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WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 4

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part of a multipart series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here. For Part Three,click here.

Designing a Past and Future

I remember a television program I once saw; a rerun, 
made years before. I must have been seven or eight, 
too young to understand it. It was the sort of thing 
my mother liked to watch: historical, educational…The program was a documentary, about one of those wars. 
They interviewed people and showed clips from films of
the time, black and white, and still photos…The inter-views with people still alive then were in color. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In 
ovens, my mother said; but there weren’t any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these
deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something
especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens 
mean cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I 
thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been. (The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)

Last, but far from least, you will need to give thought to the past and future of your world, anticipating both how they got where they are but where they are going and what future issues may arrive as the result of present events, as well as what issues in the present can be traced to events in the past. How do people in the present interact with this history? How knowledgeable are they of it? How misinformed? As you imagine a future and past, you must consider what advances have been made and how they have been made, what people are still seeking to do, what problems remain unsolved, etc. The implications of such choices always affect your story and world in key ways. In many novels, the past will be way more important to explore than the future, as you consider how they characters became who they are and what haunts them, what changed them, what drives them. But in others, the future can be a rich source as well: the drive to succeed, their goals, their hopes, their plans—these can all be powerful factors that shape characters and their motives and drive their actions.

It is important to not get so focused on technology and science that you forgot social issues. These, more than anything, will be key to creating a realistic possible future. Technological and scientific advances are great but they have costs and implications. What if these technologies empower only a few and are unavailable to the many? What if they bring wealth to the few and leave the many poorer? How will your future deal with issues of racism, equal rights, poverty, hunger, education, and income equality? How will your world be better than or a better version of ours and how will it be worse? Regardless of what you choice, these must be addressed and presented in believable ways. 

It is important to think of both what is gained and what is left behind or lost. What is erased and what is invented. And also where do these ideas, concepts, and possibilities lead—new dangers, new crimes, new threats? Or all positives? Rarely are there all positives and no negatives, remember. Are there ecological nightmares? Totalitarian governments? What of population growth? What of unemployment? And so on. New pitfalls will arise as old ones are erased. Which will stay erased forever and which will come back and how? No future is perfect, and to be believable, yours cannot be either. So with every advancement, there will be setbacks or problems. And you should deal with both and allow them to drive your story, to inspire conflict on which drama thrives. 

It would be impossible for me or anyone else to cover everything or anything in any kind of depth in a book like this, but I hope I have provided a decent guide and overview for how to think through world building, how one set of concerns is connected to others, and many of the types of things you will need to consider as you create worlds. I didn’t even cover everything on Lee Killough’s checklist, but that, and this chapter, should act as decent guides in creating your world.

Closely connected to world building, however, is research to not only find these things but make them function logically and workably as well as learning the terminology and more you need to describe them intelligently, convincing readers you actually did your homework.

I know what you’re thinking: “Research is a dirty word. I hate research.” A lot of writers seem to have that attitude. I had it myself for years. After four years of college and three of grad school, I thought I was done with all that, and happily so. I wrote five novels and barely did any research, but then I had a project I couldn’t do right without it, and my attitude has changed. Research can be extremely rewarding if you are able to employ it to make your manuscript better and your story more authentic. And there are many options and sources to choose from that will allow most of you to find a path of least resistance—or at least, the least discomfort and frustration .

In On Writing, Stephen King says of research: “Research is back story, and the key word in back story is back…What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off. That sense of reality is particularly important in any work of fiction, but…particularly important in a story dealing with the paranormal or abnormal. Also, enough details—assuming they are the correct ones—can stem the tide of letters from picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers they messed up…When you step away from the ‘write what you know rule,’ research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story…(Just remember) the story always comes first.”

Certainly one of the things that makes research so daunting is that to use it well, some must be done before you write. Many of us have a tendency to want to put it off and get to the fun part, pausing only to research when we absolutely have to. After all, you never know how much you’ll need until you start writing. The problem with this is that underlying thought processes uninformed by research will lead to writing that is ignorant of key elements and unprepared to ask key questions that research brings out which will inform your work—how you construct characters, world, and story. With research in your head, you begin employing its implications from word one. Without it, you can’t possible do so. And I think if you wait until you need it, not only will your work be weaker, but you set yourself up for the need to do a lot more rewriting and reworking than you would have to do if you started with at least some research completed before you write.

So how do you know where to begin and when you’ve done enough to write? This is a question only you can answer and one that depends on many factors: the needs of your world building, characterization, plot, settings, etc. Some of those needs get discovered as you write, especially if you are a discovery writer who does not plan much out in advance. Writers who start with an outline will have an easier time identifying key areas of ignorance in advance so they can focus their research and bone up their knowledge on those topics. Some writers also assume that if you are making up a secondary world, you can do less research. I did nineteen drafts of my first novel before it came to print. It featured secondary worlds—a whole solar system I invented. And about seventeen of those were to deal with issues related to lack of research at least in part. The thing is that readers expect your secondary worlds to follow the same logic as Earth and the existing worlds we know of: the laws of science, reason, logic, etc. There are things that just are and if you break those expectations without really knowing what you are doing and justifying it well, then readers will lose confidence in you as a truthteller and narrator, and that will hurt their opinion of your story.

So, no matter what kind of story you write, you need some research. I actually think novels set in contemporary times require a bit less if you are writing about a world and places you are intimately familiar with, but it always depends on the story. Ultimately, the believability of your story and the  author-reader contract depend upon your knowledge, so research is key to writing convincingly, whether you make most things up or not.

That is why research is essential. And as you see from Chapter 9, world building is filled with questions to answer, and in most cases, the only way to answer them is to do research. Fortunately, all of us live in the age of the internet. The internet will undoubtedly be your greatest research friend. True, there are a lot of lies on the internet and articles lacking good fact checking. You will have to be discerning about your sources. But for quick, basic information on almost any topic, the internet is a quick, easy solution, and often what you learn there will lay the groundwork that informs the rest of your research—pointing you to sources and topics, helping define what questions you need to address, etc. So no matter what else your research involves, expect to start with the internet.

There are two other ways you can research that will come in handy for various stories: library research and real world experience. Libraries are available everywhere, so I probably don’t have to explain those. Most offer free or cheap memberships to locals and have research librarians on staff who can help you locate materials, borrow books on interlibrary loan, etc. Make use of them. That is what they are there for, and they enjoy helping people like you. It is their calling. Real life experience can happen several ways: interviews, scouting (going to locations and talking to people and taking pictures and notes), and consulting experts. One of the funnest and most helpful research tools I employed on my police procedural series were ride alongs with police. These are free and require only some paperwork and a background check. They are amazingly fascinating and eye opening. Many government agencies have liaisons assigned specifically to help people doing research about their agencies. The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is one example. Police departments and many others have media people. Often private businesses and industries have them as well. If you are polite, and patient, you may well get their assistance. You have only to ask. Interviews, of course, are a bit more complex but also can be arranged. Observing you can often do without permission on public lands and locations. Just take a notebook and your eyes and get to work.

Some of you will be able to do the bulk of your research online or in books and never need to go out and make time for real world experience. This is okay, of course. Do what your stories require. But real world experience is indeed an option and can be very fulfilling, as I said. Most of you will need to do some combination of the three. Especially when it comes to vocabulary and technical knowledge on various topics like medicine, criminal justice, law, science, technology, etc. Talking the talk authentically will be necessary for readers to believe your story. So learning the terminology will be a necessary part of research. You can’t wing it, sorry. Not if you want to write a book that feels true and realistic. Fortunately, there are plenty of books on most topics providing such knowledge and most are widely available. But how do you find sources?

That will be the subject of next week’s post…

Common Source Preview (John Simon 3)

To read the first three chapters of the next JOHN SIMON THRILLER, click here

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 3

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part of a multipart series. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.

 

Science and Industrial Development

The battery was a lithium thionyl chloride non-rechar-geable. I figured that out from some subtle clues: the
shape of the connection points, the thickness of the 
insulation, and the fact that it had “LiSOCl2 
NON-RCHRG” written on it. (The Martian, Andy Weir)

The planet’s famous red colour is from iron oxide coat-ing everything. So it’s not just a desert. It’s a 
desert so old it’s literally rusting. (The Martian, 
Andy Weir)

Another key area of world building is always science and industry. But in science fiction, the futuristic and scientific aspects of this take on special importance and significance for both narrative plausibility and practical reasons—science and development are key elements readers expect. Science Fiction readers love cool tech and science that makes sense or even the hint of such. Even if it is not real, if you make it sound plausible, they will often find this fascinating and engaging. 

What kind of transportation methods exist? Horses and wagons or buggies? Cars and trucks? Planes or space ships? Hovercraft? Each type of transportation requires the industrial and scientific development to make them possible. Given we barely have anything of the sort ourselves, a lot of thought will need to go into these aspects. Where do they get the fuel? How did they devise it? What materials are starships made of and their various parts? Do they have laser or projectile weapons? What kind of defensive armaments do people and ships have and what are they made of? Are they physical or digital? Etc. 

Then there are questions of military? What type of military do they have—formal or informal? Private or government? Do they have armor? What type? What is the structure and ranking system? Where are the bases and training facilities? How do they recruit—volunteers or conscription? Do they use animals or vehicles or both? What kinds of duties and missions are they called upon to undertake usually? What is their history? What is their relationship with larger society—respected or hated? Feared or loved? Etc.

Technological dependence also says a lot about a culture and affects it in many ways and has many meanings. How advanced are they? How did they get there? If there is tech and science, there must be engineers and scientist. How did they develop these abilities and create or acquire the tools required to perform the tasks? Do they make them themselves or trade for them? How do various cultural approaches differ in performing, understanding, and approaching various tasks? Here’s an aspect where time frame, as mentioned earlier, plays a key role. If they are a far advanced society, time frame matters. For humans especially, believable time must have passed for certain technologies to be possible. And again some require sciences and engineering feats we have yet to develop so time must be allowed for those to occur as well. For alien cultures, it is possible to have societies which are advanced over our own, but again, they must have science and tech and engineering knowledge and skills that they acquired earlier which surpasses our own. Not all of this always has to be explained in detail but the writer should think it through and be full aware of the implications of it and write the story accordingly so it adds credence to the world building for readers.

Are there robots or androids? Are human cyborgs or modified humans part of it? What about animals? Are there hybrids? Is there nanotechnology? What is the state of computers and media? Is there virtual reality? What problems from our own world and times have been solved to make such things possible or to advance society? What modifications to laws, mores, etc. have been required to permit the developments, if any? What sciences are used and understood by alien cultures and how does this compare to human knowledge? What ability to exchange such information exists? Writers must consider all of this and more as they create.

I realize that at this point, you may be feeling overwhelmed by all that we’ve covered. But I hope you are beginning to see the complexity of world building and how one set of questions leads to many others on many different topics. There’s a reason so many authors choose to work with our existing world and its history rather than make up their own. It’s complicated to create a well-rounded world, and as I have said, you don’t always know what you’ll need until you need it, but it is also easy to overlook things that may stand out to readers as omissions that were important to questions they are asking.

The rest of this chapter, we’re going to cover some areas that get overlooked a lot in world building but may be just as important as the rest. Let’s start with Agriculture, Horticulture, and Diet.

Agriculture, Horticulture, Diet, and Medicine 

On the bare forest floor, in the open space between 
the trees, grew stemless plants of colossal size. 
Their leaves, four or five inches broad and eight or 
nine fee in length, sharp-toothed along their sides 
and metallic of texture, were arranged in loose roset-tes. At the center of each gaped a deep cup a foot in diameter, half filled with a noxious-looking greenish fluid, out of which a complex array of stubby organs 
projected.

It seemed to Valentine that there were things like 
knifeblades in there, and paired grinders, that could come together nastily, and still other things that 
might have been delicate flowers partly submerged. 
(Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg) 

Agricultural development is very much determined by geography and technological and scientific development. What types of crops and animals are used for food and clothing, depends upon the resources available like location of water supply, crops, grass and plant life, landscape, and more. You won’t grow much in a desert, for example, but if there are oases with water, some sheep herding can occur, like in the Middle East. There can be camels, horses, and other desert animals. In mountains, it is hard to farm the land, but there can be animals who live there as well like bears, venison, various birds, and other mammals which could be hunted for food. Plains are great for farming but limited as home for much beyond domestic animals, though coyotes, wild birds, rabbits, and other animals may thrive. And with each decision about animals, it is important to consider predators and prey—the circle of life. For anywhere one group of prey live, predators will arise to feed on them, and not just humans, but other animals. Additionally, landscape determines what kinds of bushes, shrubs, grasses, trees, etc. will be available and natural to the region for animals to live in and eat from, etc.

What type of crops you have and natural resources, of course, determines the diet of local humans and other inhabitants, and so plant life, crops, water, etc. all determine what people will eat in various parts of your world and how much as well as what they may trade to other areas for goods they cannot get. At the same time, what clothing they wear is determined by land and weather conditions and resources as well. Do they have technology to manufacture clothing or make it by hand? And so on. Sartorial concerns are easy to overlook. I remember one of the first editor comments on The Worker Prince, my first novel was “You’ve written 90k words without mention of what anyone is wearing. It seems odd.” Ooops. So I had to go back and work that in and think it through. I know of other authors who have had similar experiences.

Along with crops, animal husbandry and resources comes the issue of medicine. What kind of medicinal resources do they have? Formal or informal? Do they make drugs or manufacture them? Do they use home remedies or chemically devised cures? Do they have trained medical personnel or just village experts? Etc. Who treats the animals? What kind of training do those people have? Is it science or magic? And if magic exists, how does that work and what are the costs of performing the spells or using magic? There is always a cost for everything. Sometimes casting spells can only be done once every few days, sometimes it costs blood or energy that wipes out the magician, etc. These and more concerns become very relevant.

If there is technology, do they use machines to farm or just animals and primitive equipment? How industrial is agriculture? How regional is it? What about fishing or hunting or trapping? Can they make hybrid plants somehow by cross pollinating or do they just have to plant whatever seeds they can find? 

As we think about landscape and natural resources like plants and trees, we must also consider architecture and design. Do they have formal architecture or is it regional and informal? Are there whole industries for construction and design or is it done on the fly? Are quarries and mining involved? How do they gather materials? What issues and regional concerns come into play to determine locations of towns and types of housing, etc.? Are there formal schools or are people educated at home? What kind of educational system and higher learning is available? Are there apprenticeships? Are there internships? Trade guilds? What kinds of tools and equipment do they have available and how are those manufactured? And then, where do they get the money to buy land and build? How is land and wealth allotted? What role does it play in society?

Beyond that, what about energy production? Nuclear, solar, wind, fusion—what kind of power will there be? What of war? What of peace? What about nuclear and chemical weapons? What will medicine look like? Will we have cured diseases, genetic defects, cancer? What new answers and treatments will have been devised? What communication devices and methods will be common? What will have faded away?

Money and Business

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Figure 9-1. (Monetary exchange rates in The Name of The Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, cited on http://www.brinkofcreation.com/KKC-CurrencyExchange/CurrencyExchange.html)

Money and economy are one of the most overlooked of world building concerns. Patrick Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles, beginning with The Name Of The Wind, is an author noted for having created a sophisticated economy for his world, including different monetary systems for various people groups and conversion and even commonwealth currency for use in trade between them. The system is sophisticated enough that fans on Reddit have figured out approximate conversions to U.S. dollars and Rothfuss himself has created the above widget and can lecture on the system for an hour or more. That is a well-thought out system. And of course, along with money comes the entire business system and how it functions related to currency and trade and what types of businesses thrive and arise according to resources available as well as needs of the world. Various service industries like money changers and trade posts will arise if needed along with banks, law enforcement, security, and more, but then there are various other businesses as well taking on roles in making food, clothing, and materials, etc. and sometimes even vendors who then sell their products to the public.

The key element is what they value—what their economy is based on. In much of the Western world and the wider world today that would be minerals like gold, silver, bronze, diamonds, etc. In ancient Africa, however, much value was placed by many tribes on conch shells. They used conch shells to make everything from jewelry to clothing to even tools, weapons, and more. Once Europeans discovered this, they began trading conch shells for things they valued far more like gold, diamonds, etc. which were abundant in Africa. The Europeans found many sources for obtaining conch shells, and since the African tribesmen valued them so much, convincing them to trade something the Europeans considered worthless for things they coveted, was easy. It also gave the Europeans immense power over the Africans, particularly because conch shells were cheap and easily obtained and not valued greatly by anyone else around the world. In part, the colonization of Africa came about at least economically because of this dichotomy. The Europeans used it to establish inroads they exploited to take over mining and other industries to extract minerals and eventually conquer the tribes and their land. So what do people in your worlds and cultures value? How does that affect their trade relationships and subsequent power relationships with others? These are major concerns related to the economic system of your world building which should be carefully considered.

Economic systems can get immensely complicated very quickly, of course, but careful thought should at least be given to basics needed for the story. And then you should be prepared to address the various issues and needs these concerns raise as you go, if you want to create a believable system that doesn’t leave readers confused, frustrated, or scratching their heads.

(To Be Continued)

One Week ‘Til My Next Novel: THE SIDEMAN

On October 15th, I started a new venture. I took a book I knew readers loved, because I’d tested it, but hadn’t sold to traditional publishing yet despite editors all praising it, and put it out via a small press called Boralis Books. Since then Simon Says has not only earned back my initial investment but exceeded it and received mostly 5 and 4 star reviews in doing so, a higher percentage than any of the other 25 books I’ve done.

Simon Says was hard to sell traditionally because I mixed genres—near future science fiction and procedural thriller—in a way that has not really been tested. Only JD Robb is doing it in any noticeable way. So publishers didn’t know what to do with it. But as friends and family who’d test read the book kept asking me, again and again, when’s that book coming out, I knew I was onto something. I didn’t get that kind of enthusiasm on my prior books.

And Simon Says, while it can stand alone, is actually book one in the John Simon Thrillers series, so as part of my strategy, I planned to launch a new book every quarter in that series and eventually add other series and titles. So here we are, 4 months after release as of February 15, and I’m so excited about the next John Simon Thriller, I’m releasing it 5 days early on February 10th.

It’s called The Sideman, and preview of several chapters has actually been up since Simon Says released. (A preview of book 3, Common Source, will be posted Feb. 10 when The Sideman ReleasesIt’s up for preorder now via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound will have it soon. To see what people are already saying about The Sideman as well as those sample chapters (3) and buy links, click here.

And if you haven’t read Simon Says yet, check out the same for it here  and expect to see it on sale to celebrate the release of book 2 next week. I appreciate your support of this new venture and can’t wait for you to read my latest.  Here’s the first reader review on Goodreads:

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 2

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part of a multipart series. For Part One, click here.

Solar System and Galaxy Relations

The thirteen planets in the star system all varied in size and shape, the outermost and innermost planets 
being the smallest. Three of the larger planets had 
several moons. Vertullis had two. While Vertullis, 
Tertullis, and Legallis alone had atmospheres suitablefor human life, due to Borali scientists’ determina-
tion and skill with terraforming, all but one of the 
system’s planets had been inhabited, though some with populations consisting only of a few workers and mili-tary personnel. The planets revolved around the two 
suns, Boralis and Charlis, in an unusual orbital pat- tern due to the effect of the twin gravities. Because of the limitations in terraforming science, the four 
planets nearest to the suns had been surrendered as 
viable habitats for humans. Of the thirteen planets, 
Vertullis was the sole planet which had a surface con-taining fifty percent forest, and it had one other 
distinction. It remained the only planet in the solar system whose native citizens weren’t free. (The Worker Prince, Bryan Thomas Schmidt)

If you are dealing with interplanetary relations—is more than one planet involved? If so what are their relationships physically and spatially and do people travel between them? Are there unique transports like space elevators or quantum tunnels or something? Do they use FTL, Faster Than Light tech? Or do they travel for days and weeks like our current limitations would allow?

As most of us know, one of the key tropes of the science fiction sugenre are starships. They come in all shapes and sizes from planet sized like the Death Star to slightly smaller like Imperial Destroyers down to shuttle craft and tiny fighters like X-Wings or Vipers and everything in between like Battlestars or Cruisers. Some ships are meant for short term travel to and from one locale to another. Others are actually living spaces like cities where hundreds or thousands of people reside and work for years on end. Obviously the size and scope of usage determines the facilities required. And one should take into account the various needs for sleeping, recreation and entertainment, food, medical facilities, waste disposal and personal hygiene, storage, and more. Obviously the longer the ships must function as homes and larger the number of inhabitants, the more concern for supplies, storage, etc. becomes an issue. For every inhabitant, a certain amount of food, water, etc. will need to be regularly used and thus available and stored between ports and stops, with extra reserves for periods of battle, long distance travel, etc. Haircuts, clothing, shoes, grooming, and more are also concerns as well as psychology and counseling, law enforcement or regulations, even criminal detainment, disposal of deceased, sex, and many more. Are they warships or peaceful? Do they have weapons and defenses? What are they? How secure are they? How does this vary according to uses and needs? How does having such items affect the crew compliment and training and roles? So all of this must be considered and weighed carefully in designing your starships according to their purposes and uses.
    Solar Systems can be big. Pluto is 4.5 billion miles from the sun at its farthest, while earth is 92.96 million miles. Light can traverse 4.5 billion miles in 5.5 hours. But at current rates, space craft would take years. So to expediate things and make interaction between planets possible, science fiction writers created Faster Than Light travel, FTL for short. This tends to be a minimally defined variant that allows ships to travel between planets in days or hours rather than years. It is a cheat that even some hard science fiction writers employ. Because the practical reality of space travel deals with numbers so high it is hard for writers, let alone readers, to fathom. Not to mention the loss of dramatic tension one experiences when ships must fly toward each other for years before engaging in battle. Whoo hoo, how tense and exciting that is! For creating dramatic tension alone, FTL is really useful. There have been many forms and explanations for it from hyperdrives to warp drives, but all generally come down to the same thing: faster travel between celestial bodies and galaxies.

Hyperspace, in use since 1940s is often depicted as an alternate reality or universe or some sort of subspace existence. Since the science involved is imaginary, you can make assumptions, design mechanisms and assign limits any way you choose as long as you are consistent and plausible. Are there preexisting gates used to enter hyperspace or is it created through some kind of physics or scientific displacement using the special hyperdrive? Are the gravity wells of planets and stars necessary for its success or can it be done anywhere? What role do gravitational fields play? How do you calculate and carry enough fuel and resources to get there and back? Where do you acquire them along the way if needed? Then what about communications? At such high speeds, sound waves are affected. Can they keep up or do you need special communications methods and devices?

And of course, if you can travel between planets, you must address the issue: how are they related to each other? Are they familiar with established relationships that are good or bad? Are they strangers and unknown? Do they share a government or treaties or other common agreements and rules or is it a free for all? Who are their primary populations and what species? What is their primary language and currency? How do any differences get bridged when two different planets interact? How are conflicts resolved and what incompatibilities must be overcome? What is the ongoing history of relations, if any, and what are the issues and obstacles which have arisen and continue to affect ongoing relations?

You must consider separate geography, resources, etc. for each planet. What do they trade? Why? How do their resources, tools, etc. differ? Do they travel across the planet differently? Do they need life support domes? Is gravity modification required? How can different species interact in space that support different life forms?

If your story takes place on Earth or a single planet, on what part of the planet is the story focused? Does the story take your characters to many places or is it concentrated in one area? Knowing this will define the amount and type of research you will need to do. Obviously, knowing one or a few areas really well will be simpler than having to research many and answer all of these questions about them.

Society and Cultures

Doubled, I walk the street. Though we are no longer in
the Commander’s compound, there are large houses here also. In front of one of them, a Guardian is mowing 
the lawn. The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and 
gardens and interior decoration. There is the same 
absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The 
street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model
town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children. (The Handmaid’s Tale, Marga- ret Atwood)

The next concern is what kind of society and cultures will be present in the setting of your story? If you create aliens or nonhumans, you must first determine how humanoid they are going to be or how different from us? Why? And how did they come to be that way? These questions can be decided by a number of factors: factors about the world on which they will live; practical concerns for language and communication, the relationship they will have with humans, etc.; biological and geographic factors; etc. Since aliens are often what draw many readers to science fiction, they are important, as is the distinction from mythological creatures. Unlike these folkloric beings, aliens are grounded in scientific possibility and so such factors must be careful considered and employed in designing and presenting them. Luckily, the research can be fun.

There are substances other than oxygen which can release energy from sugar and serve biological function, for example. Hydrogen sulfide can replace water in photosynthesis as well. And silicon serves just as well as carbon as a basic building block of life. Your imagination can take you fun but scientifically plausible places if you do the research.
Besides scientific plausibility, however, your aliens must also serve narrative interest by being able to interact with human characters and sometimes even communicate with them and by being intriguing enough to engage reader interest, pique their curiosity or even inspire their fear. Most of the time, this will require sentient beings, but on occasion, when the aliens are meant to serve only as obstacles and antagonists to human characters’ goals and interests, nonsentient alien monsters will do. Don’t forget to consider the evolutionary advantages of the aliens’ unique features. If they don’t need hands, what do they have for limbs? If they can float and don’t need legs, what other features might they need instead? Is genetic engineering involved or is it entirely organic? All of these concerns can lead you in interesting and intriguing directions.

If dealing solely with humans on Earth, what races are involved and what are their relationships to each other? How do they communicate? Do they need translators? What social classes, attitudes, and history do they share and how does that affect their interactions and determine their relationships, etc.? What are the societal roles for each gender? How are LGBT people regarded and treated and what place can they have in society? Are there any limitations placed on people for reasons of class, sexual preference, race, religion or something else? What reasons lie behind any restrictions and what is their history?

There are also environmental factors. If other elements from oxygen and carbon are key elements in our world, what they value, what they eat, what resources they need will all be affected. Their priorities will be influenced accordingly and so will trade, economics, sociocultural interactions, etc. Their goals and values will also reflect this. Food chain, ecology, and economy and the implications of each are key factors as well. Each alien culture will have something distinctive to offer the larger whole toward economy, etc. What that is, how it developed, and what it says about them are important factors to consider as well. Additionally, their evolutionary makeup affects their emotions and memory and learning styles. What if they have a group brain and can share information? How does this group mind affect individualization or emotions or relationships? Is there privacy or none at all? How does this interconnectedness affect their attitude toward and trust of strangers and outsiders? Etc.

While it is a convention of science fiction particularly that humans and aliens are able to understand or speak each other’s languages, in your world are universal translators required or even interpreters? Can they communicate directly or is some form of mind to mind communication used rather than vocal speech? Behavioral and physiological traits can both serve as barriers and increase bonding in relationships with human characters, depending upon how you design them. Thinking these through carefully is key. Also the societal mores, roles, statuses, and laws are factors which will play a role in how aliens and humans think of and about each other and how they interact and will often be key to their relationships and interactions on many levels constantly. What are mating and child bearing and rearing rituals? Are they monogamous or poly? Do they love? Do they form attachments for life or short term or at all? Do they have philosophy or religion? Do they have science or industry? What are the various roles and how are these affected by geography, physiology, beliefs and more?

And did I mention the arts? Do they have fine arts? What about music, drama, painting, sculpting, etc.? What forms to they take? What instruments and mediums are used? What languages? Where are they performed or displayed? What do they look and sound like? How valued are they and by whom in the culture, etc.? A realistic culture will always have such things interwoven into daily life. Loved or hated, characters will take note of them.

“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can't sing. Words have to find a man's mind before they can touch his heart, and some
men's minds are woeful small targets. Music touches 
their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.” (The Name Of The 
Wind, Patrick Rothfuss)

(To Be Continued Next Week)

WriteTip: How To Approach Worldbuilding, Part 1

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 9: Worldbuilding. It is part One of a multipart series.

World Building is something that every author has to do, no matter what the genre or setting. For example, here’s a passage from Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, followed by another from And here’s another one from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:
A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permit-ted on the grounds…

…Within the walls, it’s like being in a shallow dish— azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn’t very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Changeis not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a lit-tle electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo’s keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them.
And then after walking all day through a golden haze  of humid warmth that gathered around him like fine wetfleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcroppingwhite stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was   the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the   biggest city he had come upon since—since?—the biggest in a long while of wandering in any case.

There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the    soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet  into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there star- ing down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day, twilight was still some 
hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest 
beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest 
here for a while, Valentine thought, and then I will 
go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
The Lippman establishes the setting as contemporary San Antonio, downtown to be specific. The Silverberg is a science fiction secondary world, but both have the same effect: introducing and drawing us into a living, breathing setting we can picture in our minds. This is world building.
No matter what your genre or setting, the basic concerns tend to be the same. Some require a bit more than others, like science fiction worlds requiring space travel, alien cultures, other planets, etc. but all still call for thoughtful consideration of the same categories of details. In her chapbook Checking on Culture, Lee Killough offers a great checklist which lists the relevant concerns. Here’s my adaptation of it:
Habitat__
Cosmetics__
Humor__
Religion__
Anatomy__
Cosmology__
Hygeine__
Science/Magic__
Psychology__
Death__
Knowledge Preservation__
Sex__
Agriculture__
Education__
Labor__
Sports/Games__
Animals: Domestic__
Etiquette__
Laws__
Superstitions__
Animals: Wild__
Elders__
Machines/Tools__
Taboos__
Architecture__
Families__
Marriage__
Timekeeping__
Arts__
Food/Cooking__
Math/Counting__
Towns__
Calendar__
Gestures__
Medicine__
Travel__
Childhood__
Government__
Modesty__
Transport__
Class__
History/Heroes__
Mythos__
Infrastructure__
Clothing__
Hospitality__
Pregnancy__
Warfare/Weapons__
Commerce__
Horticulture__
Professions__
Weights/Measures__
Communication__
Housing__
Property__
Use this list by checking off the items as you go through them and think through that aspect of your world. But first things first, before you start world building, you must already know your time frame. Near future, current day, or far future? When does your story take place and where? This will determine everything else. Then your research and planning can center around things relevant to that time period. Once we know the time frame, we proceed on with the list. The order depends on your priorities, but for me, it usually goes something like this:

Existing or Secondary World

He returned his attention to Barbirike Sea, which stretched, long and slender as a spear, for fifty miles 
or so through the valley below the gray cliff on which
Kasinibon’s fortress-like retreat was perched. Long 
rows of tall sharp-tipped crescent dunes, soft as 
clouds from this distance, bordered its shores. They 
too were red. Even the air here had a red reflected 
shimmer. The sun itself seemed to have taken on a 
tinge of it. Kasinibon had explained yesterday, thoughFurvain had not been particularly interested in hear- ing it at the time, that the Sea of Barbirike was hometo untold billions of tiny crustaceans whose fragile 
brightcolored shells, decomposing over the millennia, had imparted that bloody hue to the sea’s waters and 
given rise also to the red sands of the adjacent dunes.

Furvain wondered whether his royal father, who had 
such an obsessive interest in intense color effects, 
had ever made the journey out here to see this place. Surely he had. Surely.

(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)

Existing worlds are Earth or known planets in our solar system or even a few beyond. Secondary are inventions of the author. Are you inventing everything or building on what already exists and what we already know? Then you need to know geography, gravity, culture of lifeforms, etc. How many suns or moons? How many other planets? Etc.

If you are creating a secondary world, do not put your planet around a famous celestial body just because it is well known. Many of these are highly unlikely to have habitable planets around them and it requires careful thought about viability before placing planets there, particularly earth-like, human habituated ones. You should carefully consider the scientific realities of planetary location and solar system building before deciding upon such a course, even if writing a soft science story, instead of hard science fiction. Because believability for readers is paramount. Remember: you should create the questions readers ask carefully and guide them toward questions you can answer satisfactorily and away from ones you cannot. Not one covers everything. There will always be gaps. But try to avoid awkwardly obvious, glaring ones. Also, constellations will appear differently from various points around the galaxy, so don’t describe them as they appear on Earth when viewed from elsewhere.
Secondary or not, ask yourself what are the key geographic features and how do they effect population density, location of settlements, travel around and across the surface, economics, weather, etc.?  Avoid oversimplifying but just saying a planet is all jungle, all ice, etc. because based on location from sun, rotation, geography and other factors, this is not scientifically plausible as we know it and will tend to seem unrealistic and poorly considered. Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into his desert Dune planet, but too often the results of oversimplifying come across as lazy thinking. Planets are big places and will have a lot of variety. For example, civilizations will form cities around bodies of drinking water and food supplies, and their diets will vary depending upon the area in which they live and the wildlife, plants, etc. that also reside there. Those things also choose habitats based upon location of resources and so on and so forth. There is a circle and a chain of logic that will determine much of it and thus should be considered.
Geography determines travel options. Heavily mountainous areas may not have room for landing zones for starships or local air travel. Large bodies of water may need to be traversed via boats, ships or other craft in order to avoid long delays in supply, commerce, shipping, etc. So consider these things in determining where your cities are located and how people get between them.
Gravity affects quality of life from retention of water and atmosphere to breathing to ability to run and jump, etc. But this can also affect the magnetic field and exposure to radiation from solar flares, cosmic rays, and more. High gravity worlds would have shorter mountains and require people to have thicker, stronger muscles. Air would be denser and tension on body parts might lead to premature aging, sagging faces, etc. Also accidents might multiply as objects are thrown about or pulled loose by stronger gravity and strike people, vehicles, buildings, lifeforms, etc. On high gravity worlds, rain and rivers would erode land much more quickly as well, smoothing rough edges. Oceans would be calmer and bigger, more extensive, and evaporation would be slower, leaving the air and atmosphere drier with water taking longer to boil and clouds hanging lower. Planes would need bigger wings as well. Reverse these factors for lower gravity worlds, with larger land masses and smaller bodies of water, etc.
If your planet has an Earthlike atmosphere, a very slow day will result in extremes of temperature from day to night. Wind speeds will be affected by rotation as well. Oblation will tend to occur for planets with shorter days and rotations verses longer. It will be thicker or thinner at the equator accordingly. Axial tilt will determine the seasons. Slants greater than Earth will create more extreme seasons.  Weather conditions will be affected. The amount of exposure to the sun’s heat determines extremes. Wind and ocean currents will moderate the effects. Higher rotation planets will have more hurricanes and dangerous winds. Ice caps form because poles receive less heat and water freezes. Planets with ice caps will generally be cooler than those without. The skin color of people can be affected by location with desert peoples generally tending toward darker tones due to sun exposure, while people living in shadows or colder climates who spend much time underground, indoors, etc. may have lighter skin. All of these are interesting factors to take into account.
As you can see there are many factors to consider and I can only scratch the surface here. You may not use all the details but knowing them gives you the option to write the story you need to tell, without being boxed in or slowed down by ignorance.
(To Be Continued Next Week inPart 2)

WriteTip: How To Hire An Editor

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 13, slightly modified for this blog.

As a professional editor, one of the questions I hear most often from writers and others is how does one go about finding and hiring a good editor. So today’s tip addresses that challenge.

First, it’s important to know the type of editor you need. This diagram breaks down the types of editing a writer may encounter or need:

Most writers will be hiring either Developmental, Line or Copy Editors for their book. Not every editor does all of them, but some do more than one. I do all three and frequently do Developmental and Line Editing together as a package because they can be combined easily. Copy Editing is a separate pass requiring different focus and skills. Proof Readers are also quite useful, although many people find volunteers who are helpful and cost effective.

If you need to hire an editor on your own you will need to do some research. For information on standard rates, check the Editorial Freelancers Association for a list of average rates here:https://www.the-efa.org/rates/. For individual editors, they should have their rates on their website as well as a list of clients they have worked with and even quotes recommending them. For me, I’d ask some of the clients about them as well as friends to see what kind of reputation they have in the community. Then most editors usually offer a sample edit to demonstrate their skills for free (usually a page or two, maybe a chapter). Submit your work to several for samples and then compare them when you get them back. You can also reach out via social media to authors you admire asking for recommendations. Most of us have been there and will be happy to point you in the right direction toward finding a good, reliable editor—one we’ve worked with or who has worked with friends. Be sure and search bookstores and online for books in print that they’ve edited and check the quality and who published them. This kind of information tells you their level of success and skill as well as their taste, which can be important, as well as their knowledge of genres. You definitely want someone knowledgeable in the genre in which you are writing to help you navigate market expectations, tropes, and other genre-specific concerns.

Once you’ve found an editor or two you are interested in, ask for full quotes and discuss their cancellation fees, timeframe and deadlines, and how they deal with cost overruns, if any. You’ll want to be sure in advance you are not charged for extra time without permission, whether they do extra passes or just one, etc. Then choose your editor and get a contract. Make sure the contract outlines guarantees to you, not just the editor. Usually there will be clauses about payment schedules, how they deal with non- or delayed payments, etc. as well as a delivery timetable. All of this is important to have in writing to avoid conflict later, as these tend to be the areas where most misunderstandings and conflict occur between freelance editors and clients.

After that, you send them you book and get started.

I would expect a decent editor to need between three weeks and six to edit the average novel well (80,000 to 130,000 words). More if your book is longer. I would also expect them to send you regular updates on the progress and even provide the first half around the time any second payment is due, so you can get an idea of the quality of their edits, usefulness, etc. Editors work for you in this case, not a publisher, so you have total control over what you do with their edits. That’s why it’s very important to hire an editor you trust and enjoy working with, then trust their judgment enough to use their advice. Your editor’s job, whether freelance or in-house, is to help you make your book the best it can be. If you succeed, they look good, too, but most of all, you look good, because your book is your reputation, your calling card. The editor has no motivation to ruin your book with bad advice or to sabotage or hurt it. So the advice they give is always intended to help, whether it hurts your feelings or not. There is a need for your editor to be somewhat blunt—though most try to point out strengths as well as weaknesses and use a sense of humor in doing so to soften the blow—so that you get a sense of how readers will react and can really dig into the issues properly. Remember, it is not personal nor is it an attack. They are all about helping you. They are on your side. So take their comments seriously, ask questions as you have them, and try to find a way to make them work if at all possible, never dismissing them entirely out of hand.
There will be times when you disagree. Some of those will be over things that are per choice, up to you. Personal taste or preference may be a part. Good editors will admit this and explain their reason for making the editorial suggestions. These are the edits you should decide if you agree with and want to do. In other cases, edits are absolutely necessary. These usually are edits about clarity and understanding, facts, character motives, story holes, story pacing, mood, tone, emotion, etc. and should be considered very carefully and every attempt made to find a solution you can both agree on, even if it is a compromise. Remember that we all have weaknesses and strengths and the writing process is a journey. Everyone wants to best book possible and is working toward that goal, because a great book makes us all look good. Keeping that in mind should make it easier to take criticisms, even when they sting or confuse, and put you in the right mindset to trust and work with your editor as a partner, not an opponent.

Ultimately, once your book is edited, it is ready to go on to formatting, copyediting, and proofing. And those stages will involve more edits, but generally focused on repetitive words or phrases, grammar and spelling errors that slipped through, italics and underlining, house style, punctuation, etc. If the items are house style, they are nonnegotiable. Everything else can be discussed and considered, but, of course, if the grammar is wrong unintentionally or you have misspellings, you need to fix them. Accuracy matters to readers and critics. It is about professionalism and presentation.

I find the editorial process with some clients can be like pulling teeth, but with many it is pure joy. I enjoy very much watching writers gel with their material as things come into clearer focus, get stronger, and take on that sparkle they always envisioned in their minds. There’s real joy in watching a good book become great and seeing the pride the author takes in it and the success that follows. I feel very much a part of that, as well any editor, and if you find a good one, hold onto them and treasure the relationship. It is like finding gold.

WriteTip: The Dangers and Benefits of Vernacular

A recent Facebook post in a writing community I am part of got me thinking about using vernacular in fiction and writing. The post quoted from a 1987 Star Trek novel How Much For Just The Planet by John Ford which featured the following:

The poster’s comment was that this dated the fiction of a future universe by discussing video in tape format when that has now, many years before Star Trek is supposed to take place, become all but obsolete. And while this point is valid, I pointed out that the author was using vernacular in the 80s when discussing video playback commonly was referred to as tapes because that was the most common format. And authors, inevitably, are products of their time, even when writing far future stories. They struggle for balance between their imagined futures and worldbuilding concerns and communicating familiarly with readers in order to connect with them. This is where the use of Vernacular can be helpful at times. As we see from the example, however, it can also be limiting.

Now just to be clear we’re all talking about the same thing, the Oxford Dictionary online defines Vernacular as follows:

Language and dialect uses common terms that develop out of every day usage to promote unity and provide common reference and aid the sense of unity and community. Referring to video playback as tapes can be considered one of those. And for about twenty years, that vernacular was a broad common frame of reference for a great many people. The problem is that in the 2000s, tapes became almost obsolete. At first they merely stood alongside CDs and DVDs, but now they have been replaced by them entirely. With rare exceptions. Now, there was no way for John Ford to know this would happen, and the Star Trek TV series did have referring to playback of tapes as part of its worldbuilding because the TV writers didn’t anticipate it either, so in a sense he was writing within canon and established boundaries. But is that really an excuse? Shouldn’t he have anticipated the possibility that term would become outdated and avoided it just to be safe? Such was the argument of the person posting the example on Facebook, the problem I see is that in practical reality that creates close to impossible expectations for writers.

The fact remains that whatever you write, whenever you write it, you will always be a product of your time and so will your work. Anyone who wants to dig deep will be able to find from future perspective holes that date your material. It may be just an antiquated turn of phrase or, a word or two, or it may be something more glaring like technology that is outdated, but regardless, there’s virtually no way to make you work bulletproof from this occurring. You can make it hard for them, sure. There are many examples of older works that hold up so well they continue to amaze modern readers. But many more examples exist of older works that show their age with time. And the thing is there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a mistake to be dismissive of something just because of small errors in anticipating future changes like this or modifications to vernacular. It doesn’t make vernacular any less useful a tool for communicating and connecting with readers. And it certainly doesn’t make the story any less powerful or effective unless you are so petty as to allow such minor glitches to do that.

My feeling is that none of this should make one avoid use of vernacular in writing stories, but it should inform it. But not more than it informs any other aspect of worldbuilding when it comes to futurism. Keeping material as non-dated as possible for future readers should almost always be given consideration when setting stories in the future, the only exceptions being perhaps stories that are particularly tied to historical events or specific dates in some way, thus requiring direct reflection of those periods. But this consideration should never be paralyzing for the writer. Doing your best to keep the story relevant and avoid it being dated by future generations is noble but not if it keeps you from writing well or telling the story you feel inspired to tell. In the end, no one can anticipate everything, because no one has the ability to accurately predict every aspect of the future down to language, vernacular, technology, and beyond. Even if you guess, you could get it wrong. And using future trends research can only take you so far as accuracy goes as well. When it comes down to it, you can only do what you can do and let the chips fall where they may, and that’s perfectly okay. As long as you do your best. No one can ask more of you, and you shouldn’t ask more of yourself.

For what it’s worth…

Has Goodreads Outlived Its Usefulness For Authors?

 I will admit that when I first heard of Goodreads,I liked the concept, and Goodreads has done a really good job on their database and interface, so much so that their nearest competitor, LibraryThing, which has some advantages and better features, is still far behind in popularity. Purportedly meant as an app to bring readers and authors together, most authors I know use it more as a reading research and library tracker than for any meaningful interaction with fans. There have been exceptions, Michael Sullivan being notable among them (though I haven’t taken time or effort to verify his claims of successes there to be fair). But I can count on one hand the number of authors I know who have told me of meaningful interaction there with fans. In part this is due to the trolling nature of Goodreads readers who can be quite cruel in their bluntness and shortsighted in the insight their reviews provide. After a few such experiences, most authors just stop reading the reviews and develop a distaste for interacting with those types of people, even if they do luck into positive reviews from them. Most of us instead used Goodreads to track our reading, generally gauge reader responses, and as a resource for giveaways to fans. But Goodreads did even the playing field by providing a way for indie authors and small presses to get their books more prominently noticed by a larger readership, and that in and of itself was a huge benefit and blessing to many of us. And made time invested in Goodreads more than worth the effort. The promise was more reviews, although in my experience, I garnered a very small boost in reviews from the giveaways I did.

Then Amazon bought Goodreads and all of a sudden they started charging a few hundred dollars for giveaways, immediately making giveaways unaffordable for most indies and small presses while favoring the big names who already get all the advantages. One of the nice things about Goodreads giveaways being free was it allowed indies and small presses to play equally alongside the big boys at attracting reader attention. That is no longer the case with the new policy. But other developments with Amazon’s arrival have been even more insidious. Torrent links began showing up more and more in comments and as actual groups and getting them removed became a major ordeal requiring many emails and DCMA notices as well as much frustration of the authors or presses involved.

And now it appears, Goodreads allows authors to create fake profiles in the name of other authors to troll authors the creators disapprove of with really nasty reviews. I can tell you that it is always perilous as an author to review peers. As such, I learned long ago not to post any review that was below three stars publicly. So if you ever see a review below three stars bearing my name on a book, it is fake. But not everyone cares about relations with their peers as I do, and with this current rise of trolling fakes, the problem is exploding by leaps and bounds. Goodreads will remove fake accounts if you can make a good case proving they are fake and get enough people to join you in complaining, but it is not easy and in many cases, the damage may have already been done. Unless something has changed, just because accounts are removed, doesn’t mean all their reviews disappear. Many times I encountered them listed under labels such as “Inactive Account” or other such monikers. Someone has to actually undertake cleanup behind the scenes which requires effort and time, something Goodreads is stingy with when it comes to assigning employees, in my experience and that of many others I have talked to.

So I have to say I am questioning the usefulness of Goodreads to authors more and more. Is this really the type of site and community we want to invest our time and energy into? Especially when it is seems to become more anti-author or at least non-author friendly by the day? I am curious what other authors use Goodreads for besides the uses I mentioned. What experiences have you had? Is it worth the hassle or do you just use it as I do—a glorified reading database—and ignore the rest? Is this something you actually find useful to invest time in or would finding an alternative be desirable? If LibraryThing overhauled and improved their interface enough would you be more active there or just switch loyalties altogether?

Look forward to people’s thoughts on this. I think Goodreads has outlived its usefulness but I am curious if others have reached the same conclusion. For what it’s worth…

[NOTE: Comments are moderated and only constructive, non-trolling responses will be allowed. The rest will be summarily denied and deleted. This is meant to provoke meaningful, helpful discussion, not an online flame war.]

WriteTips Hiatus Til 2020

Sometimes you just need a break, and that’s me. Been blogging twice a week minimum since July, and happy to be back serving the writerly community but I need a break this holiday season to focus on other things, so putting WriteTips on break this month. Will be back in January with more. I will post every Monday and maybe a few posts at other times, but for now, thanks for being here to read. And I wish you a joyous, blessed holiday season.

Identity Theft and Me: How I was Victimized But Precautions Saved Me and Can Save You

Well, folks, apparently credit bureaus can and have been hacked, and apparently having your phone number, name, and address—all of which are public for me thanks to various reasons (though I have taken steps to correct that this past week)—is enough to steal identity. The thieves that struck me over Thanksgiving, which I discovered last Wednesday and sidelined me for the rest of the week dealing with (hence missing Wed. Post here), were able to apply for 6 cell phones in my name with Verizon and AT&T. Fortunately, they screwed up playing me enough that the accounts were held for verification and I was able to stop them before anyone got any phones or any permanent damage was done, but I have to wait 45 days for my credit to be cleaned up. And I also lost some money to the same people, who I paid for what I thought were legit goods and services but were not. Because I am careful, and it was through PayPal—through which I run my whole business and thus am a valued, heavy user—I will get most of it back within 90 days but it certainly was a wakeup call.

Why do I tell you all this? I tell it to you because it is a new day and age for security and risk online. It has been an issue for a while, but as credit card companies and merchant servicers have decided, in infinite stupidity, not wisdom, to ease some restraints, the public is more at risk. The fact is it is easier than ever to be a victim online of scammers and thieves. No precautions guarantee safety, but here’s eight that can really cut your chances and your liabilities.

Some precautions. First, save all your passwords into a fingerprint ID system. I use iPad, but there are options for cell phones of most brands now too. If the password never shows up written out or typed but can be accessed only by a finger print, it is much harder to hack.

Second, do business with strangers using a prepaid credit card. You have to put money on the card to spend it, and only put on there what you need for that transaction. Sure, you might lose a little money but you can dispose of and replace the prepaid card and limit your loss.

Third, use a secure system like PayPal that guarantees your purchases so if you get taken, you can file claims to get it back. Yes, it takes 90 days but it’s a guarantee most banks won’t give you.

Four, clean up your credit report and do a deep search on your names, phone numbers, addresses, and emails and send letters instructing the various sites you find in results to remove your private info. Clean up the web so that people cannot get access to the data they need to steal your identity. All will do so if asked but you have to read their Terms and follow their process. Is it time consuming, yes, but not as time consuming as being robbed or having identity stolen and then trying to recover.

Five, Google Phone. Get a google phone number and never give out your cell or home number. You can call using the Google Voice app for free and text too, and people will not be able to contact you in ways linked to credit cards or personal info they can hack and use to steal from you. For those of you doing online dating, this is especially vital as those sites are rife with fakes and scammers trolling for data to rob you.

Six, be careful of using video chat. It can be used to hack your iPad or computer and steal data and info. Someone tried to do it to me but all they got was a few names of family and a few of people I never heard of that self-populated here. Because I keep my iPad, which I now use as my primary online access and daily workhorse, clean of such data and well protected just to prevent such crap.

Seven, don’t trust anyone you don’t know well, especially if you have never met in person. Phone calls can be faked. Video chats can be too, and see point Six for the dangers of those. Face to face cannot. Catfishing is a reality, people posing as someone else then showing up thinking they are charming enough or have made enough emotional connect you will let it slide. If someone lied once about who they are, they will do it again. Never trust them a second time.

Eight, if you have any doubt, believe it. Trust your gut. If it feels like a scam, assume it is. Probably you are right and it is not worth the risk.

I hope these lessons help some of you avoid the pain in the ass I went through last week. They certainly kept me from losing more than a couple hundred bucks and a bunch of time, and as identity theft goes, those are really good numbers. I was lucky. And I will be even more careful in the future.

For what it’s worth…

A Few Thoughts on Boxes & Character Worldviews

We all live in a box.

Some of you will know immediately what I mean when I say that. Others may bristle. But  have the advantage of having traveled the world quite a bit and I’ve seen the truth of it everywhere I go and everywhere I have lived.


The world is a complex place. Filled with uncertainties and variations and surprises that can twist things unexpectedly. So depending upon the  breadth of experience one has in living in various locations, cultures, subcultures, etc., one tends to come to see the world through a particular lens. The boundaries of this lens are a sort of box. Anything that falls within our box is what we tend to expect and understand as normal. Anything outside of it is an aberration.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit. But I hope you all understand the concept now.

In the internet age, coming into contact with people whose box conflicts with or at least seems to hardly overlap one’s own is becoming common and more and more leads to conflict. So when writing characters, I think writers need to consider this aspect of human world views to write more realistic characters and conflicts. In truth, most writers have been doing this all along, because the conflicts between characters always arise out of their different Points of View—needs, wants, desires, goals, and so on. But nuance and depth can come from deeper understanding of how the basis of these conflicts arises out of ways of seeing the world through different lenses.

For example, in Ghana, West Africa, it is considered rude for servants—even those temporarily assuming such duties like tour guides, drivers, or assistants to visiting dignitaries—to eat meals in public alongside their betters. When we ate out in Ghana, our young aide refused to eat with my team and one time some team members got very irritated with me for not inviting him. I told them I had been there before and that even if I asked, he would refuse, but they insisted, so I walked outside and asked him. I should have had one of them do it. But when I came back, as expected, with his declination, they were convinced I was some kind of bigot. I later explained this to the young aide, who is a good friend even today, and he tried to set them straight but it did no good. So stuck were they in their concept of what the world should look like that they couldn’t even consider, let alone respecting, his point of view or my regard for it.

This is just one example of many such I could give but things like this happen every day. Another time, I was surprised to hear the Ghanaians once express resentment toward the African American “homelanders”— who came back and acted like they had returned to their home when they knew nothing about it, had no concept of its culture, beliefs, or customs. They said that was arrogant and disrespectful. Those people were no Africans. This is the culture clash of different boxes. Do all Ghanaians feel this way? No, but even within Ghana with all the tribes and subcultures there are different boxes just as there are in the U.S. with all our cultures, subcultures, etc. This is not exclusive to international culture clashes. It is local, too.

Your characters will have boxes and the worlds they inhabit, to be realistic, will have cultures, subcultures, and divisions wherein people have different views of the world that come into conflict with each other, so it would behoove you to write and carefully consider how these cultural differences create conflict and nuance in your worldbuilding and story. Your stories will be richer and more realistic for the effort. And you will in turn gain valuable perspective to perhaps look at those around you with new eyes. Things that maybe once bugged you might be worth a second look or a few sensitively phrased questions to determine their cause. Perhaps you will be able to reach new understandings with others that enrich your own life in the process.

Our boxes only define us if we allow them too. It is possible—I have done it and it was hard work—to inhabit the world with respect for others and sensitivity to control emotional or knee jerk reactions in these kinds of moments so that you can not only better see and respond to the conflicts arising from the different boxes of those around you but widen your own box in the process. Your world, life, and writing will be much richer for it, and you will gain deeper respect and friendships as well.

Just a few simple thoughts on a very complex problem. For what it’s worth…

 

 

WriteTip: Suspense Tools—Pacing The Slower Moments & Narrative Pacing

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

For the past month I have been covering Suspense and Pacing Techniques for writing. Today, we wrap it up with final techniques for Slower Moments and Narrative Pacing. For reference and context both, my previous posts in this series are as follows:

Dialogue and Pacing: Tips To Keep It Moving

Techniques For Creating Suspense

Handling Pacing in Writing Action

Slower Moments

In between the more action driven scenes, you will need moments that build characters, set up conflict, and even show confrontations and events leading up to the action. Some of these may be quiet, reflective moments, some will have a different intensity. But the trick is to create a flow that lets us breathe, gather our thoughts, and regroup a bit before more action.
Earlier we talked about flashbacks for building suspense, but as I said, they can also slow things down. If a character breaks the current tension and timeline to go back and recall a key moment from their past, it can ease the pace a bit. The important thing is to make the flashbacks matter by providing key information about characters and their motives or relationships or both, while still not making the scenes too long or slow. You don’t want to stop the story dead, you just want to let up on the adrenaline a bit while still moving forward the story. Flashback scenes still need to be written in media res so they are as tight and focused around conflict as any other scene, but when used to break the pace, they can be less action and more conversational, with characters arguing or discussing points of disagreement or even replaying key moments from their past that have stayed with them, motivating the action and decisions they are making in the present timeline. I’m sure we can all think of examples, so I’ll skip that here, and move on to other options.
Love scenes, planning scenes where the characters compare notes or discuss strategy, meal gatherings, evidence gathering, interrogation, searches, even expositional moments can all can serve the purpose of slowing down the pace in your story. They still need conflict, and they still need to provide information that advances the story, but not every moment has to be high drama. Write these scenes using the tension methods discussed earlier in the chapter and insert them in between your high action scenes, and you will create a nice flow and rhythm that builds into an ascending arc through the Mid-Point and then allows for the descent to the climax in the second half, just the right structure. It takes practice, as they say, but you can see how this works in your reading if you pay attention. Then imitate it in your own work. That’s how we all learn.
Another trick is to use humor. An anecdote or humorous banter or even a slightly comedic scene can break up the tension and pace just right to allow readers to regroup for more.

Narrative Pacing

Most writers learn to look at writing scenes and stories like planning a race. And to win a race, you need the right pace and rhythm. There are ups and downs, sprints and jogs, and slow scenes are your downs and jogs, not sprints, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to move. The key, of course, as already discussed, is maintaining tension. As long as the story is moving forward and story questions are coming up, even slower scenes will feel like they move. Much of this comes down to narrative pacing.
Keeping excitement high doesn’t just mean action. What it means is keeping it relevant and interesting. As discussed before, as long as descriptive passages, exposition, and character moments are still providing information that readers want to know and feel advances the story, the pace continues to move. Narrative takes up a lot of space in any novel, and many novels have action unfolding at a steady climb throughout until big crises of action occur. William Noble defines narrative pacing as “pacing without dialogue shifts or quick scene cuts or sharp point-of-view changes.” It won’t work over the long haul, but in short sections, as long as we know the action and suspense are leading somewhere, narrative pacing keeps your story moving while still giving readers breathers in between tense moments of crisis.
Noble writes: “narrative pacing works because we show what is happening; we are moving the story forward using description, anecdotes, and character development. As we depict what happens, we keep our readers involved because the story continues to unfold and the action and suspense grow taut, until we reach that crisis or turning point.” A slow build can be very satisfying; often far more satisfying than a breathless race. The trick is to create flow of movement. Narrative pacing works best, Noble suggests, when it opens a story or chapter, lasts several pages, builds to a crisis, keeps the story moving, and develops conflict early and keeps it pulsing.

Mixing It Up

Dialogue tends to move more quickly than description and exposition, so when constructing a story, writers learn to pay attention to the impact dialogue has on pace. Sometimes you need some background and information to understand character’s motives and decisions. And other times you need a conversation as they gather information, debate options, and confront others. Then they must take action. This pattern will repeat time and again in your novel and should. Well-paced novels have pages with a mix of sentence and paragraph lengths on most pages. You can just look at them and tell where the slow spots and fast spots are. Much of this is intuitive, but when you are learning, paying attention to varying sentence and paragraph lengths is important training. Keep those descriptive and expository passages broken into shorter chunks and multiple paragraphs, so the story feels like it moves. Every paragraph break and page turn feels like progress to a reader, so constructing your story with such movement in mind is essential to a well-paced experience.
As you write, description, action, exposition, and dialogue will become intermixed. Sometimes you will have a page or half-page of description before a single line of dialogue, then some exposition and action before the next line of dialogue. Other times, dialogue will move quickly, only occasionally interrupted by bits of exposition or description or action. As long as all of these parts have tension and conflict flowing beneath the surface to drive them, all will be well. This is why I spent so much time talking about creating tension at the beginning of this chapter. If you find a scene feeling static, with characters repeating themselves or chit chatting and saying nothing that moves the story forward, trim, trim, trim. Every word must count. Every moment must move. If it doesn’t, your novel will big filled with bog-like potholes that stop it dead and force readers to slog onward, risking their loss of interest.
Transitions and scene breaks can also help pacing because both cut away from the action and crisis long enough to allow a shift. Noble writes: “the scene change can cause a variation in the level of action and suspense and generate a continuing interest in what’s happening. Without the change of pace, the reader will grow weary and turn away.” Cliffhangers are a great way to build suspense. They leave us hanging, wanting more, anxious to find out what happens next. But cliffhangers make bad transitions and scene changes if used too often. They are most effective when use for effect, especially when breaking up action scenes to intersperse with other important moments—such as when two sets of characters are involved in different confrontations or actions at the same time—or to end chapters and keep us reading. Otherwise, transitions and scene changes should feel natural and make sense. We need to feel one scene or chapter coming to a natural close before we switch to a new one. This doesn’t have to involve long, drawn out narrative passages. It can be a few sentences or a line of dialogue or action or two. What we need is that sense of conclusion to the present scene or chapter.
A lot of what we are talking about here is learning on instinct. You read and absorb how it plays out in other books, then learn to imitate and apply it to your own. It is not easy to teach, and for some, it will not be easy to learn. But it really becomes instinct with time, or needs to. Your mind will create the right combinations as you go, and you will teach and hone them in editing and revision to get just the right flow. For most authors, that is how pacing works, and that’s probably how it will work for you.

Thankfulness: What Are You Truly Thankful For

December 1st is always an odd time. A time when we shift from a period of reflection and thanksgiving formalized in the Thanksgiving Holiday—which, of course, also has ties to pilgrims and Indians colonizing the states—to the season of greed and giving, Christmas. Now, Christmas for Christians signifies a sacrifice and gift of a Savior, which if you believe in it can and should have real significance. But for many, even some Christians, that blessed gift is often overshadowed by the commercialized Santa-fication of the holiday as signified by a famous jolly old elf and his elf assistants and reindeer with shiny, lit up trees and candy canes and tinsel and so much pomp and circumstance as much centered on receiving as giving.

It’s an odd shift to go from gratitude to greed, yet so many of us seem to manage it seamlessly year after years. I make no claim of being an exception, but what I am as a poor person however is someone used to meager giving and receiving due to circumstances in a way that lends itself to philosophical thought. And that brings us to today’s question: What Are You Truly Thankful For?

Are you thankful for the people who love you in spite of your imperfections, mistakes, and other failings? Who keep coming back time after time to support and check on you no matter what? Who you can call day or night and count on night or day when the going is tough or when it’s really easy? Most of us have someone like that, or more than one.

Are you thankful for the material things you keep gaining in abundance—a DVD collection, a book collection, music collection, wardrobe, money, a car, makeup—you name it?

Be honest. What first comes to mind when you hear the word “Thankfulness.” It is likely there that your true treasure lies. Ask yourself is that really where it should be? Is what you are most instinctually thankful for the thing you should value the most when it comes to gratitude?

For years, I would have answered “What Are You Truly Thankful For?”with things like my guitar, keyboard, banjo, books, CDs, DVDs or something else material. These days I am far more likely to answer with my pet’s names because after years of struggles with suicidal depression after a horrendously traumatic divorce, they are the ones who loved me unconditionally every day and got me to get out of bed and find the will to keep going. I might not have cared if I lived but I’d be damned if these poor once abused and abandoned animals I’ve taken in would be cut one damn day short of the life they deserve because of me. Seriously. They love me even when I lose my temper and am short with them. I couldn’t possible ever leave them without someone to take care of them. And so I went on. And things got better, and here I am. Because of Louie and Amelie, and now Lacy too.

For me, at least, that is an object for gratitude truly worthy of the name. And I am thankful that I have them to remind me of what true fortune is. What about you? You get up, you eat, you breathe, you drive a car, leave a house you own or rent but consider “your home”—for most of you its nice and you take pride in it—what do you truly feel gratitude when you think about? That’s the answer to “What Are You Truly Thankful For?” that I want to hear. Thats the one that should be first on your minds.

If it’s not, ask yourself why and perhaps reconsider your priorities a bit as we go into a season of greed that could erase the good will and positive vibes the prior season of thanksgiving has left us all with, or should have. I am not judging you. I am trying to inspire you: to see the true value where it really is and embrace it. To make thankfulness truly a philosophy of living. I am trying to do it and even pondering it changes your outlook and your attitude. That’s unavoidable.

Which sounds better: walking through life with true gratitude for something meaningful you have that you never deserved and money can’t buy or walking through life lusting for the next gratefulness fix, one that will fade away as soon as the next desire overcomes and takes its place?

Consider this a challenge. When you think of the word “thankfulness,” What Are You Truly Thankful For? Is that the best it can be? If not, what are you going to do about it.

For what it’s worth…-

Write Tip: Handling Pacing & Writing Action

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

Pacing

When people hear the word pacing, they typically think of “slow” or “fast,” or perhaps “action,” but in novels pacing needs both to be successful. Dictionary.com defines pace as:

  1. a rate of movement, especially in stepping, walking, etc.; 
  2. a rate of activity, progress, growth, performance, etc.; tempo.

In regards to your novel, the pacing is a combination of steady, fast, and slow passages creating a rhythm that flows for readers, engaging and holding their interest, while still pausing to let them catch their breath and regroup from time to time. 

Experienced novelists tend to get a natural sense of pacing as they write. Newer writers, however, will have to learn this. Imagine yourself on a treadmill, speed slowly increasing. Your pulse begins pounding, your breathing increases, the rhythm of the humming tread and your footfalls accelerating to combine into a steady beat. Then imagine keeping that speed for ten hours straight. Do you think you’d last? Probably not. The same is true of readers reading a novel.

While it is true that readers like stories where “something happens,” and action is a big part of that, readers also need stories that stop for reflective moments, too, allowing them to catch their breath, take a sip of water, grab a snack, and regroup. In constructing your plot, you should learn to plan for such a rhythm. Two or three high points of tense, fast pace, should be followed by a slower, thoughtful point before the next two or three fast, tense points begin. There are various ways to accomplish this which we will look at next.

Since action is the driving force of drama, let’s start with action. But don’t worry, we’ll get to how to slow it down too, right after. Just like I said we should.

Writing Action

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites, but I also spend a great deal of my time reading thrillers and police procedurals. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories?

One of the best action writers I know is Jonathan Maberry, the New York Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger thrillers and several other series. Let’s look at an action scene from one of his novels, Assassin’s Code:

I struggled to get to my feet.

A minute ago I had thought that the whole world was 
sliding into the mouth of hell, but now a different 
kind of hell had come to this place of shadows. There were screams and Upierczi running everywhere. Flares 
popped in the air, painting everything in bright white
light.

I took a step toward Grigor and my foot kicked something. I looked down and saw the code scrambler.

I bent and picked it up.

“Cowboy—on your six!”

It was Khalid’s voice, and I turned to see one of the vampires four feet away. 

I had no time to run. I didn’t want to run. As he 
slammed into me I buried the pistol under his chin and
blew off the top of his head. We hit the ground and I lay there, Upierczi blood all over me. In my face, my eyes, my mouth.

I rolled over and threw up.

Grigor was still screaming. Then I heard a sharp yelp of pain and looked up to see the Upierczi fling Ghost aside. Ghost hit the side of a packing crate and col- lapsed, spitting blood onto the floor. I saw a couple of teeth, too.

That made me mad. Maybe I needed that to shake off the
damage and the pain. 

I came out of my daze and finally the situation gelled
in my mind. The Upierczi were rushing outward from me,
some were seeking cover, most were rushing at Echo 
Team. 

Bunny and Top were at the foot of the metal stairs. 
Bunny had a combat shotgun with a drum magazine and he
was firing, firing, firing. Everything that came at 
him died. The heavy buckshot soaked with garlic oil 
poisoned every Upier that wasn’t instantly killed by 
his blasts. The ones who took a few pellets staggered away, gagging and twitching with the onset of allergic
shock.

Top was watching his back, firing a big Navy Colt automatic, the hollow points doing terrible work in the tightly packed crowd.

On the other side of the chamber, Khalid and Lydia 
were behind a packing crate, using it as a shooting 
blind to create a cross fire.

“Frag out!” Lydia yelled and lobbed grenades into the heart of the vampires.

The fragmentation grenades weren’t filled with garlic,
but the blasts tore the monsters to pieces.

I saw three Upierczi running along the wall toward 
them, well out of Lydia’s line of sight. I raised my 
pistol but before I could fire the monsters went down,
one, two, three, their heads burst apart by sniper 
rounds. John Smith, firing from somewhere I couldn’t 
see.

My knife was on the floor too, and I grabbed it as 
well. I shoved knife and scrambler into my pocket and tapped my earbud. “Echo, Echo, this is Cowboy. I have the football and I need a doorway out of here.”

“I have your back,” came the reply, but it wasn’t in 
my earbud. I whirled, and there she was. Dressed all 
in black, splashed with blood, a wickedly curved blade
in each hand.

“Violin,” I began, but she shook her head.

“No time.”

She lunged past me as several Upierczi rushed my blind
side. Until that moment I didn’t understand what 
“gifts” the dhampyri had gotten from the cauldron of 
their birth. 

Violin was not as physically powerful, but my God, she
was fast.

She met the rushing vampires, and even though I am 
trained to observe and understand combat at any level,
I could not follow what happened. Her arms moved so 
fast, her body spun and danced as she threaded her way
through the pack, the silver blades whipped with such frenzy that the monsters seemed to disintegrate around
her. It was so fast that their blood hung in the air 
like mist. It was hypnotic and beautiful in the most 
awful way that perfect violence can be beautiful; and it was horrible because there was nothing natural 
about what I was seeing.

Violin was a thing born from rape, torn from a tortur-ed mother by a monster of a father, raised in a cu— 
ture of rage and humiliation. If it was possible for 
the concept of vengeance to be embodied in one form, 
then that’s what I was seeing.

The Upierczi did not understand the nature of their 
death. I could see that on their faces. They saw a 
woman— something that to them represented a thing to 
be taken and used and discarded— and they attacked her
with the arrogance of habitual users. They expected 
her to fall. They expected her to be weak.

They did not expect the precise and unstoppable fury 
of this daughter of Lilith.

She killed and killed and killed.

And yet, with all of that, I knew it wasn’t going to 
be enough. There were at least a hundred of the Upier-czi in the chamber. More of them were seeded through 
the staff of the refinery. There were a handful of us.

We were going to lose this fight.

In my earbud I heard John Smith say, “Mother of God.”

And then I heard him scream.

I wrenched myself away from Violin and raised my gun, searching the catwalks for Smith. I saw him.

I saw what was left of him fall.

Grigor, bloody, torn, perhaps dying, stood on the cat-walk fifty yards away. His mouth was bright with fresh
blood.

John Smith struck the hard stone floor in a broken sprawl. His throat was completely torn away.

“No!”

I heard that scream of denial fill the air. From 
Bunny’s throat, from Lydia’s and Khalid’s. From my own.

Before I knew what I was doing I was running with my 
gun held in both hands, firing, firing. Bullets pinge and whanged off the steel pipes of the catwalk, but 
Grigor ducked away and fled out through an open 
doorway.

I raced toward the stairway, but Khalid was closer and
he bolted up the metal steps in hot pursuit. Seven 
Upierczi saw what was happening and they leapt like 
apes onto the pipes and climbed upward. I emptied my 
magazine at them. One fell away. 

By the time I reached the foot of the stairs I had th 
magazines swapped out and I ran upward. I was still 
hurt, still bleeding. Maybe inside, too. My chest was a furnace and it felt like it was consuming me, but I didn’t care.

As I reached the top deck, the last of the Upierczi 
turned and blocked my way. I put three rounds through his face and kicked his body out of my way.

Behind me there was another massive explosion, and I 
lingered at the doorway, knowing that the blast 
signature didn’t match our fragmentation grenades. I 
was right.

Smoke and fire billowed out of one of the tunnels and Upierczi bodies were flung backward. Then a wave of new figures flooded in. Thirty of them. Women.

Arklight. The Mothers of the Fallen come for justice 
of a kind.

The battle below became a bloodbath.

I turned away and ran after Khalid, the Upierczi, and Grigor.

Note the short sentences and paragraphs, as well as short spurts of dialogue. The description, action, and dialogue are all short and spaced so that readers’ eyes will flow down the page at a quick pace as they take it in. Also, note the lack of exposition or great detail. This is not the time for it. As a trained martial artist and experienced bodyguard, Maberry has an innate sense of how action really works and makes his fight scenes as realistic as possible. For those of us lacking such background, writing action scenes can be a challenge. In movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned:

1) Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up.

2) Use action to break up dialogue and dialogue to break up action. Intersperse the two components in short segments to add a sense of pacing and tension. Writing long sections of dialogue and long sections of action will tend to read slow and thus stall the pacing. This is especially true of dialogue as noted above. Alternating them adds a sense of realism and keeps things moving.

3) Get to the point. Long descriptions of weapons and scenery don’t belong here. If things need to be set up, do it before the sequence occurs so you don’t have to interrupt the action to do it. You want to focus on sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc. Are they sweating? Are they hurting? Not on what the building behind them looks like or even the street itself. You don’t want to spend pages like Tom Clancy describing their weapon here. We need to know what it is and how it works and their skill level so we cannot be surprised by their actions, but set that up elsewhere. During the action, we should already know.

4) Don’t make it too easy. Yes, the hero will likely win. But make it a challenge. Be sure and make the opponents threatening enough that the hero is in real jeopardy, otherwise the dramatic impact will be greatly lessened. No matter how skilled your hero is, he or she must have to face obstacles. In action sequences the odds should seem stacked against him.  Let them bleed from a wound. Let them misfire or miss with the sword. Let them sweat and even have to run, barely escaping. Sometimes it’s even good to let them lose one time only to have them win later on. Force them to stretch themselves in some way to succeed. Make them human or the reader’s will struggle to care.

5) Keep it believable.  This goes hand in hand with number 4. Real people are imperfect. They make mistakes. They fail. Make sure your action sequences are well researched and realistic. Besides humanizing the hero, don’t have vehicles or weapons performing beyond their capabilities. You may assume readers won’t know the difference but some will. And writing without limits rings hollow. Make sure you respect the limits and use them to up the tension. A man stuck with a sword fighting men with guns will face tense moments. A man against incredible odds is a man we root for.

6) Keep it tight. Anything absolutely not necessary should be cut. This includes long descriptions and dialogue as mentioned in number 1 but also the scene openings and closings. The rule I learned in film school was to get in a scene as late as possible and out as soon as possible. Nothing hurts pacing more than disobeying this rule. Be sure you start the action as fast as possible and end it the same. Don’t drag it out unnecessarily in your desire to make it more dramatic or a “cooler” sequence. Make it exactly as long as it really needs to be to serve the story and no longer.

7) Give the readers breathing space. Be careful about putting too many action sequences too close together. Movies build to a climax which may have twenty minutes of action but before that action scenes are interspersed with slower moments. Make sure you intersperse your action sequences with moments of character building and reflection, dialogue and discovery–slower sequences which allow readers to breathe a bit before the next intense action scene. In between scenes are where you make action sequences matter.  Action is not just about a character we care about surviving but about stakes he or she has in that victory. What is the character’s driving need or goal? This gets set up in other scenes and provided driving undercurrent to the action which makes us care.

8 ) Pick your moments. Action stories tend to have several sequences spread throughout. Be sure you consider in choosing which sequence to include where the overall dramatic level of them. You want the biggest action sequence in the entire piece to be either at the closing of the piece. Those in between should leave room for a build up to the major action sequence to come. Ideally, each scene builds up to those that follow but this can be accomplished in ways besides upping the stakes and tension or odds. With proper character arcs, character’s emotional stakes can be developed in such a way that each later sequence matters that much more, making the readers care more as well.

9) Make it matter. Action scenes do not exist solely to entertain readers and add tension. They have a greater purpose to serve the story. Something must happen which ups the stakes or increases the challenges with each scene in your story and action scenes are no exception. Don’t write action for the sake of action. Write action because it serves the story. Every action sequence should move the story and characters forward in their journey, if not, they don’t belong in the story.

10) Incorporate humor. Humor is a great tool for not only breaking the tension but building character during action sequences. It’s no accident characters like Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Die Hard’s McClane engage in witty banter during such moments and your characters can as well. From funny actions to funny dialogue snippets, this makes the action both more enjoyable and less tense when done at the right moments and can add a lot to reader enjoyment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate it when you can. It doesn’t have to be cheesy catch phrases either. It’s all in the wording.

Now, thinking about these tips, go back and read the Maberry passage again and see how they are applied. He uses every technique mentioned in his action scenes, and in between, he gives us breathing space. So what are some techniques for doing that?

Cover Reveal: The Sideman (John Simon Book 2) (almost final)

THE SIDEMAN

John Simon Thrillers, Book 2

With Lucas George close to graduating at the top of his class as the first android graduate from the Kansas City Regional Police Academy, Master Detective John Simon uncovers a string of burglaries with unusual similarities. Bombers may be planning a huge attack at a popular tourist site, and Simon and Lucas have to find them and stop them before it’s too late. As the pair investigate, bodies start to drop, including two of their own. Now it’s a race against the clock and Emma’s best friend’s father, a sax player, may hold the key to unraveling it all. But will he open up in time to stop them? THE SIDEMAN, book two in the explosive, action-packed John Simon Thrillers by Hugo-nominated, national bestselling author Bryan Thomas Schmidt (Predator, The X-Files). Coming January 2020!

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

“John Simon is every bit as compelling a character as those who inspired him, and in some aspects Schmidt even does them one better. The dialogue is snappy and the descriptions engrossing as he paints a picture of ‘tomorrow’s’ Kansas City. I for one enjoyed the hell out of it!”–Dayton Ward, New York Times bestselling author of 24: Trial by Fire, and Star Trek: In The Name of Honor.

“Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s new book Simon Says is the perfect example of staying true to your genre and ‘dancing with the one that brung you’ while stretching out and adding something fresh and exciting to the typical fare.” — Hank Garner, Author Stories

“I couldn’t put it down–it was like one long action scene that never stopped. Gritty all the way through. With moments of affection, empathy, family dynamics and a relentless pursuit of accurate police procedures, it doesn’t let up!”—Paul Knox, Author of Behind Open Eyes

 And here’s a two chapter sneak peek for FREE!

 

WriteTip: Techniques For Creating Suspense

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

 

Techniques for Creating Suspense

So in addition to ratcheting up the tension every chance you get, what are some techniques to use to build suspense? The description of the bar above is a form of subtlety and misdirection known as foreshadowing. And foreshadowing is a technique all writers should use. Foreshadowing is presenting hints that will pay off in a bigger way later in a story.

For example, in Andy Weir’s smash hit novel The Martian, he sets up his protagonist, Mark Watney’s, background as a botanist to foreshadow later events:

In other news, I’m starting to come up with an idea 
for food. My botany background may come in useful 
after all. Why bring a botanist to Mars? After all, 
it’s famous for not having anything growing here. Well, the idea was to figure out how well things grow in 
Martian gravity, and see what, if anything, we can do with Martian soil. The short answer is: quite a lot… 
almost. Martian soil has the basic building blocks 
needed for plant growth, but there’s a lot of stuff go-ing on in Earth soil that Mars soil doesn’t have, 
even when it’s placed in an Earth-atmosphere and given
plenty of water. Bacterial activity, certain nutrientsprovided by animal life, etc. None of that is happen- ing on Mars. 

One of my tasks for the mission was to see how plants grow here, in various combinations of Earth or Mars 
soil and atmosphere. 

That’s why I have a small amount of Earth soil and a 
bunch of plant seeds with me. I can’t get too excited,
however. It’s about the amount of soil you’d put in a window planter-box, and the only seeds I have are a 
few species of grass and ferns. They’re the most 
rugged and easily grown plants on earth, so NASA pick-ed them as the test subjects. 

So I have two problems: not enough dirt, and nothing 
edible to plant in it.

Later on, Watney uses materials on the ship and in the environment to grow food and extend his life on the planet while he waits for rescue. In fact, his scientific calculations and knowledge become key to making rescue possible, but the timing for the mission becomes vitally important and dramatic. He has one shot at it and complications, of course, put the timing in jeopardy. What at first may seem like backstory on the character, becomes an essential plot elements. This is foreshadowing. A seemingly innocuous mention of science that might otherwise seem boring or useless foreshadows an important skill that will later save his life and be a hinge the story’s outcome depends on.

In my epic fantasy novel Duneman, I was creating a world where parts of the lands lived in medieval like conditions, while others had started industrial development, with steam powered airships, cranes, and more. Because the story starts in the medieval-like area, at one point, I had the protagonist pass airship landing zones on his journey, hinting that this land may seem medieval and standard fantasy but somewhere there are airships. It was subtle but later became important and set up the contrast between different areas of the lands, which in itself becomes an important source of conflict between various people groups—one that soon puts them on the brink of war. Always look for ways to hint at details early on which will play a key part later. If you don’t, readers will feel like you are inventing of necessity character skills and abilities or objects just when you need them for the story, which is manufactured and doesn’t ring true, and will shake their confidence and trust in you as a storyteller.

What if your characters hear a gunshot out on the street…discover a missing letter in the couch cushions…or smell an out of place odor in an unusual place? In Conflict, Action & Suspense, William Noble describes this technique as “plot-hypers.” Plot-hypers involve “injecting an unexplained event or circumstance” to add uncertainty or raise tension. Some are accomplished via misdirection and others through subtlety. He offers two classic examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book The Hound of The Baskervilles, Sherlock discovers that a watch dog did not bark at a crucial moment, an odd coincidence. But at the end of the story, it becomes a significant clue that helps solve the case. This is subtlety.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a thief places an inoffensive letter next to a crucial one and then slyly slips away with the important one in front of witnesses. Police begins suspecting the thief because of his history and assume a search will turn up the letter, but the thief tricks them and hides it in plain sight. It almost works. This is misdirection.

Both involve one little fact that leads to an assumption. The authors don’t hit readers over the head. But yet the assumptions both take the story in surprising directions.

Another technique for setting up suspense is through flashbacks. Now, some people hate flashbacks. Flashbacks are scenes that take place earlier in a character’s history which reveal important information about the character, his or her relationships, or his or her conflict and flaws, which advance the story in their reveal. Admittedly, some authors overuse flashbacks, which can be annoying and also risks killing the pace of storytelling. Like any other scenes, flashbacks should be kept short and in media res applied. Enter and exit the scene as close to the key action as possible. Also be sure you introduce flashbacks only as needed vitally to further the story. Timing is key and when used well, flashbacks are an invaluable and quite effective tool for building tension and suspense in storytelling. The catch is that flashbacks can often slow the pace because they take us away from the main tension of the story and out of the present, pressing conflict to another time. For that reason, we will discuss them again briefly under pacing. But here’s an example from Miracle Man by David Baldacci, where a flashback actually continues the suspense and tension, despite interrupting a scene.

Decker has just posed as a lawyer in an attempt to get in to see a suspect at a police precinct—a suspect in the murder of his wife and child. As the woman at the counter asks him to sit and wait while she calls for approval, this happens:

Realizing he might have just blown a bunch of money he
didn’t have on lawyer-looking attire, Decker sat down in a chair bolted to the wall and waited. The old 
woman picked up her phone and slowly, ever so slowly, punched in numbers.

Numbers. Always numbers.

They had a hypnotic effect on him, sending him to 
places he didn’t always want to go.

Decker closed his eyes and his mind began to whir back…back to the day, no, the exact moment when his life 
changed forever.

The crowd went berserk every time the hit was replayed
on the megatron, and that was often, I was told later.My helmet flew five feet and rolled another six, end- ing at the feet of a zebra who picked it up and maybe checked inside to see if my head was still in there.

I think my brain bounced against my skull multiple 
times like a bird trying to introduce itself to a 
window until its neck breaks.

Yep, the crowd cheered and whooped whenever the mega- tron belched out the replay.

Then I was told that they stopped cheering. Because I didn’t get up. Because I didn’t move a muscle. And 
then someone noticed I had stopped breathing and had also turned blue. They told me the head training was 
alternating pounding my chest like a punch press 
attacking metal slabs and blowing air into my mouth. 
Later, they told me I died on the field twice but he 
brought me back both times from the hereafter. They 
told me he was screaming in my ear, “Hang on, ninety-
five. Hang the hell on.” I was such a nobody that he 
knew my jersey number but not my name.

My professional football player identity was a nine 
and a five printed on my chest.

Nine and five. Violet and brown in my counting colors mind. I never consciously assigned colors to numbers. My brain did it for me without my permission.

The collision changed everything about me, because it essentially rewired my brain. So I died, twice, and 
then came back, essentially as someone else. And for 
the longest time I thought that would be the most 
awful thing that would ever happen to me. And then 
came that night and those three bodies in neon blue, 
and the gridiron blindside dropped to number two on 
the list of my personal devastations.

“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”

Decker opened his eyes to see the woman staring down 
at him.

Now that is a well-constructed flashback. Not only does he use telling language because Decker is recalling things that happened along with things others told him about them, but it interrupts the moment he has awaited for four long years: a chance to confront his family’s killer, yet still manages to maintain tension and suspense. That’s because every word drips with the character’s emotions and because Baldacci chooses the flashback placement well. It has everything to do with who Decker is and his intensity as a person and it even ties into the moment at the police station at the end. So, planned and written well, flashbacks too can be a device for upping suspense. We’ll talk about them more later. First, here’s yet another technique.

A fourth technique is reversing the rules. This technique uses contrariness to create excitement and defy expectations. It’s about having things go against the established expectations to twist plot and characters from what readers would normally expect. Noble writes: “A reader expects something to be a certain way, but suddenly it’s not. The misdirection is in the expectation, the subtlety is in the surprise.”

For example, what if a handsome man is cruel, a real jerk, or an evil character happens to have a soft heart for kids, who love and flock to him whenever he’s around? A church is corrupt and hides a criminal enterprise. A school teacher is engaged in selling students into sex slavery. All of these are twists on normal expectations that first occur to us, twists that surprise us by defying our natural assumptions. This is reversing the rules.

These four techniques are the most common tools for building suspense, but no doubt some of you—and other authors—can think of others I didn’t mention. The general rule is to use whatever works for you and betters your story and ignore what doesn’t. Also closely related to suspense is pacing—the flow of your story. It’s the combination of tension and suspense—keeping readers wondering, guessing, wanting to know what happens—that sets the pace of your story. We’ll examine that next.

Thank You for Your Service (Veteran’s Day Thoughts)

Veteran’s Day often gets glossed over these days because people fail to recognize how much has been done to provide and protect the freedom they so enjoy. This series of cartoons that came out last week just nails it, so in lieu of these, I share these as a reminder. Whoever served in your life, whether family or friends or strangers, take the time to say thanks today and every chance you get. They earned it. And you can never say it enough.

 

WriteTip: Dialogue and Pacing—Tips to Keep it Moving

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Dialogue and Pacing (In media res)

Previously, I wrote about In Medias Res—the rule that you should get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon after as you can to up the tension and help pacing. This is particularly true in dialogue scenes. Dialogue, as a rule, tends to move faster than action and description, upping your novel’s pace. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey writes: “Plunging into the middle of scenes speeds your novel along and keeps the reader involved in the rising conflict…When critics say a work is fast-paced, it is often because the writer keeps his characters engaged in intense conflicts and cuts directly into scenes with rising conflict.” A lot of time can be saved by starting scenes with the conflict already happening or ending them right as it ends. The results will also make your story feel faster. For example:

Johnny opened the door and stepped into his kitchen.

“Hi, honey,” his wife said, sing-song as usual, and   bounced across the floor to greet him. They embraced 
and kissed as usual before she asked, “How was your 
day?”

“Boring. Usual sales calls. Nagging boss. How was 
yours?”

“It sucked. I got fired,” she said, frowning. Johnny 
hadn’t expected it, given her great mood.

Now what if it were written like this?

“Today sucked,” Johnny’s wife said the minute he 
opened the door.

“What happened?” he asked as she moped across the
floor to greet him.

“My boss is an asshole,” she said, then kissed him.

“Well, we kinda knew that.”

She smiled. “Well, now we have proof.”

Which feels more dramatic and fast paced? In every scene you write, look for the best way to enter dramatically and shape the dialogue for the greatest dramatic effect. In real life, niceties like greetings and chatter might be socially expected but in dramatic narrative, they kill pacing. Just cut to the drama. Charles Johnson in The Way of The Writer: “We should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or conflict) that has brought him or her there.” Sometimes establishing a rhythm requires getting the characters into a scene with a greeting or set up, and sometimes they jump right into the conflict or have “a hit” as Johnson calls it, “the heightened moment in the scene where what has brought them there is finally revealed.” It depends on the needs of the story and scene and characters at that moment. It must be natural while at the same time dramatic. Still, finding ways to cut to the chase will make your dramatic narrative more effective every time.

Here’s an example of dealing with a phone call from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey:

Lucas looked up at the clock. Eleven-forty. Damn. If 
the cop who took the gun was planning to call, he 
should have done it. Lucas looked at the phone, 
willing it to ring.

It rang. He nearly fell off his drawing stool in 
surprise.

“Yes?”

“Lucas? This is Jennifer.”

“Hey. I’m expecting a call. I need the line open.”

“I got a tip from a friend,” Jennifer said. “He says 
there was a survivor. Somebody who fought off the 
killer. I want to know who it was.”

“Who told you this bullshit?”

Two techniques are used to increase the tension of the scene. First, Lucas, a detective, is awaiting an important call. By telling us this, Sandford allows readers to feel the character’s tension as he looks at the phone. Second, because the caller is a tv reporter and not the fellow cop he was waiting to hear from, we get more tension, despite the routine nature of the chit chat that opens the call. If you need a bit of social nicety, this is a great way to handle it while still keeping the scene as dramatic as possible. Also, note the varied length in sentences, none of which are especially long. Johnson writes: “Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences.” Study the speech patterns of others around you and you’ll see this is true. Varied length of sentences also affects pacing and can add dramatic effect to a scene, in addition to being more natural particularly in dialogue.

Dialogue is not normal conversation. It is conversation with drama. It is a medium of performance. William Noble writes in Conflict, Action, & Suspense: “The throwaway words of conversation such as “Hello,” “How are you,” “I’m fine,” “Good” should never be thought of as dialogue…because they don’t contain drama. Don’t reproduce conversation and call it dialogue; reproduce only that portion of the conversation that has drama…Dialogue must contribute to telling the story. If it doesn’t, it’s of no use.” Dialogue needs to move in a few short sentences. Take this example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:

“Where was it?”

“On the floor under the bunk. Maybe it fell out when I changed the bedding.”

“What do you think?” Leaphorn asked.

“I think I never had anything that had beads like that
on it or knew anybody who did. And I wonder how it 
got here.”

“Or why?” Leaphorn asked.

In this scene, Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are at Chee’s trailer, which was shot up the night before, looking for evidence. The bead they discover raises ominous questions, upping the tension, and it becomes a major key to the unfolding mystery of the overall story. This is how you write effective, dramatic dialogue. Cut to the chase, the drama, what matters, and skip everything else. Noble writes: “When dialogue disintegrates into dull conversation, it destroys the forward movement of the tale, and once this happens, the conflict falls apart and the action and suspense hold no one’s interest.” Dialogue must always fulfill two purposes: Keeping the story moving and developing characterization. This is why most dialogue inevitably becomes confrontation. “Readers are interested in confrontation because the drama inherent in a face-off carries excitement and uncertainty,” Noble writes. The “Yes/No” countering in dialogue carries inherent disagreement that ups the drama every time.

Also, humans are rarely directly responsive to each other when conversing. Oblique or partial responses, especially those that ask or raise questions are common. And this keeps the pace of the conversation flowing. 

“It’s cold out tonight.”

“I’ll get locked out if we don’t hurry.”

Not, “my fingers are cold,” which would be a commentary on the coldness. Instead, the reply is about the agenda of the second character. Since this is a natural human trait due to poor listening skills most of us possess, it is a great tool to utilize for keeping dialogue dramatic and moving. It avoids bogging down the story in chit chat, while also providing information about the characters: their motives, priorities, what is on their minds.

Varying character emotions is also an effective tool. If one character underplays and response calmly, while the other is tense and emotional, this has the effect of varying pace while also building the story. When we are stressed and talking to someone who isn’t, we naturally want them to share our sense of urgent emotion. Tension increases each time they respond calmly to our urgency. The same is true in dramatic scenes. Subtext—implying more than the words say directly—is a great technique for upping the drama via underplay. It makes the impact more devastating, too. 

“You’re not sleeping,” Roger said.

“I’m trying,” Julie replied.

“You answered.”

“Well, you talked to me,” she replied but left her arm
laying over her eyes just where it had been.

He rolled over and touched her shoulder. “I can’t stop
thinking about it.”

She groaned. “Damn it.”

Subtext is when something going on beneath the surface unspoken changes the meaning of a scene. Here, the subtext is that Roger has something urgent on his mind but Julie doesn’t want to talk about it. She is annoyed at being bothered. But this is never stated outright. The mystery of it allows the story to build because we are waiting to see what happens, wondering how it will play out. Will they talk or will she go to sleep? Will this lead to more conflict later? Etc. It is subtle, but very effective, and not unrealistic to life.

Stream of consciousness in interior dialogue can also be used to up tension, especially in scenes where dialogue with others is impossible because a character is alone.

She was coming toward me. I couldn’t get into it 
again. I glanced around for somewhere to hide.

This kind of inner monologue adds tension, even if the “she” is someone we have not seen before by asking questions we want to know the answer to, thus upping tension and building expectation that it will pay off in a dramatic fashion at some point later.

Another technique to aid pacing with underplayed dialogue is gesturing.

“Someone’s coming,” Al said.

“Is it him?” Rick never even looked up from his 
newspaper.

“Blonde, tall, thin, about twenty or so?”

“That’s what the boss said, yeah.” 

Al watched as Rick reached down and fingered the blade
in his pocket. “I think it’s him,” Al motioned. This 
time they both looked.

Two mobsters waiting for their victim. Plenty of tension from the implied expectation, but the dialogue itself isn’t all that dramatic. It is the subtext which adds the drama. The gesturing adds dimension by having the characters innocuous dialogue be underscored by what they are doing: waiting for a victim, knife ready. And when the body movement happens, it is almost like the start of violence. It is restrained, but we anticipate it, and the physical movement punctuates the anticipation by foreshadowing a physical response to go with the subtext.

These techniques are always effective time and again when keeping dialogue dramatic and well-paced so they keep the story moving and reveal character at the same time.

Next week, we’ll talk about writing action.

Video WriteTip: First Steps- From Concept to Reality SDCC Workshop

This year at San Diego Comic Con 50, I taught a one hour workshop on story and scene structure called First Steps: From Concept To Reality. It is finally available on video. And I present it here, embedded below.

 

The accompanying charts are also included (click to enlarge) along with links to blog posts of my teaching material I posted during SDCC, to aid any of you desiring to take notes. I hope this video helps you to jump start your writing and take it from Concept to manuscript faster by following a few key steps. I also hope understanding storytelling structure strengthens your writing. All the material here is covered in my 2018 nonfiction book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, which participants at SDCC were given as an ebook. Enjoy! And happy writing!!

 

 

 

 

 

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

Write Tip: Four Act Structure

 

 

Write Tip: How To Structure A Scene

WriteTip: What is Dialogue and What is its Purpose?

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 7:

Chances are fifty percent or more of your novel will consist of dialogue. Dialogue is the characters’ chief method of communicating information to one another (and readers). But remember: Conversation isn’t dialogue. Dialogue is drama. It is a certain type of dramatic representation of conversation that has conflict and drama and urgency. It may imitate conversation but there is no chit chat. Dialogue involves imparting key information about plot, emotion, character, setting and more that drives the story forward. It involves building tension, pace, and foreshadowing conflict as well as expressing present conflict. Dialogue is one of the essential craft tools of good fiction writing.
  Johnny Payne writes in Voice & Style:  “Dialogue is the essence of teaching…The role of dialogue within fiction can be defined as not so different from the one it plays in learning. Ideally, it should deepen with progressive readings, leaving the reader with an increased understanding of the story’s consequences.” In some ways, dialogue exists in tension with, and separate from the authorial voice. Characters care nothing about the author’s life or concerns, just their own. When two or more characters dialogue, they are in a sense “talking back” to the author or narrative voice. They contest it at times, challenge it, add complexity to its views. This tension gives us perspective on the narrative voice while also clarifying the independence of characters in the story from the narrator. By necessity, fiction must be truer than life in order to give us different perspectives on it. Because characters always speak in opposition—conflict lies at the heart of drama, remember—the tension between character voices and author voice is a key element of the storytelling experience, adding tension and drama and upping the stakes. And while dialogue is part of overall voice, because characters and narrator can also speak in opposition, they create the kind of multiple meanings and complexity associated with dramatic irony. As narration directs and lays out the story, dialogue detonates and creates explosions that create twists, surprises, turns, and consequences that affect the rest of the story and keep it interesting. This is the essence of narrative drama.
  So how do you develop a skill for good dialogue? Let’s look at The Purpose of Dialogue.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Jack Hart writes in Storycraft: “Dialogue isn’t an end in itself; it has to do some real work. It can advance action as characters encounter and struggle with obstacles, such as an antagonist who resists a character’s progress in resolving a complication. It can help shape a scene as characters comment on objects in their environment, such as the clothes one of them wears.” Advancing action, imparting information, revealing character, increasing conflict—all of these are the purpose of dialogue and its every word should serve one or more of these at all times.
  According to screenwriter John Howard Lawson, speaking “comes from energy and not inertia.” It serves “as it does in life, to broaden the scope of action; it organizes and extends what people do. It also intensifies the action. The emotion which people feel in a situation grows out of their sense of scope and meaning.” James Scott Bell writes in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: “Characters talk in fiction because they want to further their own ends…Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” Because dialogue can foreshadow action, explain it, or set it up, advancing action is a core role of dialogue. Also, dialogue exchanges are laden with conflict and can thus up the tension and stakes of action and confrontations, thus advancing action and leading from one action to another. The very act of dialoguing is, in effect, taking an action: to confront, to question, to ask, to discuss, etc. and in all cases, this dialogical action furthers plot, story, and character in some way (or should).
  Because, in many ways, we reveal who we are by how we speak, what dialogue does best is reveal or advance character. In the next section we will cover dialect and diction, but it’s not just the word choice that is at work here but the interaction with other characters and the world reveals much, too. Word choice can reveal education level, social stratus, historical background, genetics, nationality, etc. but dialogue with others reveals attitudes about society, setting, the world, and relationships which are also important. We talk to different people differently for various reasons, and that very act reveals much about who we are and who they are to us.
  Because much dialogue involves opposition between characters, inherent in its nature is conflict. Stephen King writes in On Writing: “It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.” Dialogue is intimately connected to character motivation. It reveals motive constantly, setting and revising their agenda. These agenda checks come in opposition with those of other characters, creating conflict and tension and leading to action, imparting information, upping the stakes. This is a key difference between conversation and dialogue. Dialogue is always about tension and conflict, whereas conversation is not. Conversation can be casual and consumed with minute details, facts, and experiences which interest the involved parties but are irrelevant to those around them. Dialogue must always function to advance the story by revealing motives, information, character, action and more, so dialogue and conversation are very different in both purpose and style. In dialogue, characters sometimes say things to inform readers of information they already know in order to advance the story. This exposition is a manufactured trait of narrative dialogue that is not common in real life except with strangers. There are things many times we don’t have to say because we are the party we are speaking to just know them, but with readers watching, in narrative, these things cannot go unsaid and must be imparted.
  Dialogue can also be external and internal. At the same time as characters engage in dialogue with other characters, they maintain an internal dialogue with themselves that can be in conflict with the external dialogue but performs the same functions. It can impart backstory, history, and details readers need to know and also things characters may not share, for various reasons, with other characters but which they know and hold in reserve but which readers need to further the story, action, and character. These two streams of dialogue go on simultaneously and intertwine with the narrator’s voice as the story unfolds.
 Here’s an example from romance author Catherine Bybee’s Wife by Wednesday:
“Kissing me is wrong?”

“Yes,” she blurted out. “I mean, no.”

He chuckled, “Which is it?”

“Ugh. What if I choke? What if I don’t look convincing?” What if she screwed up and gave the camera exactly what they wanted and Blake lost his inheritance?

Blake removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it over her cold ones. “Samantha?”

“Yes?”

“Relax. Let me take charge here.”

She wanted to trust him. But her hands shook as they  pulled into her driveway. He removed the key from the ignition and shifted in his seat. “Let’s just go      inside and start packing.”

“Are you going to kiss me the minute we’re inside?”   God, she had to know…so she could prepare herself.
Okay, clearly Blake and Samantha are lovers. And they are going somewhere important with potential consequences for Blake that Samantha is worried she’ll screw up. Notice also how Samantha’s internal and external monologue are both at play here to impart understanding of motives and thought behind her reactions and words? Also note how while she is tense, anxious, Blake’s body language and words combine to demonstrate he is not. He is relaxed, at ease. This is a very solid demonstration of effective dialogue.
   The next is example from The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson:
“What are you smiling at?”

“Leave me alone. I’m having a moment of grace.”

He stared at me. “Well, we would not want to interrupt that.”

I tossed a piece of shale at him, missing by a good   two feet. “If you can have multiple lives, I can have moments of grace.”

He grunted. “How was your moment of grace last night?”

“Not bad, as moments of grace go.” I thought for a    while. “More like a moment of truth.”

He nodded. “That is good. They are harder to come by.” He winced as he stretched the tendons in his right 
knee; maybe he wasn’t indestructible. “So, she left 
the Jeep?”

“Yep.”

“You drive her home?”

“Yep.”

He stretched for a minute more, leaned against the 
mile-marker post I was leaning against, and sighed. 
“Okay…”

“Okay, what?”

“We do not have to talk about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

“No, I am talking about it, and all you are doing is 
saying, ‘Yep.’”
Even without a lot of context, hopefully you can tell these are characters who know each other well. In this case, Sheriff Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are childhood friends, now adults. Henry is an American Indian, Walt white. The sarcasm inherent here shows familiarity, as does the inside reference to “multiple lives.” Characters with a history spar as they talk frequently. There is a playfulness and tension to it as they test each other, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, but always in shared knowledge. Just four lines of dialogue and two of description, but you see what that can reveal, even out of context. Walt, it appears, had a date or something the night before. Also, notice that Henry uses no contractions in his syntax. He has a unique way of talking that distinguishes him from Walt.
  Dialogue’s purpose is to reveal character, plot, and story. It drips with conflict and drama, moving the story forward, upping the tension, and pushing the story along. Just by tone, phrasing, and wording, it can raise questions and evoke emotions in the reader. That is the importance of getting it right.
  Next week, we’ll talk about some other aspects of dialogue.

My Top 10 Most Memorable Thriller Reads

Now that I’ve introduced the world to my first thriller, Simon Says, I thought it’d be fun to look back at the thrillers that most inspired my love for the genre and have stuck with me over the years. Here are the top 10. All highly recommended.

1. The Brotherhood of The Rose by David Morrell—a classic espionage thriller about orphans taken in by a politically connected spymaster and raised as assassins and special agents who work all over the world taking out undesirables for their “dad” and his powerful friend. An amazing thrill ride with great twists and turns. This one is so good I like to reread it every few years. It was made into a weak TV movie and never got the same respect as the author’s more famous Rambo books.

2. The Firm by John Grisham—actually Grisham’s second book but the one that put him on the map. Published in 1991 2 years after his debut A Time To Kill went almost unnoticed, this one sold millions and put Grisham on the map, also inspiring a hit 1993 film starring Tom Cruise. This is the book that really established Grisham’s legal thriller formula with an idealistic hero finding himself caught up in a corrupt system that winds up threatening his life and everything he believes in. A great read, one I couldn’t put down, it remains a great example of great pacing, plotting, and characterization, whatever you think of the author’s simpler literally style.

3. Every Dead Thing by John Connolly—One of the great first novels of a truly great series. It may be popular fiction but has all the literary style of a classic. Mixing supernatural horror with noir detectives, it tells the tale of a private detective haunted by the murders of his beloved wife and daughter who takes on the case of a missing girl at the request of his former partner and finds himself drawn into a world where the ghosts of the dead haunt the living, and thirty-year-old killings shrouded in mystery and lies haunt the survivors. Truly a stunning read with unparalleled characterization and lyrical prose. Winner of the Shamus Award for best first P.I. novel.

4. The Black Echo by Michael Connelly—another great debut, this novel introduced thriller fans to LAPD Detective Heironymous Bosch of Hollywood Division, who’s haunted by the death of his mother, as he investigates the murder of a homeless vet that seems connected to a spectacular underground bank robbery and finds himself drawn to FBI agent Eleanor Wish who’s assigned to the case. Winner of the Edgar Award for best first novel, it also loosely inspired season 3 of Amazon’s fantastic Bosch tv series. Not to be missed.

5. Hard Fall by Ridley Pearson—If ever a novel begged to be made into a movie, it was this one. Following FBI Agent Cam Daggett as he investigates the downing of commercial flight 1023 which killed his parents and son, Daggett is on the trail of a killer with only one clue: a name, Anthony Kort. This one had edge-of-your-seat plotting, great characterization, and fun twists and turns that keep you guessing. My favorite Pearson book, one that is far too often overlooked. From 1992.

6. Naked Prey by John Sanford—Not the first in Sanford’s terrific Prey series but the first I read, this book introduced me not only to Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension but also to his soon-to-be adopted daughter Lettie, whom he encounters for the first time while investigating a murder case with his partner Del Capslock. All the core elements that make the series so addictive are in place here from the strong, engaging supporting cast to the mix of humor to solid plotting and genuine suspense. A great read from start to finish. After I finished, I started reading the rest of the series in series order and have eagerly anticipated each new Prey book every year since.

7. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh—a 1973 nonfiction book written by a sergeant for the LAPD, it chronicles the kidnapping of two plainclothes LAPD officers by a pair of criminals during a traffic stop and the subsequent murder of one of the officers. Set in March 1963, the book reads like a novel and is highly gritty and compelling, an unforgettable read. It was later made into a 1979 film that starred a young Ted Danson as one of the two murdered cops and James Woods as one of the killers. A case with real life suspense and drama that led to a change in California law as well as inspired real life efforts on victim’s behalves. As good as nonfiction gets. Just as compelling as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or my next entry.

8. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Carl Gentry—Considered the best true crime book in history, prosecutor Bugliosi offers a first hand account of his prosecution and the investigation leading to it surround the infamous Manson murders by Charles Manson and his follows in 1969 Los Angeles. Another can’t put it down read that has inspired several films and a miniseries, it remains the definitive account of a real life case that even fifty years later continues to fascinate the public and law officers alike. Reading this book at home alone in my basement room prompted me to start locking doors in our house in a quiet Kansas suburb and consequently to locking my surprise parents out one night. Later, they both read it and my mother has insisted on locked doors ever since. Truly heartpounding suspense made all the more scary by the fact it is true.

9. The Hostage by WEB Griffin—Brimming with rich characters, strong action, and cutting-edge drama, this is the second in Griffin’s hit Presidential Agent novels, but the first I encountered, about homeland security agent Charley Castillo discreetly investigating an American diplomat’s murder in Argentina and searching for his kidnapped wife. Touching on the UN/Iraq Food oil-f0r-food scandal, it is a page turning read that hooked me on yet another series. By a surprisingly prolific author whose style reminds of Tom Clancy without all the endless technical and research gobbledy gook that bog down his pacing and clog his already thick tomes.

10. Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy—My favorite of Clancy’s books, a rare standalone effort, this reads like a giant miniseries, a war novel co-written with Larry Bond, who is uncredited on the cover and title pages, which debuted at number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 1986 and chronicles a third world war in the mid-1980s between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. It is considered unique for depicting the conflict as being fought exclusively with convention weapons, despite the existence of weapons of mass destruction on both sides. One of only two Clancy novels not set in the Jack Ryan universe.

If you enjoy thrillers like these, please be sure and check out my debut thriller, a hit with readers, Simon Says, first in my John Simon Thrillers series about a tough Kansas City Detective who hates technology but must team with an android witness to solve his partner’s kidnapping in 2029 K.C. Gritty, realistic, and heavily researched, it is plotted to follow how real investigations unfold rather than standard formulas. So far readers love it, and I think thriller fans like you will too. Find buy links, a 3 chapter sample, and more here.

Be sure and let me know your favorite thrillers in comments.

Write Tip: Creating Tension Through Dialogue and Description

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 8:

Last week, I wrote about The Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right QuestionsThe Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right Questions, this week I want to talk about more ways to build suspense in your storytelling, specifically through creating tension using dialogue and emotions. This post is longer because of numerous examples, so please stick with it.

  “Holding readers’ attention every word of the way,” writes Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist, “is a function not of the type of novel you’re writing, a good premise, tight writing, quick pace, showing not telling, or any of the other widely understood and frequently taught principles of storytelling. Keeping readers in your grip comes from something else…the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.” This kind of microtension comes not from story but from emotions, specifically conflicting emotions. So above all else, creating suspense is about making readers care.

  Webster’s Dictionary defines suspense as: a. The state of being undecided or undetermined; 2. The state of being uncertain, as in awaiting a decision, usually characterized by some anxiety or apprehension.

What is undecided and undetermined are story questions. First and foremost, suspense is about questions. James N. Frey writes in How To Write a Damn Good Novel II: “A story question is a device to make the reader curious. Story questions are usually not put in question form. They are rather statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like.” 

An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October, 1815, a man traveling afoot entered the little town of D------. The few persons who were at this time at their windows and doors, regarded  this traveler with a sort of distrust.

Thus opens Book 2 of Victor Hugo’s classic masterpiece Les Miserables. The story questions are “who is this man?” and “is he dangerous?” The first question intrigues, the second raises the suspense, and this is how story questions work. Other examples:

The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by great sweeps of its crescent tail.

(Jaws, Peter Benchley: “Who will be the shark’s lunch?”)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

(Pride and Pejudice, Jane Austen: “Who’s the single man?” And “Who’s going to be the lucky girl?”)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom 
realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.

(Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell: “What are the consequences of the twins being charmed? Will they fight over her?“ Etc.)

Expanding on last week’s post, Frey goes on to say: “Story questions, unless they are powerful, life-and-death questions that are strengthened, reinforced, and elaborated will not hold the reader long.” When they occur at the beginning of a story, they act as “hooks” that draw readers in. That’s why so many classic novels start with hooks and yours should, too. Ultimately, raising story questions—unanswered questions, characters we care about, and tension are the keys to suspense in any story. 

Creating Tension

Since we just discussed it, let’s start with dialogue. Dialogue in novels is not realistic. Every word is thought through and constructed to create the upmost tension and steadiest pace. Characters say what they mean, are rarely interrupted, don’t stumble over words, and all the same the words often seem unimportant if taken by themselves. The words are not what holds the power. The power comes from the meaning, the motivations of the speakers, and the underlying conflict. Here’s an example from John Sandford’s Rule Of Prey:

“Daniel’s hunting for you.” Anderson looked harassed, teasing his thinning blonde hair as he stepped through Lucas’ office door. Lucas had just arrived and stood rattling his keys in his fist.

“Something break?”

“We might go for a warrant.”

“On Smithe?”

“Yeah. Sloan spent the night going through his garbage. Found some wrappers from rubbers that use the same kind of lubricant they found in the women. And they found a bunch of invitations to art shows. The betting is, he knows the Ruiz chick.”

“I’ll talk to the chief.”

Now, tension in this scene comes from two things. One, starting abruptly with dialogue that is a warning or feels urgent in a way before establishing setting and that Detective Lucas Davenport, our protagonist, has just arrived. Two, the underlying tension of the hunt for the killer and the chief wanting Lucas. The words themselves are fairly innocuous at face value, a bunch of information really. In another context, they might play very differently, but here they carry urgency, a sense of danger, emotional foreboding. A sex killer is loose and the cops are racing to find him. Yes, some of this was established in earlier scenes, but just from this little short scene alone, you get a lot of it. This dialogue drips with tension as a result. What makes dialogue gripping is not the information or facts imparted, but the tension, the urgency. The tension comes from the people, not the words.

Let’s look at another example from Every Dead Thing by John Connelly:

“Nice story, Tommy,” said Angel.

“It’s just a story, Angel. I didn’t mean nothing by it. No offense intended.”

“None taken,” said Angel. “At least not by me.”

Behind him there was a movement in the darkness, and  Louis appeared. His bald head gleamed in the dim light, his muscular neck emerging from a black silk shirt  within an immaculately cut gray suit. He towered over Angel by more than a foot, and as he did so, he eyed  Tommy Q intently for a moment.

“Fruit,” he said. “That’s a…quaint term, Mr. Q. To what does it refer, exactly?”

The blood had drained from Tommy Q’s face and it      seemed to take a long time for him to find enough
saliva to enable him to gulp. When he did eventually
manage, it sounded like he was swallowing a golf ball.He opened his mouth but nothing came out, so he closedit again and looked at the floor in vain hope that it
would open up and swallow him.

“It’s okay, Mr. Q, it was a good story,” said Louis ina voice as silky as his shirt.

“Just be careful how you tell it.” Then he smiled a 
bright smile at Tommy Q, the sort of smile a cat mightgive a mouse to take to the grave with it. A drop of  sweat ran down Tommy Q’s nose, hung from the tip a    moment, then exploded on the floor.

By then, Louis had gone.

The tension here comes from the characters, not the dialogue. Separate the dialogue out and there’s nothing particularly tense about it, but the context is that Tommy Q has just laughingly told Angel a story about a gay man’s murder. Louis and Angel are gay and they are killers, particularly Louis. Puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? That’s how tension in dialogue works. I imagine that even not knowing everything beforehand, you felt the tension reading it, but now that I’ve told you, read it again. Even more tense, right? We keep reading at moments like this not because of what they say. We keep reading to see if they will reconcile or fight. Will the tension explode into a fight or resolve?

Ask yourself where the tension is in your dialogue? Look at every passage, every word. How can it be improved? Does the tension come from the words or the situations, the circumstances and characters? Make sure the emotional friction between the speakers is the driving force.

Tension in action works much the same way. Yes, there can be violence and that has an inherent tension. But even in scenes with action that is nonviolent, you need tension. Let’s look at a scene from Harlan Coban’s Tell No One:

I put my hands behind my head and lay back. A cloud   passed in front of the moon, turning the blue night   into something pallid and gray.  The air was still. I could hear Elizabeth getting out of the water and stepping onto the dock. My eyes tried to adjust. I could  barely make out her naked silhouette. She was, quite  simply, breathtaking. I watched her bend at the waist and wring the water out of her hair.

Then she arched her spine and threw back her head.

My raft drifted farther away from shore. I tried to   sift through what had happened to me, but even I      didn’t understand it all. The raft kept moving. I     started losing sight of Elizabeth. As she faded in the
dark, I made a decision: I would tell her. I would    tell her everything.

I nodded to myself and closed my eyes. There was a lightness in my chest now. I listened to the water gently
lap against my raft.

Then I heard a car door open.

I sat up. “Elizabeth?” Pure silence, except for my ownbreathing.

I looked for her silhouette again. It was hard to make
out, but for a moment I saw it. Or thought I saw it. 
I’m not sure anymore or if it even matters.

Either way, Elizabeth was standing perfectly still, and maybe she was facing me.

I might have blinked—I’m really not sure about that   either—and when I looked again, Elizabeth was gone.

Lots of description, and fairly benign at that. Only one line of dialogue. But what lends tension to this is the descriptive details that follow what is obviously an important decision by the narrator to confess something to Elizabeth. Is she gone? Did someone else arrive? Who? That the narrator, David, is deeply in love and feels guilt over a secret is obvious. It doesn’t need to be stated. And that underscores the tension of otherwise mundane action. We want to see what happens. This is how action, even nonviolent, can drip with tension if written well, and it needs to if your book is to hook readers time and again and keep them reading.

Exposition always risks boring readers. Maass writes: “Many novelists merely write out whatever it is that their characters are thinking or feeling—or, more to the point, whatever happens to occur to the author in a given writing session. That is a mistake.” Most commonly, exposition fails because it merely restates what we have already learned from the story or information characters would already know. It becomes uninteresting or false because it feels unnecessary. The key to good exposition is to frame it so it offers new ideas and emotions into the tapestry of the story. Remember when I said you should only give us what we need to know to understand the story at any given moment? That’s why choosing placement of your exposition carefully is so important. Save it until we need it so it brings something useful and important to the story. Don’t just dump it all at once to be stored up for later use. Instead, leave it until it will advance the story.

In Pretties, Scott Westerfeld manages to offer exposition that creates conflicting feelings in the character at the same time.

As the message ended, Tally felt the bed spin a little. She closed her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh of relief. Finally, she was full-fledged Crim. Everything 
she’d ever wanted had come to her at last. She was    beautiful, and she lived in New Pretty Town with Peris
and Shay and tons of new friends. All the disasters   and terrors of the last year—running away to Smoke,   living there in pre-Rusty squalor, traveling back to
the city through the wilds—somehow all if it had      worked out.

It was so wonderful, and Tally was so exhausted, that belief took a while to settle over her. She replayed  Peris’s message a few times, then pulled off the      smelly, smokey sweater with shaking hands and threw it
in a corner. Tomorrow, she would make the hole in the wall recycle it.

Tally lay back and stared at the ceiling for a while. A ping from Shay came, but she ignored it, setting her
interface ring to sleeptime. With everything so
perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the 
slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the. city around her—all of it felt as tenuous as a soap  
bubble, shivering and empty.

It was probably just the knock on her head causing the
weird missingness that underlay her joy. She only     needed a good night’s sleep—and hopefully no hangover tomorrow—and everything would feel solid again, as perfect as it really was.

Tally fell asleep a few minutes later, happy to be a  Crim at last.

But her dreams were totally bogus.

So on the surface, she is happy to have accomplished her goal and become a Crim. But she has to try hard to convince herself of it. Too hard. That life is perfect. So hard that it is obvious she is not convinced it is real, that she fears it may be bogus. This underlying emotional conflict makes the exposition feel important and relevant in a way the words never would have. It advances the story and adds tension, keeping our interest.

The trick to making exposition matter is to dig deeper into your characters at such moments and examine what is going on with them. Why is this information important at this moment? What do they feel in saying it and why does it matter? Find the delimmas, contradictions, impulses, and conflicting ideas and questions that drive the character and readers will be fascinated. Maass writes: “True tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it comes from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.”

Description passages have a similar problem, which is why readers sometimes skim them. Maass writes: “Description itself does nothing to create tension; tension only comes from people within the landscape.” So the trick is to use description to reveal the conflict of the observer. How does observing various details affect the character? What makes the details stand out for the character? People tend to focus on details that mean something to them and ignore the rest. So pick the details that are important to the character and describe them so it’s clear why they count. Here’s a great example from Memory Man by David Baldacci:

The bar was much like every bar Decker had ever been in.

Dark, cold, musty, smoky, where light fell funny and everyone looked like someone you knew or wanted to know. Or, more likely, wanted to forget. Where everyone was your friend until he was your enemy and cracked a pool stick over your skull. Where things were quiet until they weren’t. Where you could drink away anything life threw at you. Where a thousand Billy Joel wannabes would serenade you into the wee hours.

Sounds like most bars I’ve been in for sure. There are elements of familiarity and elements of foreboding. Decker is both at home and ill at ease here, conflicting emotions. The history in the elements described keeps him on edge and we with him. And as a result, we feel the tension of anticipation that something will happen here. And in fact, it does. A confrontation follows moments later.

Maass writes: “Tension can be made out of nothing at all—or, at least, that’s how it can appear. In reality, it is feelings—specifically, feelings in conflict with each other—that fill up an otherwise dead span of story and bring it to life.” Finding ways to bring out those conflicting emotions through description is the key to keeping tension in every word.

Catch me live this week! Podcasts, Podcasts, Podcasts, oh my!

So by now most of you know I have a new novel out,  Simon Says, and the next anthology, Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers, is out in 3 weeks, close on its heels. So I am on the promotion bandwagon for a bit. Here’s two chances to catch me live this week:

 

 

 

Monday: At 8 p.m. CST U.S., find me on Keystroke Medium Live on YouTube, Join me and hosts Josh Hayes and Scott Moon as we talk about writing, police, the book, and more. Be sure and login early so you have your name in the chat window and can ask questions.

Tuesday: At 3 p.m. in the afternoon, you can call in and ask questions as I join hostess Sherri Rabinowitz on Chatting With Sherri live on blogtalk radio. The call-in number is 646-915-9580.

 

I’ll be talking about my research process for writing the John Simon Thrillers, including real live ride-alongs with KCPD on all night shifts multiple times, and other adventures, and taking questions. Who knows? We may even give away a book or two. So tune in please!

WriteTip: The Key to Good Plotting—Asking The Right Questions at The Right Time

This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.

In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:

  1. A sympathetic character.
  2. Conflict.
  3. Complication.
  4. Climax.
  5. 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.

Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.

Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.

For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.

The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.

Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.

In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.

  In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.

Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.