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

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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.

Writing Workshop: Worldbuilding (Avoiding The Dump)

Worldbuilding is hard. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of good storytelling. So many pitfalls, so many opportunities to wander off into that scary word-forest only to come back out the other side covered in ticks, mud, and other smelly sorts of dreck.

Then again, worldbuilding is one of the most rewarding aspects of storytelling, so it’s sort of worth the journey into that quagmire of suck.

So what is it? What is worldbuilding? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory: it’s the world your story is set in and it covers absolutely everything (even the things you as the creator haven’t quite worked out yet).

This includes (but is not limited to) religion, government, economics, entertainment, environment (both man-made and natural).

We could even zoom into your characters unique set of circumstances and explore their personal history ranging from past lovers, present employer, children, brothers and sisters, old uncle Leroy and the way he used to take your character to the ballpark to grab a slice of ‘za and toss the old pig-epidermis around. Whatever. It’s all fair game.

Worldbuilding is one of the main reasons I like writing science fiction and fantasy. Because as the story creator, I’m sort of like a pimply faced deity abusing my powers of omnibadassery. If I want my story set on a farm hugging the darkside of an asteroid as it careens through one interstellar neighborhood after another, great! I can do that. If I want the primary form of currency to be milk caps, poof! It’s done. If I want my characters to worship the mighty Brown Paper Bag in the sky, well, alright. I can make that happen too.

The sky is the limit (but only if I want it to be. Shit, it’s my world. I can use the sky for a carpet if I want to).

sky limit

These are the things that make writing SFF really fun (in my opinion), and seems to be the way that most first time authors get their story ideas. They don’t start with characters (though the character must eventually become the focus of the story otherwise you just have worldbuilding wankery), they start with an idea for a new world and expand from there.

The difficulty inevitably comes when we try writing about that world. We want it to seem authentic and grounded in reality and so we have this impulse to drop steaming paragraph shaped piles of words in our stories with the hopes of getting our readers up to speed, or to just give them a deeper understanding of this neatorific world we’ve conjured up during our last spirit quest to Wal-Mart.

But this is wrong, and we’re all guilty of it. It’s called the Infodump, and it needs to be avoided at all costs. Why? First, because it’s lazy. And second, because nothing bores a reader faster.

You know when you’re being infodumped because the story just stops and it suddenly feels as though you’re reading an encyclopedia entry. Let’s do an example, but first let’s lay the scene: In the paragraph before this we have an autistic child who’s consciousness has been transferred into a giant killer robot, and who is now going on a bit of a rampage. We have action and things are exploding and tension and drama and OMG a giant rampaging robot, we need to do something! What should we do?

How about this?

“Autistics are often taught to communicate their wants and feelings through an intervention protocol called PECS–Picture Exchange Communication System. PECS is a natural way for non-verbal autistic children to “talk” with their caregivers. The system is simple: it consists of a board and a set of pictures, and each picture has Velcro on the back so that it can be–“

Wait.. what? where’s the giant killer robot? Why do I feel like I’ve been transported to wikipedia suddenly?

“–adhered to the board. But for the non-verbal autistic child, the system is a powerful tool: it provides a way for the child to express his needs. For instance, if he wants to go outside with his brother, he can place a picture of himself on the board, then one of his brother, then one of a tree. “I want to go outside with my brother.””

Seriously, where is the rampaging robot? Is he still rampaging? Has he taken a nap? What does any of this have to do with not getting ripped limb from limb by a warbot?

By starting with single-picture messages and gradually moving toward more advanced structures, the child begins to understand that there is a way to get the things he wants or needs. The frustration of not being able to communicate is mitigated.”

Oh, cool. That was uh… informative (if not a bit dry and tangential when considering the life-threatening robot we’ve now lost track of).

he went those

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with infodumping. You rip the reader straight out of the scene to hold their hands and explain something to them as though they were sitting through a lecture.

So how do we avoid the infodump? Not easily, unfortunately, but here are a few tricks to help you navigate that sticky-wicket of a dump.

Cut, Prune, Shave

I know you’ve put in a lot of time thinking about how the folk music of the hill people informs their perspective on life and death, but unless it is entirely relevant to the story you’re telling, it doesn’t need to be there. We also don’t need to know the conversion rate between Twinklaberries and the American Dollar (or whatever makes your fictional economy go). That is, unless that particular detail is important to the story you’re telling. Which, let’s face it, it’s probably not.

“But the way young suitors intricately braid their hair and toss it over their left shoulder to indicate…”

Doesn’t matter. Seriously. Well, unless it does. You decide.

And that’s the real problem, ’cause as the creator it’s really hard being unbiased about what needs to be in the story versus what you just want in the story because it’s cool. This is why you need beta readers and editors going through your stuff. They’ll pick up on the extraneous stuff real quick. Usually.

Good rule of thumb is you’re better off under-explaining and leaving it to mystery and the readers imagination than boring them into submission.

So what about those shish kebaby parts of your world that you really need to have in the story. How do we share those tasty tidbits without blatantly thrusting our little skewers in the reader’s face?

Use Dialogue

Having characters interact on screen is always more engaging than simply listening to a monologue. A good writer will impart a huge amount of worldbuilding information via dialogue without the reader ever really noticing.

But here’s the key: the reader cannot notice.

notice

If they do, you’re sunk.

Nothing comes off as more false than characters on screen doing the old “As you know…” bit. For example:

“I’m so glad our southernly neighbors from Radishville have stopped warring with Beetsville. Sure, they are our sworn enemies, but what with Princess PompPomp coming to town to pick a sire–of which I sure am rooting for Duke HumptyLumps–it will be nice not having to worry about any raiding bands of mutinous soldiers upsetting the Winter Festival–which as you know is tomorrow.”

“For Lairnea’s sake, Dwillard, we’re hanging garlands of garlic outside Mr. Coffeepot’s tavern. Why the hell are you telling me all this?”

“Oh, just wanted to remind you, is all.”

You pull that shit and I won’t just put your book down, I will find you and throw it at your head when you’re not looking. Probably while you’re doing something really important, too. Like driving a car or drinking a hot cup of coffee. You’ve been warned.

book to the forehead

Wrapping your infodump with quotation marks does not make it any more appealing. So think real hard about how you’re using your dialogue to impart details of your world. Do it in a way that is natural to your characters and the way they would speak otherwise it’s going to stick out like a red flag.

For instance:

“What’s that jackdaw doing here dressed like that?” Dwillard said, balancing on one foot and leaning dangerously off the side of the ladder to nail another bulb of garlic to the tavern wall.

Streich turned to see the “jackdaw” in question; there, across the street and hiding away from the flakes of snow falling from the sky, was a fully armored Raddisher. “Maybe he’s here for the Festival?”

“Not dressed like that he ain’t,” Dwillard said. “Likely to get his arse kicked is what I say. Not that the Beeter’s didn’t do a good ’nuff job for us all on that account. Boy, I wish i could’ve been there to see that.”

“Might get your chance, Dwill. From what I hear, Duke Bigsocks is coming for Princess PompPomp’s speed dating extravaganza.”

Dwillard almost toppled off the ladder in shock. “You’ve got to be kidding. No chance she’ll choose a filthy Radisher over the likes of Prince HumptyLumps, mark my words.”

End Scene, thank god. Okay, I apologize for subjecting you to that. It was to prove a point, but that point has long since sailed away so now we’re hopelessly adrift in a sea of wonky worldbuilding.

Something you’ll notice from that second scene (besides the fact that it’s not any good) is that a lot of information is being conveyed fairly naturally. Two grunts are working and sharing some gossip. Through this sort of typical interaction we are getting a lot of details about the world they inhabit. No, we don’t necessarily know what the hell a Radisher or a Beeter are, but we can infer it. Later, as the story progresses, we can fill in some of these details, but throwing too much wood on the fire too soon only smothers it.

Stoke it with a little tinder and hot air along the way. That’s the key to good worldbuilding.

tinder

Wrong Tind… oh, nevermind. You win this round, Immature Anthony.

Before we move on, let’s draw attention to the fact that worldbuilding of the sort we did in that second scene takes up a lot more space than in the first scene. Sometimes this is a tempting reason to simply infodump. Like I said earlier, we all infodump; sometimes it’s for the sake of expediency and sometimes it’s out of laziness.

Expediency is important in certain situations. With the example I mentioned earlier–in the middle of a giant robot fight scene–you should probably aim to be on the side of quick and to the point. Whatever worldbuilding detail is so important that it interrupts the drama on scene, you better make it fast.

Now, let’s reverse for a moment and chat about old Dwillard and Streich up above. For this scene they are the POV characters, which makes sense if they are the main characters in whatever story we are telling, but if they aren’t? Well… why are we in their heads at all? Is it simply because we needed two guys having a conversation about what was going on in the wider world?

If we’re leaving those characters and never seeing them again, then I argue that that second reason is pretty piss poor. If that’s the case, they are merely a plot device and that’s stupid.

BUT! BUT! BUT! What if later on in the story our Prince HumptyLumps and Duke Bigsocks get into a fight outside the tavern. HumptyLumps slams into the wall and dislodges one of the bulbs of garlic old Dwillard nailed up there earlier in the story. And then what if Bigsocks is deathly allergic to garlic, a weakness HumptyLumps exploits to murder the visiting dignitary.

Granted, we’d probably want to know “Why garlic?” and it’d be good to know Bigsocks was allergic to the stuff before that climactic scene, otherwise that twist comes clear out of the blue and sideswipes us like a Ford Taurus on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon.

So, we’re in a really weird, foreign world dreamed up during our last opium binge, and we want to share details about that world and how awesome it is, without being utterly transparent in the process. How do we do that?

Easy.

Introduce A Watson

emma watson

What the… No, no, no! Wrong Watson goddammit!

A Watson character is a foreigner to your world. He needs things explained to him because he simply doesn’t know how everything works. As he learns, so too does your reader. This is a great little tool in our writing quiver if used correctly.

For a great example on how to use this effectively go watch Sherlock.

Now, a little caveat here: your Watson needs to do more than just idly sit back asking questions and generally acting as a question repository. If that’s the only purpose he serves in your story, well, that’s a weak character and you’re gonna have other problems. Remember, characters are multi-sided beasts; play with all their different nooks and crannies. If you don’t, then they quickly turn into one dimensional, cardboard cutouts.

Okay, so, the important takeaway from all this is that your reader deserves better than a simple infodump. Your worldbuilding needs to be sprinkled in like a spice. Too little and it’s bland, but too much and we choke and die.

Nobody wants to read a story that’s going to kill them.

Writing Workshop: Pre-Planning Your Book

About a month or two ago I asked you all for some topical ointment suggestions. Ointment? Really? That doesn’t seem right.

*checks notes*

Oh, I meant some topical blogging suggestions. (<– that was about as forced as a joke can possibly get. Please forgive me.)

On the whole, the ideas thrown out were more diverse than San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade, but if I was tied down next to a fire-ant hill, slathered with jelly, and forced to admit to a particular topic you guys were most interested in, it would probably have to do with writing processes. Processes’? Processors?

Gah, words are hard.

Anyways, I live to give the people what they want, so let’s spend a little time this afternoon talking about pre-planning a book. We’ve talked before about the relative benefits of outlining your story and how this can save you a lot of time and heartache in the long run. In a lot of ways I’m a stream of consciousness writer (something you may or may not have noticed if you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog), but I usually go into whatever writing project I’m psychically buried beneath with a rough idea where the whole thing is gonna end up.

Here’s how I do it. I get an idea, whether that be about a character or a situation, and I sit down and pound out about 1,000 words as quickly as my little fingers can fly. Typically this takes me between 15 and 40 minutes depending on how free I’m letting myself be. All I’m doing at this point is vomiting words onto a page. Getting the mental effluvia flowing. Let’s see if we can’t storyboard an idea in real time to give an example.

daydream

Forgive any typos, grammatical errors, egregious word misusage, and the like. I spat this out in *checks the timer* 13 minutes.

It was the horns that freaked me out. I’m not sure why that particular feature, above and beyond the rest, was the one that instilled a sense of, Oh, shit, but it was.

There were other disturbing features to be sure. Two fangs protruded from the beast’s lower jaw–an under-bite that would make a bulldog blush. The red skin was weird, too. It shimmered in the final rays of sunlight before that celestial orb dipped below the horizon for the night making the skin appear slick with blood. A tattoo on the Manimal’s left shoulder blade of three sixes pinwheeling around one another, stuck in the infinite loop we call a circle, was kind of like a calling card.

But again, his horns were the thing that was freaking me out. As far as horns go, they were very nice. As far as human-ish looking heads go, it wasn’t so far off. The combination of the two, however, was grotesque.

“You called?” That the Beast spoke English shouldn’t have been surprising, but again, it was. His voice was gravel thrown in a cement mixer with broken glass.

I glanced down at my cell phone and scrolled through my contacts list just to be certain I didn’t, in fact, have the devil’s contact information by accident. This was my first time meeting the devil, by the way. I’m not afraid to admit I wasn’t on my “A” game.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said, backing away with hands raised in front of me. Each step was slow because the man-goat thing fused with a serpent standing before me seemed like the skittish type. Rumors had it he was the ruler of Hell, king of the underworld, eternal tormentor to the millions of souls in his possession..not the sort of guy you want to startle. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” I added.

“You’d be surprised how often I get that,” the devil said, waving a clawed hand before him.

“Sorry for the mix-up. Hope you find the guy you’re looking for,” I said, exiting the alley way.

The devil looked puzzled for a moment, regarded a piece of script in his left hand. A hand, which, looked to have been removed from a Falcon and haphazardly sewn onto the Lord of Pain.

“Wait…” he said.

I waited. He didn’t seem like the sort of guy you ignore.

“Are you Daniel McScrooge?”

“Uh…yes,but that’s a fairly common name around these parts.” I lied.

“Do you live on 312 Fairfax Ave?”

“Again, yes, but there are a few of us living over there. Our mail gets mixed up all the time. It’s hell, I swear.”

“Is it really?” the Devil cooed.

“Well, no… not literally hell. I mean, I’ve never been.”

“Hm… Daniel McScrooge, have you ever uttered these words, “I swear to any and all gods above or below, I’ll give you anything, whatever, name your price, if you but grant me this one request: Please, for the sake of all that’s beautiful and right in this world, let me have the last pop-tart.”

Oh, shit.

The Devil must have noted the change in my expression. He smiled the second most malevolent smile I’d ever seen–my Mother-In-Law having easily taken the prize on that account–and said, “I hope you enjoyed that pop-tart, Danny.”

Luckily, I had.

/End

Is this a story? Meh, it has a beginning, middle, and an end so I suppose you could make the argument, but the point at this juncture isn’t to have a fully flesh story or even a fully fleshed idea. Honestly, I started with a really simple concept inspired by those old Klondike bar commercials that asked via a catchy jingle “What would you dooooo-oooh-oooh for a Klondike bar?”

I thought, hm… what about a pop-tart. What rules of cultural decency would I break just to have a pop-tart? Would I sell my soul for one? Would the Devil demean himself by even acknowledging such a deal?

So those were the original thoughts bouncing around in my head and, let’s be honest, there really isn’t a story there. But by getting the words onto the paper I’ve started down a road whereby I can shave and sculpt that dung-heap of words into a story.

turd polishing

‘Cause now I know somethings about my story world that I didn’t know fifteen minutes ago:

– My story takes place in a world where the devil is real and is willing to make deals

– My main character carries himself with a lethal amount of snark. These two factors combined tell me this story is going to be Fantasy Humor and I can start thinking along those lines when it comes to figuring out where to go next.

Where do we go next? Well, sometimes I’ll write four or five of these little vignettes, popping around between characters and situations I find interesting, and all I’m really doing is dipping my toes into the story-world. Letting the ideas simmer both in my mind and on the page. Since I haven’t invested much time at this point, it’s still relatively easy to be creatively open to possibilities of where my story might go.

The problem most people run into when story-boarding is that they get stuck on one idea. The blinders go on and they can’t see the trees for the forest. Let me give you an idea:

After writing the above vignette I started wondering about the larger story world and what the point of a tale like this might be. What sorts of hijinks would ensue? The first idea that came to mind was having Daniel go to hell where he would effectively be a telemarketer. Working in a subdivision of Hell’s bureaucracy that deals with managing mayhem in the world and securing fresh soul-trades.

He’d effectively be a soul broker, or something. *shrug* I dunno. To me, juxtaposing Hell with the corporate rat-race wouldn’t be a hard comparison to make. If nothing else it would afford plenty of opportunity for silly shenanigans to take place.

Oh, boy, I love my shenanigans, but there’s got to be more.

shenanigans2

I’m sure they are. Truly. But shenanig…

shenanigans

Uh…I mean, those comical situations you throw your character into aren’t enough on their own. One good idea does not make a good story.

You’ve got to bring it to life. Got to figure out what your characters want and then make them go get it. So, what does Danny want (besides pop-tarts)?

Well, it’s probably a safe bet to assume he wants to get out of Hell, right? To do that we have to set up appropriate conditions for this to become possible. Let’s say Hell has an Employee of the Year contest: the person who brings in the most souls for the year gets his or her own soul back. Sweet, that seems like sufficient motivation at this point.

Daniel wants out of Hell and he sets off to be the best soul broker this side of purgatory. He is raking in the souls hand over fist. He’s in tight competition with that bozo three cubicles over and it looks as though it’s going to come down to the final couple souls.

Okay, hit the pause button. Think back on all your favorite stories and I bet you dollars to donuts (what the hell does this phrase even mean, by the way?) that the main character went through a substantial growth arc. Characters have to grow. They have to change. If they don’t, they suck, and we hate them.

Don’t give me a reason to hate your character unless you intentionally want me to hate your character– which is a totally legitimate device, by the way.

We need Daniel to grow out of the selfish desires that made him sell his soul in exchange for a pop-tart to begin with (not to mention the selfish desires that motivate him to damn all those poor people to hell just so he can be free). How are we going to do this?

Shit, I don’t know. And neither do you. And guess what, even if you do know right now at this very moment how the story is going to end, I can almost guarantee that by the time you get there it will have changed somehow. Characters grow organically. You can coax and nudge them along the right path, but they are their own people, they are gonna go their own direction.

Follow them. Trust your character, unless, you know, that character is an untrustworthy bastard who murders children. Then keep him on a tight leash otherwise he’ll kill all your other characters and then you have no story, just corpses. (Sometimes you have to reign in your characters for their own good.)

What does any of this have to do with pre-planning a story? Interesting you should ask ’cause I totally have no idea.

joker plan

Nah, I’m just kidding. Follow me, kid, I know where we’re going.

At this point you have all the story elements you need to sit down and write an outline. It can be real friggin’ simple. Something like this perhaps:

Act 1

– Danny is a fuck-wit living off the kindness of his sister who has continually sacrificed her personal comfort to help take care of him ever since their parents died tragically in a rhinoceros related attack.

– Danny continually takes advantage of Big Sis, what with his propensity for eating all the pop-tarts and other foods without ever contributing to the grocery shopping.

– Danny does a bunch of selfish things. We dislike Danny, but we find him funny and relatable. Eventually he accidentally invokes the devil and sells his soul in exchange for a pop-tart.

Act 2

– Danny goes to Hell Inc.

– Danny hates Hell Inc.

– Danny works his ass off to get out of Hell Inc.

– Something really big and horrible happens at the end of Act 2, it changes the game and now we have more to lose than ever before. Maybe Big Sis accidentally sells her own soul just to have her little bro back for one night. Maybe Danny’s arch-nemesis at Hell Inc. cashes in on Big Sis’ soul and lords it over Danny.

Act 3

– Danny continues trying to get out of Hell Inc while trying to save his sister as well.

– Other stuff happens.

– Danny is faced with the option of saving himself or saving his sister. Climactic shit happens here. This is where the story wraps up.

– Denouement

/End

Above is one of the worst outlines I’ve ever created, but you know what? It’s totally enough to get you off to the races. You take those individual scenes and start flushing them out. Add in details, supporting characters, quirks, the world. This is usually when I take a couple steps back from the story and let it percolate in my sub-conscious. Little ideas will bubble to the top of my pond scummy’esque mind and when they do, BAM! I write them down into Evernote.

Come back after a little mental fugue and start plugging your ideas in. Then expand the outline, keep going until you have a relatively good idea how you’re gonna get little Danny from beginning to end in more or less one piece.

What’s that? You don’t have all the details? Danny keeps falling through those pesky plot holes? Leave them. Come back to them. You can only do so much planning before you have to hop into the story and start writing it for reals.

It’s a good idea to pop back in occasionally and touch base with your outline as you go. Fill in some holes, cut out some parts that didn’t work how you thought they would. Outlines should be organic which means if they ever stop growing, they’re dead.

A dead outline is about as useful as a dead horse. Emphasis here being on the word “about”. You can at least beat a dead horse.

stop stop

Here’s some real down and dirty, nitty gritty details you more anal minded individuals should also maybe consider.

– Figure out how long you want your book to be. 70,000 is low end for a novel (in my opinion). 110,000 is high end. Anything above 110,000 better be Epic Fantasy, Holmes.

– Most novels have anywhere between 50 – 150 scenes. A scene is like that vignette I wrote for you above. A chapter should be, at minimum, one scene. There is no limit on how many scenes you cram into a chapter but here’s something to consider.

Shorter chapters make the story feel faster.

This can be a good thing if you’re writing action-adventure, mystery, or thriller. Chapters that stay under 3,000 words feel quick and readable which can make all the difference when it comes time for the reader to put down your book or to stick it out for just oooooone more chapter before hitting the hay.

If you’re writing fiction, literature, or a story where the pace is generally slower, maybe consider longer chapters, but honestly I wouldn’t go much over 6,000. Those chapters tend to drag in my opinion.

– Use the above word length estimates to figure out how many scenes your book will have and then figure out how many chapters. Once you got that down it’s simply a matter of connecting the story dots.

For myself, I rarely write a chapter under 1,000 words and almost never go over 3,500. That’s a function of my genre and writing style which may, or may not, be the same for you.

Wowsers, this is a really long post and honestly I don’t know if I actually shed any light on the topic, but hopefully this has given you some brain fodder for how you tackle your next writing project. If not, well… uh… here’s a picture of a cat!

cat in box

Love forever and always, (please don’t kill me for having wasted your time)

Anthony

Writing Workshop: First Drafts Stop For No Woman!

You all gave me some fantastic blogging ideas in the last post and I’m excited like a Kindergartner on the third day of school (once he’s gotten over his crippling fear of being away from Mommy, that is) to get to those topics. To give you all a glimpse of what is on the horizon in the weeks to come we’ll be chatting about body types in the media (specifically in comic books), how to organize/pre-plan your book, how to communicate with aliens, and how to write cyber-punk.

Today, however, we’re gonna get elbows deep into something that every writer, since the first Neanderthal picked up some charcoal and started scribbling Emu’s on his man-cave wall, has struggled with: Stopping.

writers block

Specifically the question posed to me was this: Do you ever feel like starting over from the beginning and diving into revisions with your manuscripts even when the story is not yet completed?

There are a Tonka truck’s worth of bad reasons to stop writing whilst in the midst of a first draft. Hell, you could probably fill up said child’s toy-truck with as many good reasons for stopping, too. But you shouldn’t.

You should never, ever, not even when you stub your toe and fall over, stop in the middle of a first draft. The temptation is there with a physicality that makes it almost impossible to ignore. But ignore it you shall, for if you stop a legion of bees shall descend from the heavens and fill your shoes with honey. Which sounds nice at first, but trust me, it gets old real quick.

Your brain is divided into two hemispheres, and it oversimplifies a *very* complicated subject to say that one side is responsible for *creativity* and the other for *logic*, but this is a simple blog, so that’s exactly what we’re gonna do. No, I’m just kidding, we’d never take a short-cut like that.

Or would we? See chart below.

brain hemispheres

Yes, okay, well…. I guess we do take shortcuts here, but that’s good for you ’cause it’s gonna save you all sorts of time.

Though it’s not so cut and dry as the picture would indicate, there is a lot of research to support the idea that the right hemisphere deals with language more fluidly/creatively than the left hemisphere which handles language in a more utilitarian fashion.

Anthony, what the hell does this have to do with writing that First Draft? I’m glad you asked, because honestly I’d forgotten what we we’re talking about.

Back on topic!

When you dive into a first draft it should be with that right hemisphere churning through the creative effluvia that oozes from your gray matter. You should pay very little attention to sentence structure, proper grammar, spelling, plot, internal consistency. None of this stuff matters. YET!

Your goal in that first draft is to just get the words out. Spray them onto the page and wherever they hit/stick is where they shall lay until you come around in the second draft with a scalpel and start getting surgical on that shit. But, until you hit the end of that first draft, you better not stop!

The reason goes back to our brain and the way it works. It’s completely normal, and a well documented phenomena, that, at around 30,000 words into a full length novel, the author, without fail, will have an epiphany in the form of a brilliant white light that may, or may not, be the result of an Angel’s divine intervention, to pass along the very important memo that your story sucks.

han solo

Unfortunately, it’s true. Your story probably does suck at this point. As the author you can step back and see more plot-holes than a Minnesota highway after the winter thaw. It’s inevitable that you’ll have the temptation to stop, go back, and fix it.

But that’s wrong, wrong, wrong for a number of very important reasons. First, from a conservation of energy standpoint, it’s a complete waste of time. Sure, you can go back and get that first half of the draft nice and spiffy, but then you still have the second half of the novel staring back at you like the dark eye of Sauron, and who the hell knows what’s going to happen when you dive into that guy’s pupil.

What I mean by that is this: even with a great outline, your story is going to take some organic twists and turns as your characters figure out how to go from point A to point B (or, if you have some really unruly characters like mine, they up and say “Forget this noise, I’m not going to A or B, I’m going to Disneyland!! Then you got a whole new problem, namely, humans running around in mice costumes. I ask you: How is Disneyland not the scariest place on Earth?)

So don’t waste your energies going back and fixing the first half of your story when you aren’t even sure it’s gonna jive with the second half. That’s the first really good reason to not go back and it pretty much boils down to me being lazy and not doing more work than needed.

zoidberg1

The second is this: when we hop out of first draft mode, we take our creativity cap off and put on our editor hat. We are switching sides of our brains as the task before us is of a completely different nature. Now we’re analyzing, cutting and pasting, making the language and words work the way they’re supposed to. Before, when we’re being creative, none of that shit matters. We’re throwing words at the wall and hoping they stick. During the second draft we go back to figure out which words are now worth keeping.

But here’s the trouble: the brain doesn’t switch from one side to the other at the drop of a dime. Most important, when the analytic portion of your brain takes over, it sours everything the creative side can put out. You become guarded and self-conscious about the words your putting down.

That, my friend, is a slippery slope. You can’t create your best works when you’re being guarded, self-conscious, or analytical. You need that free flowing nature child sort of creativity. The sort that doesn’t care if your words are actually making sense.

We’ll take our example from children here. They are wonderfully creative because they are unabashed. Their analytic skills are non-existent and as such their imaginations are extraordinary. As adults we don’t tap into that mind place so easily and alot of it has to do with the way creativity is ground out of us in middle school/high school/college. Conformity is the best way to survive the adolescent jungle of high-school. It’s not a good time to be weird, unfortunately.

But to create something beautiful and unique, you have to be weird. You have to be original. And you simply cannot do that when you’re being critical. So turn off that left hemisphere when you’re writing your first draft. Ignore it entirely and just leap into your first draft with reckless abandon. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to fix it later, but your first and most important task is to get the words out.

Until you’ve vomited all the words up and you’re left a dried up husk of a human, don’t stop.

Writing Workshop: Pacing Your Story!

A lot goes into writing a good story, unless somehow you’ve made BFF’s with a Muse. If that’s the case you don’t need me, and you should go frolicking through fields of daisies, jerk. For the rest of us, there are a lot of aspects of good storytelling that require conscious attention.

These range from having good mechanics (ie: knowing how to put together a sentence that sounds good, or atleast intelligible), to a strong plot (ie: interesting shit keeps happening!), to correct pacing (ie: your character doesn’t spend the first three quarters of the book splayed out on his back whilst sexy servants feed him grapes, and the last quarter of the book blowing up the moon.)

anchorman

Today, we’re gonna chat about pacing, because it’s one of those elements of storytelling that is a slippery bastard to nail down. As the writer, pacing can be one of the hardest things to keep track of. Which makes sense when you consider how much time you spend inside the story world. After awhile things inevitably resemble an unintelligible gaggle of words.

Are these moving too quickly? Are they moving too slowly? Is it moving at all?

Beta-readers are a great resource in this department. They come at the story with fresh eyes and can tell you when things are dragging and when they are moving too quickly. But maybe you don’t have a stable of virulent beta-readers on hand?

Well, bummer. You’re screwed. Sorry, Holmes.

No, I’m just kidding. There’s plenty you can do on your own. In particular I’m gonna share a little exercise I go through with my stories to make sure they are moving at a reasonable pace.

Here’s what you do:

First, get a piece of paper and write down every scene in chronological order. We aren’t talking about chapters, because oftentimes you’ll have multiple scenes in a single chapter. So go through and pinpoint all the different interactions your characters have whether they be big or small, climactic or anticlimactic.

In Time Heist I tended towards shorter chapters so while there are 39 chapters, there were only 45 different scenes. That’s a stylistic choice I made because shorter chapters, especially within the context of a thriller, make the book feel like it’s moving along at a quicker pace. By comparison, Mind Breach, the sequel to Time Heist (which has 4 point of view characters) has closer to 50 chapters and well over 100 different scenes. So your mileage is going to vary on this one.

Now, once you have your scene list, you’re gonna go through and assign an excitement rating somewhere between 1 and 10. 1 being very boring, as in your character is waking up from a nap. 10 being “holy balls my cat is on fire!” exciting.

batmanfunny

“I just woke up from a nap and my cat is on fire!”

Excitement in this context could mean a whole bunch of things. Your main character finding out his parents are getting a divorce will rate differently on the scale based on the kid. The kids growing up in an uber-religious household where he’s been raised to view divorce as a sin is going to react slightly differently from the hippy love child who’s parents only got married for the tax breaks.

It all depends. Conversely, not all physical peril is equal. Your average soccer-dad is going to respond to a bad automobile accident differently than your hardened black-ops assassin woman with a machine-gun leg.

badass woman

I literally can’t believe I found a woman with a machine gun leg. Go home internet, you’re drunk!

So go through your tale and figure out where each scene ranks. Once you have this all figured out, you’re gonna get a different sheet of paper and graph it out.

graph paper

Wait…. did he say, graph it out? That sounds an awful lot like math. I don’t like math. Can we make glittery unicorns instead?

Yes. Yes, we can. But later. For now, we’re graphing, baby!

On the left side of your paper create a vertical line and then break it up into 10 equally spaced lines. Then go through your scene list and plot those points out on the graph in chronological order. When you’re done, it should look something like this.

20150305_114941

If you did it right, you should see a series of peaks and valleys. If you’re story is one continuous line from left to right, then that means nothing is happening in your story. It’s flatlined. It’s dead. Sorry, bro. We did everything we could to resuscitate it, but some things you just have to let go.

But that’s not you. Your story goes places and therefore it bobs and weaves like a mongoose on Adderall.

Well, that’s not so much bobbing and weaving as it is just going in circles…which you don’t necessarily want your story to do….but…

*look a distraction!*

Back on topic. Boom. Okay, so up above I outlined three of my books in the Firstborn Saga: Time Heist, Infinity Lost, and Mind Breach. Each story is designed to do something different and so each graph is gonna look slightly differently, but what you should, ideally, see are consistent peaks following by consistent valleys. The peaks represent the climactic moments followed by a period of “calm” where less exciting things happen.

These undulations are important for a number of reasons. Think of it like a rollercoaster ride at Disney World.There is the slow build at the beginning which gives you plenty of time to contemplate how poor a decision you’ve made and how you’re likely to die clutching the hairy arm of the Armenian man wedged in beside you. Then there’s the exciting plunge, a few hair pin turns, a loopdeloop if you’re doing things correctly, and then there’s usually a boring section where you can gather your breath for one final push of embarrassing pre-teen screaming.

That’s what you want from your story. Now, it doesn’t always work like that. Let’s take a look at Time Heist which, right out of the gate, I’ll tell you packs an almost unhealthy amount of action between its pages.

20150305_115840

Now, one of the problems with the pacing of Time Heist is that it spends alot of time up there near 10 for climactic moments. Tom Mandel is constantly faced with near death experiences that frequently kill him. That’s the nature of the story I was trying to tell and the world I was building, so I rightly accept the critiques that suggest there is too much action. But that was unavoidable, and I knew it from the beginning. Time Heist is a story with a particular market that will love it, others will be put off by it. That’s okay, you can’t please everybody and it helps to know that at the onset of any artistic endeavor.

cant please

A couple things I would have done differently? I would have added a few scenes between the climactic moments. This would have stretched the story, giving the reader more breathing room between climactic happenings, and given them an opportunity to reflect on the impending doom.

Also, here’s an important take-away from the Time Heist graph: a scene that stays up at 10 for too long will become tiring, overwhelming, and the reader will eventually lose interest. You can only throw so much at your main character at once. Whoops. I broke that one in spades.

Let’s move on to the next story of the lot, Infinity Lost, which serves as a pseudo-prequel to Time Heist. It’s meant to be read after Time Heist, but it takes place hundreds of years before, so that’ll give you a bit of framework.

20150305_115854

Infinity Lost is a very different sort of story than Time Heist. There is very little action and the climactic moments don’t revolve so much around physical peril as they do emotional turmoil. In a lot of ways Infinity Lost is a character study.

Looking at these graphs is interesting because with a little practice you can see where your story needs a healthy dose of stimulants, or where you need to apply a judicious amount of horse tranquilizer. Time Heist could have used a little tranq’ing. Infinity Lost could use a little perking up, maybe a pot of coffee or something.

coffee

For instance, right at the beginning of the story there is a big spike (which delineates the stories inciting event, this is the moment that puts our main character into motion (since this is a novella, it comes really early on. We don’t have time for fooling around, ya know?)), but immediately following that spike there is a lull. That scene needs to be perked up a bit, the stakes need to be raised. Not a ton but a drop off that large is jarring.

The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 is a bit peculiar because the climactic moment at the end of Act 1 is less climactic than the moment at the beginning of Act 2. This might need some adjusting, or it might be alright. Won’t know til I get back in there and do some rooting around, but it’s something to be mindful of.

What definitely needs some overhauling is that fat, sagging gut in the middle of Act 2. The second Act is a notorious slaggard. It’s the longest of all the Acts and by extension tends to get a bit sluggish. From the looks of it, this is precisely what happens in Infinity Lost. So, easiest fix is to go find those scenes right in the middle of Act 2 and spruce them up.

Raise the stakes, so to speak. This will keep the reader engaged through the long, boring, death valley drive that is the second Act of most stories.

bored cat

A quick comment on that big dip you see in Act 3. That’s what’s called the denouement. It’s the break that comes after the climax, the moment where everything returns to normal, and we conclude on a happy note. I don’t end on a happy note, because this is part of a series, so at the end it starts building again to urge the reader forward into the next book, Mind Breach.

20150305_115909

As Infinity Lost is different from Time Heist, Mind Breach is different from the previous two. It follows from the POV of 4 characters, whereas Time Heist has 1, and Infinity Lost as 2. Mind Breach, in terms of action, is closer related to Time Heist, but it’s not the non-stop thrill ride that is Time Heist. That’s because the middle book in a series sort of fills the role of a second Act. This is where a lot of the world building takes place, and the finagling of characters and scenes to get everybody poised and ready for a climactic finish in the finale.

Mind Breach, of the three stories, is probably the best paced so far. It needs only a little bit of work at the end of Act 2 to give a more climactic thrust into the conclusion of the tale. But for the most part there is a good build in Act 1, continuous engagement through Act 2, and a nice thick climax in Act 3.

The reason Mind Breach appears to have better pacing is on account of the multiple POV’s. I’m able to break up climactic scenes for one character by hopping to a different character in the next chapter. Flip flopping like this is nice because it gives the reader a nice little mental break and it lets me, as the author, do some interesting things from a storytelling mechanics point of view. This wasn’t possible in Time Heist where there was only a single first person POV. Did the story suffer on account of that? Meh, perhaps. But what can ya do?

Alright, so your homework is to plot out your work in progress and put it down in the comments section so that we can all see it and brainstorm it together.

This was a lot of words. If you made it this far, you deserve a treat, so here’s a picture of Gilgamesh, the cat who thought he could fly, but couldn’t.

20150305_115648

Don’t worry, he’s not dead…just lazy.

Reviewing Made Easy!

I was having a conversation with Ana, a fellow reviewer with a blog HERE! about the nature of reviewing. Recently I’ve been getting a blush worthy amount of attention for my reviews, which is fantastic, but as I was telling my lady-friend, Katherine, I never set out to be a reviewer. The intention behind this blog was to create a conduit through which I could interact with my readers. That my reviews have garnered more attention than my published works is ironic, but hey, you gotta start somewhere!

Anyways, my conversation with Ana got me thinking about reviewing in a broader sense and what it means to write good reviews. I have a bathrobe and a pointy hat, but I’m not a wizard, so I can’t provide any magic answers. Or am I?

wizard

Are you sure? I have a pointy hat.

What I can do, however, is provide some little tips and tricks into my reviewing process. Some of these are really obvious, some of them maybe not so much. Will these work for you? Boy howdy, I don’t know. Reviewing is like writing a story, there is no right way, just the way that works for you.

So here’s some food for thought when you’re writing your next review, blog post, short story, love letter, or eviction notice.

1) Make your words do more.

I can be notoriously long winded. I type as fast as I speak, so if I’m not careful I end up with a deluge of words on the page. This is actually a common problem for most authors. A good rule of thumb is that the difference between your first draft and final draft should be -10%. Meaning cut out 10% of the unnecessary words. This gets rid of fluff and filler which have no nutritional value anyhow. They’re the literary version of popcorn: eating more doesn’t necessarily make you feel fuller, so cut them out.

What do I mean by this? Well, I went to my WordPress Reader, found a new blog post at random and took the first two sentences which read:

“I realize this topic is as incredibly deep and complex as it is general. I will start this by stating that I am not in robotics nor do I work with artificial intelligence.”

After a little jazzercising, here’s the passage minus the fluff:

This topic is as incredibly deep and complex as it is general. Now, I don’t work with robots or artificial intelligences, but…”

The first passage has 33 words. The second only has 22. That’s cutting well more than 10%, but hey, I like using my Fiskers! The substance of the draft remains, but it’s punchier and more succinct. Is it better? Hell if I know, but the point is it’s less likely to create ‘Reader Fatigue’ (a new disease I just invented). Reader Fatigue occurs when Mrs. Reader is subjected to too many unnecessary words and starts cognitively shutting down. Soon, she’ll start skimming, and all those hard fought words you bled to get on the page will be worthless.

hemingway

Side-note: Your blood is important, keep it inside you.

Another snazzy way to make your lazy words do more is to make them self-referential. Simple things like referencing earlier portions of a work give the reader a nostalgic sensation. It makes them feel as though they are on the inside of an inside joke.

This doesn’t mean be heavy-handed with your references: subtlety goes a long way. Then again I’m just a guy wearing a bathrobe and a pointy hat, so what do I know?

gandalf1

Yes?

2) Review The Stuff You Hate

It will happen, guaranteed that you will come across a work that you simply despise. As a reviewer you got some choices to make. On the one hand, nobody is holding a pair of safety scissors to your hair and forcing you to write a review. Momma always said, “If you aint got nothing nice to say, don’t not say nuttin’ at all.” Momma, with all her double and triple negatives, was a hard woman to understand.

But that doesn’t work for me. It’s a cop out. If you’re doing it right, people come to read your reviews to get your opinion, your likes and dislikes. If you only review the works you like, then the reader only gets half the story, half your opinion. Your short-changing them.

Some of the most valuable feedback is negative. Constructive negativity is a formidable force for good.

3) But Don’t Be A Dick!

Dissecting other people’s work makes you feel like a real jerk, especially when you have nothing positive to say. But hey, as a Reviewer that’s your job. As an Author it’s your job to take the criticism as best you can and keep trucking.

Reviewer and Author are not enemies. Don’t go out of your way to make somebody feel bad for their word-baby, that just makes you a bully.

Here’s a couple things I do to blunt the edge on my words when I don’t want to appear ‘ranty’.

First, use a compliment sandwich. The idea is that you lead with something nice, then say something mean, and finish with something nice again.

For instance, in my recent Jupiter Ascending review the general structure looked something like this:

I was really looking forward to the movie based on the trailer. It looked fantastic and I was very excited. Unfortunately, it sucked. Here’s why. But ya know what, that’s okay, ’cause the visual effects were cool with some neat action sequences so it wasn’t a complete waste of my money. I just recommend not wasting any of your own money.

That’s the watered down version, but you get the idea. This softens the blow by displaying a certain amount of objectivity. If you simply eviscerate a book or movie, then people are likely to think you are just bitter. If you want them to take you seriously, you have to soften the blow, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still throw the punch.

The second technique I use, and this doesn’t work for everybody, is to throw in a fair amount of self-deprecating humor. Making fun of yourself does a number of things: it invites the audience to not take you so seriously, while also diffusing any tension accumulated over the course of a particularly scathing review.

Self-Deprecating humor is tricky, though. If done incorrectly it comes off obnoxious and self-serving. Almost as if the writer is begging for somebody to come and say, “Oh no, that’s not true. That’s a lovely robe, and that pointy hat is very wizardly.”

not a wizard

yes i am

This won’t work for everybody, but it works for me because it stays true to my internal voice. I’m not putting on an ‘act’ so to speak, but I am making a conscious effort to highlight parts of my personality I want the reader to engage with.

4) Stay True To You

Whether you are a reviewer, or author, if done correctly, people are coming to hear *your* opinion or story or voice. People don’t pick up Stephen King books anymore, read the blurb, and then debate whether or not they think they will like the story. If they like King, they are probably going to like the story regardless of what its about.

This happens because King has a distinctive voice that the reader knows they’ll like. It’s the same with reviewing. People are coming to hear *you*, so don’t be something you’re not. Don’t try and emulate King. Nobody wants a King copy-cat. If they want to read a King’esque story, they’ll read King.

Give the audience something only you can provide. Your personality, marred and scarred with all sorts of quirks and foibles, is unique. So use it. This will take some thought on your part as you consider what side of yourself you want to present. Do you want to be ultra-serious with laser like directness, or more loosey-goosey with only cursory attention to detail?

jack black

That’s your choice and nobody can make it for you.

But here’s something to consider: Don’t try and be something you’re not. Besides being exhausting and impractical in the long run, readers will see through it. Use your natural strengths and weaknesses as an asset because only you, dear reader, have the peculiar mix of characteristics that makes you so gosh-darn irresistibly weird.

Anthony