Tag Archives: writing

The Stranded Novel #amwriting

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. For that reason, first lines and the opening chapters frequently become all that is ever written of a would-be author’s novel. Yet the authors of those few chapters have the entire book locked in their head.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors to write the entire book before they begin editing.

In your first draft, DON’T OBSESS over the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener. Write the entire story as quickly as you can, let it sit for a month or two while you do something completely different, THEN come back to it and focus on shaping the prose. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

So, let’s assume the rough draft has been completed, and you are pleased with the way it ends. But you are looking at your early chapters, and they feel lackluster. Now is the time to shape the words, to write them so they are the words you would want to read if you were looking for a book to purchase.  The second draft is when you should obsess about your first lines.

One of the best first lines ever: George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes one want to know Miss Brooke and the reader wonders who the observer is who chronicles this. It is a novel, but if it had been a short story, it would still have hooked the reader.

Good first lines make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great one-liners, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Or, take the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

Should your first lines be required to introduce your main character? I think not.

Dickens introduced an era in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, etc…” 

In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating the foes whom Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

All of the above books were begun as great ideas and the manuscripts were finished, which is why they were published. Admittedly, Robert Jordan did pass away before the final books were completed, but he wrote 12 of the 15 books and left a complete story arc with enough notes that Brandon Sanderson could finish the job. Jordan left behind a complete story, not just a first chapter.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors have completed their work. Of course, you must read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You don’t have to spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Most importantly–published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job. If you want to lay claim to being an author, write the ENTIRE novel! Get that story arc down on paper before you begin rewriting the first chapter! If all you have ever written is the first chapter, over and over, and over… perhaps you need to set that idea aside and begin one that interests you enough to inspire you to write a complete novel.

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Jumpstart #NaNoWriMo2017 The Storyboard #amwriting

It’s mid-October and time for many writers to think about National Novel Writing Month—thirty days of dedicated writing where you take an idea for a novel, sit down and daily write at least 1,667 words of a rough draft. The goal of this month of concentrated writing time is to get the entire story down while the inspiration and ideas are flowing. At the end of the thirty days, you should have a novel-length story, hopefully with a complete story arc (beginning, middle, end).

Once that is done, the work really begins.

To succeed at completing a project with such an ambitious goal, it helps if you spend some time planning your novel.  To that end, I like to storyboard all my ideas. By making this effort when the idea is first in my head, if I become lost or find myself floundering in the writing process, I can come back to my original files and remind myself of what the original concept of the story actually was.

Many people use Scrivener for this, but I found the learning curve for that program to be too annoying, so I simply use a spreadsheet program, because all the important information is on the same line.

Scrivener costs $40.00which is not bad, but Google Drive has the free program, Google Sheets. This program is similar to Excel (which I use), so the principals I will be discussing are the same.

From Wikipedia:

Google DocsGoogle Sheets, and Google Slides are a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation program respectively, all part of a free, web-based software office suite offered by Google within its Google Drive service. The three apps are available as web applications, and as mobile apps for Android and iOS. The apps are compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. The suite also consists of Google Forms (survey software), Google Drawings (diagramming software) and Google Fusion Tables (database manager; experimental[8]).

The suite allows users to create and edit files online while collaborating with other users in real-time. Edits are tracked by user with a revision history presenting changes. An editor’s position is highlighted with an editor-specific color and cursor.

Admittedly, this program doesn’t do what Excel does but it is perfect for this if you don’t have Microsoft Office.

But you can do this any old way that makes you happy, even by drawing columns on a sheet of paper by hand. The point is to have a list of names and places with five pieces of information pertaining to the story all on the same line. I have so many ideas that I created a blank template that I fill in, retitle, and save in a new folder for each prospective story. I may make as many as five storyboards in a week, out of which I may not write any of them, lol. But the ideas are there for me to access when I want them.

The following is a screenshot of my blank storyboard template. Originally this began as a way to do short stories, but my novels begin with ideas storyboarded out this way too.

The storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top: Working Title

If it’s an idea for a short story, the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed it it is for a novel)

Column A: Character Names: list the important characters by name, and also list the important places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

As I said, this plays directly to how a linear thinker like me works. It takes advantage of the ideas I have that might make a good story, makes a note of all the pertinent ideas I have at the outset, and offers me a jumping off point.

Feel free to take this idea and run with it. Design the storyboard that works for you!


Credits and Attributions

NaNoWriMo 2017 Municipal Liaison Badge, © 2017 www.nanowrimo.org, (limited use permitted for Municipal Liaisons on blogs and social media).

Wikipedia contributors, “Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Google_Docs,_Sheets,_and_Slides&oldid=805075002 (accessed October 15, 2017).

Screenshot of Blank Storyboard Template, © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

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Details and Exposition #amwriting

For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.

In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.

Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.

The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.

Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.

In the second draft, we seek out and remove

  • Repetitions
  • Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
  • Nonessential historical information

We check to make sure the story

  • is cohesive,
  • only has events that flow logically,
  • has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.

If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say

It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books.  A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.

I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.

In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.

Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.

If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.

Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.

Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.

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#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

Today I am featuring a post by my good friend, and fellow Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo, Lee French. Lee poses the question: Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter?’ For me, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I plot, then I wing it, then I replot, and let it fly. Without further ado, here is Lee’s post.  I heartily suggest you read it all and click on through to finish the post on her page.

Scripturience

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4…

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Crafting the turning point #amwriting

Last week we discussed the opening scenes of your story, taking it to the inciting incident. Today we are talking about the middle, a section that takes up about fifty percent of your story.

The middle is comprised of two acts joined by a major plot point, the midpoint event. Following the inciting incident is the second act, comprised of reaction to the inciting incident, and action, and more reactions, all of which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. All the action should relate directly to the core trouble, the quest.

At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. The midpoint of the story arc is the turning point, the place where there is no going back.

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he only sees disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, evolving in to a strong and moral character, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone, but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and the battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: everything starts relatively well, but events soon push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical, or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety. Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown. At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist believes he had a grip on it.

The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. Toward the end of this section,  the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters don’t know that will affect the plot.

As I mentioned in the previous post on the opening act, those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act.

Someone may die. But be aware, random action, blood and gore, or sex inserted for shock value or just to liven things up have no place in a well-crafted novel. Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in protagonists’ lives. I want to make this extremely clear: If those events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

The middle of the story is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the final quarter of the story, the protagonists should be getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the all-important, final act, the moment where they will embark on the final battle to achieve their goal. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

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#amwriting: SW Washington Writers Conference, What I learned from @RobertDugoni

This last weekend I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. I was also privileged to attend a class called Creating Plots for Page Turners, given by the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni.

I say privileged, for this reason. Robert Dugoni is a bestselling author of thrillers, My Sister’s Grave being the book that caught my attention several years ago. Dugoni understands what makes a gripping story.

As I sat in the class, it became clear to me that attention to writing craft is integral to his work, but he also sees it from a slightly different angle. While he covered many things which I will discuss in my next blog post, several things pertain to recent posts of mine, regarding the first draft.

Bob asked a question I found intriguing: “What is your purpose as an author?” There were several different replies. He said, “Your characters must entertain the reader. Never stop entertaining.”

That was my thought, exactly. So how do we entertain our reader? What should we avoid?

One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are mostly for you, the author, and are meant to set the scene in your mind. You know the rules, and don’t want them in the finished piece, but they slip into your work in insidious ways:

  1. Is the information you are about to dispense relevant to the character and his/her immediate need? Does it advance the story?
  2. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  3. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  4. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.
  5. Opinions about the scene or the character, or anything—author intrusion is to be avoided.
  6. Don’t be lazy—show the story, even when it is simpler to tell it.

Points 3, 4, and 5 were concepts I consider in my own work, but never really thought about and hadn’t articulated them. They are critical and do bear mentioning here.

A question Dugoni asked was one I have often considered and discussed here. “What is a story?” The answers varied, but the one he wanted, and with which I agreed, is the story is the journey.

Frequently, stalled creativity is the result of the author having lost sight of the character’s journey, both the physical and the emotional journey.

Dugoni offered a solution for when that is the case: Ask yourself, “What is the character’s physical journey/quest?” You must ensure each character has a journey, a quest, but Dugoni adds third aspect–a dream. That idea that the journey/quest is also a dream that must be fulfilled resonated with me.

Then, consider the emotional journey. Why do these people continue in the face of great challenges? Is it love, anger, fear, duty, greed, honor, jealousy, or some deeper emotion that drives them?

Find that emotion, and you will find your character’s motivation.

Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t succeed? What are the consequences of failure?

  1. What is the public risk?
  2. What is the private risk?

Something important is at stake, or there is no story. Once you discover what it is and how it affects the characters’ emotions, the story will come together.

Classes like this are why I attend writer’s conferences. Robert Dugoni, Scott Driscoll, Cat Rambo—these people have the knowledge I need, and they are wonderful, accessible people who freely discuss all aspects of the craft in seminars, frequently at conferences I can afford and which are near me.

The companionship and support of other authors has been invaluable to me, and I have made every effort to repay their many kindnesses by supporting them in their endeavors. The friends I have made through this career are as dear to me as any I grew up with, and that circle widens with every conference I attend.

You may meet writers who are local to your area, and they will know of good writing groups near your home. They will also know about resources you can draw on, reference books you may not have heard of. If you are serious about the craft, you will seek out the company of other writers.

Find a conference in your area, and see what turns up. You may find yourself learning from a master.

Robert Dugoni’s most recent book, Close to Home launched Sept 5th and has garnered well over 65 customer reviews on Amazon in the first week alone and maintains a 4.5 star rating.

THE BLURB:

New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy.

While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice.

When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home.

As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.

*

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. He is also the author of the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction. His books are sold worldwide in more than 25 countries and have been translated into more than two dozen languages including French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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#amwriting: the paragraph

A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea.

In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea.

While I do edit for people who are pursuing literary degrees, that is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.

This post pertains to the paragraphs in a literary narrative, whether the genre is contemporary, sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance—or any kind of writing that is fiction. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

Wrong:

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”

That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”

Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He spat, “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed, which sometimes makes for long paragraphs.

With that said, some considerations must be taken into account in the modern world of eBooks. EBooks versions of novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as an unbroken wall of words. The reader can be daunted by this and may decide to move on to a different book. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

Thus, for a genre-fiction manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to keep your paragraphs shorter, dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea.

In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.

No matter what, you must have an amazing opening paragraph. One of the greatest hooks in literature is the following one by French author, Albert Camus, which opens the 1942 novel, The Stranger.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.

This is where the artistry of the author comes into play: he takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.

Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.


Credits and Attributions

Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)

Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).

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#amwriting: naming people and places

When I was laying down the first draft of my current work in progress, I somehow managed to give every walk-on a name, right down to the dog. That was immediately corrected, although the dog is an important side-kick and still has a name.

Because a reader can only keep so many character names straight in their mind, I was forced to whittle down my cast of thousands. An author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story, but should also use common sense.

In a scifi or fantasy tale, naming can get out of hand, sometimes with every single object or utensil, down to the  most common of tools being given a weird name. A hammer should just be be a hammer, please.

I consider that too much detail, and unnecessary. Think of all the names the reader must try to keep straight in a simple tale as if they were people you had just met at a party–that is what the reader faces in the opening chapters of a story.

  1. Character names, pet names, etc.
  2. Town names: Includes shops and restaurants.
  3. Country names, if part of the story .
  4. Myriad other named people, places, and things.

When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Even if he or she offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named. Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest, or show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.

The same follows for places—if the village of Maldon has no bearing on the story, don’t mention it.

You must decide how important a character’s role is. If it’s a walk-on, a person who will only have a brief paragraph in the tale, consider not naming them. Ask yourself if the person will return later in the story or are they acting as part of the setting, part of the scenery in a coffee shop, or perhaps a store. If they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Sometimes a character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know and will they return? If not, don’t give them a name.

One of my works in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my protagonists. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard mentioning the Cardinal and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my protagonist and his party are named, while all you need to know about the merchant and his sons is shown by their conversation and brief descriptions as speech tags: The portly merchant spoke softly. “You never listen to me. Now here you are, on the run from the Cardinal. Getting you out of the country will be costly. If I beggar myself to bail you out of this mess, how will I support myself in my old age?”

Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.

The tendency to make every character a memorable person is one we can’t indulge. The reader will become confused if too many characters are named.

In one of my early books, I learned a difficult lesson the hard way about naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up: for some stupid reason I named her Marta.

You can probably see where this is going—the two names are nearly identical.

What is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly became a protagonist with a major storyline. She becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

My rule now is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

One last thing to consider: will you want to publish your book as an audiobook? If so, how will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is. I only have one book that is an audiobook, but during the recording of that book, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters, because I had written the names so they would look good on paper, not realizing they were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but the experience taught me to spell names simply.

Because of my early “good ideas gone awry” when it comes to names, my rules for names are simple:

  1. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names.
  2. Never name two characters names that are nearly identical or that begin and end with the same letter.
  3. Consider making the spellings of names and places pronounceable in case you decide to have your book made into an audiobook.

Credits and attributions: 

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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#amwriting: do the reasearch

People always ask what you do for a living, as we are a society of people who define ourselves by our occupations. For many years, I was a bookkeeper, and also, I worked in data entry for several large corporations. Before that, during the 1980s and Reaganomics, I worked as a hotel maid, a field hand, and had several other odd occupations, often holding down three part-time jobs.

When you tell people you write books, they are, generally, interested. When you tell them you write speculative fiction, you get a range of reactions, from pitying condescension to confused, but sincere, respect.

Sometimes people laugh and tell me how easy it must be since I can make any old thing up and it will fly. Despite the old saying that “in wine there is truth,” nothing could be further from the truth.

Readers know when you have gone off the track and into the shrubs of “that can’t possibly happen.”

This means you can’t just make any old thing up because world building must combine enough realism with the created world to make the fantasy plausible. It involves research.

I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research in the right place.

In the process of writing Huw the Bard and the subsequent stories set in that world, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other people’s efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited, so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible, your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

The following is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing, including grammar questions. They are self-explanatory and are easy to make use of. Submit your questions via their query box and, while figuring out what you really need to know may take several tries, you will soon have answers.

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke.

For example, if you are writing a story set in a medieval environment, you may need to know what clothing the common European people wore in medieval times. Or you might want to know what their home looked like, or a village. For that, I suggest you seek out the art of the Flemish Painters. There you’ll see what men and women looked like and how they dressed, both for celebrations, and for working. You will see what their towns looked like, and the public places they gathered in. The interiors of their homes are also found in the great Flemish painter’s works.

Any time you want an idea of average European village life in the Late Middle Ages through the 17th century, you need to look no further than Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters. These were artists living in what is now The Netherlands, and who were creating accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, along with stylized religious images.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

They painted their subjects with a heavy dose of religious allegory, but that was a part of village life—both the Inquisition and the Reformation were under way, and the politics of religion was in the very air they breathed. If you are going to write medieval fantasy, you must understand how strong the influence of the Church was and how entangled it was in politics. You must inject that religious realism into your work, and show how the Church, even a fantasy religion, and its politics affect the common person’s life.

My regular readers know I love the work of one family of early Dutch painters from Flanders, the Brueghel Family. Five generations of their family were well-known painters and printmakers.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. Research is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many happy hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.

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#amwriting: the role of the #proofreader

I am nearly at the end of the editing process on my new novel, Billy Ninefingers, a tale set in Huw the Bard’s world. When I am finished with the revisions, I will format my manuscript to be uploaded as both eBook and paper books. At that point, I will be looking for proof readers.

This is where it gets sticky. At some point, I must draw the line and say this book is done. I want no more changes, no more fiddling with it. Thus, when the manuscript is as polished as I can possibly get it, I have one final step—the one that can either ruin a formatted manuscript or make it great: proofreading.

While some people will dispute this, proofreading is not editing.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made, and hopefully it is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things in your otherwise perfect manuscript will stand out.

Anita Campbell, in her May 28, 2015 guest post for the SBA’s Blog-Industry Word says: “The first step of effective proofreading is understanding that not every typo or issue is alike.  Each needs to be attacked in a different way.” While she is speaking of editing blogposts, and short works, that profoundly true of longer manuscripts.

Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there may be places where the reader’s eye will stop. Words have been left out, punctuation is missing–any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur even after the most thorough of edits.

After the final edit, we go over our work with a fine-toothed comb, trying to proof it ourselves. We read it aloud, and we read it from the bottom up, but our eye sees what it expects to see. We catch many things, but we don’t catch it all.

This is where the final person in the process comes in–the proofreader.

In case you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will say it again: proofreading is not editingEditing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere, and is completed long before we get to the proofreading stage.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. That has already been done and done again. If they cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader.

What the Proofreader Should Look For:

Spelling—misspelled words, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These are words that spell-checker may or may not catch, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Bobby wint out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Bobby went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There cat escaped and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their cat escaped and he had to chase it.

Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These happen when making revisions, even by the most meticulous of authors, and the editor won’t see any errors you introduce after they have completed their work on the ms. These are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t find always them. Sometimes they seem like unusually garbled sentences.

  • Wrong: First of all, First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted practice to practice thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot  thoughts.
  • Right: First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Missing closed quotes:

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man? asked Officer Shultz.
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man?” asked Officer Shultz.

Numbers that are digits:

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be 300 guests at the reception. (For notes and emails, we can use digits.)
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words:

  • Wrong: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table me gently while I made hot water for tea.
  • Right: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table grilling me gently, while I made hot water for tea.

Each time you (or a well-meaning editor) tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your already edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error.

Do not ask an editor to proofread your manuscript, as they will be unable to resist tweaking the phrasing and will ask for more changes, because it’s their nature and their job. This can go on forever, and you run the risk of

1. Ironing the life out of your manuscript and losing the feeling of spontaneity, making it feel contrived.

2. Putting up a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws that were introduced in the proofing process.

Don’t allow someone else, even an editor, to make the changes for you. Editors are human and can inadvertently make mistakes—after all, the eye sees what the author thinks should be there. Any person who makes changes to the final product has the chance to inadvertently ruin it.

At some point your manuscript is done. You have been through the editing process, and the content and structure is as good as you can get it, but you need one last eye looking for small flaws. Before you upload that masterpiece to Kindle or wherever, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by an intelligent reader, who understands what you are asking them to do and who is willing to do only that.

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