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WriteTip: What Is Voice and How To Use It

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 5:

What Is Voice?

Voice is a combination of the character viewpoints and your own. While it is important to avoid jarring readers out of the story by intruding too much as the narrator, inevitably your own unique way of saying things will always come through. And it should. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass explains that when editors talk of voice, “they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other.” Voice is your unique writing language and approach, reflecting your own diction and style along with that of the characters. Maass adds: “You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique style… To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free.” Voice is indeed the single most unique thing any writer brings to their storytelling.
The best way to develop your voice is to read thoughtfully a lot. Pay attention to and study what other writers are doing that you like and don’t like, then imitate it. Practice writing in their various voices, and play around to develop your own. What stands out about a particular voice? What types of details do they tend to use most often, and how do they affect you as a reader? What do they say about the world and characters? If you want to be a good writer, you must read. All too many writers make the excuse that they don’t have time to read. I read a book or two a week and still hit 1,300 words a day on average when on a book project. If you make it a priority, it will happen, and consider it part of your work research and author development time. It really is that valuable. Not only can you stay abreast of the latest trends and shifts in genres and subgenres, but you will discover much about what works and doesn’t in fiction that will be invaluable to you in developing your own craft—especially voice and style.
Let’s look at examples from two classic books which I borrow from Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel II. First, from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia white skin—the skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils, and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Okay, let’s examine what all we learn here. First, we learn what Scarlet looks like in many details and that she is not considered beautiful but is charming. We learn of her French and Irish parentage as well. Additionally, we learn of the Southern attitudes toward pale skin and beauty. So there is appearance, heritage, and cultural context all in a few sentences of very specific details. These are the kinds of details that give the voice authority, and while the voice is neutral and not passing judgments, its melodramatic tone does aid the tone of the larger story.
Next, here’s a passage from Stephen King’s Carrie:

Momma was a very big woman, and she always wore a hat. Lately her legs had begun to swell and her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes. She wore a black cloth coat with a black fur collar. Her eyes were blue and magnified behind rimless bifocals. She always carried a large black satchel purse and in it was her change purse, her billfold (both black), a large King James Bible (also black) with her name stamped on the front in gold, a stack of tracts secured with a rubber band. The tracts were usually orange, and smearily printed.

Note the feel of sarcastic or ironic tone to this narrative voice. There are rich details, but the tone lends almost a sense of commentary to the descriptions. “Her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes” is a very specific detail that evokes an immediate image of fat feet crammed into too-small shoes, and the clothing and accessories are big and stand out to match the big woman and make her stand out, intentional or not. We also see she is a Christian or at least a Bible reader, and the public display of this, along with her size, makes her come across as foreboding, even perhaps a bit serious or intimidating. These kinds of subtle details are vivid and memorable and create characters who readily reflect the complex people we meet in the world around us, making the author’s voice ring with truth that inspires confidence in its telling of the story.
In his stunning debut Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, Michael Connelly introduces his main narrative voice and protagonist with a flashback dream that tells us volumes about the character without stating it outright:

Harry Bosch could hear the helicopter up there, somewhere above the darkness, circling up in the light. Why didn’t it land? Why didn’t it bring help? Harry was moving through a smoky, dark tunnel and his batteries were dying. The beam of the flashlight grew weaker every yard he covered. He needed help. He needed to move faster. He needed to reach the end of the tunnel before the light was gone and he was alone in the black. He heard the chopper make one more pass. Why didn’t it land? Where was the help he needed? When the drone of the blades fluttered away again, he felt the terror build and he moved faster, crawling on scraped and bloody knees, one hand holding the dim light up, the other pawing to keep his balance. He did not look back, for he knew the enemy was behind him in the black mist. Unseen, but there, and closing in.

When the phone rang in the kitchen, Bosch immediately woke…
Note the mixture of narrative description with inner thoughts that provide emotional context for what the character is experiencing. When he thinks, “Why didn’t it land? Why didn’t it bring help?” we suddenly know he is feeling afraid or in trouble, when all we have been told before this is that he heard the helicopter. This sets the emotional tone and tension for what follows. The “smoky, dark tunnel” as setting lends an air of danger to it that just adds to the tension, and his dying flashlight, which the comment on batteries tells us before the word “flashlight” is even introduced, also ups the stakes. Who hasn’t been afraid in the misty dark with a dying flashlight? No mention is made of fear or terror until the helicopter has appeared for the third time and he is then crawling, his knees in pain, desperate to escape the dark. This shows how the right details, ordered carefully, can create a whole atmosphere, tone, and ambience that indicates so much more than actually needs to be said, demonstrating how a character’s own experiences and background affect and interplay with what he or she is experiencing in the immediate moment of the story scene.
If this isn’t how you read, then you should start, because this is how one reads and studies the craft. It will transform your reading into work at times, for sure, but if you don’t pay attention to such details, a good book will catch you up and breeze you away without helping you notice the stylistic choices that make up the voice so you can think about them as you develop your own voice or voices. I say “voices” because most writers have more than one and employ them as needed in different genres and books or stories that they write. Few writers have only one voice, but again, it takes time to develop the voices and write in them with confidence, because none of your narrative voices will ever be completely you at any point as you naturally converse or think in the world. All of them are amalgamations of character and author, affected by considerations of diction, tone, and more. Your fiction will always take on a personality of its own, and it should do so well. That personality is not you nor is it just a character, but a combination of them.
One thing narrators can do that characters and authors cannot is legitimize character and world by showing the characters’ emotional reactions to various circumstances and actions they experience. The narrative voice can speak as if it knows them intimately and cares deeply about them or loathes them, depending upon the needs of the situation. It can legitimize their pain and anger or characterize it as unusual or inappropriate in ways that will guide the reader’s own opinions and impressions and guide them along in how they connect with the story. In Voice and Style, Johnny Payne writes: “The narrating voice provides a more sensible and level-headed account than the character’s simply because its passions are not engaged in the flow of the action in the same way.” Unlike the character, the narrator doesn’t have anything to lose or gain. They don’t have to worry about the reactions of other characters or consequences for its thoughts or actions. They can merely observe, comment, and hover like a ghost. Of the difference between first- and third-person narration, Payne reminds us: “Third-person narrators tend to offer more range and elicit fewer questions, while first-person narrators, even when they’re volatile, offer the advantage of a more immediate and tangible voice.” This is because the first-person “I was” lends itself to a feel of being closer to events and actions in the story than the third-person “he was.” The first is talking about itself and the third about some stranger, removed from the self.
The voice is key to setting atmosphere and tone by its word choices. It can layer a mood over any scene just by how it describes the events and characters as the scene unfolds. The wellspring here is character emotions grounded objectively in the setting. Authors should not engage in atmospherics or hysterics. That kind of melodrama should instead flow from the characters themselves. Description should never be written for its own sake but should serve the characters and story always, every time. This is how the writer guides the storytelling without inserting himself or herself directly into it. Tone always flows from who is telling the story, whereas point of view flows from character. The author brings the tone, the character brings the point of view, and the two combine and unify into one narrative voice that sets forth the story dramatically, weaving the emotional tone, atmosphere, etc. necessary to engage readers and tell the story with the appropriate gravitas and effect. The impression your story makes, Payne reminds us, “will depend to a large degree on the tone established at the beginning and sustained throughout the performance.” This is why sometimes reviews note changes in tone that render novels less effective or troubled. Consistency in tone is very important to readers and their experience of receiving a story.
Ultimately, if you set the proper tone and maintain it, providing the right details to gain confidence from your reader, your main responsibility as a writer is then to ensure you honor the author–reader contract, making all the details and emotions of the story pay off rewardingly for readers.

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Slickly produced by Blackstone Audio, it has different narrators for each of the 17 stories, all original to this volume, including a direct sequel to. PREDATOR 2, and sequels to tie-in novels by Tim Lebbon and Steve Perry plus many more. Not sure how long this will last, may be limited quantities, but grab it while you can and enjoy!

WriteTip: The Difference Between Showing and Telling Explained

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 5:

We’ve all heard the saying “Show, don’t tell.” Description and settings are the most common area where this problem arises. Telling is just stating things in passive and direct ways. Showing involves describing key details so they unfold like a movie before our mind, and we get the message without it having to be just stated outright. These key details evoke empathy in us so that we experience what the character experiences in a way that just telling us doesn’t accomplish. Visceral descriptions evoke readers’ emotions and memories in a unique way. This is why “show, don’t tell” is so oft repeated that it almost sounds cliché. The key is to tell as little as possible and show as much as possible. Sometimes, you just need to tell readers a few bits of backstory or facts to get them out of the way quickly. In short bits, this is fine and very effective. But around that, we need you to show us the story so the prose unfolds almost like a movie in our minds as we read, drawing us into the book and connecting us with the world and characters in a way that makes us care and want to read on. That’s what showing versus telling is all about.
In essence, it comes down to the difference between scene and narrative. Narrative is the writer telling the tale by providing all the information directly. Scene is a dramatic structure that involves dialogue, action, beginning, middle, and end, characters, and drama. Every scene contains some narrative, but narrative alone does not constitute a scene. Narrative passages tend to use weak verbs, expository language, and nonvisceral point-by-point description of what is going on, what readers need to know. Scene uses visceral cues to show and imply emotions, state of mind, motivations, and more while also playing out actions and dialogue dramatically. The best writing does both, combining them effortlessly into a larger whole.
In her book Description, Monica Wood offers two great examples demonstrating the difference:
Telling/Narrative: Alice was a timid young woman who looked like a mouse. She was short and skinny, with brown hair, small eyes, and a pointed face. She always peeked inside a doorway before entering a party, thus giving herself a chance to flee in case she saw no one she knows.

Showing/Scene: Alice hovered at the door of Everett’s apartment, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered inside, shrinking at the loudness of Everett’s new stereo. She breathed quickly, her black eyes darting back and forth, as if keeping her face in motion might prevent her from toppling over. When she finally spotted the wide-grinning Everett approaching, she scurried to the punch bowl, her flat shoes making a scratching sound on the polished wood.

Did you notice how much more information is imparted in the second example and how it interacts with your imagination differently, stimulating your emotions, raising questions that draw you in, and hinting at aspects missing from the flatter narrative approach? Instead of just stating that she looked inside a party to see if she knew anyone, we experience what that is like for her as she does it, sharing her emotions and thoughts, experiencing her approach. The key is to let the characters reveal themselves through their words and deeds as much as possible. Showing too much can overwhelm readers’ senses, but telling too much fails to engage them, so the richest prose combines the two seamlessly by choosing carefully what to dramatically play out and what to provide quickly in exposition. In either case, writers should avoid using great gobs of text and instead spread them out a few lines or words at a time. Every time you stop to describe or exposit something, the pace slows or stops, and the dramatic tension drops. Using a combination of internal monologue and external dialogue and action with exposition, the story unfolds naturally and effectively while holding readers’ interest, each scene leading to the next, and each page demanding that they keep turning to find out where it goes from here.
How do you know when to use scene and when to use narrative? When action is required, scene is the best approach. You want to evoke empathy by revealing telling (significant and insightful) details about the characters and world as the plot unfolds dramatically. Every story will require a different combination. When you need to quickly impart key information that characters know and readers need to understand the story going forward, then telling comes into play. This can be done in expository description either as direct narrative or internal monologue. Either way, as you will learn in the the next chapter, the goal of viewpoint is to let readers experience the story through the eyes of the characters rather than the eyes of the author. Essential to this are descriptions that regularly employ the impressions of the character’s five senses.

My Top 15 Favorite Writing Books & Why (In No Particular Order)

Today, I thought I’d list the 15 writing books I find most helpful to my writing and teaching writing and offer a little explanation as to why. Hopefully some of these are useful and helpful to you. I am doing these in no particular order of priority, but instead based on how they fit with each other.

The first 8 are part of an excellent Writer’s Digest series called ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING. These are by no means all of the books in that series. All of them are excellent, but these 8 are the ones I have referred to most often myself.

  1. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Nancy Kress — Kress takes you through not only the importance of these three pieces of any good story but also the hows and whys of writing them in a very organized and useful way.
  2. Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card — Excellent examination of building characters that spring to life and dealing with points of view.
  3. Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing) by William Noble — No good story can exist without conflict, action, and suspense, and Noble tells you what they are, how to write them, and why they matter succinctly.
  4. Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica A. Wood — one area I had the most to learn when I became a novelist. And Wood expertly helps you learn the hows, whys, and wherefores.
  5. Dialogue (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Lewis Turco — Dialogue has always been one of my strengths (or so I was always told) but this book helps examine things like etymology, accents, and more which go beyond just good every day dialogue.
  6. Plot (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Ansen Dibell — A key resource on an essential tool for any writer and something most books live or die on: plotting.
  7. Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack W. Bingham — An excellent how to.
  8. Voice & Style (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Johnny Payne — Wanna know the difference? Wanna develop your own? Look no further. Truly eye opening.
  9. Checking on Culture by Lee Killough — A tiny little tome about a huge subject that just nails it. Her checklist alone is indispensable. Not to be missed.
  10. How To Write A Breakout Novel by Donald Maass/The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass — Technically two books like the next entry, these two are by one of the most successful literary agents in the business and give you real insight into what editors and agents look for and what you need to write a sellable book.
  11. How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey/How To Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey — Two books by a top author and teacher which examine key elements of successful novels, different areas are covered in each book. Essential reading.
  12. On Writing by Stephen King — If you don’t know King, this book gives you insight into his background as a person and his approach to writing. It’s incredibly useful as a writing tool and resource in addition to being a damn compelling autobiography.
  13. Screenplay by Syd Field — The essential book on 3 Act story structure, indispensable for novelists and screenwriters alike. This one was key reading in Hollywood for decades.
  14. The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman — The one writing book I never write without, this one helps you nail the internal and external and mental signs of various emotions so well, you can describe them without ever mentioning the emotion. I use it daily while writing.
  15. The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand — The single best revision and editing book I have ever read. Like Killough, it is deceptively slim, but every word counts and it will revolutionize how to revise and edit your own work. Essential.

So those are my Top 15 Writing Books and briefly why. What are yours? For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: A Trick Every Writer Should Know About Writing Scenes (In Medias Res)

When I went to screenwriting school, the key thing they taught us about writing scenes was a concept called in medias res: to enter a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible after that. Forget the niceties. None of this:

Bob walked in the room to find Guy sitting on the couch, chilling.

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

Guy shrugged, not even glancing over. “Nothing. You?”

“Meh. Me either.”

No. You’d better have something more interesting. We can assume they’re nice, normal people but we don’t need to see their mundane, routine, room entering banter to prove it.  Show us that and you’ve lost our interest. Why? We can see that every day. And when  you write it out, it’s quickly apparent how boring our lives have become.

Instead, you want to start with as dramatic a spot as possible.

           “Why am I here?” Hachim choked out. Sweat dripped off the arms of the chair as it soaked through his robe. After twenty minutes alone in the interrogation room, he looked like he’d fallen into a lake. Tarkanius and Aron shook their heads, and Aron was thankful he wasn’t present for the odor. They watched through the one way glass as the Major Zylo stopped across the table from the sweaty Lord, staring at him.

            “You know why you’re here,” Zylo said.

            Hachim coughed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

            “So you always sweat this much when you’re innocent?”

            Hachim grabbed the towel Zylo tossed across the table at him and began wiping the exposed flesh of his face, brow, neck and arms. “It’s hot in here.”

            “I’m perfectly comfortable.” Zylo sat in the seat across from him and leaned back, watching as the Lord cleaned himself. “You’re gonna need a new robe.”

Are you hooked yet? I hope so. This scene should be a lot more interesting. If not, go back to your boring life. I hope you’re very happy there.

The difference between scene 1 and scene 2 is that when scene 1 starts, nothing is happening. The characters aren’t even all that interesting. In scene 2, the drama has started before we’re allowed in the room. Hachim’s already sweating, Zylo’s already hostile. It’s obvious right away Hachim is guilty of something, at least as far as Zylo’s concerned, and Zylo intends to get to the bottom of it. We’d like to as well. To me, this illustrates well the craft of getting into a scene as late as possible. Something interesting is already happening. No wasted space. No chit chat.

Now let me show you the rest of the scene so we can talk about point two: getting out as soon after.

  “What is this about? You have no right to detain me without cause!”

            Zylo nodded, then slid a datapad across the table, watching as Hachim set down the towel and began to read.

            “Conspiracy? Assassination?” Hachim’s eyes darted up from the screen. “I had nothing to do with it.”

            “You knew about it.”

            Hachim shook his head. “If you could prove it, you’d have already arrested me.” He smiled smugly.

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

            Hachim’s eyes raced to finish the charges. “What about it?” Hachim slid the datapad back across the table and shot him a confused look that wasn’t very convincing.

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

            “I have clearance, trust me. I’m on the security team.”

            Hachim hesitated, then melted under Zylo’s stare. “Idolis.”

            Zylo shook his head. “Buzz! Wrong answer. And it was all over the news.”

            “So? I am not the only person privy to that.” Hachim leaned back in his chair, attempting to appear bored, but Aron saw the fear in his eyes. And Zylo saw it, too.

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

            Hachim looked at him again, startled. “What?”

            Zylo nodded, smirking. “Each Lord was given a different location.”

            Hachim frowned. “A different location? They can’t hold the Summit in more than one place…” His voice trailed off as the implications sank in. Zylo raised a brow as their eyes met. “Lies? A trap?”

            “A security precaution. How many people did you tell?”

            Hachim shook his head. “No, I’m innocent. I’m not going to tolerate this abuse.” Slowly, he stood from his chair and took a step toward the door.

            Zylo shoved Hachim back into the chair. “Sit down and start answering.” Hachim looked offended at the treatment. Zylo wasn’t even phased. “Now!”

            Aron looked at Tarkanius, wondering if it were time for them to join the interrogation. Tarkanius shook his head. “No. Let him suffer.”

            “Then their fate will be yours.” Zylo shrugged and turned to casually stroll toward the door. Hachim’s eyes widened.

            “It was Niger’s idea,” Hachim began. Zylo turned back as Hachim’s shoulders sank with his weight in the chair.

Can you see how fast it moves? And the whole thing is fairly dramatic. In fact, you don’t even get to know what he tells him. Why? Because talk is boring. It’s more interesting to show that in the scenes that follow. In context, this opens Chapter 12 in my forthcoming novel The Returning, so readers will actually know more coming into it than you did. They’ll know, for example, that Hachim has been betraying his trust as a public servant. That people’s lives are at risk if he’s leaked the data as suspected. People we care about’s lives. Still, it illustrates my point well. It’s tight. It’s dramatic. It sets up the character’s relationship quickly. The characters are revealed through action and dialogue. There’s tight pace. And it holds your interest. Plus, even both pieces combined, it’s short. In late, out early.

Try it. Not only will your pacing automatically be better. Your readers are likely to turn pages faster. And your writing is even going to be more fun. Yes, this is an interrogation scene. But you can do the same thing with any scene where there’s conflict, and, frankly, most of the time, if you scene doesn’t have conflict, you shouldn’t be writing it. Seriously. Conflict is the heart of good fiction. If you don’t have conflict at the heart of a scene, find a way to dismiss it with a couple quick telling sentences and skip to the next dramatic moment. Your readers will thank you for it.

In any case, that’s how you get in late, and get out early. I hope it helps you improve your craft. Feel free to comment, ask questions, dialogue about it. I won’t bite…well, then, part of the dramatic tension is your not knowing for sure if that’s true. For what it’s worth…

Upcoming Releases-2019

I am overdue letting you all know about what I have in the works. This is partially because plans are still somewhat fluid, but also because I have been waiting until I knew more to share it. I think the time has come.

I have had several novels on the traditional submission pool for the past four years and while they get positive praise for their writing quality and page turning elements, publishers keep turning them down because they don’t know how to market them. Meanwhile, I continue to struggle financially and mentally with the frustration of seeing my career stalled.

No more.

Starting in October and November, I am going to begin self-publishing at least two, maybe three, novel series at a rate of one book every four months. These books will be available through a small imprint (still being determined if it is mine or an established small press) in both print and ebook and online via Amazon and other outlets.

So far, the blurbs and reviews are overwhelmingly positive for the first book: SIMON SAYS, which launches my John Simon procedural thrillers about a tough, Luddite Kansas City cop who’s forced to team with a humanoid android to solve his partners murder. Together they uncover a conspiracy that stretches across the ocean and deep within the KCPD itself. I describe it as Asimov’s City of Steel meets Connelly’s Bosch meets Lethal Weapon.

SIMON SAYS will be out October 15th from Boralis Books in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. A sequel, THE SIDEMAN, will follow next February.

Also releasing this month is my next entry in the INFINITE STARS: Definitive Space Opera And Military Science Fiction anthology series from Titan Books.

INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS contains a mix of new and reprint stories by George R.R. Martin, Becky Chambers (a new Wayfarers tale), Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Campbell (a new Lost Fleet tale), Tanya Huff (a new Confederation tale), Seanan McGuire, Olson Scott Card (a new Ender tale), Neal Asher, David Weber, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller (a new Liaden tale), E.E. “Doc” Smith, Kevin J. Anderson (a new Seven Suns tale), Susan R. Matthews, Brenda Cooper, Curtis Chin (a new Kangaroo tale), Larry Niven & Steven Barnes (a new Dream Park tale), CJ Cherryh, David Farland, Weston Ochse (a new Grunt tale), Mike Shepherd (a new Kris Longknife tale), CL. Moore, Gardner Dozois, James Blish, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Alan Dean Foster. The new stories in existing popular series are noted.

INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS releases in hardcover and ebook on November 6, 2019 wherever books are sold.

That’s it for 2019, but as mentioned, more to come throughout 2020 starting in February. I hope you will put them on your shopping lists.

WriteTip: 8 Things You Must Know About A Character To Write Them Well

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

Readers want your characters to seem like real people, whole, alive, believable, and worth caring about. People become, in our minds, what we see them do, so first thing first, your character is what he or she does.
But just seeing what someone does isn’t enough in good storytelling. To truly know a person, we need to understand their inner self, their motives. Motive is what gives moral value to their actions. And what a character does, no matter how good or bad, is never morally absolute. A character is what he or she means to do, but we all make mistakes, we all have flaws. So, the intention they have and the ideal they desire to be and will become by the end of your story is even more important. Even if their motive is concealed from readers for much of the book, as often is the case with the antagonist, and even if they themselves are not always certain what is driving them due to some psychological trauma or issue, you need to know their motive clearly as you write, and they need to have one.

Here are some key things you need to know about your characters to write them well:
Their Name—This may seem obvious. But every once in a while, you get some person who thinks they are clever and decides to write a mysterious unnamed character. This is very hard to pull off and poses and number of problems, but even if you try it, you still need to know their name. Names tell us lots about a person, from their background and history to ethnicity, culture, age, and more. A name is invaluable to helping know your character and to helping readers know them as well.
Their Past—Our past, however we might revise it in memory, is who we believe we are. It shapes our image of ourselves.
Their Reputation—Characters are also restricted and affected by what others think of and expect of them. How are they known? Who do others think they are?
Their Relationships—Who is important to them? Who do they love? Who do they have relationships with that are good, and who do they have bad relationships with and why? And how does this affect their motives and actions and their self-perception? Not all of these relationships will be used in the story or appear on screen, so to speak, but they are part of who the character is and is becoming and what drives them, so you need to know them.
Their Habits and Patterns—Habits and patterns imply things about a person. From personal tics to emotional patterns, we form our expectations based on these characteristic habits that suggest how they will behave in any given situation; often these traits communicate unspoken things about the character’s state of mind, emotions, and more. Many story possibilities can emerge from these. And they make the character seem more well-rounded and realistic because every real person we know has these aspects if we take time to study them.
Their Talents and Abilities—Talents do not have to be extreme to make them a part of a character’s identity or even important to their fate. But what they do well and don’t do well does matter to us, to them, and to those around them, and also to how they take action and respond to the world around them throughout the story.
Their Tastes and Preferences—Someone can like all the same things you do and still not be someone you want to spend time with or would trust to care for your pets or kids. Tastes and preferences tell us a lot about someone while also opening story possibilities and potential conflicts that can help drive the story and build characters and relationships.
Their Appearance—What color are their eyes? Do they have any handicaps? What color is their hair? These are not characterization alone, but they add depth and they can affect self-esteem and how characters are perceived by readers and by other characters, so they matter.

In filling out a character profile that identifies all these characteristics, observe people you know. Think about people you have seen and encountered. What stands out about them? What annoyed you? What did you love? And can any of these things be used to make a real, interesting, dimensional character?

There are three questions readers will ask that must always be considered. And they expect good answers at some point to hold their interest. In fact, your honeymoon with readers lasts only a few paragraphs, so you must constantly keep such questions in mind.

  1. Why should I care about what’s going on in the story?
  2. Why should I believe anyone would do that?
  3. What’s happening?

Fail to answer these questions at your own peril. It may sound harsh, but do your job and it will almost never be an issue. Uncertainties can be part of storytelling, but even intentional uncertainties must be clear, so readers will know you meant it to be that way and continue to trust you to pay it off later. Trust between reader and author is key to any novel’s success. As always, you need to know a lot more about your characters than readers may need for understanding the present story. Some of this stuff may never get written directly into your book, but knowing it may profoundly impact how you write your character and will be very useful in keeping clearly in mind who they are and how they move through the world and interact with it.

Call For Street Team

STREET TEAM: A street team is a term used in marketing to describe a group of people who ‘hit the streets’ promoting an event or a product. 

Some of you know I am starting to self-publish a series of thriller novels for various reasons. The first in those, SIMON SAYS, Book 1 in my John Simon series, will release in mid-October. SIMON SAYS is about John Simon, a tough Luddite detective in 2029 Kansas City who’s forced to team with a humanoid android to find his partner’s killers. A mix of Isaac Asimov’s CITY OF STEEL with Michael Connelly’s BOSCH and LETHAL WEAPON, the book is a fast-paced, action packed, gritty story with a bit of humor mixed in.

As part of launching this new enterprise, I am looking for fans who will read the books early and post reviews upon release (preferably to multiple sites) as well as spread word of mouth. These fans will comprise my Street Team. In exchange, you get the book and other opportunities for MeetNGreets and special bonus content and giveaways as opportunities arise.

If you are interested in joining, please contact me here. I look forward to hearing from you. With gratitude.

Write Tip: How To Register Copyright For Your Prose

NOTE: This is a reprint of an old post which wasn’t a WriteTip but should be. Still relevant. Hope it’s useful.

In the current climate of instant everything, protecting your work is important. Anything you post online or email to a friend could potentially be stolen. So how do you protect yourself? One important method for serious creatives is by copyright. Now copyrighting is handled by the Library of Congress a Federal agency. It’s not the best approach in all cases, because it’s not inexpensive. At a cost of $35-65 per written work, that can really add up. But it does provide security. By law, copyrights last the author’s lifetime plus 50 years and can be renewed indefinitely by legal heirs. You’re also listed and a copy kept on file in the archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. which can be used as evidence in legal proceedings should you face the misfortune of having to sue to protect your intellectual property. So there are advantages to this but it may not be right for you in every case.  Much information can be found on the Library of Congress sites at www.loc.gov and www.copyright.gov.

By law, Copyright exists from the moment of creation. So protections are already in place under the law. However, registration of copyright can be important in providing stronger proof and enabling you to sue for more damages in the case of infringement. This post examines how to go about officially registering a copyright claim and when it might be a good idea to do so.

How To Determine If Copyright Registration Is Necessary:

1) Is your creative work at risk?  If you post it online, the answer is yes. If you turn it in as a class assignment, the answer may be no. Most professors would never violate your copyright. And in most cases, when you are first learning, school work isn’t going to have serious potential for marketing. So the likelihood of your work being stolen and distributed is pretty minor. What is the intended audience and how is the work being distributed? If your work is really at risk, then copyright may be a good idea.

2) What is the type of prose? If it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction on a significant topic, copyright is wise. But how do you know it’s significant? What’s the subject? If it’s scientific with unique contributions to the study of the topic, involves a subject of great interest (celebrities, political issues, religion, etc.), then perhaps it’s worth copyrighting. Some raw scribbles, probably not. It’s up to you to determine and in this day and age, caution should be the watch word, but do use wisdom.

3) Do you own it? If your work is a work for hire, you have no right to claim it. A work for hire is a creative work instigated by someone else but created by you on their behalf. In most cases, your contract stipulates that they own all rights. If not, that should be worked out. If you are writing technical manuals for a product owned by a company, the copyright will belong to them. If you are creating something original from your own mind for them, that’s another question. But you must own a work to claim the copyright. If your work is derivative of another property, such as a Star Trek tie-on novel, you likely cannot copyright it. If you can, you can only copyright the original portions which were not previously created by the originator.

4) Is Your Work Valuable? If you are just an unknown person posting on a blog, putting copyright notice (c) on the blog itself should protect you. The law states that your copyright is owned by you the moment you publish the work and suggests putting appropriate notice. Registration through the Library of Congress is merely a formality for extra protection in court or legal matters. It’s a way to prove definitively that your claim is valid. If you are a celebrity or you work will be significantly distributed, then the chances are it will come to be of such value as needing extra protection.

Once you’ve determined that it’s appropriate to register a copyright, then you need to get the materials necessary together.

What You’ll Need:

1) A clean copy of your manuscript--Typed for clarity is best. And make sure it’s the version you want to protect. Do all editing and other adjustments. Formatting itself is not copyrighted, only content, so layout is not the concern, just the content itself. Also be sure and put your name, address, phone number and other relevant information, including a copyright notice on the work. Don’t put a date as that won’t be official until you actually file.

2) Form TX–the official copyright form, which can be found here: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formtx.pdf

3) A check or credit card–to pay the filing fee which is currently $35 online and $65 by mail.

4) A stamped envelope–if you intend to mail your submission.

Once the materials are ready, then you can file as follows:

 1) Fill out the appropriate form in detail. List all pertinent information as concisely and clearly as possible. Be sure and save a copy of the form for yourself in case it 1) gets lost in the mail; b) you need it for reference, etc.

2) Paperclip the form to your work and place in envelope. Mail it. No need for Priority, Registered or Express or tracking. All of these cost extra. You will get confirmation that it’s been received by mail when your copyright certificate arrives. However, if you have the money and want reassurance, you can pay for these as you wish.

To file online,

1) Find the Electronic Copyright Office online at: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/ and register yourself. Read the relevant information about acceptable file types, etc. When you are ready, fill out the form here: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-registration-steps.html

2)  Once the form is filled, attach your document. You will be prompted. Again, view the list of acceptable file types above to verify yours will be accepted in its present format.

3) Make electronic payment. This can be done online with credit or debit card or electronic check and you will be prompted.

4) Submit. Click the button to submit when you are finished.

Processing time can vary, and the Copyright Office site issues the following warning:

 The time the Copyright Office requires to process an application varies, depending on the number of applications the Office is receiving and clearing at the time of submission and the extent of questions associated with the application.

Like everything else in life and especially when dealing with government, you will have to wait, but you will receive a copy back of your registered form signifying recognition and acceptance of your claim with the official date of copyright. This can be kept in a safe deposit box or file.

That’s it. Allow a few weeks for a record of your copyright to be searchable in the Library Of Congress database.  But you can rest assured you will soon have a legally registered copyright protection for your work.

An example of a listing can be found here.   I own several copyrights to musical works as listed. Not everything under “Bryan Thomas Schmidt” is mine, however.

I hope his helps you better understand the copyright process.


How To Bring My Creative Writing Workshops To You

Recently, with the release of the Novel Writing Bootcamp videos from Inkitt and my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, I am finally getting the opportunity to do more writing workshops. I did one at San Diego Comic Con this year on story and scene structure (video coming soon) and I am starting to get invites from schools as well. Nothing is definite yet but I wanted to at least mention it’s available.

Workshops can be structured to suit your needs from the timeframe of the workshop to the content as well as the age of participants. Generally, I would like sample writing from participants in advance so that I can offer some practical feedback that will be directly useful and make the workshop more immediately effective in producing results, and when possible I try and get participants an ebook or print copy of How To Write A Novel as well.

Pricing will vary. At the very least I would want travel and expenses covered, including a reasonable per diem for meals, but whether I charge an appearance fee and how much depend upon circumstances and length of engagement. Obviously the time needed to prepare materials and lessons as well as travel and teach the workshop itself take me away from other income producing opportunities and while I wish I could just do them free, I’m not so successful that I am financially independent, so that is not an option at the moment. At the same time, I am not looking to get rich on these either. My primary goal is help people realize the possibilities for real success in their creative endeavors and help them further along the ladder to achieve it.

So if you or anyone you know of might be interested, please reach out to me via my Facebook page or the Contact link here at the website and let’s talk.

To check out a teaser video of my teaching or see examples of my panels, you can go here or search the blog or YouTube and easily find several. I look forward to hearing from you!

WriteTip: Using The Five Senses

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

Many of us are guilty of falling into the habit of using one or two senses and ignoring the rest. For most of us, sight is the dominant sense—the sense through which we first encounter and examine the world. So how things appear will dominate most narratives naturally, closely followed by sound. But we have five senses, and all have the power to bring useful imagery into your storytelling.

Good description employs all five senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing—and employs at least one every two pages, sometimes more. A few well-placed details can totally embody a character or place and make them come alive for the reader. And nothing takes us deep inside the character’s mind and experience like sensory details. All good settings are rich with detail, so you should have plenty to choose from. From the appearance and smells of a restaurant or grocery store or market to the touch and sounds of the outdoors to the taste of food, there are numerous opportunities to add color and vividness to your prose using these kinds of details.

Here are some suggestions for aspects of each sense to consider:

Sight—Color is usually one of the first things that comes to mind, but studies actually show that spatial dimensions tend to be picked up first by the brain. How large is the area? How high is the ceiling? After dimension, the source of light tends to be noticed next. What is lighting the scene, and what is its source—artificial or natural? Is it bright or white or mixed hues? Then, color impressions form. The dominant color tends to take on significance. Next comes texture, like shadows or rough and smooth surfaces, etc. Finally, there’s contrast. Superimposition of colors and other aspects affects how much objects, people, and places draw our attention.

Sound—Sound can be described by the loudness or complexity—simple or multiple sources—tonality (soft or hard, harsh or gentle, etc.), and the location of its source and distance from the hearer. Also, is the sound unknown or familiar?

Smell—While smells can be often overlooked by both writers and in real life, smell can reveal a lot. Is the odor pleasant or unpleasant? What emotions does it evoke—fear like smoke from a fire, or is it the steady everyday scent of vehicles, animals, or insects in the environment that almost goes unnoticed because it is so common?

Touch—How do things feel—rough or smooth, hot or cold, sharp or dull, etc.?

Taste—Does the character notice sweet or bitter, salty or acidic, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.?

If you’re like me, these kinds of details may not come naturally. So, I recommend two key resources that have really helped me up my game on writing sensory content. The Emotion Thesaurus by Pugliosi and Ackerman and Setting by Jack W. Bingham. These two resources are so invaluable, I often keep them with me on trips and beside me as I write and refer to them often, because writing such visceral descriptions is not first nature to me, and it can be very easy to fall into personal clichés and patterns that repeat the same details and descriptions over and over, which quickly becomes repetitive and glaring to readers. The authors also discuss body language and internal sensations, which can be described to show, not tell, the emotions of characters, the atmosphere of rooms, etc. Additionally, author David Farland describes this as the Kentic, Audio, Visual Cycle and offers useful tips on his website at https://mystorydoctor.com/the-kav-cycle-part-1/.

Sensory experiences and emotions evidence themselves in three ways: internal sensations, external sensations, and body language, and all three are important ways to describe them and help readers experience them too. For example:

Butterflies danced in her stomach as she entered the audition, and she fought to control her face as she took in the other dancers. There were famous faces she’d seen in numerous Broadway shows and performances. What was she doing here? She swallowed and licked her lips, which had suddenly grown parched. Her arm was twitching. She had to make it stop, but it wasn’t listening to her internal commands, so she shoved it tight against her side in an attempt to control it.

I don’t have to tell you she is nervous and intimidated. The descriptions do the work. This is what you are aiming for. If you are unsure about a particular smell or taste or even sound, Googling can provide impressions others have had of familiar things that can be adapted for your prose. I also recommend practicing by going to a mall or price club or anywhere else and sitting down to take notes of all the things your senses notice as they occur to you. This will give you practice not only at writing visceral (i.e., instinctive and emotional) details but also in noting how they naturally affect you and might also affect your characters.

You’ve probably deduced by now that description is the art of picking the right details at the right time. Stories are about movement, so be wary of stories where your characters reflect and remember a lot. Instead, action and discovery go hand in hand. As your characters go and do things, they discover sensory cues that provoke memories, emotions, and reactions and inspire further action. People move through life on two levels simultaneously: physical and emotional. Physical movement follows plot and events that unfold A, B, and C, while emotional movement follows character. The physical tends to move with the emotional. So meshing plot and character is the key, and good description is key to your ability to do that well. As Monica Wood writes in Description: “A story’s pace is controlled by the physical and emotional goings-on in the story, and those goings-on are controlled by description.”

Another element where description is especially important is context. Establishing the scope of a story can be vital to making it work, giving characters a scope in which to love and hate each other, to conquer or fall to adversity, discover or lose themselves. Context uses metaphors and symbols to reinforce emerging themes and organize the movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end. Wood writes: “The breadth of the story should dictate the breadth of the context.” Contextual details, small or large, reveal character and can serve to contrast with the story itself, adding power. The order in which details are noted can tell us much about a character’s values and priorities as well as how they view themselves in relation to those around them. Are they rich or poor? Powerful or weak? Confident or insecure? These details can reveal so much about them.

So, how do you choose which details to use and when? Well, that depends upon what you need the readers to know to understand and connect with the story at any given moment. Let’s look at an example from John Connolly’s Charlie Parker book A Song of Shadows:

The woman stank of cats and cookies, of piss and mothballs, but Cambion, whose sensory abilities had long been ruined by his disease, and who had grown used to the reek of his own decay, barely noticed it.

How do you not remember that? Ask yourself what you most notice about particular people, places, and things. What do you remember? What stands out about them? What did you notice first? What sticks with you most when you have been away from them awhile and remember? These are the beginnings of finding the most definitive choices to use in describing them because they hint at what stands out when you encounter those people, places, and things. Let’s look at another example from Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands:

Delicate, pale, with that pallor of romantic poets and gigolos, black hair slicked down with brilliantine and lots of perfume, a smile that was a combination of melancholy and allure, evoking a world of dreams, elegant in bearing and attire, with large, pleading eyes, the Prince would have to be described by very high-flown words: “marmoreal,” “wan,” “meditative,” “pulchritudinous,” “brow of alabaster and eyes of onyx.”

So much said with just a few words but very colorful, visceral, and intriguing because every word count. This is what good description is all about.

For what it’s worth…

Rumination On The Responsibility of Freedom Of Speech

One of our most cherished values, codified in our U.S. Constitution under the Bill of Rights, is freedom of speech. It’s covered in the First Amendment, under the same clause that establishes Freedom of Religion, and reads as follows:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Freedom of Speech is much bandied about and also established in other important rights documents, such as article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). For Americans, particularly creatives, it is our most sacred value, one evoked frequently—whenever one’s words might be criticized or objected to—and held close to the heart.

But one of the things people often forget about freedoms is that having a right doesn’t preclude one from the obligation to exercise said right responsibly. And more and more as we see politicians saying outrageous and untruthful things and mass shootings, hate group marches, etc. we are reminded that freedom of speech can have heavy consequences.

During the tragic shootings in El Paso last week, the Mayor of El Paso said something that really irritated me. In a press conference, and later interviews, he claimed that only an outsider could have done “something like this.” No El Paso native would do such a thing. Well, I lived in El Paso, and during that time I dealt with my ex-wife’s mental health crisis, so I was around the mental health and legal system a lot. I saw a lot. And I can tell you: that’s a dangerous promise. It’s creating false expectations that the Mayor may come to regret. I hope not. I hope El Paso and no other place has to face this again, but realistically, there will be other mass shootings. Even if laws are changed. And to claim that locals are not capable of violence or even mental illness on that scale (most mass murderers who have survived long enough to be examined thoroughly have been determined by experts to have antisocial personality disorder in various forms—a mental illness as defined by the American Psychiatric Association and other qualified bodies) is irresponsible and unwise. Sure, it makes him and his public feel better but it also promises something that may not turn out to be true and can certainly never be guaranteed. I certainly found El Paso to be a welcoming place. It s the only city I ever lived in where I, as a while male, was a minority. And I loved it for that. But racism existed there just like anywhere else. From the guy who once complained to me about “the browns taking all the jobs” seconds before I introduced him to my Latina wife (now ex) to people I heard complaining about illegals around me at restaurants, malls, etc., the reality is that not everyone embraces that diversity and this is Texas, a state with some of the most lenient of firearm laws in the U.S. So those people also celebrate their ability to conceal carry or own arsenals while at the same time objecting to browns. It is a recipe for problems, if not disaster, and with politicians using fiery rhetoric to rile up people with such worries, the Mayor would be wise not to appear to guarantee something he simply can’t.

I say all this not to pick on El Paso or its Mayor. I love that city despite the personal crisis I endured there. But I give it as an example of the importance of responsible use of freedom of speech. As with the flaming political rhetoric regularly employed by our current president (quite irresponsibly in many cases) and other politicians (in particular a young freshman senator from New York comes to mind), these kinds of exercise of free speech can have heavy consequences. They can incite people to action and not all of those actions in response will be positive or appropriate. Some may even be deadly. I think it is always important to weigh what we say, how we say it, when we say it, where, and about whom with thought to such consequences.

Even worse was Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson claiming white supremacy in America is a “hoax.” Ridiculous. And we’ve seen plenty of evidence of it from KKK and Neo-Nazi rallies in the past few years to the Michigan cop under investigation for materials found last week in his home. It is an utterly irresponsible thing to say, especially for a journalist with an audience of millions. It seems Fox has rightly sent Carlson on vacation. They oughta make it permanent, but I rather doubt they will.

Let me give you another example. The Twitter mobs. If anyone knows consequences it is the Twitter mob instigators. They employ tactics designed specifically to take advantage of consequences. Call someone a bigot or homophone or etc. and you will evoke a reaction: angry criticism of the target at the very least and sometimes even bigger consequences. People have been fired, had book publications cancelled, etc. It is one of the easiest things in the world to throw out these accusations and be confident they will undermine the credibility of your target. The problem is: they don’t even have to be true and often are not. More often they are exaggerated exploitations of someone’s unclear wording or statements taken out of context. The Twitter mob accusers know this and they don’t care. A friend of mine once asked one such person who had attacked me if they really believed I was all the things they accused me of being. The response was telling: “Who cares. He’s not one of us so anything goes.” For those of us watching the destructiveness that results, this should be unacceptable. Irresponsible exercise of Freedom of Speech at its core. Reprehensible even. An action solely designed to discredit and silence an opponent so the accuser can gain credibility at their expense. Ironically, the accuser can be lying and misrepresenting, but who cares about that?

I think all of us should. Don’t you? You certainly would if you were ever the target as some of these very online bullies have found out when they found their own mobs later turning on them.

When politicians go down to visit sites and report exaggerated claims about the awful conditions or situations they observed to manipulate public opinion and forward their agenda, how is that serving the public? How is that doing their jobs well any more than Twitter mobs slandering good people into silence and harm? Neither one serves to make society better if you ask me. Because the exercise of Freedom of Speech carries with it inherently a moral obligation to use it responsibly. And there’s the rub. All too many don’t fulfill this moral obligation. Argue what you will about different people having different moral standards, etc. The reality is that while we live in a world of grays—one all too many of us wish was more black and white, especially the morally outraged Twitter mobster—there remains a black and whiteness to basic rights and wrongs. Misrepresenting the truth to manipulate others is wrong. So is misrepresenting someone’s words to make them look bad or get them punished. If you poll people—and many have—the majority of the public agrees with this. But until the public starts fighting back against these kinds of abuses of Freedom of Speech, nothing will change. And that means the consequences for all of us will continue: divisiveness, anger, uncertainty about facts and what is fake or real, etc. Until we demand responsible Freedom of Speech from others and practice it ourselves religiously (so to speak), the gray haze of the world in which we live that so often makes people frustrated and unsettled will continue to hang over us.

And that’s why Freedom of Speech is so important. Not just because it gives us th right to say what we want but because it carries with it the consequences of doing so and those consequences should be considered before one opens one mouth. Until they are, Freedom of Speech may be our most cherished principle and right, but it will also be one of our most abused and dangerous ones. (Not that I’d give it up in a million years.)

At least that’s how I see it. For what it’s worth…

INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS Official TOC

Here’s the final Table of Contents for INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS, coming Nov. 6 from Titan Books.

WriteTip: What Is A Premise and What Makes It Good?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

The Premise

In his bestselling book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey describes a premise as “the E = mc2 of novel writing.” The premise, he contends, “is the reason you are writing what you are writing … the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.” He defines it as “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in a story.” Agent Donald Maass defines a premise as
any single image, moment, feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While you might say to yourself: What’s the big deal? A premise is an idea—a premise is so much more than that. Ideas are common. Original ideas are almost nonexistent these days. Everything’s been done. So, what makes your premise special is not the basic simple idea but the unique spin and angle you bring to it. A premise is as much in the execution and unique approach to a concept as it is the idea itself.

Again, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey compares a novel to an argument and writes: “The premise of an argument is a statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is a good one … the premise of a work of fiction is not provable or arguable in the real world … not a universal truth. In a novel, the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel. But nonetheless it is proven by all that leads to it. Your novel’s premise is the conclusion everything in your story leads to.”

In his bestseller Writing the Breakout Novel, mega-agent Donald Maass writes of a premise: “Not just any idea, though, but one with soil rich enough to grow a highly memorable novel; one that will both feed the author’s imagination, and, finally, nourish millions of readers.” An idea is not enough. It must be backed up by all the details of character, setting, conflict, and theme. It’s an idea with something unique and special to say, something we haven’t seen, told in a way we haven’t encountered that pops off the page. Maass calls it “a breakout premise,” implying that truly hit, breakout novels start with something special at their core. I’m sure we’d all love to write a hit novel that breaks out. So, what is it that makes “something special”?

First, a premise should describe an experience that is unusual, one not encountered by everyone, at least not firsthand. The experience also takes place in a vivid, wholly realized world that is compelling in its details and stands apart as unique yet real and fascinating on multiple levels.
Second, a premise should involve a character or characters who are larger-than-life, who talk, think, and act in ways not everyone does or can. These types of characters have a boldness, drive, and determination to pursue journeys we only dream about and take risks and actions we only wish we had the courage to take ourselves. In the process they undergo growth and changes we admire greatly, that inspire us, embolden us, and leave us breathless with admiration.

To create such a premise takes effort. It may not arrive fully formed right off the bat. Some great premises are discovered in the course of writing and discovering a story, but all successful writers learn to identify them and cling to them with all their might when they do. The best premises have the power to illuminate and confront, challenging our most deeply held beliefs, our hopes, our fears, our faith, even our very wills and nature. They engage readers’ imaginations and emotions and raise questions, hopes, fears, and more that have them yearning to turn the pages, cheer for the heroes, boo the villains, and reach the inevitable climactic confrontation that sets everything right again and resolves the mystery and uncertainty it evoked when it began.

Such a premise is so much more than just boy meets girl and falls in love or boy sets out to save the world. There’s something unique and special about the boy and the girl, what draws them together, where and how they come together, and why they are willing to fight for their love. The boy is someone special who believes he might actually save the world, after all. No ordinary Joe would dare undertake such a noble quest. It takes a certain level of courage, even determination, a refusal to surrender to insecurity and incredible odds, and an undeterred drive to keep going no matter what. I don’t know about you, but while I have met such people, I have found them to be few and far between. And those few-and-far-between people are the heart of good, successful stories. So, your premise requires one. Character is story. Story is character. Story flows from character. There really is no chicken or the egg question here about who came first. Who always leads into What.

So, to write your novel, you first need a really good idea with premise potential. You may not devise all the pieces before you write, but you must write looking for them to fall into place, and you will certainly need a solid concept to get you started. How you come up with it is something I cannot teach. It really is between you and your muse. Singer-songwriter John Denver used to say the ideas for his songs came from the aether—just floating out there waiting to be discovered, and he was the lucky soul who connected at the right moment to find them and give them life. In some ways, this is the way stories tend to work as well. Your ideas will come from your life, people you know, places you’ve been or want to go, things you’ve done or want to do, etc., and then your imagination should take over and start working on the rest. There is a certain magic to storytelling that can be neither easily described nor taught. That’s where the talent comes in. But it will take more than talent to write your novel. It will also take determination and a drive to push through the struggles and keep going no matter what. And so, the more passionate you are about your premise, the more likely you are to succeed. If nothing else, pick a premise that fires you up, not just the first seemingly viable one that comes in your head. Find the one that hooks you and won’t let you go. That’s where your great novel will surely come from.

Let’s look at some examples Frey gives of premises from famous novels:

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (the story of the Corleone Mafia family over generations): family loyalty leads to a life of crime.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (the story of an old Cuban fisherman who struggles against a marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the Cuban coast): courage leads to redemption.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (the story of a miserable, cheap, bitter man who is visited by ghosts of past, present, and future and learns the meaning of Christmas): forced self-examination leads to generosity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (the story of patients oppressed at a mental hospital): even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment can’t crush the human spirit.

In effect, a premise is like an argument. A story can have only one premise, because you cannot prove two arguments well at once. Your story’s conclusion will have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before. In most cases, the argument within the premise is about a dilemma the characters confront. If you start first with characters and think about your premise, you may come up with it as you consider the characters’ flaws and the obstacles they face, as well as their goals and needs. Frey writes: “There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or situation, give the character a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go.” By opening your imagination and letting it run, usually the possibilities are endless, and your premise will come to light in the process. Frey quotes Egri as saying: “Every good premise should contain an element of character which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” So in essence, what are your three Cs (Character, Conflict, Conclusion)? Identify them and you have your premise.

Since the story of characters changing because of dramatic conflict makes good fiction, your premise will define such a situation. Old high school friends meet after 20 years and fall in love despite her terminal illness. The coach of a small-town basketball team with a history of losses recruits the first black player to help lead the team to a championship. A tough technophobic cop must team with an android partner to solve his partner’s murder. Can you see the three Cs at work in all these examples?

A good premise will give your novel focus and power that carries readers through to the end. It will hold their attention. Keep them turning pages. Make them long to know what happens next. And it may well do the same for you as you write. In fact, it should, even for the dedicated outliners. Everything in good fiction propels and leads you to the conclusion of the story, which is also a decisive conclusion or answer to the argument of the premise. Anything else should be cut and dropped. So a well-conceived premise is inherent to a well-written novel and key to your success. You must know where you are going to successfully complete any journey. The premise is the target on the map of your storytelling journey. Start without it at your own peril.

The concept, idea, or premise is a start. Craft and work will do the rest.

My Life From A to Z

• A-Available/Single? Yes.
• B-Best Friend? My dog, Amelie, and her brother Louie. I can’t imagine happiness without their unconditional love and enthusiasm.
• C-Cake or Pie? I’ll have to go with Elvis and say cake.
• D-Drink Of Choice? Sparkling Ice Black Cherry (after giving up Coke Zero Cherry)
• E-Essential Item You Use Everyday? My iPad.
• F-Favorite Color? Blue.
• G-Gummy Bears Or Worms? Bears. I like to cuddle as I eat.
• H-Hometown? Salina, KS
• I-Indulgence? Candy Corn or Red Licorice.
• J-January Or February? February. It’s my birthday month so no contest.
• K-Kids & Their Names? Louie, Amelie, Lacy (pets)
• L-Life Is Incomplete Without? Laughter.
• M-Marriage Date? I don’t honestly remember. It only lasted four years and I’ve been out of 10.
• N-Number Of Siblings? 3
• O-Oranges Or Apples? Apple, if we’re talking pies or juice. Orange if we’re talking fluorescents.
• P-Phobias/Fears? Small space, heights.
• Q-Favorite Quote? “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Marcus Aurelius , Meditations
• R-Reason to Smile? My babies
• S-Season? Spring
• T-Tag Three or Four People? I don’t know four people.
• U-Unknown Fact About Me?
• V-Vegetable you don’t like? Squash and several others
• W-Worst Habit? Sweating the small stuff
• X-X-rays You’ve Had? Too many and too personal.
• Y-Your Favorite Food? Piranha (Brazilian steak cut)
• Z-Zodiac Sign? Aquarius

On events in El Paso

I lived in El Paso for a while and part of it a mile from the site of the mass shooting yesterday. As of this moment, I still have not heard the status of a number of old friends, but seeing the area I frequented, even walked to from home and where I walked my dogs, on the news in these terrible circumstances was quite emotional for me today. I am deeply concerned and my heart and thoughts go out to all those affected—which is two entire cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez—at this terrible time. And I pray that you will somehow find peace and hope on the other side of this nightmare. I also continue to believe we need a change in this country to curb gun violence and I hope after El Paso, Dayton, the Wine Festival, even a shooting here in K.C.’s Crossroads the other day, that it can finally be approached with the seriousness it deserves.

God Bless and keep us all until then.

Panel: The Future As I See It (San Diego Comic Con 50, 2019)

This is the panel I moderated on Friday of Comic Con 50 in San Diego with authors discussing how they write and envision the future in their works.

Panelists:
Gini Koch – National bestselling Author, Alien series
Timothy Zahn – Number 1 New York Times bestselling Author, Star Wars Thrawn, Quadrail series, Cobra series
Steven L. Sears – Screenwriter/Author, Xena, The A-Team, Riptide
Jonathan Maberry – New York Times bestselling Author, Joe Ledger series, Rot and Ruin series, VWars
Javier Grillo-Marxuach – Screenwriter/Author/Comic Writer, Middleman, Lost, Blood & Treasure
Seanan McGuire-New York Times bestselling author/Comic Writer, Newsflesh, October Daye, Spidergirl, The X-Men

Flooding at home

Today, after all night rains, I took my dogs down to see if the dog park was passable. We couldn’t even make it around the park for flooding and downtown was a complete mess. Here’s a few photos.

Downtown across the river from home

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

So, every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well-developed plot.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?

You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.

What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.

When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.

One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.

For what it’s worth…

My San Diego Comic Con 2019 In Pictures

Here are photos from July 17-21, 2019 when I attended the 50th annual San Diego Comic Con:

Write Tip: Developing A Novel’s Theme

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 1:

“If a powerful problem is a novel’s spine,” Donald Maass writes in The Breakout Novel, “then a powerful theme is its animating spirit … It starts with you having something to say.” Theme is one of those topics that makes many people’s eyes glaze over. They think of the theme papers they hated writing in school, perhaps. Or find it abstract and hard to conceive. But theme can and should form the unifying narrative structure of your well-written novel. What is theme? Theme is what a story, at its heart, at its moral core, is really trying to say, what it’s about. It’s why you are telling the story. It is what you have to say. Theme, in essence, is not the argument, but the moral derived from it. It is the lesson(s) and life truth(s) embedded and demonstrated through your story.

In Theme and Strategy, Ronald B. Tobias defines theme as “the central concern around which a story is structured.” He writes, “Theme is your inertial guidance system. It directs your decisions about which path to take, which choice is right for the story and which isn’t.” In essence, theme is what unifies the whole and informs it beyond just a story about a guy or girl who did so-and-so into something memorable with lasting impact that speaks to the human condition. Choosing the right theme will help you unify your story. It isn’t something you should just wing or make up as you go, but something you should think about early on, even as you plan your story, and keep in your mind with every scene you write.
Maass suggests three facts to keep in mind:

All stories are moral.
Readers tend to seek out stories that are in line with their beliefs.
Fiction is most compelling when it pulls readers into points of view that are compelling, detailed, and different.

Readers crave insight on the world around them. They want to be pushed to expand their minds and see things differently, through different eyes. Readers become most engaged when the characters’ beliefs capture their attention and make them think. Whether you know it or not, you have something to say, and having the courage to say it through your story and characters will imbue your novel with power that makes it memorable and lasting. Deep down, all writers believe they have something that must be said, some insight on the human condition the world cannot do without, and these demonstrate their own morality and views of right and wrong in the universe. Ask yourself what that is, and let your story speak to that. Have it in mind as you write. This will create a unified story with resonance far beyond just entertainment. As Maass writes, “stories without fire cannot fire readers.”

Because readers are moral people, they inherently look for the moral compass that drives characters in fiction. Whether they agree with it or not is not the primary concern—understanding it is. Powerful beliefs and messages imparted through characters are far more effective than writers preaching or teaching directly, because characters who have beliefs that drive them will take concrete actions that reflect those beliefs. The consequences of these actions then speak powerfully about life, people, and more in ways that direct lessons can never accomplish. The key is embedding these morals and beliefs in the characters’ actions. When characters live what they believe, readers will accept the validity of those beliefs and be impacted by the results.

Tobias suggests several major patterns, which can be summarized as follows:

Plot as Theme—Much of popular fiction is driven by this theme, in which plot is paramount over any other concerns. Escapism is the goal here, and as such, while the novels may not carry long-lasting moral messages, they earn big points with readers and generate bestseller after bestseller. They are not striving for great literature but rather great entertainment, and this has made them hugely successful. Agatha Christie, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and many more create works that fall readily into this category.

Emotional Effect as Theme—Terror, Suspense, Romance, Comedy—in this case the emotional effect of the story is the driving theme. Works by authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Gini Koch, Christopher Moore, John Grisham, Heather Graham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and more deal with this theme.

Style as Theme—This theme encompasses a small minority of movies and books because the theme is the artistic style and approach rather than other concerns. The art films and literary novels by auteurs such as John Hawkes, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Margaret Atwood, and more have this focus.

Character as Theme—Character studies, like style-themed art, also lend themselves to literary concerns. The focus here is the characters, their growth, and how the world and events of the story affect them. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, and films like Raging Bull, The Great Santini, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather embody this approach.

Idea as Theme—Of all the patterns, this one is most successful at creating memorable events and characters that jump off the page. Idea-themed works affect us profoundly, change the world, change lives, start wars, or at the least, make us think because the whole point of ideas is to make us ponder them, ask questions, discuss, and draw new conclusions. These are often the books whose themes are erased during conversion to movies, leaving us to complain that “the book was better.” Idea as theme is less cinematic, less exciting, but its power cannot be denied. Examples include Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, The Graduate, and Shane.

Moral Statement as Theme—The most dangerous of theme categories, this one is most likely to become preachy and heavy handed and turn readers off, so it must be used with great care and attempted only by skillful hands. If the characters are sincere and the plot gripping and storytelling is your focus, though, you can pull this off. According to Tobias, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street are two examples of films that fall in this category. In both cases, the moral results from the story rather than the other way around.

Human Dignity as Theme—These are the stories where the fight to hold on to dignity in spite of circumstances is the focus. Stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, On the Waterfront, Gladiator, and even Roots employ this type of theme.

Social Comment as Theme—Criticizing or shining a light on our culture can be accomplished with great power using fiction. The trick here is finding the right story. Great examples are The China Syndrome and The Grapes of Wrath. The key is to let the characters’ convictions argue for you.

Human Nature as Theme—“What is Man?” is a question that has been explored for centuries and still captures readers’ interest. Stories that fit here include Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, and Robinson Crusoe. (Note: Stories can combine more than one theme. More on that later.)

Human Relations as Theme—Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Love Story, many a Nicholas Sparks book like The Notebook or The Wedding, and more all explore this theme where the relation of humans in community, small or large, is the focus.

Coming of Age as Theme—This one I know a lot about as it has been the theme of six of my novels and several short stories to date. The exploration of finding one’s self and confidently staking one’s place or recognizing one’s role and purpose in the universe is a theme found in Star Wars, Rocky, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, and many, many more.

Once you know your theme or themes, you must then decide several things:
1. Who are the characters who can best embody this theme?
2. What plot is best suited for the theme?
3. What kind of setting will best fit the characters and actions necessary to portray the theme?
4. What voice and style is best suited to the theme?

All together, structurally, Theme works with Plot and Character as shown in this diagram.
Your theme informs all these decisions, which is why knowing the theme first is so important. As the diagram demonstrates, theme is at the center of the core elements of your story’s structure. Additionally, many stories explore more than one theme. If the themes are compatible, this is a very powerful and easy thing to do.

As moral people, readers will turn to fiction for affirmation of their values or the values that underpin the world as they see it. They seek deeper understanding, answers to questions, and more in great stories, driven by the desire to know that what they believe is right. Maass suggests it matters less whether the moral is widely accepted than that it is developed in depth. “The key is your antagonist,” he writes. “If we believe in him, we will believe what he believes.”

We buy into Star Wars because Luke Skywalker believes so passionately in his cause—the Force, the right of the Rebels over the Empire, good versus evil, and what is just. The same can be said of Rocky and many other films, even The Godfather, wherein the protagonist is a criminal corrupted by his world and relationships over the course of the film. The viewer’s agreement with the decisions being made is less important than the conviction of the character. It is in the character’s anger, weeping, fear, and determination that we are inspired to believe, that readers feel it is imperative to know their stories. This is how knowing your theme and developing every scene from that perspective can transform a simple, ordinary story into a life-changing, memorable classic.

So, whether you are a planner or a pantser, outliner or discovery writer, thinking about theme and allowing it to inform your writing will make the difference between your novel being plain or something special, blending in or standing out from the pack. Theme is that vital, that key. And so, as you move forward to plan your premise and the structure that will best bring it to life, theme is an important component of your process which must be considered and carefully weighed.

For what it’s worth…See you next Wednesday.

The Philosophy of This Blog

When I started this blog, my goal was to help and entertain people with interesting experiences and posts based on my experience and knowledge. I also made a commitment to post twice weekly, and soon my blog was getting several thousands hits a month, at its height reaching into the 10s of thousands. Then I ran into some trouble and burned out, so I took a break. But I have missed it and missed my subscribers and the interaction. So I decided the time was ripe to give it another try. But before I do, there’s something I need to address.

I have zero tolerance for anyone who reads a post, asks the poster for clarification of meaning, then, upon receiving it, refuses to accept it. That is tantamount to calling someone a liar. And frankly, unless you can read minds, you are not in a position to deny the veracity of their explanation. I have even less than zero tolerance for people who never ask the author to clarify, choosing instead to read things into stories and then hold authors accountable for them when the authors insist that interpretation or meaning was never intended. It is the source of a lot of online bullying and attacks against authors and creators, and it is ridiculous.

One of the amazing things about art is how it can touch individuals differently. You put a piece out there and it takes on a life of its own drawing out meanings and emotions you never expected from people. But those reactions are based on their personal experiences, their culture, their references, etc. so blaming an author for them is ridiculous. The assumption that the author is some sort of bigot or -phobe or -ist of some sort is arrogant and self-serving and more about the reader and his or her inclination to take easy offense and be overly sensitive than it ever is about the authors being blamed or attacked. This makes it very difficult for some authors and leads to slander and ongoing acrimony that can last years. Having been through this two or three times, I speak from experience.

I wish people would accept and realize that what they bring to art has as much to do with how they experience it as any subliminal thing they might suppose the author brought, and nine times out of ten, is way more responsible than author intent for their own reactions. And the others who then jump on the bandwagon at that author’s expense to elevate themselves and act like high moral authorities are even worse. Generally, all of them together are people who have never done anything but talk about what they believe. Rarely have they put it into genuine, meaningful action.

For example, I so believed in the cause of bringing arts education opportunities to the disadvantaged that I founded a nonprofit and lead teams of artists overseas for eight years to the developing world to teach workshops. It required me to take weeks at a time off from work and to raise thousands of dollars in funding. The reward was not monetary but spiritual: I learned as much from them as they did from me and made some friendships to last a lifetime. But I also stayed in cinderblock homes with no heat in winter the hottest of heat with no air conditioning, I suffered diarrhea and other consequences from unusual dietary changes and other circumstances, even dealt with lack of proper sanitary facilities. And I did it without complaint because I knew I was making a difference. To this day, I have students who have gone on to great success in the arts in Mexico, Ghana, and Brazil and do me proud, and I maintain lifelong friendships with dozens of them. Most of the online trolls perpetrating these attacks wouldn’t dream of such sacrifices nor have the willpower to found a nonprofit and actually make it happen, and it’s too bad, because if they did they’d learn there are a lot of people in the world they claim to support who don’t see the world the way they do about things either. Many of my students who are Facebook friends are aghast when They see me treated as I have been and accused of various biases that seem the opposite of their experience of me. That’s because they know the real me, not the manufactured one of my accusers.

So I am putting it out there clearly for all to see: if you have questions about the meaning of something I post, the onus is on you to click the contact link and ask me for clarification. If you can’t be bothered, neither will I. I won’t take responsibility for explaining myself, and I won’t entertain or interact with those who try and twist my words to use them against me because they perceive me to be “not one of them.” I just have better things to do with my time. I enjoy and value relationships with people of all backgrounds, cultures, races, religions or lack thereof, etc. and I appreciate the perspective it provides. This blog will continue to celebrate that. I am moderating comments but I will only disallow trolling. Everything else is fair game. No one has to agree with me or others it it must be done respectfully. Anyone who tries to engage in oneupmanship, insults, or trolling of any kind—including that described earlier in this post—will have their comments deleted and ignored.

My blog. My rules.

And I hope that helps make this a place people enjoy coming to. Not a place they and I dread. Because I’m still all about extending it forward and helping people so we can succeed and grow together, not wasting my time with those who want to cut people down or tear them apart.

To me that’s what life’s all about.

 

Write Tip: How To Structure A Scene

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 3:

The scene is the basic building block of dramatic structure for any story. If written correctly, each scene leads to another scene and another. According to Jack M. Bickham, in his book Scene & Structure, all well-written scenes use the following pattern:

Statement of goal

Introduction and development of conflict

Failure of character to reach his goal or a tactical complication/disaster which creates a new goal

Notice how these parallels the three-act dramatic structure of the entire story. It is not an accident. Scenes have three acts just as the entire story will. Scenes are not static. At their heart lies conflict. One character or group has a goal and others have other goals, and these meets and create obstacles to be overcome. Hence, conflict. Most scenes start with the point-of-view (POV) character walking into a place with a clear goal in mind. (As discussed in Chapter 4 the point-of-view character is the character from whose vantage point a particular scene is told.) Success of the scene dramatically depends upon your ability to interpose obstacles between your hero/heroine and the obtainment of this goal. Sometimes the goal carries over from the previous scene. Sometimes it is the overall goal in the story. Other times, it is a sub-goal required as part of the many steps to reaching the overall story goal. In any case, usually the goal is stated early on either through internal monologue or dialogue of the character.

For example, Luke Skywalker enters the workshop and cleans the droids per Uncle Owen’s instructions (goal). In the process, he finds something jammed in a slot on R2-D2 and tries to free it, unleashing the video of Leia pleading for help. When the message is unclear, he asks R2 to play the whole message and R2 refuses by first pretending not to know what he is referring to, then saying that the restraining bolt is preventing it in order to get the bolt taken off (obstacles). The disaster comes as R2-D2 escapes, forcing Luke to chase him down.

To work well and increase dramatic tension, all scenes must end badly. Whatever the goal going in, whatever the action taken, the result must be a failure of some sort. It can be an actual failure, a twisty complication, or additional unexpected tasks, but it constitutes a delay to success regardless.

But there is another key element at play as well. When the character’s goal is stated, the reader asks a question.

Goal: To get the golden key to the temple where I can retrieve the sacred scroll.
Reader Question: Will (character) get the key?

Whatever the question, the resolution (or answer) must be a negative. Sometimes a character does the get the key, but other objects are required to find the temple or open the door, and the character must go seek them before getting the scroll. The answer to the question, the disaster, the end of the well-written scene, always creates further complication on the character’s journey through that story.

There are several key points to keep in mind when determining goal, conflict, and resolution:

1. The goal of each scene must clearly relate to the larger story question; the question evoked in readers by the stated goal of the character for the major story arc.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be external, not within one’s self. Either with an object, animal, or person or more than one.
4. Point of view should be maintained from goal to resolution in the same scene. It is best not to break it up into different points of view to avoid confusion and loss of tension.
5. Disaster always works by pushing the character away from his or her goal.
6. Readers will tolerate much if you keep making things worse and worse in every scene. This is how you build tension and suspense and create a compelling read.
7. Since the end of each scene dictates what will happen after, scenes cannot be written in isolation from the overall arc, goals, conflict, etc. of the story itself if they are to work well.

Plots are made up of a series of interconnected scenes that create a larger story. Since a plot is the storyline arc of the overall book, and the book is a story that is like an argument with a premise, a plot consists of a series of questions asked and answered. What you ask when, and how soon you answer it, affects the tension and pacing of the overall story. Some questions get asked and answered in the same scene or chapter. Some carry over multiple scenes and chapters. Some may carry over to another book. Some carry from chapter 1 to the final chapter. The questions have various levels of stakes to them. More intense, important questions tend to take longer to answer. One great way to figure out if your story makes sense and has good pacing is to go through and identify all the questions asked and answered and when and where they are asked and answered. If you are missing any answers or questions, you have a problem that needs fixing.

Since some stories have several plots—usually an overarching main plot and subplots—and not all scenes relate to each plot, but all relate to the main arc in some way or affect it. All plots and subplots have three acts just like the overall story, so sometimes identifying which plot and subplot(s) relate to each scene is key to making them work and determining in what order the scenes need to occur to best tell the story. To be clear, a subplot is a lesser plot that is less important than the main driving plot and sometimes focuses around a specific character, location, or aspect of that larger plot and points readers back to it.

It is also important to know which characters are in a scene. Too many characters can make a scene confusing. And too few can make it ineffective. Most importantly, the person with the most to lose is usually the best POV character for that particular scene, so keep in mind whether you have multiple POV characters or not. That will determine your character use in each scene. Remember also that individual characters can have conflicting goals, and that can further complicate scenes by creating competing tensions or conflicts that add layers and depth to the scene and further obstacles to the resolution as well.

In Medias Res

The last point I’ll make is the number one rule of good dramatic writing I learned in film school: Get into a scene as late as possible in its action, and end the scene as soon as you can after that. The literary term for entering a scene when the action has already begun is in medias res.

Scenes are more dramatic when they start within tense moments of action or conflict, so skip all the slow buildup and setup like greetings and small talk, how the characters got there, etc. which would slow things down, and instead get right into it. Telephone scenes, scenes sitting around a table, on couches, or in a car, etc. have a casual, slow feel that does not lend itself well to drama, so these use sparingly. The pacing and power of your story will go up in spades, and your readers will thank you for it.

Here’s another example, one of my favorites: the opening scene from the film Lethal Weapon 2.

The film opens with Riggs yelling and pounding his palms on a dashboard as horns honk and traffic roars. Then he and Murtaugh are arguing about speed and strategy. They are in a car chase. We don’t yet know who they are chasing or why, but we are immediately thrust into the center of tense, fast-paced action, and the details will come. We soon learn there are two car chases with two teams of cops, and as they fight traffic and near misses with other vehicles and race to keep up with the fleeing criminals—Murtaugh driving his wife’s station wagon, which hardly seems up to the task—the bad guys start shooting and taking more and more chances. The goal is to catch the bad guys. The conflict comes from disagreements between cops and from all the obstacles.

When the bad guys ditch them in airport traffic, Riggs jumps out and continues the chase on foot until Murtaugh untangles the station wagon and catches up. Riggs then insists on driving, and he pushes the car even more to its limits, practically destroying it in the process. So now they are fighting each other as well (more conflict). Then the other chase ends at an intersection, where cars collide and a helicopter comes in to rescue the bad guys with automatic gunfire leading to a shootout with cops (Failure 1). Riggs and Murtaugh, meanwhile, continue their chase until their baddie flips his car over a black-and-white cop car that blocks its path and crashes into a building. By the time Riggs and Murtaugh get to the car, the bad guy is gone (Failure 2), but they find Krugerrands, the currency of South Africa, and so their quest begins.

This is a great example of getting in as late as possible and out as soon as possible (in medias res) while still including all three core building blocks of a great scene.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Four Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

The four-act structure is a more recent rethinking of three-act structure. Proponents claim it is much better and more effective because it more naturally follows the flow of dramatic story. I certainly agree that for motion pictures this is probably the case, but I am not sure about novels. Regardless, the rule in writing is to use what works for you, so I present it here as an option that might be more helpful to some of you than the three-act structure.


Fundamentally, the difference between the three-act and four-act structures is that act two is now two acts, with each ending in a plot point or establishing point. Act one ends with an establishing point where the hero has a life-changing event that spurs him or her to action, essentially enabling circumstances that lead the hero to launch into the quest or journey that makes up the rest of the story and results inevitably in a confrontation with the antagonist in act one. In act one, there is no midpoint but instead an establishing point that generally consists of a hero-ally confrontation in which the hero is forced to give up his or her flaw. Act two becomes about establishing a relationship with the ally while the hero tries to hold onto his or her flaw and still complete the quest. The establishing point here reveals that the flaw is an obstacle which must be overcome to achieve success.

After that establishing point, instead of a second half, we enter act three, which ends with an establishing point where the flaw is finally resolved, and the hero enters the ring against the opponent in preparation for act four’s final confrontation. Act three thus consists of the hero demonstrating the growth of overcoming the flaw or at least conquering and controlling it as he or she prepares with the ally to take on the antagonist. Act four is the climbing into the ring where the hero faces his or her opponent to see who will triumph.

In theory, using four acts makes writing the longer middle easier for writers by breaking it into two logical halves. It also puts more emphasis on a hero-ally confrontation where the flaw is confronted and overcoming begins. This can be a physical or emotional confrontation, but it is a key turning point that functions much like the midpoint in the three-act structure. This often serves to strengthen the relationship between the hero and his or her key ally.

A great example of this four-act structure can be found in the film Rocky, which is considered one of the best-structured films of all time. In act one, Rocky is on the mean streets of Philly and considers himself a loser, but is a nice, bright guy who won’t even stoop to breaking legs for work with loan sharks or other things. Then he gets the chance to fight for heavyweight champion of the world, his establishing point or life-changing event.

In act two, Rocky tries to react to this challenge but is dragged down by his lack of self-confidence. Allies come in the form of his wife, Adrian, and manager, Mickey, who push him to believe in himself, but he can’t do it until he finally confronts the memory of his father telling him he was too ugly and stupid to be anything but a boxer, so he’d better be good. Once he articulates and faces this, he regains a sense of purpose and confidence in an establishing point wherein he determines to prove his father wrong.

Act three is then the training surge when Rocky prepares for the fight with Apollo Creed and begins to think of himself as capable and strong and smart, not a loser, mentally changing and transforming into being ready for the fight.

Act four is the final fight against Creed.

As you can see here, the four-act structure depends more on character development for its turning points than the three-act structure does and really defines and clarifies the characters in a different way, which may be helpful to some of you in structuring your story and thinking it through before writing.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

A sketch that will inform your outline, the three-act structure nonetheless identifies the core dramatic points of a story. Some of you may be discovery writers like me, preferring to let the story unfold organically. But at some point, you will be required to outline as a professional writer. And when faced with a tight deadline, the more organized you are, the more efficient you can be. The first thing you need to do is understand the dramatic structure that underpins your story. So we are going to talk about a very simple, basic way to identify key points that can help you write more quickly and efficiently to meet a deadline.


While outlines are multiple pages of detail, the structural diagram will be no more than a brief paragraph or a few sentences describing each required point accompanied perhaps by a paradigm sketch. The paradigm shown is based on Screenplay by Syd Field, a classic writing teaching book employed by many film schools, but in Western literature, the principles also apply to any dramatic story, including those told in prose. The outline is for three acts. In a screenplay, those are act one, which is 30 pages, or a quarter of the text; act two, which is 60 pages, or half; and act three, which is 30 pages, or a fourth. Your page numbers will vary, but the fractions for each portion should wind up roughly the same.

The key turning points between acts are called plot point 1 and plot point 2. These are events which force the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist too, to turn in new directions and take new action in pursuit of resolving the conflict. Plot point 1, at the end of act one, will require agency, or action, from the protagonist in pursuit of finding the solution and determining what must be done. Plot point 1 propels the protagonist into act two, which is an ascending action involving discovery and a journey to find the solution and achieve the goal without yet knowing all that is required. In the course of act two, the questions will be answered until you reach plot point 2. Plot point 2, at the end of act two, will occur when the protagonist discovers what must be done and where, and with whom, to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. And thus, it propels him or her into act two, which is the climactic, descending action to reach that point.

When I write any story, I always start with some idea of what my plot points will be and how it will end, to give me a sense of focus and direction as I write, even when allowing it to unfold organically. Now, just as the overall story has three acts, so will each plot and subplot, and each act. As such, each has a mini turning point called the midpoint or pinch that twists the action a bit and propels us into the second half. In the first act, this is called the inciting incident. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine—something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking. But it intrigues us and sucks in Clarice and leads to the rest of the story. Other examples are Indiana losing the golden idol to Belloq at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which then sets up a rivalry that drives the later journey as Indiana Jones seeks to get the Ark before Belloq. Morpheus choosing Anderson in The Matrix sets up all that follows after. In The Sixth Sense, without the opening confrontation and gunshot, nothing else that follows could occur.

In act two, you have a pinch point for each half, and in act three, you have the climactic confrontation before the denouement. These may not be as dramatic as the inciting incident of act one, but they nonetheless inspire the protagonist or antagonist to take further action and move forward on the journey. Whereas the plot points are both major dramatic developments, the inciting incident, midpoint, and pinches can be more internal than external but of significance to the characters’ hearts and minds such that they cause them to change course and move in a new direction or with renewed vigor toward the goal. These are like lesser plot points, in a way, but nonetheless significant points in the framework of the overall dramatic arc that drives your story.

Let’s talk examples. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident starts with Darth Vader’s ship attacking Princess Leia’s rebel ship and forcing her to load the Death Star plans into R2-D2, the droid, and send him to escape. He lands on the planet with his companion, C-3PO, and they wind up in the hands of the hero, Luke Skywalker. When Luke discovers a message from a princess that reports danger and points him to a mysterious figure named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he sets off to find out what it means, and that leads him to Old Ben Kenobi, whose shared surname is an obvious clue. Kenobi rescues Luke from Sand People at the midpoint of act one and takes him back to his own home. There, they view the message and Kenobi gives Luke a lightsaber and tells him about the murder of his father, a story Luke never knew. The Empire and a Rebellion, which until now have been mostly rumors far away, have entered Luke’s life, and when Kenobi takes him home, they find that the Jawas who sold Luke’s family the droids have been murdered and torched. Fearing the worst, they race to Luke’s home and find Luke’s aunt and uncle have been murdered and their homestead torched. Plot point 1 is when Kenobi tells Luke they must go rescue the princess together and find a way to deliver the plans hidden in R2-D2.

Act two starts with their trip to Mos Eisley spaceport where they must find passage, and they end up recruiting Han Solo, evading Stormtroopers searching for the droids, and head off for Alderaan. Then, we see Luke in training for the inevitable confrontation, while Vader and Tarkin attempt to extract information from Leia, and ultimately destroy Alderaan. Luke, Han, and Kenobi’s discovery of this is our pinch point for act one. That determines they must rescue Leia themselves and deliver the plans. Then they are caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The midpoint comes during the attempted rescue in the Detention Block when they are trapped. The pinch point for act two is when Kenobi confronts Vader to help his friends escape with the droids to the rebellion. Plot point 2 is after they fight their way clear and escape to the rebel base, where the plans reveal the Death Star’s flaw. The Rebels unveiling their attack plan propels us into act three. Act three is the Rebel attack and the Imperial counterattack, and the climax comes as Luke faces off against Vader in the trench run and ultimately destroys the Death Star with surprise help from Han.

So, now that we have seen how this plays out in a story we are all familiar with, it’s time to identify this structure for your story. Keep in mind that this is only a blueprint. Plans can change. As the story evolves, if required, your plot points, as well as pinches and midpoints, and even your climax, may change. The point of this is not to set anything in stone but to have goals to guide your work. It will help direct you as you write and set up each character and point required to reach each marker. If that ultimately requires the markers to change, it’s okay because these are tools to help you achieve a whole.

Here are the things you’ll need to know to develop this paradigm outline.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is your antagonist?
What are their goals?
What are the obstacles each faces in reaching that goal?
What growth must each undergo to make success possible?
And finally, what do you think the final confrontation needs to be?

Answering these questions is just a temporary means to an end. The answers may change, but the idea is to think through key elements of your story to allow you to write with blinders off and have some goal points along the way to work toward. That will allow you to write faster and spend less time wondering what the heck you should do next. As you actually write, these goal points may need to change, and that is okay.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Tomorrow: Part 2-4 Act Structure
Friday: Part 3-How To Structure Scenes

For these and other WriteTips, click here.

Write Tip: Character Narrative As A Plot Device

Our tip for today regards using character narrative as a plot device. Now, to begin, let me define character narrative. In the present case I am defining it as the narrative embraced by a character or person as the lens through which they view the world. We see this all the time in politics. The Democrats have a narrative. So do the Republicans. And we hear accusations all the time, not all false, of media bias wherein reporters report angles on stories that match their narrative and leave out the rest. All characters have narratives too, and it is often the differences in narratives that cause conflicts between characters. That being the case, why shouldn’t writers consciously employ narrative as a plot device?

I think they should.

We often talk of the villains being the hero of their own story. This is narrative. The same is true of every character and where those narratives, or worldviews, clash, is where we find them coming into conflict with one another. So understanding your characters’ narratives and where they come from and how they differ can be a very useful device for helping you shape your stories. And the degree to which you get into the details of it will determine how useful it is.

Good stories have nuance and nuance is depth, so the more you know, the deeper you can go and the richer the results will be. With some minor characters, you may never know their narrative. With supporting characters, you will examine it only on the surface a bit. But with your major characters, the deeper you dig in, the better they will be and the better your story will be for the effort.

So how do you build a character’s narrative? It is similar to how you write a character history or bio. The easiest way is to develop a series of key questions to ask and answer about each character and build from there. The base questions will be the same initially for every character but as you go deeper, unique questions will arise that are unique to specific characters and demand answers. You answer one, another may crop up, rinse and repeat. But the result will be a deeper look inside your characters’ beliefs, motives, personalities, and more. And what you discover in the process will be useful for all kinds of things.

You can use what you glean to help shape your character’s personality, actions, and reactions, even their internal monologue. And the more information you glean, the more specific you are, the more interesting the results will be as you discover key differences between your characters and yourself you never suspected. Building the results into your story will add a lot of layers and depth and nuance that just adds to the experience for readers and makes the characters pop off the page and come more alive like real, unique individuals, not stereotypes or archetypes. There will be nothing run of the mill about characters examined so deeply.

So consider adding examine your characters’ narratives as a possible tool to add to your writer’s toolbox. It’s also a useful tool for interpersonal relationships, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post which poses a whole different set of potential conflicts, so we’ll leave that be for now. Regardless, I hope it’s a Write Tip that pushes you to think about your stories and characters with a new perspective. For my narrative, that would be very satisfying. For what it’s worth…

5 Days Of Comic Con

I took a break from blogging regularly for a few years now, but with the publication of my latest book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals Of Fiction earlier this year, I have been wanting to revive my blog. In particular, the weekly Write Tips feature that was so popular.

So to celebrate San Diego Comic Con’s 50th, which I will be attending and participating in as a panelist, I thought what better time than now to relaunch Write Tips. So each day the rest of this week, I will feature a new Write Tip, and then every Wednesday that follows, will present another one. It is my hope these will stimulate and assist you in your writing process. I know they are things that help me.

As a bonus, Wednesday through Friday, I will be giving away free downloads of How To Write  Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction in each post.  So happy 50th to San Diego Comic Con, the original Comic Con that started it all, and happy writing to all of you.

Here’s the posting schedule for this week:

Tuesday- Character Narrative as a Plot Device

Wednesday – Three Act Structure

Thursday – Four Act Structure

Friday – How To Structure A Scene

Just look for the Write Tips logo starting tomorrow. For what it’s worth…

My San Diego Comic Con 50 Schedule

I have three panels and a signing this year as follows. My books will thereafter be available at Mysterious Galaxy, Booth 1119.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Green Book—A Message For Our Times

I just had the opportunity to watch the movie GREEN BOOK for the third time as I shared it with my parents (their first), and what continues to resonate with me is how much this film speaks into the divisiveness of modern American culture. We live in an age where people all too often regard people who disagree with them as enemies rather than friends, as people to avoid rather than to friend, as evil rather than ill-informed even, and the result has been a lot of hostility and anger with accusations of bullying from cyber attacks, accusations of this-phobia, that -ism and so on such that people feel they can’t exercise their right to free speech or even to be themselves freely anymore. And it’s a sad state of affairs.

GREEN BOOK is about the relationship between two men who come to discover how much they have in common and how the expectations and biases they imposed on each other at the start of the relationship are barriers that hindered, not helped their interactions. Tony Lip is a blue collar Italian-American bouncer who struggles to get by and feed his wife and kids, just survive in a dog eats dog world. As an Italian and lower class, less educated man, he is often looked down on by other whites, especially those of means. And he has learned to do what it takes to stand up for himself and get by. Doctor Don Shirley is an African American pianist who lives an elite life surrounded by the wealthy. His apartment is above Carnegie Hall, for example, and he finds himself distanced from his own people because he can’t relate to their daily lives and they can’t relate to his.

When Shirley decides to launch a tour of the Deep South, his record company puts out a call for a driver, and Lip—having been temporarily laid off when his club shut down for remodeling—responds. He’s rough, curses a lot, and even looks down on blacks similarly to how other whites look down on him. But he needs the work and Shirley needs a protector, so they wind up together. Of course, they clash. Ironically, Lip can’t understand Shirley’s lack of affinity for popular music and food often enjoyed by other African Americans, while Shirley tries to help Lip modify his own attitude and presentation to fit in better with the white upper crust they will encounter on their trip. Both resist, but through dialogue and continued determination, each starts to see wisdom and logic in how the other thinks. But only because they push through the discomfort and listen to each other.

By the end of the film, Shirley stands up for himself much as Lip has done for him, and he even learns to enjoy the popular music and food common to African American culture. Lip changes his attitude toward people of color and also begins learning how to communicate in more sophisticated, thoughtful, and polite ways as well as confront conflict with words not violence. The result is they forge a genuine friendship and respect for each other, despite their differences and each change a bit to be better men. Now, this movie is based on a real story, which makes it that much more moving to me because the possibility exists for all of us. All of us can come together with people who don’t see the world the way we do and don’t agree with us on important topics and, by listening and actually hearing and being open to what each other are saying, come to deeper understandings about the world and ourselves that can change us for the better. It’s a message of hope for those of us struggling in modern society, and much needed reminder, if you ask me, of times when disagreement was not automatic enmity and could be respected instead of scorned.

GREEN BOOK is nuances and subtle in its message, however. It does not slam you in the face with it. None of this is stated overtly. Instead it flows out of the story naturally and subtly over its course and the results are quite moving and powerful. In fact, each time I see it, I find something to think about that I’d missed the prior viewings. And to me, at least, that is the sign of a great film. We need more films that speak to this because our society is becoming more divided, not less, more hostile, not less, and more angry and resentful, not less. We compromise less than ever and so do lawmakers, with the result that we all pay a heavy price not just mentally but financially and physically as laws and decisions sorely needed fall by the wayside and nothing changes.

I have had several friendships similar to that of Tony Lip and Don Shirley, and they are among my most cherished relationships because those people are friends I can count on to hold me accountable and make me think through and question myself when I need it most. It’s so easy to shut one’s self off in a box and avoid conflict—surrounding one’s self instead with like minded friendlies—but the danger of that is when you are operating on half information and assumption, you may never correct your course and may carry on with false understandings that can do real harm. Instead, the Tony Lips to my Don Shirley are the very antidote needed to make sure this doesn’t happen to me, and I hope I am the same to them, because I think these kinds of relationships leave us better people for the results. And I don’t know about you but one of my goals in life is to constantly strive to be a better me.

For what it’s worth…