Getting past the beginning of a novel - Advanced writing tips

So you’ve got a bodacious idea and you’ve written the first 20,000 or 30,000 words! You’ve got the gumption to start and the grit to put your butt in the chair and write through the wee hours of the morning or on your coffee breaks or whenever it is you have manage to squeeze in your writing time.

Congratulations! You’ve already beat out 99.75 percent of the competition. A lot of expert writing coaches like to quote the “Five percent rule.” The five percent rule says that of all the potential novel writers with an idea only 5 percent of them will ever start on it. And only 5 percent of those who do anything with their idea will make the time and discipline themselves to sit down and write regularly.

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

I’m not sure if the numbers are actually that exact. But if you’ve reached this point, the end of the beginning of a novel, you have fortitude and courage. That’s undeniable.

And you have also just run into the steepest and scariest writing hurdle yet. According to the five percent rule, getting past the beginning should only cull out another 95 percent of the prospective authors out there, but this one feels bigger to a lot of us somehow.

Maybe it is because the people who didn’t make the first five percent cut really weren’t serious at all, so there was no pain involved. They just had an idea and didn’t pursue it. And the people, who didn’t get around to making a real start and didn’t manage the discipline or time to put their butts in their chairs. didn’t really sacrifice anything beyond mental anguish and a fair amount of whining.

On the other hand, the writers—yes, now really anyone who got this far is a writer—who falter at around the 30,000 word mark have worked hard. They’ve disciplined themselves, made real sacrifices to get the time to write and faced down fear and shame. And still… only a few will make it.

Writing coaches are supposed to make it seem like all the others will fail but you personally are the star who will not. I’m not making that call. You’re one reader and the bitter reality is that if one hundred writers at this stage of a novel read my blog, only about five of you will actually finish that novel. Fewer yet will ever see it published.

BUT… (And this is a big but.)

These statistics are about the novel, not about you. Most writers—I might even say, “hopefully all writers”—will start at least one novel they toss before they finish their first book. If you don’t, how do you learn and become an awesome writer?

We need ten thousand hours of writing to make a master, just like every skilled craft or art. So, if your novel falls by the wayside, that doesn’t mean you fail as a writer—just that you need to succeed with a different novel.

But this post is for those who have an idea they are convinced is a winner, those who have reached the end of the beginning and have the proverbial genitalia to keep on.

Let’s face it. It’s heavy going. No one gets past this one without some sweat, tears and likely some blood, whether fictional or actual.

If you are an expert plotter and have spent years on world building and have a detailed storyboard, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re sailing through your manuscript without any trouble. But then again, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

If you’re like me and most other intrepid wordsmiths, you know the dreaded 30,000 word marker. Very possibly you’ve been here before. Maybe several times. And it might as well be the grim reaper.

There is something about reaching this point in a manuscript that makes writers wilt like that houseplant you forgot to water since you started this novel. No, you didn’t just run out of gas. It happens to all of us.

You start with an exciting idea and all the enthusiasm that goes along with it. There is very likely at least one early scene and possibly an ending and several other scenes firmly in your head before you start. You have a character or characters you like, a great setting and a unique premise. That can get you through 10,000 words without breaking a sweat.

You’ve got the opening description, the initial action and the premise to describe. In short, you’ve got clear goals that anyone with a couple of years of dabbling in writing can handle.

But I hate to break it to you. That’s the easy stuff.

Beginnings are important and must be brilliant and all that, but you know you can go back and edit, so you probably didn’t sweat rivers over it. Now, however, things get hairy.

You get to a certain point in writing your novel (usually somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words depending on the type of plot you’re using and how much plotting you did early on) and you suddenly feel like you’re slogging through thick mud while carrying a fifty-pound pack.

How did this happen? You didn’t start out carrying a pack. Did all that positive energy just evaporate? Are you just a wimp without staying power?

No and no.

There is some small comfort in knowing that your exhaustion is completely justified. And it isn’t just that you’ve been cooped up in your basement staring at a screen for too long, although if that’s the case, remember that pacing yourself applies to writing as much as it does to running a marathon.

The 30,000-word marker is a different sort of exhaustion though.

Here’s the first key to getting through it: That fifty-pound pack is real.

OK, you can’t actually weigh it on a scale. But you are carrying a massive load after writing 30,000 words. You are carrying around in your brain all the bits and pieces, character traits, setting details and subplots that you subconsciously or consciously know you are going to need to remember later on. Depending on how many notes you’ve been keeping and how organized you are, this mental burden can be enormous.

Hopefully, even if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, you have written down some notes about your major characters and main plot, at least the basics up until now. Pantsers are more likely to collapse at this point than plotters. It is one of the places where plotters can be justified in a bit of their smugness.

But plotters will have a burden too. Even if you write everything down scrupulously, you will be memorizing where you wrote what and how to find each piece of information. And there are always details you didn’t put in your notes, which is why your notes are not actually the novel, though their word count may be pushing a close second.

So, the first thing to do when you feel the sluggish doldrums at the end of the beginning descend upon you is to update your notes. Even if you’re an avowed pantser, now is the time to do a bit of plotting. Write character sketches if you haven’t yet. Make an outline of your plot or a story board, if at all possible. As you put down some of these burdens on paper, you will feel lighter.

If you have extensive notes, look through them. Make sure they are organized and remind yourself where to find things. Think through any plot holes that may have cropped up. Untangle and discard what has turned out not to be useful. Lighten the load.

The end of the beginning is also a good time to take a break from writing if you’re an intensive writer, spending hours writing each day. Get out in nature, spend some time with people or sleep all the hours you want for once, whichever meets your needs.

But don’t let go entirely. Many a good book has died because the writer went on a break at this point and didn’t actually come back. The break may feel way too good.

Set a limit or a deadline to get back at it. And then sit down and get back into it, no matter what.

OK, not entirely “no matter what.” As I said before, some projects need to die. Every writer needs to leave a few unfinished novels on their creative compost pile. So, don’t break yourself on something you have realized wasn’t a keeper. But if you are still convinced this is a keeper, put your head down and power through.

That is the third thing—and possibly the most crucial—about the end of the beginning. To some extent, you just have to push through this difficult time. It is likely that your plot or your characters are more complicated than you thought. You’ve realized you need to go back and change some things. Or you’re worried because you still haven’t figured out some major plot points coming up.

Whatever the specifics, this is a tough stretch. It’s uphill and there is no second wind yet.

Remember again that you can edit later. Keep in mind that this is normal for writers. It’s a natural part of the process of writing a novel. Take your best shot at how the plot needs to go and write it.

When you get to the 50,000- or 60,000-word mark and those last few puzzle pieces drop into place in your plot conundrum, you can go back and fix whatever you’re messing up now.

Yes, puzzle pieces dropping seemingly of their own accord happens far more often than a purely rational view of the writing process would indicate. And yes, you are messing things up at this point. It’s pretty much impossible not to. Don’t fret about it.

Getting past the end of the beginning is almost always messy or rugged or both. But by putting down some of your mental burden, taking a carefully limited break and pushing through the urge to throw it all in the recycling bin, you can crawl over this hurdle.

How much is too much (or too little) description in fiction?

The echo of automatic gunfire bounced off the gray, cement buildings, making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of the threat. Trash scuttled along the gutter in a stiff jab of wind. Sand stung her eyes.

The girl crouched in a doorway, the stench of sour cabbage and old grease washing over her from inside. She gnawed on the nail of her little finger and tried to remember the map of streets between here and the old railroad yard. She couldn’t afford a mistake now.

The rapid cracking of more shots just a block back along the street forced the matter. She darted out, along the wall and away, slipping through the rubble like a little brown squirrel, lightning quick and nearly silent.

Some of the most common questions I get from students are on the issue of description in fiction—how much, when and where?

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Budding writers often receive lavish praise for description in school. Most general education teachers and even a distressing number of creative writing instructors, view almost all description favorably. It is creative, after all. It fills up assignment page quotas at a gallop and the students who use description are refreshingly motivated.

What isn’t there to love about it?

Well, lots actually.

Writing description is like playing the piano. Unlike most musical instruments, pianos make nice-sounding notes with the press of a key. All you have to do to feel like you are playing the piano and making nice sounds is to play the keys with a bit of grace and not bang on them. Once a small child learns to stop banging and to press individual keys, the sound is relatively pleasant and even pretty at times. It is motivating because it is easy and it garners praise.

But just as playing real music on a piano is a far cry from that gentle random tinkling, writing great description is complex, requires long practice and is immeasurably more rewarding than the initial experiments.

Here are the crucial questions to consider when writing description.

1. What is description and why do you need it?

After they discover that their initial descriptive prowess does not actually make regular people—who are neither their teachers nor their parents—want to read their writing, many beginning writers careen violently in the other direction. They strip all description out of their fiction and stick to action verbs and dialogue, like it’s a fundamentalist religion. Some very stereotypical fiction (and screenplays) can be done this way, but it has the staying power of popcorn.

Description is part of how we convey setting, character and mood to the reader. More importantly, it is the gateway through which the reader enters the world of your story. While a gripping plot and excellent dialogue are arguably more important on every page of a story, description opens the door for your reader.

We experience fiction primarily through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It isn’t the actual page we see or even the movie screen. In order for a reader to fall deeply in love with a work of fiction, recommend it to their friends and make sure to read everything else by the same author, that reader must experience the story to some degree physically. It’s description that jump-starts that process.

The reason why narrow genre fiction needs less of it is that there are already a lot of description assumptions that readers come into each story with. The entire genre aids in developing the sensory experience. Even there, description plays its essential role, only in a different way.

2. What description is not

Description is not plot or story and it never can be. It can’t even be character, though it can try.

It’s like the old adage that children do what their parents do rather than what they say. Description is like a parent telling a child to do something. If done well, it may be memorable and valuable. But if it isn’t backed up with coherent actions and purpose it won’t matter for long.

Description may be enough for a newspaper article in the features section. There we describe characters, locations, scenes and social dilemmas and leave them for the reader to resolve. But despite the literary-term “character sketch” description does not make a story.

Problems and actions attempting to resolve problems make stories. Description may help. That’s all.

3. How do I know if I put in too much description?

The grip that a work of fiction has on the reader is like a kite string. When I edit a work of fiction it feels as if I am flying a kite. The kite is the reader and the taut string is the pull that keeps them reading. The first rush of the opening must be a powerful enough burst of speed to propel the kite up. But then if the kite is driven only by the pilot running around on the ground and there is no wind (metaphorically plot), the kite would sail up for awhile and then drift dully to earth, just as surely as it would if you let go of it and let the wind take it entirely.

Tension in fiction is much like the tension in that taut kite string. It is the pull between the wind of plot events and the striving of the characters. It is the only thing that won’t let the reader drift away from your story.

All this is to say that description plays only an indirect role in the basic physics of the relationship between plot, character and tension. Description is crucial to the reader’s experience of the events of the story, but it must not interfere too greatly.

Excess description has the tendency to slacken the tension of that kite string. Too much and the kite falls, the reader loses interest and abandons the story for something more engaging.

So, as you read over your work in editing, keep that kite string in mind. Judging when the string goes slack is somewhat subjective and it certainly varies with tone and genre, but you can develop an intuitive sense for it. If you feel the line of tension through a scene slacken, look to the descriptive phrases in the scene. Too much description is not the only problem that can cause slack tension, but it is the easiest such problem to solve.

If cutting excess description helps then you have likely resolved the problem. Professionally this trimming of wordy text is called “tightening up the prose” and that refers to tightening the tension, just like a kite string.

Some writers today complain that classical writers had it easier, that they were allowed lengthy descriptions of landscape, clothing and the faces of characters, while readers won’t give us the same chance to develop depth in a story today.

There is some truth in this lament. Fiction used to be much more difficult to come by and readers were less likely to put a book down due to a bit of slackened tension. Today’s readers have a lot of distractions and even more options.

It is true that sometimes depth of description is sacrificed today to the gods of reader attention in ways that do not actually make for better writing. But the conditions of entertainment-scarcity of old were not necessarily superior. They allowed for some wonderful depth in some of our classical works, but they also spawned some very long-winded, boring drivel written by privileged white men who only got to be published and even mildly famous because of their random fortune of birth.

The bottom line is that today’s conditions are what they are. They force you to write tight, if you want readers, and that can be a good thing if you focus on honing description to be as powerful and evocative as possible.

4. How much is too little description?

There are modern examples of fiction with too little description. The plot may be snappy but it feels hollow and the reader cannot experience the story sensually. Any trend can become too extreme.

The basic role of fiction still hasn’t changed since ancient times. People read fiction to relax. While fiction often competes with various multimedia entertainments today, many readers seek out reading specifically for the quiet relaxation it offers. That means that we do need some description and quite a lot in literary, fantasy and romance genres.

All description, even in a literary genre where you can theoretically be more relaxed, should strive for brevity and power. The key is to provide a few “evocative” details that open the door of sensory experience and lead the reader’s senses to take over the task of description.

A story must have enough description, given all the circumstances of genre and readership, to start the reader’s brain on the sensory experience. This can often be done with a single phrase or even a single word if that little detail is well-known enough to the readership that the writer can be reasonably sure it will jump-start sensory memory.

If a fantasy author mentions “the smell of leather and sage” it is very likely that most fantasy readers will instantly connect to a sensory memory of just those smells and a lot of other details can be left out and assumed. This is because fantasy readers tend to be the kind of people to own leather items and to have visited places or shops that smell of sage. Such readers will start to see muted greens and earth tones in the clothing of the characters without the writer mentioning color. They may envision natural landscapes or faces roughened by weather, even if they aren’t described.

If a crime or detective author mentions “the blood and vomit spattered on the floor of the interrogation room” their readers will likely construct an entire scene in their minds complete with unfriendly, windowless gray walls, a single lamp, a bare table and a hard chair, even if they have never personally been in such a place because they read a genre in which such descriptions are very common.

This is a bit like cheating, but it is legal and in many cases desirable. You pick just the right detail and thus skip whole paragraphs of description, if your detail evokes a similar scene for your readership.

There are two methods in this kind of cheating—1. banking on reader experience and 2. exploiting genre conventions. The more you know your readership and your genre the easier it is to use details that will evoke sensory experience for those readers and thus free you from the need to provide further descriptive details.

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on enough shared experience between readers to do away with most description. This is another reason why some old fiction feels uninspiring to modern readers. Simply put, the author’s assumptions about our experience and what will trigger our sensual responses are no longer valid due to changes in our society.

There are also plenty of things you may want to describe in fiction which you can be pretty sure most readers have not encountered in physical life. In fact, if you are describing mostly only things that are so common to the genre that they don’t need much description, your work isn’t going to be very original.

So, description isn’t going out of style. Get used to it and use it skillfully.

5. How can I make my descriptions better?

Better in description generally means more “power.”

Power? Like short, snappy sentences?

Well, sort of. Shorter and more varied sentence lengths help, but when we say “power” in description it means the power to evoke and thus bring the reader into the story physically.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to increase the power of your description. This goes right back to elementary school, where you learned the parts of speech—verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Verbs are inherently the most powerful part of human language. It is likely they were the first actual words, given that pointing likely took care of initial nouns for prehistoric people. Nouns are the next most powerful part of language, followed by adjectives.

The weakest of the non-grammatical, substantive parts of speech are adverbs. This is why your writing instructors and how-to books tell you to avoid them.

It is much better to use a verb that describes the entire action, as in, “The officers pounded up the steps and charged into the apartment,” rather than common verbs with adverbs, such as “The officers ran forcefully up the stairs and came into the apartment fast and furious.”

The first example happens to be shorter, but even if it somehow wasn’t technically shorter, it would more easily draw the reader’s senses into the story for reasons that go deep into psychology.

The same goes for nouns. It is better to be more specific with your noun than to use a common noun and an adjective. It is better to write “poodle” than “small, white dog” unless your narrative absolutely requires the vagueness.

Adjectives are weak enough that it is better to avoid them, if it doesn’t cause other complications in the text. Adjectives ending in -ly are notoriously the weakest of all. Many writers do a search for “ly” during editing and specifically analyze each adjective with that ending to see if they can safely cut any. This isn’t to say that you should never use them, only that it is worth looking to see if there is a stronger alternative.

If a paragraph was a savory soup, verbs would be the broth, nouns the meat and veggies, adjectives the salt and spices and -ly words would be things like protein powder and vinegar that you add to some soups when it is really necessary but would not want in any significant amounts.

This advice comes with one very large caveat, Almost every writer who has learned this step has at some point realized the wonderful tool of the thesaurus and been put under its evil spell for a time. Don’t get me wrong, your thesaurus is not inherently evil. It is a good tool for reminding you of descriptive synonyms you may have forgotten.

But whatever you do in writing, resist that temptation to go window shopping through your thesaurus and pick out a nice-sounding word that you aren’t otherwise acquainted with and stick it into your sentence because it is more interesting than its common alternative.

A good rule of thumb is that you should not use a word from a thesaurus if you have never encountered it in speech or in a written work that was not intended to describe the word itself. Your thesaurus is for reminding yourself of words you knew already, not for coming up with new words. There is nothing that screams “amateur” at readers more than a writer who appears to be using unfamiliar descriptive words.

Putting it all together

Honing your descriptions to make them brief and powerful will help your current story and boost your overall writing skills. It is also fun and just as description brings readers into the world of the story, it can transport you there as well.

And that crucial for coordinating scenes and writing great dialogue, but those are issues for other posts. Check out my other advanced writing tips here.

Winning fans is more than just hooking readers

As a senior in college I bombed out of my first journalism job interview on the question, "What is the most important thing in a newspaper story?" posed by a small-town newspaper editor.

I had given up on figuring out the "right" answers because the editor had already told me he didn't think a legally blind person (or even just anyone who couldn't drive) could be a newspaper reporter. He only asked this question to confirm his biases, so I told him my actual opinion.

"Good research and real facts." 

And arguably for many readers that is the most important focus of a newspaper story. But of course, I was wrong in journalism orthodoxy.

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

The standard answer to that question is "the hook." The hook is technically part of the lead, the first paragraph. The hook is often, though not always, the last sentence or phrase in the lead, something surprising, snappy, intriguing or shocking enough to force a good portion of readers to keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs. 

Journalism theory has it that it doesn't really matter if readers finish the article. The important thing is that they read enough of it and other articles in the paper to A. see the ads that fund the paper and B. decide they actually need the paper and subscribe. At least that was the theory, back when print newspapers were the primary form of journalism. 

There is a similar theory in the book industry today. The cover art, the blurb on the back of the book and the first few paragraphs of chapter one play much the same role as the hook in the days of old. And we still talk about "hooking readers." 

The idea is to give the reader a little thrill of recognition—"Ah! This is a book I'll like"—a sense of tribe. You play into the desires of the given genre and provide enough momentum and adrenaline to keep them reading. If you want to catch today's readers, swimming around in a bookstore or at an onlilne shop, you need something with some punch because there are a lot of distractions. 

Both the old journalism version and the modern book-selling version are true as far as they go. The journalism lead and hook got readers who were just casually perusing a paper to actually read it. I did eventually go on to learn to write a pretty good hook as an international newspaper stringer. Thank you very much, Mr. Small-Town Editor. 

But there is something that the doctrine of the hook does not take into account—a crucial factor that is the deal breaker in today’s book industry.

Let me illustrate with another story from the trenches. In 2007, I landed a prestigious Manhattan agent for a memoir. The agent loved my book but didn’t love my hook. She insisted that I rewrite it to put the most suspenseful and violent scene first and then handle the rest of the book as one giant flashback. This is done a lot and it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, if it is done well.

Most of my memoir was about being a blind kid from the back of beyond who got scholarships and somehow ended up in the high-pressure world of international journalism. I started it at a crucial point of no return, while the agent wanted me to start it almost at the end of the chronological story because there was an incident that involved me running from a machine-gun toting mob in the midst of an interethnic skirmish in the Balkans, which is sadly a good part of my journalistic claim to fame.

I love to read memoirs in general. It’s probably the genre I read most and I am not the kind of reader who looks for shock and awe in the hook. I look for character and an engaging narrative voice. But I’m probably not the norm. So my opening, which focused on drawing the reader in through character and voice, made the agent nervous.

I rewrote the hook and made the agent happy. But the book still isn’t published.

It was well written as far as it went, but it was a journalistic memoir by a journalist who was never famous. It should have been a memoir of self-discovery by a blind person with too much to prove, because that would have at least stood a chance in today’s book industry.

But that would have required a different kind of opening, less the traditional hook and more voice and character.

What the editors of 42 publishing houses told the agent, which both of us should have known from the beginning, was that as good as the book was, no one cares if they don’t know the author. If it’s a book about a journalist, that is even more true.

In newspaper journalism “back in the day,” you were assuming the reader already had the paper in their hands. And many readers had no real choice about which paper they were going to read. They read the local paper and possibly one national paper. They could choose among the national papers but they weren't likely to switch just because of less than snazzy hooks. They were much more likely to switch if a paper proved to be either boring overall or full of shoddy research. 

No, the purpose of the hook was first and foremost about the ads around the article. Get eyes on the article and you had eyes on the ads. That’s what advertisers wanted and because they funded the paper, their interests were paramount.

Reporters also wanted to hook readers into their particular story, so their interests coincided with those of the advertisers when it came to writing a good hook. It was more important to a writer that a reader start reading their article than that readers would love them specifically. Bylines were small and usually unnoticed.

Today writers have to contend with a very different landscape. Audiences are much less captive. The hook may get a reader to start reading but if they stop reading immediately afterward because the writing is bad, the content is non-existent or the voice is boring, nothing is gained.

No matter how good your hook is, readers can and do pick up ebooks and stop reading them within a few pages. In some ebook systems, this even means that they don't have to pay for the book. Similarly blogs are only really helpful to the writer if readers come back again and again to the same blog. Hooks are still part of the equation but they are no longer the defining skill of a writer. 

Some ad-dependent bloggers will still use hooks in much the way old-school newspaper reporters did. There are snazzy, intriguing hooks and often a sad lack of any substance or resolution of the mysteries raised.

That isn’t my blogging strategy. The reason for that--beyond the fact that I'd rather work my day job as an ESL teacher than write boring copy--is that things have changed. Today the focus is on readers rather than on advertisers, and that's a good thing for writers. Frankly, writing to the taste of readers is much more fun than writing to the taste of advertisers.

Today a writer's job is not so much to hook readers for a few seconds but to win fans for years to come. We want readers to finish the post or the book and then reach for another one and another one by the same author. That is what keeps the lights on so that writers can keep writing. 

Don't get me wrong. There are still gimmicks out there and people making money off of gimmicks but ultimately readers will figure out when something is a gimmick. There are people cranking out "ebooks" which consist of just a few pages of new material, while the majority of the pages in the book are stuffed with the author’s old material, old blog posts, promos of other work and so forth. The writing, even what new material there is, in these "books" is also not great. For some strange reason, the Amazon algorithms favor lots of releases by the same author in a short period of time, so there are people making some money that way until readers catch on. 

But what is it that will win real fans? What will grab the people who will remember an author's name and seek out the author's work or recommend it to their friends? 

Three things:

  1. Good writing craft,

  2. Consistent delivery of what a specific group of readers wants. 

  3. And a distinct and addictive author voice.

Readers become fans when the book or other material they are reading holds them in a kind of spell that feels very comfortable and which calls to them enticingly when they are doing something else. The elements that go into this spell are voice, character and story, usually in that order.

It can be argued that grammar, punctuation and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are an inherent part of voice. If your work is littered with typos, it is like your voice is squeaking. It isn't pleasant and it breaks the spell, no matter how lovely your characters or story are. But of course there is much more to voice than nuts and bolts.

Essentially, "voice" refers to the tone, humor, cadence, dialect and closeness of your narration. People read for a kind of human contact. It's like being friends and as such winning a fan is like being a good friend.

I don't say It's like "making a friend" because it isn't. Writers aren't friends with every reader. But readers feel a bond of friendship with favorite authors nonetheless. And if you, as a writer, can provide the kind of voice that your readers need to hear from a friend, then you're halfway home.

Naturally not every reader needs the same kind of friend or even the same kind of friend at all times. I sometimes read straight forward thrillers, sometimes epic fantasy and sometimes humorous YA, even though I'm over forty. Each of these genres plays a different role, much like different kinds of friends. Sometimes I need a more humorous friend, sometimes a serious one who gets the heavy despair I'm feeling in the world right now and has resilient grit.

So the first thing to remember about voice is that you can't please them all and you shouldn't try. The worst thing you can do to your writing--other than litter it with typos and convoluted grammar--is try to make it for "everyone." Something that is for everyone is necessarily bland. And while some authors may get away with bland, you'll notice that they are already famous. Not-famous writers like me and you will have to stand out and that means deciding who we're talking to (our target audience) and what kind of friend we're going to be (wry, dark, gritty, whimsical, etc.). 

Beyond that, voice is about making the reader comfortable. You don't want to be too long-winded but neither is this a contest to see who can use the least number of words, the way it often was in newspaper journalism. Readers today read to relax more than anything else. So your voice should be one that matches what your specific readers need and makes them feel good.

You want to have a clear and identifiable voice, so that a reader can pick up an unlabeled page of your writing and be able to name the author. That would be the ideal.

Just as the nuts and bolts of writing are a prerequisite in voice, understanding the specific needs and expectations of readers in your genre is crucial. It is possible to write in the gray areas between genres, though finding your readership will take longer. Genres need not be restrictive boundaries, but be aware that readers will latch onto you for something specific and the more you can consistently provide their the fix they need, the longer you’ll keep readers and the more they’ll turn into actual fans.

An old axiom says beginnings hook readers and endings create fans. My last post told you my low opinion of endings. I don't agree with the axiom anyway. It's a cliche that may have been true in another would where reading had a different position in our entertainment industry. Today, when you can access just about anything, anywhere, right this second, you need quite a lot of good stuff between the beginning and the ending.

On the bright side, what is hard for you is also hard for other writers. You don’t need all the fans, you just need your own tribe.

Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

Using the full power of language in description and metaphor: Advanced writing tips

The roar ravaged his ears, the cacophony deafened him, and he swooned into mindless unconsciousness...

Quite. 

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

That is what happens to readers who read purple prose, if they don't just toss the book and find something better to read. Fortunately for the readers, most of them do toss such books.

And the writers cry in lonely despair, "But it was such a beautiful phrase!"

Writing students often justify embellished prose by claiming that they wish to use the "full power of the English language" or that they refuse to "dumb down" their writing with common and simplistic words. While using the full power of our incredibly versatile language is a worthy goal and I am not in favor of dumbing down writing to the lowest common denominator, neither of these goals really have anything to do with the use of purple prose.

Purple prose is something to be avoided. Period.

And yes, as with many things in writing there is a fine line between purple prose and style. But we can get to that.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose arises when a writer:

  1. Uses unknown words from a thesaurus in order to appear sophisticated or learned or simply to vary word choice. The key issue here is the use of UNKNOWN words. A thesaurus is a good tool and varying word choice is a good idea. But the words you choose must be words you have seen in use and are comfortable using, not one you just looked up today. 
  2. Repeats the same information in multiple descriptor words. This is one reason why writing "mindless unconsciousness" is a bad idea. When a writer is first thinking through ideas, descriptors will often be repeated in verb, noun, adjective and adverb. This is what first drafts are for. Experienced writers nail these repetitions in editing and make sure each word says something new.
  3. Exaggerates or creates logical impossibilities with description. The key to good writing is allowing the reader to experience and usually to visualize the scene. Exaggerations don't help and logical impossibilities stop visualization cold. I know that mostly we're talking about fiction, so you might ask how I know if someone is exaggerating in fiction. Take for example my statement that  "the roar ravaged his ears." While certain extreme body metaphors are permissible--"Her voice was strangled," for instance--we have to be careful with that. Trying to picture a sound that ravages someone's ears throws the reader off. Test such phrases by visualizing them. If it looks like a cartoon and you aren't writing a cartoon, then don't do it. 
  4. Employs more and longer words than necessary to impart information, atmosphere and style. This is the most thorny of the issues, because some styles do call for a bit of "flowery" language. Where would fantasy and historical fiction be without a good turn of phrase. But there are ways to distinguish style from purple prose. They usually go back to the first three problems in this list in some form. Purple prose often over-describes in multiple ways, uses a longer and less-known word when a shorter one would do just as well and/or drives all descriptions to extremes. But there are times when a writer simply wallows in description, dragging the hapless reader along until the reader gives up and goes to find something with more plot (i.e. conflict).
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

No reader enjoys purple prose. Some writers will argue with this because writers sometimes enjoy their own purple prose. But writers don't really count as their own number one reader. Purple prose isn't legitimate description, which may bore some but inspire others. Purple prose is always boring, annoying and embarrassing. 

That said, almost all writers go through a stage of purple prose and many of us struggle to weed it out in editing even as professionals. Struggling with the demons of purple prose is no sin. Allowing them to cavort drunk and unhindered through the temples of our word gods is.  

Fortunately, the methods for stamping out purple prose and making your descriptions shine twice as bright are relatively simple. Here are the basics:

  • Say what you mean. Get the image or other physical sensation of your scene in your mind and show it.
  • Know the full (surface, secondary and deeper) meanings of words. Study dictionaries, notice how words are used, and use words you know well. 
  • Be specific. Use the most specific noun or verb you can think of. If you write an adjective or an adverb be aware that you do so only because you do not know a noun or a verb that can replace this particular combination of adverb and verb or adjective and noun. If you mean "hurry," don't say "go quickly."
  • Whenever choosing between two words that mean the same thing, use the shorter or more common of the two. This isn't primarily about helping a wide range of readers to easily understand your story, although it may help with that. It isn't the same as dumbing down, which is more about content than anything. This rule really just makes your writing better, smoother and more intelligent. It is an odd but undeniable fact that too many long words make a writer appear unsophisticated and pompous. 
  • When editing, read through your paragraphs and cut out any word that can be cut without changing the meaning of the paragraph. At first you'll have to experiment with taking out a word and rereading over and over again, but eventually your brain will start identifying likely culprits automatically. Start with adverbs, interjections, prepositions, adjectives and exclamations. Always look at "really," "just" and "still." There are many times to use these words. But if you can take them out without changing the connotations of the sentence, do it.
  • Identify words and phrases you personally use too often. Then do a search with your word processor and look at each instance in your story. Try to get rid of any repetitions of the same word or phrase that are unnecessary. Each of us has a certain style and more over we go through phases in which certain words or phrases pop out constantly. This is normal, but it should also be kept in check. Repetition, when used, should be deliberate and purposeful, not accidental.

On top of these common guidelines, there are a few specific tips professed by George Orwell, the father of the genre of dystopia and a writer of extraordinary clarity and descriptive prowess: 

  • Don't use any metaphor or analogy, you've seen more than once. A good general rule, though there are times to break it. If you set that as your goal, you will be much less likely to riddle your story with cliches. 
  • Use active voice whenever you can and use passive voice only when you have no other choice. Beginning writers learn that "passive voice" is bad. And it usually is. But when you need it you really need it. If you need to show the unwillingness of characters to disclose who did something, you will definitely need passive voice. It is said that you identify passive voice by looking for the word "was" but that can be misleading. Don't confuse passive voice with past continuous. You can recognize passive voice by asking "Who did it?" as if you're a detective. If the answer is not at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, the verb is passive. So "she was shocked" is passive. But so is "she is shocked."  And "they were shocked." Who shocked her/them? It's not at the beginning, so it's passive. However, "Her mouth was gaping open" is not passive. It is past continuous and depending on the context and style, it may be correct.
  • Don't exaggerate, especially if it's "only" fiction. This bears repeating. Say what you mean. Give the reader the true image of your story.

Finally two advanced tips from my own hard won experience. 

  • Never use a phrase or word because it "sounds good."
  • And kill your "babies."

These two rules are related. In the professional jargon of writers a "baby" is any word, phrase, plot twist or device that you are unreasoningly attached to during the editing stage. You will notice the pull of these bits. They are the parts that make you smile when you run across them and yet they rarely entrance anyone else. You know for sure that you have a "baby" when you find yourself thinking or saying, "But it just sounds so good!" or "It's only that I really like it that way."

These are red flags. 

Sure, we are allowed to have preferences, but if your only defense against problems with a word, phrase or plot twist is that you like it, then you should almost certainly get rid of it. This is painful but will vastly improve your writing. It is called "killing your babies" because all writers know the pain of it but we have to laugh at ourselves a little in retrospect. If you look back on the "baby" phrases and words you were so attached to a year or so ago you will know what I mean.

This is a safe place for writers and readers alike to discuss these issues. I read all comments and I love to hear from you. What are your experiences with using description and metaphors? Any particularly harrowing stories about "killing your babies?" Comments of your own experience are always welcome. We are concerned with improving our own writing, rather than judging others. 

The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of Flickr.com

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof Flickr.com

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of Flickr.com

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

How to market on-line... from someone NOT selling a book on the subject

I’ve got to be honest here. This is unlikely to be the most popular blog post about social media and on-line marketing. That’s because I am not going to tell you this is the best time to be an author, entrepreneur or creative artist and there is a ton of money just waiting for you once you buy my book on marketing and use my simple five-step plan. That’s what a lot of sites say and it’s a more palatable message than the truth.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

I’ve spent the last three years busting my butt looking for answers in this field, trying out quite a few things myself and watching many of my fellows crash and burn. I have no intention of writing or selling a book about how to market on-line. So I don’t need to make things sound better than they are in order to sell you something.

And yet I want to tell what I have learned. 

“Why?” I can hear you asking. “If you know so much about it, why don’t you just write your own book on marketing?”

I’m not writing my own book on marketing because I don’t see any quick or easy ways to do it. The whole rigmarole around selling such books by promising unrealistic fantasies of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps makes me physically ill and tempted to violence against innocent pieces of computer hardware (because the authors of said drivel are out of my reach). 

The real impetus behind me wanting to blog about how to market on-line is that I get spammed every day by dozens of new entrepreneurs and authors tagging me in their posts about their new cover, their new jewelry line, their new Amazon discount deal or some such as well as new the same people force-adding me to their fan groups and fan events, thus dumping dozens more emails in my inbox before I have a chance to opt out of these spammy groups and events. I mostly just delete these spammers, sometimes unfriending them if I have time. Occasionally I vent my frustration with irate messages asking them to stop spamming me and suggesting that this is an unwise marketing strategy for books or anything else. 

But the other day I took a different tact. I was in an especially good mood, so instead of ranting and deleting or even ignoring, I simply sent the spammer a concerned note, explaining their tagging tactic was going to backfire and make people hate them. And instead of an irate response back, which is usually what you get for your trouble, this one thanked me, said he was very new to marketing and asked for advice. 

He was the author of an erotic thriller—something I would read AFTER I finished all the technical manuals and pukey romances, if I were stranded on Mars for years without access to any other reading material. In case you can’t tell, I find erotic books excruciatingly boring. I know. I’m weird, but all readers are weird in one way or another and this guy seriously had the wrong reader demographic going. I had to tell him.

So in the interests of reducing spam and of having a blog post to send future newbies, here is what I know about on-line marketing.

What doesn’t work

Spamming doesn’t work. I know you’ve probably read marketing things that say a person has to see your book or product X number of times before they’ll be likely to buy it and so you’re trying to fill that number by making sure people see it on social media. 

Here are the problems with that concept:

  • “Likes” not the number of posts determine what people get to see. When you start out you post about your new book or product a few times and your enthusiastic friends and family “like” the post. That gets you an initial boost but after awhile not even your friends and family are going to “like” or actually enjoy your repeated marketing posts.
  • So if you continue posting about your book or product the algorithms determining what your “friends” on social media see in their news feed will almost never choose you. 
  • There is way too much noise. Those marketing books were written about an era when advertising meant billboards and TV commercials, possibly direct mail leaflets. At that time, people were presented with one advertisement at a time and if there was a snappy logo involved, it would eventually sink in after several exposures and they would have the general feeling that this is a known (and thus inherently somewhat trustworthy) brand. That’s the whole rationale behind the X-number-of-views theory.
  • In 2016, you can toss it out, right along with your old TV. Today the on-line environment means multiple ads coming at us all the time from the top, bottom, sides and often the center of our screens. People’s brains get used to skimming and jumping.
  • Add to that the fact that there are billions of on-line products and logos being marketed and the chance that anyone is going to subconsciously get the sense that your logo is trustworthy simply by encountering advertising is minuscule, even if you have a fairly large budget. 

That’s why many on-line marketers turn to tactics that cause potential customers to remember them with hate rather than trust. These tactics primarily involve ensuring that your message gets specially delivered to the individual.

These marketers use whatever Facebook or Twitter or other social media happen to be directly delivering to people at the moment. Right now on Facebook this means adding people to groups and events without permission and tagging people in posts. Both of these tactics are legal on Facebook and they result in the person added or tagged getting a special message about it—a message that always gets delivered rather than just sitting in the news feed que and possibly not being seen at all like regular posts.

Some marketers feel that they have somehow “earned” the attention because they have to input each name to be added or tagged individually and it is actually quite a bit of work. But whatever the marketers think, the result is still the same. They are forcing the random people they target to deal with yet one more message in their already swamped on-line environment. This either results in the person swiftly dismissing the spam or in the person taking a moment to notice and hate the product presented.

Don’t do these things.

Don’t post tons of posts about your book or product, don’t in fact try to get random people to see your message X number of times and don’t send random people special messages about your book or product, so that they have to take the small action of deleting your message and/or opting out of your spamming group or event.

These tactics don’t work. If they worked for someone else it was before 2011 or they are a celebrity of some kind already.

What does work… sort of

There are no quick fixes. The book market is completely saturated--over-saturated by orders of magnitude. Many other on-line markets are similarly flooded. It is very unlikely for a new author, artist or innovator to break in without several years of work, unless you have some prior celebrity and a big publisher or distributor (and even then it isn't a done deal). But from three years of hard full-time work, a ton of reading and discussions with more experienced marketers, I have observed a couple of strategies that provide some returns:

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of Flickr.com

Strategy 1: Find a clear-cut genre and write A LOT of books in that genre (more than ten, twenty books is better) following genre standards to the letter and write snappy, easily read prose.

This is not about writing “well.” It is about writing what the largest group of readers wants and that is not actually in line with good prose. It is instead about keeping everything ultra simple, both plot and prose. Characters must fit popular beauty standards and the problems and solutions in the books must pander to the current trends of the age group of the your ideal readers. Avoid controversial subjects or main characters representing minority groups. 

Then give away a few books for free, sell the rest cheap and blog about your genre incessantly. The same might be applied to music, I suppose, but with physical products this mainly requires producing the cheapest and least environmentally-responsible product you can. I’m not saying this is a good tactic. It’s a soul-destroying tactic for either writers, artists or other businesses, but I have observed that it has some merits as a marketing strategy. It can make someone a living.

Strategy 2: Choose an underrepresented non-fic topic and write a book or two about that. Alternatively specifically include characters representing minority groups or other demographic niches (not genre so much as demographics). Sell those but blog incessantly about your topic, minority or nich and advertise your books in each blog post.

This can be applied to physical products as well. Simply choose to sell something that is unavailable or not widely available on-line but needed by a specific group of people (even they are only 0.2 percent of the population) and then blog the hell out of it. It takes several years to break in and you need some luck. First, you had better be right that your product or book niche is both underrepresented and needed. And you have to hope that several other businesses don’t come up with the same idea at the same moment or slightly earlier than you.

I recently found exactly the product I needed for my hyperactive child who legitimately needs to chew on something in order to focus. I found one on-line company that could demonstrate a track record and had nice-looking chewies designed for older kids (not babies) made from materials that don’t pose a health risk. I had never heard of the company before but they got my business right then, because I searched and they had a blog and it demonstrated knowledge and a track record. I bought $50 worth of products from them immediately. No X number of views. Just a niche need met. This is a much better strategy than the first but it does require you to have a niche and to blog for free for months, probably years before you ever see payday. 

Strategy 3: Finally, you can write or make only what you are passionate about, blog incessantly about the topics and themes connected to those books or products, advertise the books or products beside each related blog post, offer a free book or sample for subscribers to your blog, blog at least once a week, post your blog posts on social media where people may actually really want to read them, such as matching-topic Facebook groups or Twitter tags.

Thus I write fantasy and blog about herbs because fantasy readers often like herbs and there are herbs in my books. I write dystopia and I blog about social exclusion and social justice issues related to the themes. This has gained me a mailing list of five hundred truly interested people in one year and favorable Facebook and Google algorithm ratings. Some people now come to my site by searching Google for some of my keywords. I don't have to rely on having a huge number of Facebook friends or on manually inputting their names into spam methods, because I can reach people who aren't friends with me at all by putting interesting posts into Facebook herbalist groups that will actually enjoy them.

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of Flickr.com

One reason I actually encourage you to indulge your own passions and write about what you love is that you won't have to do nearly as much research and the research you do have to do will give you added energy. I could have blogged about the history of the fantasy genre to support my books, but then I would have had to do a lot of extra research. I know medicinal herbs already, so I can blog about that. I want to avoid doing a ton of research, not because I'm lazy but because you never get paid to blog and you have to be able to keep it up for YEARS in order for it to matter. So pick a topic you don't have to research too hard.

This isn’t a hugely effective strategy, but it does get you a mailing list of actually interested people. It is most lucrative when combined with a niche market (see strategy 2) with very little competition. But it is also something you can do to feed your soul, while paying the bills with another job and having the hope that with consistent effort over many years, you may be able to make your living doing what you love. Honestly, only one in several thousand people will ever succeed with Strategy 3, but that is also the strategy that has produced some of the most remembered writers of history, who were often unknown in their lifetimes but were eventually discovered and recognized for their intense passion. 

All of these strategies have one thing in common—the specific desire of the potential customer. In Strategy, 1 you cater to the largest known customer base, giving them what they want for as little as possible at all cost to quality and your own creativity--banking on the fact that although you will never be great you can make a living by simply having so many trickles of income that it adds up. In Strategy 2, you find a niche market in need of something and then fill that need. Here you have to price your products a bit higher (sometimes very high) because the market is small. In Strategy 3, you focus on your own passions and work on connecting with people who share the same passions and thus the desire for what you have to offer. 

Contrast this with the author of the erotic thriller who dumped his video trailer in my inbox. No attempt was made to determine if I or anyone else tagged by his dozens of posts was at all interested in his topic. He simply fired his shotgun and let the random pellets spray. Pounding the average person with random ads will only get them to block you, delete your Facebook "friendship" and cut off all contact if they can. Thus it isn't good marketing. Blog about the themes of your books or possibly your genre if you are aiming for the mass market.

All three of these strategies share one more thing and that is a stand-alone webpage. I know there are Facebook business pages and I have asked experts about them, but I have not been able to determine whether or not they are good for anything. There was once a time (back in the dinosaur days of 2012) when Facebook business pages were considered "social credit," meaning a potential customer could go to your business page and see that you had a ton of "likes" and thus believe that yours is a moderately trustworthy brand. Facebook business pages and Twitter accounts show how many people have been persuaded one way or another to “like” your page, although bundles of “likes” are also for sale, so the credibility this affords is ever decreasing. However, these pages don’t really do much to get your message out to the people who want what you have to offer. The best base for any of the reasonably functional strategies is a stand alone website. 

So, here’s what I told the erotic thriller guy: 

"If you write thrillers with a macho, gun-porn sort of aesthetic and you know a lot about guns, blog about guns. (Just an example. I have no idea what your thrillers are like.) And then you get on Twitter and FB and post the link to your blog with hashtags and in "Facebook groups" that like posts about guns—such as hunter's groups, NRA people, Republicans, survivalists, ranchers and men’s groups with that particular atmosphere. And then people who actually like guns will click on your link, go to your page, read your post, sign up for your mailing list to get more such posts and... eventually some of them buy your books, if you were actually right that people who like guns might also like your books. It's tricky and a hell of a lot of work, several times more work than writing a good book, but it actually allows you to post on social media in a way people will applaud rather than hate and thus they will like you rather than hate you. No one really has ever sold anything by annoying people. It only seems like they must have because annoying random people is the most common (and the most unsuccessful) marketing tactic."

I wish everyone out there good luck in finding those who want what you are selling. They very likely do exist even if you’re selling a thneed.

Comment

Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Creating a fictional language - Step 1: Mastering the building materials

J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.

The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!” 

Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb. 

If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to." 

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

Creative commons image by Avenue G of flickr.com

The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.

Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.

Verbs

A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)

There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .

Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession. 

But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F?  Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.

Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.

Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense. 

Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over. 

Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.

Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.

In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.” 

Nouns

A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.) 

Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society. 

It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.

In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.” 

Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions. 

If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.

Adjectives and Adverbs

An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)

Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company. 

It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.

The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them. 

The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”

Prepositions

Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase. 

“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”

You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English. 

In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.” 

Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)

Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending. 

If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.

In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.

Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language. 

Articles and determiners

The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these. 

Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.” 
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.

Other words

Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well. 

It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.

Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!

Code of Magic: The keys to writing gripping fantasy

When I was a teenager and a serious fantasy fan girl (I read The Silmarillion twice and wrote epic poems to chronicle its stories), the first book on writing I read was about how to write about magic.  It would be twenty years before I became a fantasy author, but as a reader I loved learning about the mysteries behind the creation of my favorite fantasy worlds. This post (originally published as a guest column for Marie Lavender's blog) comes from what I learned both as a writer and as an avid and studious reader of the genre over four decades.

The vast genre of fantasy is akin to a wildly diverse landscape—encompassing vast plains of epic proportion, shear crags of nail-biting tension, dark places where many fear to tread, deep forests of ancient myth and cities of every description where corruption and courage vie for dominance. Still, as enormous as this genre is there is one thing that indicates whether or not a story belongs in the fantasy universe. Fantasy stories contain some form of “magic.”

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

It may be no more than subtle dreams invading reality in magical realism or it can be a full-blown flying printing press that shoots bolts of lightning in a steampunk/western mashup, but there’s got to be magic.

Magic in this context can be defined as something that cannot be explained purely by science. The line between fantasy and science fiction is under some debate because there is always the question of whether something that can’t be explained by science today might someday be within scientific grasp. But fantasy should generally fall on the side of strange and wonderful things that science isn’t expected to explain.

For writers, the fantasy genre maintains all the challenges that other types of literature entail, plus a few. There is often a lot of work to do to develop settings and to make characters that are very different from us relatable. But the thing that makes fantasy either fly or flop is the design and execution of whatever magic is in the story.

While it may be fun to throw pure imagination at the page and let all things go wild, as in Alice in Wonderland, writers do well to be wary of that path. It can lead to obscure literary praise (if done extraordinarily well), but it leads into the surrealist subgenre of fantasy, where few paying readers venture. And thus it doesn’t generate bestsellers.

If you want to not only write fantasy but have other people read what you write, careful thought on magical systems is mandatory. David Eddings reportedly spent six years developing his magical system before starting the Belgariad. Being less bold than the grand masters of fantasy, I took twenty years to work out my first magical system and it is satisfyingly troll proof. A magical system doesn’t necessarily have to take that long, but some serious thought goes into the good ones.

There are rules you can follow to make the process easier. Good magical systems can be had by rehashing the same themes explored since the dawn of true civilization (ahem… that being in 1911 when J.R.R. Tolkien started writing for school magazines). However, the key to creating a great magical system is in the conflict that arises from a unique premise.

With that in mind, here is my code of magical development:

The author god must know the truth

 Problems can arise when a writer is exploring a magical system while writing. It’s fine as far as it goes, but this exploratory approach requires major editing and you shouldn’t start publishing until you know your magical system to its very core.

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of flickr.com

I’m going to use some examples from my contemporary fantasy series here, not because I think mine is the best or because I want to force it down your throat, but because one can only really write about the behind the scenes methods of an author from first-hand experience. I spent many years, testing out different scenarios in my imagination before writing and this resulted in a logically sound and yet deceptively simple scheme.

In the long forgotten past, a very negative magical work was created and it took over the wills of its human creators. The negative magic itself became a living entity—the Addin. The Addin desires absolute power over humanity and it gains it through usurping the wills of individuals and using them as pawns. Many of the political, economic and social leaders of today’s world are in fact controlled by the Addin. No human being can resist Addin domination for long, if they are specifically targeted. Most people don’t even know it exists and think that simple greed and corruption account for any abuses of power and the destructive tendencies of their leaders.

The world I created for The Kyrennei Series is eerily similar to the real world and that has been the key to its impact on readers who find the Addin frighteningly plausible. That’s part of the magical system of this world and while the main characters don’t entirely understand it even within the first few books of the series, my understanding of it as the author keeps the series consistent and gives the story a connection to authentic emotions.

Know the Source

Magic has to come from somewhere or something in your world. Your characters may not know where it comes from, but you should. Is it from the gods or pulled from the life force around the magic user or from the energy of the universe or from something else?

I never spell this out in The Kyrennei Series but essentially magic comes from primal life force or energy. It operates on another plane of reality that can affect physical reality in certain ways. Emotion is also energy. The intensity that goes into the use of magic matters and the Addin, of course, operates primarily through the usurpation of the emotions of others.

This was important for me to understand as an author even though the characters didn’t get into the theoretical basis of magic in their world. It has implications for the way magic works. The Addin steals the power of human beings by usurping their emotions. But there are people that the Addin cannot take over. They are the Kyrennei, a non-human race that lived on earth long ago, but the Addin was able to annihilate them fourteen centuries ago because they were smaller and physically weaker than humans. Still, before they died the last Kyrennei mages set a magical process in motion that hid the genome of the Kyrennei within the DNA of certain humans. When the Kyrennei thus return from extinction after centuries of absence it is their power to resist the Addin and their other abilities with energy and emotion that matter. And the details of this premise fit together nicely because they are rooted in the source of magic itself.

Know the limits

Just as magic should have a source, it must have limits. If it didn’t have limits, there would be nothing stopping anyone with magic from getting everything they want and ruling the world. And that would make for a boring story. Limits equal conflict and conflict is good for fiction.

The limit may be as simple as a Cold War between magic users, such as “I can sense your magic, so if you try to kill me in order to control the world without competition, I’ll vaporize you just as you vaporize me.” There’s conflict there, even if the magic is otherwise limitless, but that would make for a very inflexible conflict.

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Here again your characters don’t necessarily know the limits of magic in their world. Or you might have some fully informed magical scholars. But the “author god” should know the limits. What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it limited by space and time? Is it difficult to learn or limited to only some talented magic users? Is it theoretically possible for magic users to read minds, live forever, change anything into anything, bring back the dead, put out the sun or drive the planet like a space ship? If they can’t do these things and much more, your magic isn’t limitless. And you need to know where those limits are.

Often the outer limits of magic will not be firm, however. Some types of magic may be stronger than others, some magic users may be able to do more and certain devices, substances or rituals may be able to push the limits of magic. Again, the “author god” must know what is possible and what determines the abilities of magic users.

As an example, in The Kyrennei Series, the question of why the magic users don’t rule the world is answered. One group of them does rule. They exterminated the other group of magic users partly because that group resisted their control of the wills of normal humans. Even so, the ruling group does not use their power without limit. When they usurp a person’s will they make that person one of the elite group of magic users as well and thus they must share power with that person from that time forward (even though they will be a loyal follower of their patron’s goals). This is why the Addin doesn’t yet control everyone in the world. They are the wolves and wolves need sheep. If they eat all the sheep, they will have no one to rule over and no more sheep to eat. As such, there are certain limits on Addin, power but individuals sometimes stretch these limits. And there can be controversy, even among the Addin about how much is too much use of power.

On the other hand, the protagonists in the Kyrennei Series initially know little about the limits of magic as most of their magic has been suppressed for centuries. A key moment comes when Aranka Miko, the first Kyrennei to take her true form in modern times shows a group of resistance fighters that she has abilities unknown for centuries. Even then, any magic beyond the terrible power of the Addin and the simple power of the Kyrennei to resist the Addin seems very limited indeed. But eventually the Kyrennei find that their physical weakness is balanced by greater magical strength than anyone dreamed.

Apply basic logic and be consistent… mostly

You may hate logic and believe that consistency is for fools (and you may even have a fun plot). However, you are likely to have a lot of unhappy readers (and a few angry ones). Not all readers insist on logical consistency but many in fantasy and science fiction genres do.

As a reader, I’m not a zealot (in that I don’t go to great lengths to try to find logical inconsistencies in books I read). But I am like most fantasy readers in that obvious issues simply distract me from the story and take me out of the “fictive dream” (that state in which you are feeling and experiencing the story with the characters). And whether your genre is fantasy or any other sort of fiction, it’s a mortal sin for a writer to boot the reader out of this dream state. It’s what makes readers put books down for a minute… or indefinitely. Don’t do it.

As long as you keep the reader feeling and experiencing the story, other writerly sins will often be forgiven and forgotten. And an underlying sense of reality and consistency is crucial to keeping the reader engaged.

How does that apply to developing magical systems? Magic is supposed to be illogical, right?

Yes and no. Magic is supposed to go beyond science. You can rewrite the rules of science. But you must still have rules. Gravity is a “rule” that keeps us from floating away into space and the rules of magic keep the reader firmly on the ground in your fantasy world.

There are rules about what magic can and cannot do. You make the rules. Then you play by them. Make sure that if magic can’t do something in chapter one there is a darned good reason if it can do it in chapter eight (and visa versa). If you give your main character the ability to magically transport themselves, you’re going to have to give a good reason for how they get stuck in any dangerous situation that your plot requires. Why wouldn’t they just teleport themselves away? Whatever magic you give your characters they have to actually use it when in need, unless there are specific reasons why they can’t.  

In addition, if everyone can do magic in your fictional world, there must be a good reason if they don’t use it all the time (perhaps it is tiring or comes at some other price). If magic users can transform any substance or creature into another substance or creature, your magic users should never be poor. They could just transform dirt into gold. In fact gold would be as worthless as dirt. In a world with lots of transformation magic, no one should be hungry. But make sure you know if any magical transformations are permanent or not. Eating bread that turns back into rocks after an hour might be a bad idea.

So, consistency is good.

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

But… too much consistency can be a problem. If every use of magic always works exactly the same and is always successful, you’ll be giving up a great source of suspense for your plot. It often works best if magical ability isn’t absolute or well understood by the characters and magic doesn’t always work. This adds conflict, suspense and interest to the story. But again, the author must understand why the magic works in some instances and not in others, even if the characters are dismayed and confused.

Another common logical blunder occurs when writers set up the belief that magic takes a lifetime to learn. Magic users are invariably very old in such tales, until the main character arrives (usually an adolescent) who is supposed to learn magic. But the adolescent usually masters magic in a matter of weeks or months and soon exceeds the abilities of his or her teachers. This isn’t just a tired plotline. It’s also a logical inconsistency. David Eddings actually pulled this off in his Belgariad series, but it wasn’t nearly so tired a plotline when he did it (and his version is still among the best).

More importantly, he dealt with the logical inconsistencies. First, the talented adolescent was the answer to a prophecy and expected to be far stronger in magic than everyone else. Second, it did take him a few years (not weeks) to get to be really good. Third, the reason most magic users were ancient was that the talent for magic in Eddings’ world is exceedingly rare, so by the time the main character was born all the other magic users had grown very old. And fourth, even when the amazingly strong adolescent had come into his power, he still needed to consult with his technically weaker but more experienced teachers on a lot of issues, so it was still clear that he was strong but inexperienced.

Magic should not be THE key to the plot

Here’s an interesting irony for you. Fantasy must have some sort of magic to be fantasy and yet it isn’t a good idea to make magic the key to resolving your plot problem. The crux of fiction is a conflict or a problem that the main characters must solve. But fantasy writers shouldn’t just “magic away” the problem.

For example, if you have a young adventurer faced with an evil tyrant of great power in your story and the young adventurer must rescue someone, escape from somewhere, retrieve an important object or win a battle resulting in freedom from oppression (or one of the many other things that such adventurers do in fantasy books), it is inadvisable to simply say that your young adventurer learned a new magical skill and “bam!” the evil tyrant is sidelined or dead. This makes for a boring story and a poor ending, even if the rest of the plot is great.

Unlike most of the other rules in my code of magic, this one is often broken by commercial fantasy writers and sometimes stories that break this rule even have a moderate amount of success. However, you should note that the most successful fantasy does follow this rule. Harry Potter wins through moral fortitude, loyalty to friends and family and inner freedom of spirit, not because his patronus is just stronger. Frodo wins with only incidental use of magical items (like cloaks) by stamina, undergoing hardship and the final moral victory over the temptation of power.

The thing that makes these stories work is that the characters had to change in order to win. If Frodo had to climb Mount Doom on the first day of the Fellowship of the Ring, he would have failed. Harry Potter too. Maya Gardener in the second trilogy of the Kyrennei Series is frozen in fear in the beginning. It is only through many trials and experiences that she comes to choose her own path and stand up to aggression when it counts most.

That’s because magic, as important as it is to fantasy stories, cannot be “the magic bullet” of the plot. Magic is a tool in fantasy, but stories driven by changing characters facing obstacles with inner strength will always win the day.

When fantasy invades your reality: In search of a definition for urban fantasy

FantasyCon is more than half-way over and the challenge of introducing the sub-genres in a blog post has come round to...

Wait a minute. That can't be right...

Me?

I have been set a task by with wizards of FantasyCon--a quest that appears impossible at the outset—to define “urban fantasy” and make it stand out as a genre. But as with the heroines of all good fantasy I must give it my best shot.

Unlike those genres that can trace their lineage to Beowolf, this is a new phenomenon, having taken root in the 1990s. Among the authors who have staked the territory most clearly are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). And that diversity alone ought to give you some idea of the long odds on my quest.

It is often said that urban fantasy is simply urban, that its entire claim to fame is in the fact that it's set in cities and towns. But many other fantasy stories are set in cities past and present, and that doesn’t make such stories “urban fantasy.” Most urban fantasy is based in an industrialized or post-industrial setting and as a natural consequence it is mostly urban (because so is most of the population in such societies). And yet sometimes the story is about the fact that characters are forced out of the urban world to hide in what is left of the wilderness.

So, I’ll take another tack here. Urban fantasy isn’t only about setting. It’s a contemporary and urban form of mundane fantasy. The excellent genre-definition site bestfantasybooks.com defines “mundane fantasy” by saying it will not satisfy readers who primarily want to escape from mundane reality. Instead, “if perhaps you want to find a bit of fantasy within the mundane, maybe this sub-genre will be for you.”

And that is where urban fantasy shines. Of all fantasy genres, urban fantasy is the most close to home. A good urban fantasy tale should send shivers down your spine and make you think reality might just change the next time you step outside your door. It should cause you to look at the impassive faces on the subway during your morning commute and think, “Yes, I can see where it comes from.” It should hint that something inexplicable could happen at any moment in a banal industrial cityscape. It should transform the alleyways of a small, ordinary town into a setting for the terrible and wondrous.

In short, if high fantasy let’s you escape from your life while you read, urban fantasy captures you and invades your thoughts even when you are not reading.

Most urban fantasy is set on earth in modern or nearly modern times. It often either begins with a character who believes they live in the mundane world or with a character who must hide magic from those who don’t know about it. Its setting is important because it should mirror something very real and familiar in order to draw the reader into a web of “what if” questions that render the fantasy eerily plausible.

While all children know that Harry Potter’s magic isn’t real, they love the idea that a magical world is hiding in the city streets all around them, that a secret world could be just between the railway platforms or out the back of a local bookshop. And urban fantasy isn’t just for children and young adults.

Another way that some have tried to pigeonhole urban fantasy has been to say that it is shallow and lacking in social substance. This comes from a few popular associations but often they are misleading and belong as much to other genres as they do to urban fantasy. And look again even at Harry Potter. It may be a children’s series but the social and moral commentary run deep beyond what is usually preached at children.

Urban fantasy may not be famous for attacking huge societal issues or epic struggles yet, but I believe this is only because the other side of urban fantasy, where it connects with sci-fi fantasy, social sci fi and dystopian genres has been insufficiently explored. The defining factor in urban fantasy is its ability to seep into the reader’s world rather than forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. It poses a danger to those who have difficulty separating fantasy and reality because it mixes the two so well. It is no surprise that many urban fantasy narratives include an urban bookstore as a crucial location, given that bookstores are one place we can guarantee readers frequent. It is therefore easy for the urban fantasy writer to grab the reader’s reality with such a setting and slurp them down the rabbit hole.

Urban fantasy has the potential to be a deep literary and social genre precisely because of how it intersects with reality. There’s a wealth of possibility to explore in this sub-genre. It is a new genre and as such its depths have yet to be explored. The bestfantasybooks.com definition reads, “Urban Fantasy doesn't play by the rules.”

Join me at Virtual FantasyCon

Friday, November 6 is Urban Friday at Virtual FantasyCon, the online convention that brings all the awesomeness of the fantasy freak fests of old to the comfort of your own screen. I'll be there hosting a game where you come up with and solve fantasy-related rhyming riddles to win an Amazon gift certificate. Join me for some light and relaxing fun to round out your Friday.