson
Choice J Beckon by Tom Pawlik

Here are my general observations about openings that hook:

The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected–warm snow, seeing a ghost.

They also created tension. The middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, and the protagonist starts awake. The tension is palatable. Perhaps less so, but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”

The openings that hook also created a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?

Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.”

In Prophet: “Tarnished snow” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”

The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.

Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.

I think it’s fair to say that the other openings shared some of these same elements–but perhaps not all. They may have included things these top two did not.

In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but I don’t think you can go wrong if you surprise your audience, create tension and questions with evocative language while introducing them to an interesting character.

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Are You Hooked?

1085595_fish_bait_1Some years ago, I conducted a poll over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction to see what readers liked about the openings of several recently published books. It was a fun way of seeing what people are looking for in their openings.

Writers who have gone to conferences or read instruction books know the first few paragraphs create the all important “hook” to capture readers’ interest. Consequently, spending a little time reading and reacting to a variety of openings can be instructive. So I thought it was time to re-create that poll with a different set of books.

Without giving you book titles, genres, or authors, I’ll post the openings of a few books released either this year or last and let you vote on the ones that captured your interest. I’ll make it multiple choice so that you can choose more than one answer if several (or all) hook you. Then next week I’ll reveal the titles and authors.

The real help, however, will be from those who comment, telling why one and not another opening grabbed their attention.

So here we are, the first 50-75 words, in no special order:

Choice A – The door to the house was closed and locked and guarded by two men wearing uniforms unlike any Connor had ever seen. They were quiet. They held rifles and wore helmets that shadowed their faces. They stared out and didn’t move.

Connor watched from the yard next door, dark under the curtain of a hot September night. The town around him was still, suspended in the thick, stifling air, and he crept through it silently.

Choice B – I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

Choice C – Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

Choice D Dear Diary,

All I want is to be in charge of my own life and ice skate. Is that so much to ask? I mean I am fourteen. I think I can be in charge of something. It just isn’t fair. All I wan to do is ice skate. Sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with me, but they change things in my life. I don’t think that’s fair.

Choice E – Troy could finally relax.

His Maledore Vireo biplane dipped just under the clouds. It was still dark this early in the morning. The sky was a deep blue, and his only illumination was that given by the moon. It was plenty, though, to shed light on his gauges and instruments. The flash steam engine of his biplane was loud enough to reassure him it was properly working.

Choice F – The pine trees mocked his youth, their thin, green fingers fretting in the wind. If he didn’t move fast, they would betray him—he just knew it—and the deer would get away. . . again. Arvel wiped his brow, stole across an expanse of dead pine needles, and crouched behind a bush strangled by bindweek and its poisonous red berries.

Holding his breath, he nocked an arrow.

Three deer chewed and sniffed.

Choice G – Now my prince, in my former rendition, I spoke of Ephan’s deeds. Then you asked me to tell the tale again, and this time to tell you Psal’s story. I will play my part. But you must play your part as well. For you it is given the task of forgetting all you have heard of the previous tale and to keep your heart and mind on Psal. Can you do this?

Choice H – Reece Roth Spun at the sound–a dull scrape like log on log. But there was nothing behind him except a small pile of driftwood worn white by years of ocean rain and wind. A shadow flitted in the corner of his eye, but as he turned farther to his left, the darkness vanished.

His heart pumped faster as he took another quarter turn to complete the circle.

Choice I – What can I say? I’m a moron.

I knew better than to play ball in King Coat’s territory. Maybe I was looking for a fight, wanting to blow off steam after my “talk” with Principal McKaffey.

But there we were, me and three guys from the public school, playing two on two on the court in Alameda Park. It was around 2:20. The elementary schools hadn’t let out yet.

Choice J – The last time he saw his father alive, Jackson David Kendrick was only nine years old.

The gray light of dawn was seeping in between his bedroom curtains when Jack woke to find him standing in the doorway. Dr. David Kendrick was a willowy, spectacled anthropologist at the University of Chicago.

By the way, if you think you know who the author is, feel free to leave a comment and give us your guess. However, if you’ve read the book and actually KNOW who the author is, please limit your comment to a hint but don’t spoil the chance others have of guessing.

Remember, vote for all the beginnings that hooked you. The poll will remain open for a week.

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Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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Filed under Characters, Plot, Word Use, Writing Rules

My Characters Talk Too Much

Tom_Selleck_(2401215467)

I’ve been watching reruns of the old 80s show Magnum P.I. One of the characters is an Englishman named Jonathan Higgins who served in Her Majesty’s military, and has any number of stories to tell about his exploits. Except, he usually launches into those long-winded accounts in the most inopportune times.

In short, Higgins talks too much. He bores most of the characters in the show because he is long-winded, going into apparently needless detail about time, setting, background, before he ever gets to the “what happened.”

Many of us know people in real life who talk too much, too. It’s easy to nod and smile and let our minds drift when this person is talking because there’s a lot of unnecessary fluff before our dear friend/relative reaches the heart of the matter.

Recently I’ve realized my characters fall into this same camp–they say things that aren’t particularly necessary. Surprise, surprise, when they talk too much, their dialogue has the same effect on readers as too much talking has in real life.

What constitutes too much talking in a novel? Here are some of the most common dialogue story stoppers:

1. Speaking in complete sentences. We almost never do in real life, so why should our characters? In this version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” the characters all speak in complete sentences (even the mirror, though an example of such isn’t included in these lines):

    As Snow White grew prettier with every passing day, the Queen’s jealousy and anger grew. At last unable to bear Snow White’s beauty any longer, she called her Huntsman and said to him, ‘Take the child into the forest, and kill her, and bring back her heart and her tongue as proof that she is dead.’

    The Huntsman did as the Queen asked – he took the little girl into the forest and prepared to kill her. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ cried Snow White, looking in terror at his big sharp knife. ‘I will run away into the forest and never come back again.’ The Huntsman relented, and let her go. The child ran off through the trees deep into the forest. ‘The wild beasts will kill you, you poor child,’ thought the Huntsman to himself.

2. Answering questions with more information than the other character is asking.
Example:

    “Why did your squad fail to join us outside Ariel?”

    “After the assault at Ringal Peak, we departed under instructions from Eljosh to explore the area around Ariel. When we arrived at the city, we detected no activity, friendly or otherwise. We decided to take a closer look and found it deserted. We headed back to report, but an enemy platoon blocked us. We nearly marched into their camp. . . “

I’ll spare you the rest, but this answer continued for another five sentences.

3. Giving speeches or reports or telling stories (see Jonathan Higgins). Of course, there are exceptions: if the character can tell stories in an engaging manner, an occasional story may be appropriate. Or if being long-winded is part of his character, then at least the opening of a boring story can serve that purpose.

4. Telling a character what happened in a previous scene. This is often a rehash:

    “Can you believe we made it?”

    “I thought we’d die. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, Fred, I hate to think what might have happened.”

    “It wasn’t just Fred. You were fearless, too, Lilliana. Why, you stared that old crocodile down as if . . .”

Yes, yes, we know! We just read the scene!!

5. Delivering information that both characters know or ought to know.

Example:

    “You know, Uncle John, my dad, Harry Thomas, was the youngest in your family.”

This example is an exaggeration, to be sure, but any information that the author is delivering to the reader rather than one character revealing to another, needs to go.

There’s an old fable about a too talkative turtle whose end was not a happy one because he didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth closed. In the same way, stories with characters who are too talkative may suffer a sad demise. Readers will become impatient with long-winded, wordy conversations that add nothing new. And we know what happens to books when readers get impatient!

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