A review of Mind Breach by Anthony Vicino

Tommy Muncie reviews Mind Breach

Tommy Muncie, Writer

Buy Mind Breach on Amazon

Visit Anthony Vicino’s Website

*I received an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Mind Breach is the book I never thought I would get my hands on. At least for a while. Its author, in a move worthy of some of his characters, disappeared out of the digital world for the best part of a year, not long after a conversation where he told me he had a 120,000 word draft of the book almost ready to go. He resurfaced with the story of how the book nearly broke him a couple of months ago. I’ll open the review on a good note: it was truly worth the wait.

Let’s get one bugbear out of the way: it’s been so long since I read the first book that this one could really have done with…

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SFF Interview Index

SC Flynn did over 100 interviews last year with some of my favorite SFF bloggers and all around cool people! I was lucky enough to be included! Go check it out!

SCy-Fy: the blog of S. C. Flynn

The 200th post on this blog is an early piece of new year’s resolution-satisfaction. I promised myself that in 2016 I would finally compile and publish a complete index of my series of interviews with SFF bloggers and other genre people that concluded six months ago.

At last, links to all 102 of them are set out below; please scroll and click to your heart’s content.

Looking over the list again, it is striking that some of these people have already ceased the activity I interviewed them about just last year. Some are casualties of blog burnout, or of real-life catchup, but some want to focus on their own fiction writing. Others have joined the teams on big, established sites.

On the other side, a positive aspect is that some of the new faces I chose to interview have built on the promise that I saw and are well on the way to filling in…

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My Top 10 (Actually 12) Favorite Short Stories of 2015

I see you over there staring at your bookshelf, shaky knees wobbling like jello at the thought of choosing your next book to read. Well, wibbeldy-wobble no more and check out Will Swardstrom’s Top 12 Short Stories of 2015. Go check it out, I’ve read a bunch of these stories and can vouch for their awesomeness!

Will Swardstrom Author

2015 is almost up, and you know what that means…

That’s right — excessive weight gain around the holidays!

Also Top 10 Lists!!

Last year I loved making my Top 10 books of the year (which ended up being around 17 or something), but this year I’m going to break down my lists into smaller categories. One of those will be the Top 10 (Actually 12) Short Stories I read in 2015.

Obviously not comprehensive, and not all were written in the past year, but all made a big impression on me. I’m terrible at telling you exactly which was THE BEST, so I’m just going to give them to you in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Fair warning — many of them are in the Future Chronicles anthologies since I’ve read each of them this year making them a significant reading source for me each time one…

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Brutal PIXELS Review (NSFW)

I’m stuck at the dentist’s office, waiting for my gums to stop spurting gouts of blood long enough for the dentist to get back in there with her scalpal-ice-pick toothbrush thingee and finish the job. In the meantime, enjoy this absolutely scathing review of Adam Sandler’s new movie, PIXELS.

To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie (nor do I have any intention to), so I can’t judge whether this review is on base or not. But that hardly matters, because this is one of the funniest–though admittedly raunchy and vicious–reviews I’ve heard in a long time. Typically I’m against one star reviews, but hey, when the writer puts in as much effort as this guy clearly did, I’m gonna make some exceptions.

*Warning: Not Suitable For Small Children, Big Children, Small Adults, or even Big Adults. Not Really Suitable For Anybody Of Any Age Or Size. You’ve Been Warned.*

Writing Beginnings That Don’t Suck (Writing Workshop)

Every great journey begins with a single step forward. Where your story is concerned, that first step is absolutely, without question, the most important one. Doesn’t matter how fantastic the rest of the book is, if the first few sentences don’t compel the reader into the next paragraph, and that paragraph doesn’t force them to finish the first chapter, then you’re sunk right out the gate.

Your opening line is the front line. It’s your readers first interaction with the story and everything, and I do mean everything, depends on those first few lines doing their job.

But it’s not just a matter of starting the story with whizz-bang-boom in the first few sentences and then resting on your laurels. That next paragraph has to latch onto your reader by the scruff of the neck like a rabid Daschund. The paragraph after that must add another meanie-weenie dog. The one after that? You guessed it. Another ferocious ankle biting fur-ball.

daschund

Ferocious and Delicious.

The first chapter of your story needs to heap puppy after puppy on the reader until they are crushed beneath the dog pile and couldn’t walk away even if they wanted to.

When it comes to opening your story, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re playing for keeps. By the way, what’s up with all these dog metaphors? Hm… we’ll get to the bottom of that later, for now, let’s focus on what really matters: Writing a Stellar Opening! Or, barring a stellar opening, let’s write something that doesn’t completely suck.

Onwards and upwards as they say!

Okay, so now we grasp the importance of a great opening, but what does that even mean? What does a great opening look like?

When done properly, we barely notice a great opening. You know why? Because we are so enthralled that we don’t even stop to consider the fact that we’ve fallen headfirst into this majestic world of centaurs and jello fueled jetpacks until we come up for our first huge mouthful of air which, depending on how strong your opening is, could be hours later.

So what does a good opening need? I’m glad you asked, please refer to the handy-dandy list I’ve compiled down below:

What Every Good Beginning Needs

1) Hook the Reader

Hooking the reader can be done in all sorts of ways. Maybe there’s something really compelling about your character. Does he/she have a unique voice? A weird perspective on the world that immediately clashes with our own? If you’re from a more literary bent, then the language itself could be the hook. Read some Patrick Rothfuss and right off the bat you’re hooked by the sheer beauty of language.

Quick note: Not everybody can pull off this sort of opening. Nine times out of ten I’d say people fail because they come off as flowery and pompous. You don’t want to be that guy, so tread carefully.
Inevitably, whether you have a compelling character or beautiful language, the beginning comes down to the hook. The reason why the reader should invest their time in your story.

Most books do this with a question. Will Mary figure out who put the Butcher’s head in her freezer? Will she figure out whether or not she thinks it’s kind of sweet and romantic or a little too forward and a bit creepy?

Most books get put down because the reader is bored. They aren’t compelled forward; they aren’t hooked. If that happens, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

2) Establish Bond With Lead Character

Right off the bat we want to know who’s skin we’re going to be living inside for the next couple hundred pages. Introduce us to your lead character and then make us feel something for her. Do it quick, you’ve only got a hundred or so words to really grab me and yank me in. Don’t waste time.

Refer to the post Cheating Your Way to Likable Characters for ways to establish this bond. Here’s a quick list for you lazy SOB’s out there.

Jeopardy

Hardship

Underdog

Vulnerability

Likability

Inner Conflict

Don’t know what any of that means? Too bad, go read that other post.

3) Present the Story-world

This doesn’t mean info-dump or take a paragraph to describe the skyline and the underlying political system governing your little world. In the beginning every word counts double, so figure out ways to introduce the story-wono dumpingrld without taking a step sideways to draw attention to the fact that you’re introducing us to the story-world.

I’ve done other post on exposition and infodumping (CLICK HERE and I’ll prove it), but here’s the nitty gritty to help you navigate the treacherous waters of your beginning.

Exposition

Act First, Explain Later: I’m not going to stop and explain why Daryl is about to shoot Wesley in the kneecap. I’m gonna do it, and you’re gonna trust that it’ll all make sense in the near future.

Comprende? Bueno. Now get over here Wes, Daryl’s got something for you.

Iceberg Explanation: Give us only 20 percent of what you think we need. Leave the rest underwater.
Information Inside Confrontation: Whenever possible use confrontation, or interaction with another human, to sprinkle information and propel the story forward.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked in Daryl’s hand harder than he expected. “That’s for fucking my wife.”

Wesley whimpered on the blistering plasticene sidewalk, clutching his gut. “I didn’t—”

Daryl didn’t have time for more lies. He took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes and fired a second time.

/scene/

Notice a couple things. We jump straight into the action without introductions or back-story. Daryl thinks Wes slept with his wife, so there’s his motivation conveniently dispensed in the form of dialogue rather than some kind of internal monologue.

Is Daryl justified in his actions or is he a jealous asshole? Don’t know. Is he even our point-of-view character? Maybe. Maybe not.

For instance, perhaps he has his wife tied up in the back of the car and he’s gonna kill her next. Maybe she’s our main character and has to get away from her insane husband. Then again, maybe we find out she’s been cheating on him for decades and Daryl just learned none of his three children are actually his. Now we can at least sympathize with his anger.

Either way, at this point, we don’t know, but hopefully we’re intrigued enough to find out.

What’s a plasticene sidewalk by the way? Shrug. Not a clue. That’s just a bit of world building to give you an idea that this storyworld isn’t exactly like our own world.

Also, that very first sentence “the gun bucked harder than expected” gives us some idea that Daryl probably hasn’t fired very many guns in his lifetime. So where did he get this weapon? Did he buy it from a crack addict on the corner of 28th and MLK? Possibly.

I guess we’ll just have to read on to find out, huh?

4) Establish Tone

The above example is sort of morbid, huh? It has the sort of grit that would play well in a detective noir or mystery/thriller piece. Which is going to be awfully disappointing if the story you’re telling is supposed to be humorous or a romantic comedy. You need to set the mood immediately, give the readers no doubt as to what sort of story they are reading.

Seriously, don’t get cute and write a super-gnarly murder scene only to undo it at the end of the chapter with the old:

“Joe and Beth sat on the couch as the movie ended, wide eyed and traumatized. Nobody said a word. Perhaps Die Hardest: Oblivion Now wasn’t a good first date movie choice, Joe reflected.”

morgan

Now, the example from above is gritty, but we could easily tone it down into something more lighthearted with a bit of work.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked clean out of Daryl’s hand and landed in a puddle of rain water. Daryl stooped over to retrieve the weapon. “That’s for sleeping with my wife, douche-nozzel.”

“What the he–?” Wesley whimpered.

Daryl took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes, compensated for the anticipated recoil, and fired a second time.

The bean-bag round glanced off Wesley’s kneecap.

/scene/

Is this funny? Probably not. I’m not good at comedy, but the take-away is that it sets an entirely different tone from the first example. The action is pretty much the same but instead of murdering Wesley, Daryl has resolved to use a bean-bag gun. A weapon he is clearly not familiar with.
The important thing is that right out of the gate, with both of the examples, you more or less know the sort of story you’re in for.

5) Compel The Reader To Move Forward

Never give the reader a reason to put your story down. Make it difficult for them to say, “That’s enough for tonight”, by always compelling them to move forward. This means asking a variety of big questions and little questions.

In the examples with Wesley and Daryl we have a couple questions revolving around what brought the two men to that place in their lives, and what’s going to happen next. But you can only string action along for so long before it becomes wearisome. Daryl can’t just sit there shooting Wes in the kneecaps all day long.

No matter how beautifully it’s written, eventually we’ll get bored.

That’s when you as the writer need to…

6) Introduce Opposition

Oh, would you look at that, what a conveniently placed talking point.

The beginning of your story needs to set the stage for the larger conflicts to play out.

How do we do that?

Well, start putting the protagonist in situations beyond his/her control. Introducing us to their nemesis might be a bit premature, because we haven’t really gotten to sympathize with our Lead yet, but we can start making their life suck.

For instance, in that first example we don’t really know what happened in the moments leading up to Daryl shooting Wes. Perhaps Wes was actually the one who tracked down Daryl with the intent of killing him so Wes could marry his wife? There was a struggle for the gun and Daryl came out on top and took revenge. Now, let’s say a patrolling robo-cop-dog has heard the gunshots and is going to arrest Daryl.

robodog

Seriously, what’s up with all the dog references in this post?

What does Daryl do? Run or stay?

Questions have been asked, and now our MC has some decisions to make.

On the other hand, if this is the lighthearted comedic romp with bean-bag guns and the like then perhaps Wes is actually Daryl’s boss and while he isn’t going to press charges (mostly on account of the fact that he’s planning on marrying Daryl’s wife following their soon-to-be divorce), he is most definitely going to fire Daryl.

Now Daryl’s losing his wife and job, but he got to shoot his asshole boss with a bean-bag gun, so that’s cool. What’s he going to do now?

Questions and decisions.

This is getting on the long side, so let’s wrap it up with a quick list of things not to do in your beginning.

NO:
-excessive description
-backwards glancing: ie: flashbacks or navel gazing.
-lack of threat. <—No lack of threat? That’s a weird sentence, but you’re a smart person, I’m sure you’ll figure out. Right? Right.

And those, folks, in a really wordy nutshell, are the key elements to a really good beginning. In the future we’ll talk more about this because it’s just so damn important, but for now I want ya’ll to boogie on down to the comments and tell me what some of your favorite opening lines/chapters are, and why.

Go on, butt-scoot on out of here.

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Time Heist and Parallel Get Reviewed!

I don’t like using the One Lazy Robot blog to tout my own books too much, but every now and then I get a review that makes me smile and I have the irresistible urge to share with ya’ll. This week I had two such reviews.

First came a review for Parallel from loyal reader, and author of the Agatha Christie’esque murder mystery, Death in a Red Canvas Chair, Noelle Granger. Noelle is one of my most favoritest (that’s totally a word) people to interact with on OneLazyRobot. Go check out her review and you’ll see why. (Hint: it’s because she’s awesome.)

Parallel - High Resolution

Click the Pic!

The other review came from Ted Cross, author of one of my favoritest (see, told you that’s a word. I wouldn’t use it twice if it wasn’t.) debut novels of 2014, The Immortality Game. Way back in December I did a review of TIG and Convergence from Michael Patrick Hicks. CLICK HERE to see why you should pick up these books. (Hint: it’s because they’re awesome).

Anyways, Ted reviewed Time Heist which is incredibly similar to his own book. If you like one, you’ll probably dig the other. Might as well do yourself a favor and pick both of them up. But don’t take my word for it, check out Ted’s review.

Time Heist

Psst.. also, did you know for a limited time only you can pick up your very own copy of Time Heist or Parallel for the low, low price of FREE? It’s truth. Pop on over to Barnes and Noble or Kobo and grab a copy.

Parallel Barnes and Noble Link!

Parallel Kobo Link!

Time Heist Kobo Link!

Time Heist is actually $.99 on Barnes and Noble ’cause they are slow to price match, but here’s that link anyways. LINK

You’re Telling It Wrong (Writing Workshop)

Do you ever find yourself just slogging through a story that, on the surface, you’re really jazzed about? You have a great concept with compelling characters, but for some reason you’re going through the motions, trudging towards an ending that’s somehow lost its luster? I see you over there hands in pocket, staring down at your feet pretending all “Shucks, no not me.”

But you’re lying, and you know what they say about lying. “It’s really fun unless you get caught. So don’t get caught.” Those are words to live by, my friend.

Yes, yes I do.

Yes, yes I do.

Anyways, you’re drifting down the Blue Danube on a story raft that simply doesn’t want to float. You’re taking water on from all sides. The more you struggle, the more you bail the water out, the faster the raft goes down. At the end of it all you’re left with wet britches and the burning question “Why isn’t this story working?”

There are a lot of reasons you’re story might be fizzling. Getting a spot on diagnosis, especially when you’re new to the game and haven’t really developed the editorial gaze of death to discern the fluff from the chuff (Chuff is good. Don’t know what it is, but I needed something to rhyme with fluff, so there ya go. Deal with it. Please) can be difficult.

This is where beta readers, editors, friends, and family members come in handy. The problem is, being only halfway through a story (and struggling towards the ending) is not a good time to dump your word vomit on a friend or enemy.

Self-Diagnosing your story problems is one of the best skills you can develop in your writing. To make it easy, and accelerate your learning curve (or just serve as a reminder to those of you who’ve been in the game for a long while and have simply forgotten ’cause you’re old and stuff), I’m going to lay out some of the most common ways I see stories stalling out midway through.

1) Wrong Main Character

It’s stupid how often this one crops up. We’ve all been there. You start with a good lead character, but a great sidekick. Part way through the story you realize the sidekick is way more compelling than the main character, which is an issue. Your MC doesn’t have to be the swellest gal around, but preferably she has the most at stake in the story. If not, then you might be crossing your streams.

To catch this, read through your story and figure out who the story is about. Is it really about the MC or is it actually about her best friend Suzy? Sure you might have started off the story thinking it was about the MC, but sometimes these things grow out of our control. You start off telling Story A, digress into the scummy boulevards of Story B, and then find yourself in the cardboard city of hobos that is Story C.

what am i doing here

It happens.

You can do a couple things at this point. Change to a new MC and start over, or tweak your MC to make her unmistakably the protag. Neither is an easy fix, but if you make the right correction, you’ll find the story flows much better and more naturally. And after all, whether inside the bathroom or out, isn’t better flow what we’re all looking for?

2) Wrong Point of View (POV)

I struggle with this one a lot. It’s my nemesis.

Here’s why: I love writing in First Person. It’s my bag. Ostensibly it plays to a lot of my strengths as a writer.

Here’s the problem: First Person doesn’t really work in a big sprawling story with multiple POV’s. You can maybe maybe maybe have two First Person characters alternating chapters, but you have to work damn hard to distinguish your character voice otherwise they start blending into each other. Most people, unfortunately, don’t have the chops to pull this off (I might be one of them. Shh, don’t tell anyone).

Often what happens is I’ll dive into a story in First Person, because that’s my default. I’ll get a good chunk of the way through and realize I’ve chosen the wrong character to chronicle through First Person. Whoops.

If it’s a big story with diverse cast I’ll usually alternate chapters between characters using 3rd person limited while returning more often than not to that First Person POV MC. If you’ve chosen your characters wisely, and structured the story appropriately, you’ll get to the end of the story and your Gordion knot of interweaving stories will have untangled itself. If not, you’ll get to the end and not only will that knot still be fully intact, but now it’s covered in sticky honey.

gordion knot

Great.

How to fix this?

Uh… There’s not always an obvious solution. It’ll take some fiddling with your story bits to figure out what’ll work best. Also, unfortunately, what worked best to fix your last story might not be worth beans on this story. So there’s always that. Good luck.

3) Wrong POV Character

Most of the time your Main Character (within a scene) will also be your POV character. It’s a good rule of thumb that, regardless of the scene, we want to be in the mind of the character who stands to lose the most. This is a moot point in stories that simply stay behind the lens of a single character throughout the story, but you should be conscientious of how this will limit your storytelling.

For instance, Watson (in the Sherlock Holmes’s books) is our POV character, but Sherlock is the Main Character. Everything we see and learn about Sherlock is through Watson’s eyes. This works really well for Sir Doylie, but might not work for you and your tale.

Ask yourself, is my POV character the Main Character? If the answer is no, you better have a darned good reason for it. If you find yourself struggling to come up with even half-assed justifications, then the fix is simple: make your MC your POV character.

4) Wrong Structure

This is one that is tripping me up on the story I’m working on right now. To give you some background on the project, it’s a collection of three novella’s forming an overarching narrative called Augment. The individual novella’s link together loosely, but it’s not until you reach the end of the last novella that you really see how they all fit together. That last novella, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, is the one giving me fits, and rightfully so. It’s the one that has to neatly wrap up all the loose ends, connect dots that the reader didn’t even know needed to be connected, and offer a satisfying conclusion not only to it’s story, but to the two preceding stories as well.

In short, it’s pulling more than it’s fair share of weight. Which, if done correctly, will be cool. But, if done incorrectly (which is likely what will happen considering how unwieldy a little bitch it is) it will leave the reader incredibly unsatisfied.

I don’t want to leave ya’ll unsatisfied, so I’ve been tooling over this story for a week or so trying to figure out why it’s not quite coming together and finally I realized that I’m telling the story with the wrong structure.

Here’s what I mean by that. I’ve been working so hard to wrap up all the loose strands, that I lost focus on the individual story taking place in The Watchmaker’s Daughter. Instead of being a standalone story about a mother losing her daughter, I sped through the emotional bits from a pulled out bird’s-eye-view, and robbed the story of all its emotional impact.

This is a problem. Fortunately it can be fixed.

Learning that the structure of your story is flawed sucks, but it’s better than wallowing in the muck of “Why?”

How do we fix a broken structure? You go back to the beginning and relay the foundation. For The Watchmaker’s Daughter I’ve reoutlined the story based off what I now know about it. Fitting in the emotional landmarks that the first version lacked and cutting out the parts that skim over the pain.

This is one of my least favorite sorts of fixes to make, because it amounts to a lot of work and throwing away many already written words. But hey, we write until the story is right.

NOTE TO NEW WRITERS!

Listen up. I’ve outlined some of the ways your story might be going off track, but ignore all of this advice until you’ve actually finished your first draft. As a new writer it is more important to take the editor cap off and simply write to completion. Everybody hits the 1/3 mark in their story and thinks “This is absolutely horrible.”

That’s normal. You have to get comfortable in that zone and learn how to push past it. If you stop mid-way through a first draft to go back and fix it, you’re unlikely ever to actually finish it. So, finish that first draft no matter how horrendous it is, then go back and tweak and revise, but not a moment sooner.

NOTE TO ADVANCED WRITERS!

You should also finish that first draft before going back and implementing the tweaks I’ve laid out. Why? For the same reasons I gave the new writers. Nobody, regardless of skill, is immune to the stalling out point. I don’t care if it’s your first short story or thirtieth novel, finish that first draft before going putting the editor cap back on.

Stop arguing, just do it.

Here’s a picture of a cat to make it all better.

cat

Cheating Your Way To Likable Characters! (Writing Workshop)

Some of you may remember that I’ve already talked a bit about writing likable characters. If you don’t remember that post, don’t worry, it’s probably just your early-onset Alzheimers cropping up again.

Here’s a link over to that post, by the way. I’M A LINK! CLICK ME!

Now, in that post, I spend a lot of time talking about writing likable villains. Why? Because if you can make your bad guy both despicable and likable, then writing a likable hero is a cake walk.

*Quick Aside*

What the hell is a cake walk? In my mind I imagine one of two scenarios:

1) Like walking the gauntlet, but instead of getting spanked with leather straps and pelted with beanie babies, the person performing said cake walk is getting cakes of all sizes and flavor Frisbee tossed at his or her face.

2) The ground has turned into one massive cake, sort of like those games children play where they pretend the ground is hot lava.

Anyways, that was a huge digression. My bad. Let’s get to the reason ya’ll stopped over today. I want to give you five easy-peasy ways to make your characters more likable. Let’s stop beating around the bush and hop right in.

1) Relatable

We enjoy stories because they let us live vicariously through other people as they experience dangerous, novel, embarrassing, awkward situations without ever leaving the comfort of our couch and underwear. Now, with that said, we don’t want to live vicariously through somebody too different from us. There’s a barrier to entry if we can’t pinpoint something in your characters that feels somewhat familiar and relatable. If that happens, we’re likely to put down your story.

Rule of thumb: have a range of traits from really broad/generalized (Suzy is a girl), and some specific ones (Suzy loves soccer).

For instance, Mgroda, the thirty-two thousand year old sentient fart floating around the Oort Cloud with the rest of his gaseous brethren is not even remotely relatable to most humans. Namely because the idea of a sentient fart is just so weird and outlandish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make him relatable. We just have to work harder at it.

For instance, did you know Mgroda has been living in the stinky shadow of his older brother, a gaseous emission that everybody, Mgroda’s parents included, just think is the coolest flatus (singular of flatulence) around? This is something most people can relate to, even if they don’t have any siblings.

We can go deeper.

How about the fact that Mgroda dreams of someday gaining financial independence from his over-powering father by opening his very own cheese and ice cream parlor? Perhaps you don’t share the same entrepreneurial ambitions of young Mgroda, but you can understand what it’s like to have goals, ambitions, and dreams.

2) Kindness

Nobody is a dick all of the time. Even House, that curmudgeonly irreverent doctor we all love to hate, isn’t always a dick.

There are two ways you can play the kindness card in your story. (Actually, there may be more than two, but these are the first ones that come to mind so I’m going to pretend like they are the end-all-be-all.)

1) Show your character doing something nice early in the story.

Mgroda steps outside and sees young Billy Ryder, so excited by his new ice cream cone, trip on the curb. He falls, skins a knee and loses his ice cream (along with what remained of his pride).

Mgroda’s reaction tells us a lot about his character.

“Ah, Billy,” Mgroda said, offering the boy a hand. “Are you okay?”

Billy snivels something barely intelligible about his ice cream.

“Here,” Mgroda said, flagging down the ice cream truck before it could pull away. “Let’s get you another one.”

“Gee whiz,” Billy pogo-sticked back to his feet like a gopher on Adderol. “That would be great.”

We end up liking Mgroda a bit more than if he’d simply kicked Billy in the face.

That goes for most of us, at least. There are a lot of sick jerks out there.

dog died

See? That’s a jerk nobody likes.

2) Show your character grow

The other way you can use kindness in your story is a bit different. In the above example Mgroda starts the story as a good person–this means we’re likely to root for him as the story progresses–but let’s say he didn’t help Billy. Perhaps he didn’t go so far as to boot him in the face, but maybe he’s so wrapped up in his own issues that he blows right past the crying boy without a backwards glance. Well, that seems pretty heartless, but it gives his character a lot of room to grow.

This is the classic Christmas Carol/Scrooge progression.

Watching characters grow gives us warm and fuzzy feelings because it gives us hope that we too can grow.

3) Real Life Concerns

If Mgroda walks right past Billy because deep down inside he’s a Hitler loving cloud of gas then we’re probably going to hate him. On the other hand, if he walks past Billy because he just got a phone call from the police department saying his Mom was in a car crash and they need him to get to the hospital ASAP, well, then it’s forgivable.

We’ve all been there (perhaps not getting tragic calls from the police), but we have all been so wrapped up in our own thoughts and concerns that we failed to notice the world/people around us.

Let’s go deeper:

Before Mgroda gets the phone call, he just gets off the phone with the bank who denies his small business loan. Oh no, now he’ll never get his very own ice cream and cheese parlor.

TIME OUT!

Let’s take a second and reflect on a couple things.

One: Mgroda is a peculiar character operating in a world I’m too lazy to really sit down and figure out. He’s a sentient fart, but we’re pretty much treating him as though he were human, sort of like Alf, deal with it.

Two: Based off what we have so far, we don’t really know what the focal point of Mgroda’s story is. Is it his relationship with his brother? His dreams of owning a business? Is this going to be a tragic drama following the death of his mother?

Nobody knows, least of all me. And that’s okay.

When you start your story, you want to get to the point of it all really quick. Your readers need to have a good idea where you’re taking them, but remember, your story is not happening in a vacuum (unless you’re really basing it in the Oort Cloud in which case…). Your characters did not spontaneously spawn into existence the moment the story began. They were alive yesterday, and the day before that. Presumably, unless you’re writing an apocalyptic tale, that world will keep on spinning tomorrow.

What this means is that the world, and all its problems, do not magically disappear once your story gets going. Maybe Mgroda’s story has nothing to do with any of the things we’ve talked about thus far. That’s fine, but those things we’ve already talked about–his strained relationship with daddy fart, his mom in the hospital, bawling Billy Ryder, and a no-go on the business loan–don’t magically disappear.

Keep those elements playing in the background and you’re character gains a layer of reality.

Readers like real characters.

4) Give Them A Friend

The title of this blog post references the fact that you can cheat your way to a likable character. So far there hasn’t been anything sleazy about the previous tips. This tip (and the next one), however, are sort of like writing an escape hatch into your story. They may feel a bit contrived, but listen: writing, by it’s very nature, is contrived.

As the god of your story world, you are constantly cheating. Conveniently manipulating people to your whims. This is no different.

Give your character a friend. Even if you’re writing a loser loner type, still give him a friend.

Why?

Because everybody out there has at least one friend. If you’re character is absolutely friendless, then you’re reader is probably correct in assuming there is something wrong with your character.

There are three types of friends/relationships (probably more, but again, I’m lazy):

Superior Friend: The friend is way super-cool and it seems like she’s slumming by hanging out with your MC. Your character can have self-doubts about why her friend is there in the first place, but you as the writer need to make it clear she’s there because she sees something in the main character that nobody else does. This gives our MC social proof, an incredibly important concept for our little monkey brains.

Best example of this I can think of is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The books are told from Watson’s perspective, so he’s our POV but perhaps not our MC. Maybe a better example is Fonzie and everybody else. *shrug*

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Equal Friends: This is the idealized friendship we all seek out. A great example of this might be Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermoine Granger. They all bring something different to the table. Though the story is ostensibly about Harry, you’d be mistaken to think that Ron and Hermoine aren’t equally as important.

Inferior Friend: This is the sort of relationship where our MC is drastically cooler than his friend. Great examples of this are Jon Snow and Sam Turley from Game of Thrones, or even better might be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it's the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it’s the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Anyways, friends are great because you can learn a ton about a person by watching how they interact with people they trust/like. Do yourself a favor, give your character at least one good friend, it’ll make your job so much easier.

5) Underdog

We love underdogs. It’s the reason Rocky did so damn well. There’s something about the David standing up to Goliath that sets our hairs on end. We root for the little guy because we all see ourselves as that little guy. The world is big and scary and mean and we are small, poor, weak by comparison. When we see a character personifying all these traits, we instinctively relate to them and therefore root for them.

Now, that’s not to say you need to write a story where your MC is fighting impossible odds at every turn (though, personally that’s precisely the sorts of story I like to tell). But you should go out of your way to make us sympathize with your MC. A great way of doing this is by showing us your character in those situations where she is inherently powerless. Whether that is a teenager dealing with her parents, or a middle-aged businesswoman confronting her boss, or even a little old lady going up against the City Council who are trying to evict her from her home of fifty years so that they can build a spiffy new condominium.

Show us your character being powerless. But then show her taking back that power bit by bloody bit.

That’s the sort of character we get behind. That’s the sort of character we like.

Alright, get down to the comments and tell me about some of the characters you like most and why. Then, if you’re feeling really spunky, tell us about the characters you don’t like and why.

Details Matter (The Writing Lab)

Details are a storytelling spice. If done correctly, they add to the complex flavors of your already scrumptious story. If done incorrectly, well… I’m sure we’ve all accidentally added a bit too much sea-salt to the guacamole at one time or another and can remember how that bastardized concocti–

Ah, crap! Getting a parking ticket as we speak! Be right back!

*Puts on some soothing elevator music*

Sorry, I was gone a bit longer than expected, had to hide the body of the parking enforcement officer.  That’ll teach him to ticket m–oh wait, you’re not reading this in real time, so you have no idea how long I was gone.

Disregard. Back to the spices.

the-sixth-spice

Try and focus, sheesh…

Details add a layer of authenticity to your story (and I’m all for that), but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of stories which are suffering from one of two problems where details are concerned.

1) Superfluous Information.

2) Incorrect Superfluous Information

Let’s tackle that first point.

We all have that one friend. The guy who talks about his work, hobby, sexual fetishes, etc… in excruciating details because to him those things are the bee’s sneeze (different, and way cooler, than the bee’s knees).

Of course everybody is interested in hearing about all the hijinks and foibles your Dungeons and Dragon’s Feather Mage keeps finding himself in. An why wouldn’t I want to hear about your ingrown pubic hairs? How much goat milk do you put in your morning coffee? Please, do tell. Inquiring minds need to know!

wonka

TMI (Translation: Too Much Information for those of us not born in the early 00’s) is one of those surefire ways to make me hate you, or your characters. Now, that’s not to say you should hold back on all inane specifics, but remember, just as with heroine and methamphetamines, a little goes a long way.

If you’re the type of person ladling spoonfuls of cumin into your story, I’m gonna gag and probably stop reading at some point. But hey, I may someday forget that blistering taste of minutiae and try another one of your stories. That is, unless you commit that second mistake.

2) Incorrect Superfluous Information

Sometimes, especially within the context of Science Fiction, we get a bit loosey goosey with physics and reality. Hell, that’s part of the fun. For the most part, this is okay, as long as you are observing certain rules of consistency.

You want to create a world powered by cocoa beans? Cool.

Your planet has less gravity than Earth? Neato.

The beauty of science fiction is that you can do whatever the hell you want, but you better be damned sure your cocoa bean powered economy doesn’t change halfway through the story into solar power or something equally crazy and fictitious.

So, if you set your jet setting space opera in a universe familiar to our own, you need to obey the laws of physics, or give us a really compelling reason to disregard them. Once you do that, you need to stay the course and make sure all those nitty gritty details you’re dropping on us are…actually correct.

I’m guilty of this. Sometimes I get a bit carried away and start granny tossing facts at the reader without applying enough critical thinking to what I’m actually saying. Now, majority of the time, I get away with this crime Scotch-Tape free (pretty sure that’s how the phrase goes). But, but, but…occasionally somebody’s going to catch my sloppiness and if I’m lucky, they’ll call me out in the nicest way possible (behind closed doors with a bottle of Scotch to soften the blow).

rod burgendy

Let me give you an example from a book I read a couple months back. I’m not going to call out the book or the author because I like the author and I enjoyed the book, but throughout the story there were these puzzling details that instead of adding to the overall flavor, made my face pucker as if I’d accidentally chugged a glass of milk when I’d been expecting orange juice.

The detail that really stood out was in reference to temperatures. Which you’d think would be easy to get right, but you’d be wrong.

Rule of Thumb: It’s almost always the really basic things we *all* take for granted, that we most often mess up in our stories. That exotic new chemical compound you made up? We’ll accept it no matter how zany it is. But if you mess up something basic like… declaring air is predominately oxygen, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with only a light ridiculing.

Anyways, back to temperature.

We have a space fairing fella jaunting around a derelicte spacecraft complaining about how hot the internal temperature is. Over and over we’re told that it is quite unpleasant. Absurdly so. All the while, our protag is wearing a space-suit, which given the fact that temperatures in space can fluctuate anywhere from -200 Fahrenheit in the shade to a blistering 250 Fahrenheit in direct sun, means the inside of this spacecraft must well and truly be blistering if our poor astronaut is feeling the effects.

So, I’m going along with this and simply imagining that this place is H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks hot,. Until, that is, two things occur within the span of a couple pages.

1) The character takes off his gloves because they are…uncomfortable or something, I don’t know what his actual motivations for stripping were because all I could think was:

“What the hell? At temperatures in excess of 250 degrees that poor sap is going to sizzle! And not in the “I’m going to the discotheque to get my razzle-dazzle, sizzle-wizzle on!” <–Pretty sure this is a thing people said back in the fifties, or whenever the Disco age was.

disco

Now, not to worry for the story shed some light on this peculiar situation shortly therafter in the followng paragraphs. The problem is… the explanation given left me scratching my bald spot even harder. Why is that?

Well…

2) We’re told it is 311.5 Kelvin.

Huh? First, raise your hand if you know Kelvin conversions off the top of your head? That’s what I thought. Most people don’t, which is probably why nobody really commented on this in the reviews of said book, but I’m a stickler for weird details and this one t-boned me.

So what’s the big deal? Well, besides being an incredibly specific number on a scale most people aren’t familiar with, it’s actually not very…warm.

Well, okay, let me rephrase that: It’s not very warm if you’ve ever experienced summer in Minnesota. How warm is 311.5 Kelvin?

It’s roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 Celsius, give or take. Sure, that’s shorts and tank top weather, but nothing you would feel through an insulated space suit.

This an incredibly small detail, right? I’m being a stickler and a bit of a dick to boot, right?

you're a dick

Can’t argue with that.

But here’s the thing, when you throw in incredibly specific details, and they don’t quite line up with our expectations of reality, well, they completely take the reader out of the story. From that point on you become a suspect storyteller. The human condition dictates that “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Nobody wants to be fooled twice, so we read everything else from that point on with an ultra-critical eye.

The inherent bummer of this scenario is that if we search hard enough in a story of fiction to find something ‘off’, we’ll almost always succeed. Case in point from the above mentioned story: the gloves magically reappear on the characters hands when they jump into an airlock.

Would I have caught that if the temperature thing hadn’t thrown me so hard? Probably not. But if I had, chances are I wouldn’t have cared. I would’ve chalked it up to the fact that I had missed a line somewhere along the way where the author said, “Billy stuffed his sweaty hands back into his gloves”, and been done with it. Instead, because my internal alarm was going off I had to thumb thru the preceding pages to verify my “magic gloves” suspicion.

Okay, okay, I get it. This all toes the line of hyper-critical, I agree. So here’s the takeaway from what was an otherwise great story, you’ve got to nail the details. Not too much, not too little, and for god’s sake, don’t throw cinnamon in there when you meant for salt.

Get down to the comments and tell me about some of your favorite missed deet’s (details as per how the cool kids say it) from popular television shows, movies, books.