WriteTip: How To Use Speech Tags Well

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

Another area of concern related to dialogue are speech tags. The most common of these, of course, is “said.” But sometimes people try to get creative and do so badly. Creative speech tags are generally a bad idea. All too often they stand out as forced or awkward and draw attention to the writer and craft, away from the story, rather than just flying by like they are supposed to, allowing readers to stay in the story. All of us can probably think of examples we’ve encountered in our reading. Here are ten common tips to avoid frequent pitfalls in writing dialogue and speech tags:
1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said.
2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.”
3) Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows.
4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it.
5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest. Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly.
6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis-back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace.
7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this.
8) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done.
9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it.
10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same. There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work.
Altogether, remember, the goal of speech tags is solely to help readers keep track of who is speaking, when. That is their sole purpose. It is not a chance to insert adjectives for emotional effect or to show off fancy word slinging vocabularies. They are another tool best used as subtly as possible.
In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty…It is important to tell the truth; so much depends on it…The Legion of Decency may not like the word shit, and you might not like it much either, but sometimes you are stuck with it… You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have resonance and realism…If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh shit!’ because you’re thinking about The Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader—your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of made-up story.” That some readers may not want to hear the truth is not your problem. Your quest is to tell the truth at all times, to keep their trust, and sometimes the truth is uncomfortable for all of us. Dialogue being how characters talk is one of the most important crafts to writing your novel. It must feel authentic and real for readers to believe your characters could be real people.

WriteTip: What Is Voice and How To Use It

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

What Is Voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WriteTip: The Difference Between Showing and Telling Explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, dude, whassup?” Bob asked.

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

“Meh. Me either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You knew about it.”

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

            Zylo laughed. “The Alien Leadership Summit.”

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

            “What’s the location?”

            “That’s classified for the Council.”

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

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

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

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

            Zylo chuckled. “Yes, you were.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Tip: How To Register Copyright For Your Prose

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

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

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

How To Determine If Copyright Registration Is Necessary:

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

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

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

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

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

What You’ll Need:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To file online,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope his helps you better understand the copyright process.


WriteTip: Using The Five Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For what it’s worth…

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

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

The Premise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Tip: 5 Basic Plot Elements All Novels Must Have

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

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

A sympathetic character
Conflict
Complication
Climax
Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: Developing A Novel’s Theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Tip: How To Structure A Scene

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

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

Statement of goal

Introduction and development of conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Medias Res

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Tip: Four Act Structure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Act four is the final fight against Creed.

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

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

Write Tip: Three Act Structure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For these and other WriteTips, click here.

Write Tip: Character Narrative As A Plot Device

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

I think they should.

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

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

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

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

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

5 Days Of Comic Con

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

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

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

Here’s the posting schedule for this week:

Tuesday- Character Narrative as a Plot Device

Wednesday – Three Act Structure

Thursday – Four Act Structure

Friday – How To Structure A Scene

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

GUEST POST: Why Authors Love Research – Days Of The Dead Blog Tour

Today, my friend Gail Martin stops by on her Days Of The Dead blog tour for a talk about writers and research. – BTS

By Gail Z. Martin

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I love research. In fact, sometimes I almost think the book is an excuse to do the research. Almost.

Okay, I was a history major, so I came into this predisposed to be nosy about other people’s business. History is the best reality show. Forget the structure artificially imposed on history by textbook authors. History—the rise and fall of kingdoms, the great explorers, the conquest and colonization—was done by people who, on closer inspection, make the Kardashians look well-adjusted and the Mafia seem morally upright.

It’s really the story of grifters, grabbers, con men, connivers, liars, manipulators, opportunists and truly dysfunctional people who clawed their way to notoriety less from noble purpose than from unresolved psychological issues. And those are often the good guys.

Seriously, when you delve into real history—the letters and diaries by historic figures and the people who knew them and the contemporary records—you get a juicy, scandal-laden, slugfest that rivals any Jerry Springer episode. We like to make our historical figures into cleanly-delineated heroes and villains, but they weren’t—they were real people, no different from us today, no more noble or evil. A few people were in pursuit of a higher cause, but don’t cha know it, that cause usually included some benefit to them and theirs. People lied, cheated, stole, played politics, rigged the game, and had hissy fits. They also loved, grieved, wanted revenge, sought forgiveness, pondered the meaning of life, wondered if it was all worth the cost, tried to do the right thing, and occasionally rose above human nature to do something really heroic and awesome.

I write epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk, so there’s a lot of research involved. Some of it is tactical, like double-checking just how far a trebuchet can throw something, or when an invention was patented, or when a word came into usage. But along the way, you stumble down more rabbit holes than Alice, finding unexpected and wondrous tidbits you can use in your story, historical oddities that add realism and interest, quirky or intriguing facts about people and situations that you can borrow and twist for your fictional universe. That’s when research is the coolest, most fun thing in the world.

DEADLY CURIOSITIES-VENDETTAWhenever I get stuck on what needs to happen in a story to get from where I am to where it needs to go, I research. Every time, I’ll find something either by design or serendipity that provides exactly the imagination fodder to get me around where I’m blocked. Often, this means poking around on the internet, following links from one site to another until the right bit of information appears. Sometimes, I go to my library and see what I can find in my books, where my memory can be jogged about a cool detail I’ve forgotten about that is perfect for the situation. Or I’ll go watch something on the History Channel, usually on military tactics or equipment. Maybe I’ll watch a movie with good fight scenes and pay attention to what happens for ideas. Research is better than WD-40 for getting you unstuck.

Research is also how you ground a story in its time and place. My urban fantasy series, Deadly Curiosities, is set in modern-day Charleston, SC. The steampunk series I co-author with my husband, Larry N. Martin, is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, PA. A lot of the research we do—both online and by visiting the cities—helps to impart a sense of place and make the setting one of the characters. When you set a story in a specific place, ideally it becomes so much an outgrowth of its location that you (and readers) couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else. Even if you’ve lived in a city or region, you don’t know everything about it. In fact, sometimes we know less about places we’ve lived because we never even take a tourist’s view and do the landmarks, let alone a scholar’s view. Once you start digging, you’ll find tidbits of history, important historical figures, old controversies and buried incidents that provide great mental fodder.

One of the most valuable things research does for me is to take historic figures out of their wax-museum frozenness and the myths that have been built up around them and reveal their humanness, good and bad. (Read the bitter campaign feuding between Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson if you don’t believe me.) While many of these figures were well-known in their own time, they had achieved nothing near the mythic stature we’ve given them since then. Some were actually dismissed or overlooked in their own time because the ramifications and importance of what they did was not yet clear.

I&B final coverBy returning historic figures to human scale, I gain perspective as an author on how to create fictional characters who change the world. One thing I learned is that aside from a few megalomaniacs like Napoleon, most of these larger-than-life historical figures were pursuing their own personal agendas, not obsessing over their historic legacy. They were trying to solve a problem or gain an objective, beat a rival or win a prize. That their actions would leave ripple effects throughout the rest of history wasn’t on their minds. They were—as we frequently are now—oblivious to the fallout from their actions, at least in the grand scheme of things. So a general might want to win a battle, and have no clue that by doing so, the stage is set for a disastrous insurrection fifty years later that will topple the very empire he represents. A person in a position of power won’t countenance a new idea because it threatens his ego, and the ultimate advantage goes to his rival, changing the course of history.

Research makes the writing world go ‘round. It’s not only the font of ideas, it’s also entertaining in a guilty pleasures sort of way, like reading tabloid headlines in the grocery line. Just remember to bring popcorn!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here: www.AscendantKingdoms.com

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors http://on.fb.me/1h4rIIe before 11/1!

Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here http://bit.ly/1ZXCPVS Launches Dec. 29

More Treats! Enter to win a copy of Deadly Curiosities! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/160181-deadly-curiosities

Treats! Enter to win a copy of Iron & Blood! https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/160182-iron-blood

Treats not Tricks! An excerpt from Girl In The Hourglass https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/espec-excerpts-the-girl-in-the-hourglass-by-drew-bittner/

Halloween goodies! Here’s an excerpt from What Really Happened At Little Big Horn https://especbooks.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/winner-what-really-happened-at-the-battle-of-little-big-horn/

More Halloween loot! Read an excerpt from “Coffin Box,” one of my Deadly Curiosities short stories http://bit.ly/SDCIjx

 


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.

Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.

Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.

 

 

WriteTip: Advice On Why No Is Rarely Personal – Handling Rejection For New Writers

WriteTips-flatYesterday at ConQuest, a panel discussion led to talks about editors and writers and how much editors love discovering new writers and great new stories. And in the midst of it, I got reminded how intimidated writers often are by editors, especially writers who don’t know any personally. I’ve experienced this myself as a writer and as an editor. So I wanted to offer a little perspective.

The most important advice is this: “NO” is almost never personal. The only times it is personal, you’ll know it because the person will make it obvious. And this is very rare. Seriously. The reality is that hearing “No” is just part of being a writer. And saying “No” is part of being an editor. Editors take no more glee in saying it than writers do in hearing it. Unless, of course, you’ve pissed the editor off. So don’t do that.

Editors say “No” for lots of reasons, many of which have to do with factors besides simply elements of your story and certainly besides who you are. If they have a similar story already, you’ll hear “N0.” If they have too many stories with a particular theme, setting, etc., it’s “No.” If they have budget issues because of length of stories they bought–especially with the headliners whose name cache helps sell the books– then it will be a “No.”  And so on and so forth.

The only things you can do to lessen the likelihood of rejection are to:

a) respect and follow the guidelines. Doesn’t matter if they are annoying or sound stupid. Just do it. You can be rejected simply for ignoring them, because you are saying, “I’m an exception and my story’s so good you won’t care.” Well, wrong. We do ask for guidelines for a reason, and you’re not going to be that exceptional.

or b) Write an awesome story.

c) Submit early in the open reading period. This will make it more likely that if similar stories come in, yours was chosen first and you won’t be rejected for the other reasons mentioned above.

Those are the best ways to avoid rejection, honestly. Beyond that, it’s a matter of timing, luck, and finding the right market. Just like everyone tells you.

People who reject you for personal reasons almost always reveal that in some way, from comments to a later post or off the cuff comment, etc. But most professionals leave that stuff aside when choosing stories. Because all we care about is that the story is awesome and whether we can work with you in a respectful relationship. Don’t be an asshole and the rest won’t matter. If you’re an asshole to the editor, it tells them you don’t respect them and likely wouldn’t take edit notes. And it’s not worth the bother for them. It’s that simple.

So how do you respond to a “No?” Don’t email them to criticize their taste. Don’t badmouth them on social media. Don’t even graciously thank them in an email for considering the story. Chances are they are overwhelmed with emails already and won’t want to have to sort through another.

Instead, send the story elsewhere or polish based on any suggestions offered that you find useful and then send it out.

Write another story and submit to them again.

And the cycle repeats. Seriously. There’s no magic trick here. Persistance, Politeness, Professionalism — these are the keys to success. Ask successful writers.

Short but sweet, but I hope it’s helpful. Seriously. It will also help your self-confidence and morale to remember this: “No” is rarely personal, it’s just part of the process.

Now, go write more stories! And good luck!


 

Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press,Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day, and Shattered Shields with coeditor Jennifer Brozek for Baen Books (forthcoming in November).  His first YA anthology CHOICES will be out from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2015. He is currently working on Gaslamp Terrors, Mission: Tomorrow (BAEN) and Galactic Games (BAEN), amongst others. He has also edited novels, including the New York Times Bestseller The Martian by Andy Weir.  He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

Write Tip: 8 Tips For Getting Blurbs From Name Authors

WriteTips-flatThis week’s Write Tip addresses a question I get a lot. I have been fortunate enough to get blurbs on my books from many well known authors, and people want to know how I manage it. So here are some tips for getting blurbs from name authors.

1) Ask. — It sounds really obvious but it’s the truth. If you don’t ask, you won’t succeed. When it comes to asking for blurbs, you just target the desired authors, and politely ask if they’d consider reading for a blurb. Authors won’t put their name on something they don’t feel good about, and not every author who agrees to read the project will blurb it, but getting them to take a look is the first step. So ask.

2) Pick Appropriate Authors. — This one may be less obvious to some of you. Don’t just ask your favorite authors. Ask authors who are known for writing the genre in which your book falls. These will be people who typically enjoy reading books like yours. They will also have names familiar and most enticing to your targeted readers. There’s no point putting a blurb on your book from someone who might not be considered informed on the topic and genre. Unless it’s a meganame like Stephen King, having inappropriate blurbers may not add any benefit at all.

3) Give Them Time. — If you can get permission from your publisher, the time to ask for big name blurbs is after the book is turned in to the editor or goes to copyediting. Don’t wait for galleys. By the time most galleys show up, your turn around time is usually very short. By starting early, you can offer several months to potential blurbers which gives them a lot more flexibility to work such an obligation into their own very busy schedules and makes it more likely they’ll agree to take a look. For our Baen anthology Shattered Shields, Jennifer Brozek and I got permission from Toni Weisskopf to ask for blurbs just after we turned in our manuscript. This gave us the opportunity to ask people like Mike Resnick, John Marco, Catherine Asaro, and Ken Scholes for blurbs. All four said yes, and before we even have copyediting marks to review, three of them have sent us great blurbs for the book.

4) Pick People You Have a Relationship With. — In the age of social media, building relationships with authors you admire is simpler than ever. All you have to do is engage smartly. Strike up a conversation. Encourage. Ask thoughtful questions. And soon you’ll find yourself in dialogue with them. Over time, this can develop into a familiarity and even friendship that will make requesting blurbs not only much easier but much more likely to be well received by them. It’s not like they don’t have to do the same thing themselves. But if they don’t know your work, knowing you are cool and likeable will make them much more willing to both help you and to assume you’re not sending them crap.

5) Be Grateful. — Whether they say “yes” or “no,” be grateful that they considered it. Graciously thank them either way, and consider it a positive that you even got to interact. You never know what possibilities that may present in the future. Even if they say “no,” they may see you at a con later and ask how things are going with your book. That opens a door to dialogue and building a relationship which might lead to a future “yes.”

6) Do Not Abuse The Privilege. — Don’t over ask. Don’t ask people constantly for help. Be careful who you ask and how often. This shows consideration for both the level of your relationship and their own busy schedules. They have deadlines of their own, and those come first. Whenever you’re asking someone to take time out from those and help you, be respectful of the fact that they have limited time to do such things. They have to make choices. They are more likely to choose you, if you are considerate and don’t over impose.

7) Offer To Return The Favor. — Okay, if you’re not a known author yourself, your blurbs are likely meaningless for them. But what you can offer is to proof or review their books on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. and authors are almost looking for help with that. You can’t repay them. You shouldn’t pay them, as it’s really not standard and it violates most people’s ethics. But you can offer to do them a favor in return.

8 ) Send Them Quality Projects. — This tip may seem obvious but I guarantee it’s not. The better quality your project, the more likely the askee is to agree to consider a blurb. Make sure the manuscript is clean, copyedited, and formatted professionally. If you are self-publishing or working with a small press, this is especially important. Authors know the Big Five New York houses will clean up the manuscript to make it professional. Small presses and self-publisher are less reliable. If their name is going on it, they want to be sure it’s worthy, and besides content, that means presentation, so send them a quality project with quality presentation and they are more likely to say “yes.”

Well, there you have 8 tips for getting blurbs from name authors. Remember, they’re doing you a favor. So “no” is never personal. A “yes” is always a gift. And treat them accordingly. If you follow these guidelines, use good common sense, and are professional, you’ll likely have a good chance of getting blurbs from known authors in the future. Maybe not for every project, but then again, if you follow these tips, you won’t send them every project. Regardless, these tips have worked well for me.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, and Gaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: 6 Things Any Writer Can Do To Make Science Fiction and Fantasy Better

WriteTips-flatYou may have noticed there’s a lot of yelling going on in Science Fiction and Fantasy these days. Some yell because they’re angry. Some yell because they’re sick of the yelling. Others yell to be trolls. And the cycle never seems to end. I’m not much for yelling myself. It may serve as a great vent for your emotions, but it rarely actually serves to change anyone’s mind. Instead, it often makes people tune you out. BUT on the other hand, there are things I and every writer can do to make things better. So for this week’s Write Tip, I thought I’d suggest a few.

1) Don’t Write the World as it is but As You Want It To Be. — It’s real easy to complain about the world not changing or wishing it were better. But one of the great advantages of speculative fiction is that writers can invent worlds and make them into what they want them to be. Take advantage of it. Don’t just imagine the pessimistic world in which you live. Imagine one that’s better. Write a world that models what you’d like our world’s future to be. It’s a great way to demonstrate possible viable changes in attitude, culture, etc. without preaching at people. It’s also often a lot more pleasant experience for yourself and readers. And it certainly would help avoid a lot of cliches and rehashing that so commonly occur.

2) Avoid Placing Female and Minority Characters Solely in Traditional Roles. —  Just as the world can be whatever you want it to be in your imagination, so can people. NO housewives or Mexican gardeners. Instead, you can write of black women in power or gays in a majority, etc. You can invert the norms you see around you and imagine roles for people that might not exist yet. This is another way to demonstrate a viable future without preaching, and to promote positive change in the process.

3) If You Want Diversity, Write It. — Seriously. It’s very easy to write what you know. And sometimes that means falling back into writing about people like you. But the world is full of people who don’t look and act like you, and if you’re creating a world that can be even more so the case. So if you want to see it, make it so, as Captain Picard might say. If you can imagine it, you can write it, and what a great way to paint images that stimulate the imaginations of others by doing so.

4) Don’t Preach A Message, Show It In Action. — Yep, Show vs. Tell even applies to this. People hate being preached at. Sometimes, even if they agree with you. So instead of pounding them over the head with message fiction, just demonstrate the results of what you desire to see. Not just with the setting and characters, but the actions, dialogue and culture surrounding them. Model the future you’d like to see. Write it so it’s real for readers. Because chances are, if they couldn’t imagine it before, you can enable them to. And imagination is always a key step to real change in cultures and societies. That’s one reason the arts have always been so powerful.

5) Channel Your Passions. — There’s a lot of anger going on for many reasons in our world today. And the Science Fiction and Fantasy community is certainly no different. Channel your passion into great storytelling. Worry less about preaching or arguing with people and more about telling stories that will inspire them to change themselves and want to change the world. Sounds hard, I know, but the list of books that have influenced the world for the better is a long one.  And I know more top selling authors who avoid politics and religion and instead bring out their ideas through good stories than I do who spend hours and hours arguing and angrily decrying those who don’t share their beliefs. Certainly there’s a time and place for that, but being nasty creates an ambiance, frankly, whether you’re wrong or right, and that can affect readership and publication. Readers want to read pleasant people. And publishers want to work with pleasant authors. I know you’re passionate. You’re an artist. You have to be. But just remember that the bigger the audience and outlet, the more people hear you, and it’s easier to be heard with great art than angry diatribes. By channeling your emotions into characters and story, you can add a vivid reality to your storytelling that will speak louder than you ever could alone, really affecting and connecting with reader’s hearts.

6) Be The Kind Of Citizen You Want Others To Be. — Okay, I admit, this one is inspired by my belief in “doing unto others,” a biblical notion. But it really does ring true. If you treat others with respect and kindness, most will return the same to you. If you want equality, treat others as equals. If you want respect, be respectful. If you want to see diversity, surround yourself purposefully with diverse people. Go where you can meet them, get to know them, interact and befriend them, and hang out. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I just know that some of my best friends and best teachers have been people I met in places an upper middle class white boy from Kansas would never expect to be. And those have stuck with me for a lifetime. It’s transforming to see the world through others’ eyes, but you can’t do it if you don’t take time to know others who aren’t like you and listen to them. Chances are, if you surround yourself with diversity, readers will be encouraged to do the same. It’ll also infuse your writing and worldbuilding for all the suggestions I made above. And you’ll be seen as someone who lives what they believe, not just someone who suggests it in words alone.

Well, there you have six suggestions, some easier than others, but all truly possible, for how you can make Science Fiction and Fantasy better. I hope some of you will try them. I have been and will continue to do so. I know there’s room for improvement, but I want to make change, not just talk about it. How about you?


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: The Importance Of Writing Rules As Boundaries For Learning Craft

WriteTips-flatSince December of 2010, I’ve been interviewing authors, editors and others almost weekly on craft every Wednesday for SFFWRTCHT, and one of our regular and favorite question is about Best and Worst Writing Advice. It’s always interesting the answers we get. And after hundreds of guests, only a few repeats, it always amazes me how many different answers we get.  In fact, sometimes a repeat guest will answer differently each visit.

But what surprises me sometimes are the harsh rejections of mainstays writing rules like “avoid passives,” etc. I think sometimes experienced writers reach a point where old rules seem more limiting than helpful, perhaps. But I still find and believe, as an editor and author both, that those rules have an important role to play in most writer’s development and growth with craft.

There’s another old adage in entertainment that applies as much to publishing as Hollywood. It goes like this:  “No one knows everything.”

And while it’s true no one knows everything, you do need to know the boundaries before you break them, and writing rules are a great way to learn those.

For example, passives are a weaker form that when employed exclusively or excessively weaken the storytelling and act as telling, not showing. Once you’ve learned how to construct strong sentences, yes, you can use passives effectively, but in the beginning especially, I think learning to write without them is absolutely important and even essential to success.

Another thing about writing rules is that they often outline pet peeves of various people, and some care about one rule more than others. But the value in knowing them is that they tend to help guide you to a stronger path and stronger prose. And they often identify common weaknesses and missteps writers have taken which have hurt their writing, their success, and the appeal of their work not just to publishers but to readers as well. There are differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, between journalism and fiction, and so on. And sometimes fiction rules are helpful if you’re experienced with another form of writing but inexperienced with fiction, as I was.

There’s another adage that gets trotted out too: “Rules are made to be broken.”

You hear people cite writers like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman who have broken rules. And yes, they have and get away with it. But usually they get away with it because the rules are so imbedded into their process that when they stray from them, they do it with such skill that it just works in ways a lesser writer couldn’t manage.  You see, knowing the boundaries so well that they become second nature has advantages, and one of those advantages is that you can later deviate outside them a bit without falling off a cliff.

Let me say it again, knowing the boundaries is necessary before you can risk going outside them. And teaching boundaries is what the writing rules so often taught are for.

As a professional editor of both anthologies and novels, I see people violating the rules all day long. Rarely is it on purpose. Most often it’s because they don’t know the rules or understand how to abide by them. And the result is always sloppier, weaker writer, and a less effectively told tale. ALWAYS. I can’t count how many times a day I have to correct over and over the same errors and explain the same rules. It gets tedious. Sometimes it gets annoying. But it’s the job, and it’s made up for by the pleasure and joy I get in seeing the final polished project overcome these weaknesses and really sparkle and shine.

You can’t be expected to just know everything when starting out. And you won’t learn unless someone takes the time to show you, to explain. So part of my role as editor is to do that for you, gently, but firmly. And I try and do it with a sense of humor, too, to hopefully lessen the sting. But I still have to do it, and you still need to learn the rules.

Just because they seem arbitrary doesn’t mean they are. Just because they can be annoying doesn’t mean you can ignore them.

These rules have developed over decades for good reason. And although they evolve as tastes and grammar and publishing house style guides change, most of them have remained relatively the same for a very long time.

So next time you hear or see your writing hero blow off the rules, don’t take it as an invitation to do so yourself. Your journey is not the same as theirs. In fact, your journey is not identical to anyone’s. Learn the rules, practice them until they become instinct and you can recite them by heart. Learn them until you don’t even remember them anymore, you just do it. Because you’ll be a better writer, that’s what their for. And you’ll be more successful and respected.

And once you have that respect, then you can throw caution to the wind and go crazy. But not before.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

 

WriteTip: On Writing What You Know As A Search For Truth

 

WriteTips-flat

First things first, it’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts. Apologies to anyone who follows the blog. I honestly ran dry in my well, because I was working on so many creative projects from writing to editing that finding energy, let alone time, for blogging was not happening. I think it was a worthwhile break for me, but I do need to reconnect with my audience I didn’t want to leave you all behind forever, and I certain value our relationship. Thanks for your patience. I am going to try and resume these once a week on Thursdays at least three times a month.

So for our first topic back, I wanted to reflect on an old mainstay, the advice to “Write What You Know.”

In a Twitter interview last night with New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh about his new science fiction noir novel, Shovel Ready, Sternbergh responded to my usual question about good and bad writing advice as follows: “Worst: Write what you know. Classic workshop trope. But what I know isn’t interesting enough for anyone to read.”

On the surface, I understand his sentiments, however, I’m going to disagree. Perhaps if we dug deeper into the statement with Sternbergh, he might agree with me but for now, we’ll just deal with the statement as is.

I believe the advice to write what you know is about a quest for truth. Writing what you know is easier for several reasons. The more familiar you are with them, the more realistic the characters and situations you write will be.  Assuming you only apply this advice to a few things, you might say, “Oh, I’m a journalist, it’s been done, boring,” or “Oh, I’m a housewife, who wants to read that.” However, I think the advice goes deeper.

Whether you’re writing speculative fiction or contemporary, historical or alternate history, readers will only connect with your story if they find elements they can relate with. From characters to situations, your story’s connectivity is going to come from the truths it contains. And so I think the advice to write what you know is very important because if you want people to connect, you must tell the truth, and you can’t write truth without knowing something about it.

In a far future tale on an  alien planet, what resonates with us are the emotions of characters, their relationships, how they see the world. Sometimes those are very different from our own, yes, but that very fact can be illuminating of our own experience. Other times, those emotions, relationships and views are like ours, and in such cases we can see ourselves in the situation reacting with the character.

Regardless of which way it goes, most readers ask themselves questions as they read, like: “What would I do in that situation?” “How would I react?” etc. And so the motives of the characters, their actions, and their emotions need to reflect believable truth for us to really find the story plausible. If they don’t, it doesn’t make sense and leaves us feeling unsatisfied.

So, as cliche as the advice “Write What You Know” may seem on the surface, I have to say it’s become so common because it speaks of a universal truth. In writing, one must write things that are true for his or her story to be true enough for readers to connect with it.  In a sense, writing what you know then becomes less about writing characters, settings, etc. that are based on your real world experiences and yourself, and more about creating ones that reflect reality in some familiar way that readers will relate with. And if that is the case, then writing what you know is indeed very good advice.

Giving writing advice is tough, because so much of it can vary from person to person, even conflict with that of others. You do have to use discernment in applying such advice, of course, and use what you can, ignore what you can’t. But to me, “Write What You Know” is advice we all can use to make our fiction stronger. That’s why I think it comes up so often, and why I think it’s stuck around so long.

Dig deep. Find the truth in your settings, characters, and situations. No matter how fantastical you dress it up, that truth is what will keep readers coming back and make your stories stay with them long after they’ve turned the last page. There’s truth in characters, relationships, settings, and all sorts of details no matter how smile. Find them, use them, and they will bring your fiction depth and make it pop off the page, make it come to life. That’s what good writing is all about. It’s what makes stories successful and memorable.

To me, that’s advice worth knowing. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012), Beyond The Sun (2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age (2013) and coedited Shattered Shields (Bean, 2014) with Jennifer Brozek and is working on Monster Corp.A Red DayMission Tomorrow, andGaslamp Terrors, among others. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter.

Write Tip: Creating Releases To Send With Review Copies

WriteTips-flat

Okay, it’s been a few months since I did one of these. I’ll admit, my well was running dry and needed a break to refresh. But I’m going to pick it back up now with a subject that many authors and even small publishers might benefit from: creating releases to go with review copies as you send them out.

If you’re not on a list to receive ARCS from majors, you may not have seen one. But all ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) come with a press release containing key information about the book. They are easy to create. I did mine in Word. And yet, they entice the recipient to read as well as making it easy for them to find key information about the author and book in case they want to write reviews, do interviews, or more.

I recently made these for my latest anthologies and here’s what they look like for Raygun Chronicles:

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So let’s break it down. First, your header should include the publisher’s logo and primary business address.

The footer should include the meta data about the book (as shown), including page count, release date, sale price, ISBN, format, etc.

360 pages · ISBN 978-0-9881257-5-9 · Hardcover: $29.95US/$34.95CAD ·
Publication: December 3, 2013 · Paperback: ISBN  978-0-9881257-6-6 $17.95US/$19.95CAD ·
ebook: ISBN 978-0-9881257-7-3 $6.99US/$8.99CAD

Usually centered. This is the key information for both reviews and articles as well as booksellers and others who might want to order the book.

The header and footer should be the same on every page of the release. And I should tell you, two pages is usually more than enough. In fact, most are a page and a half.

Now let’s look at what lies between.

First, at the top right corner, put contact information. An email address, name hyperlink and even phone number if you want, usually for a publicist or publisher who will serve as key point of contact for inquiries about the book. Sometimes the release date is also included in bold above this information.

Next, key quotes. If you’re fortunate enough to have early reviews or blurbs back, use them. If they’re too long, trim or use judicious ellipses, but don’t change the meaning of anything. This is very important. You will be called on it and having those kinds of questions raised in the middle of a release is not advisable. It’s an unneeded distraction at the least.

Then, centered, in large text and bold, Title and author’s name as a reminder which book this release pertains to. After all, most reviewers and interviewers get many ARCs and releases and they can be easily separated and all look alike. Make it easy for them to be matched up again if necessary.

Then a brief summary about the book, using your best exciting, sales language, of course, to make them want to read.

This should be followed by a bio of the author. 100-150 words should suffice. Less if possible. Concise and quick is what matters here. You want to excite and tease them but not make them stop reading.

Then after the bio, usually on page 2 (as shown) include blurb clips from author’s previous work. Sometimes there can be images of the book, but these increase printing cost. Often a list of the author’s other titles with ISBNs and prices is included.

Regardless, this is the standard information for such releases. The purpose is to get the recipient to prioritize attention to the book in question. And so keep it concise, clean, and positive. But also be honest and don’t overdo it. After all, the book should speak for itself. Remember, with all the requests inundating them and the fact that not every book, subject or author appeals to everyone, your book may not be chosen. Sometimes they’ve reviewed too much in that genre recently or even an0ther of your books. Sometimes, there are other reasons. Regardless, getting it into their hands and getting their attention is your job. What happens after that is not.

Printing these double sided is a good idea, but stapled double pages is also common. Regardless, they are easy to make and cheap to print and they will make even your self-published or micropress book look professional alongside the books from the majors. Provided your cover design and layout can compete, that is. But that’s a different post.

So that’s how to make your own professional Release Cover Letters For Review Copies of your books. I hope it’s useful. For what it’s worth…


Beyond The Sun revised coverBryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthologies Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012), Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and is working on Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

WriteTip: Using Assumption as a Dramatic Device

WriteTips-flat

Since I’ve talked a lot about assumption over the past week, it seems appropriate to point out how useful it can be in creating conflict and tension in your fiction. Assumption is deadly for unity and relationships, most of us have learned this by experience or will at some point. The same can be true of your characters. Nothing quite ups the ante like having characters miscommunicating about something. When readers realize they are doing so because of false assumptions on the part of one or both, it just ups the tension and desire to see not only a resolution but how they’ll get there.

As a device, this is quite common in interpersonal relationships. The wife sees the husband talking to a woman. They’ve been fighting. She begins suspecting him of an affair. Then various circumstances happen and the wife assumes the worst about each. Pretty soon she’s c0nvinced the affair is real and confronts her husband, who can’t imagine where she ever got the idea.

This also commonly works well in detective stories. The detectives/cops/investigators gather evidence and make certain assumptions. They choose suspects and treat them accordingly. When an assumption is proven wrong, they move on to the next suspect, but in the process, they’ve been in conflict with several suspects during the investigation as they narrow down the list.

In any scene, this device can add tension and conflict as the goals of various characters oppose each other and they begin assuming things. How they get around the assumptions and resolve the situation, creates the dramatic arc of the scene. Now, sometimes the assumptions only last for that scene, but often, it’s far more effective to have them carry over further into the story, acting again and again to misdirect and mislead the protagonist or antagonist as they work through obstacles toward their goal.

It’s a very effective device. How do you put it into action?

First, identify what each character’s goal is for a particular scene. Then identify what their goal is for the entire novel or story. All characters, even minor ones, have driving goals. Identifying them allows you to juxtapose them against each other for dramatic tension.

Second, once you’ve identified the characters’ goals, ask yourself how the goals can act as obstacles for other characters? What are some was they can lead to miscommunication, misconstruing of another character’s actions, etc.

Third, decide if the resulting conflict is just for the present scene or something to carry out over two or more scenes.

Then construct a scene wherein the character’s goals cause them to come into conflict with each other.

If supporting characters embrace the assumptions of one or the other, this can only up the tension. For example, the detective who suddenly finds himself confronting an angry crowd who support one key leader’s assumptions. Or the knight up against angry villagers when he takes on one of their own. None of the supporting characters must have exactly the same goal as either key player here, just aligning themselves on one side or another is more than enough.

The result is a rice in tension that helps pacing and drives to story forward, making readers want to know what happens, how it happens, etc.

There’s nothing quite as effective for drawing in readers as a conflict which deepens despite its apparent simplicity in clever ways due to the characters’ actions and assumptions. When they are characters we care about, especially, these situations remind us of similar situations in our own life experiences. And we feel empathy for the characters experiencing them because we know how difficult they were to deal with ourselves. If the characters get themselves into more and more trouble with further assumptions, that just makes the tension all the stronger, creating more and more questions readers can’t wait to see answered as the story continues.

This is a device which works well in any genre or dramatic setting, too. It’s often something storytellers use without being aware of it. But building awareness allows you to be more deliberate in how you employ such a tool and to use it more fully when you do so.

What are some devices you enjoy using in fiction? What are some devices you’ve discovered through another author’s work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For what it’s worth…


BTS author photo 2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tip: Worldbuilding – Follow The Truth Not Someone Else’s Agenda

WriteTips-flatWant some unsolicited writing advice? Don’t let someone else’s selfish advice box you in on your worldbuilding.

Okay, perhaps an example is in order.

I recently read an article by a fantasy writer who suggested that if you create a world in which females are wives or slaves or not strong, then you are making a political decision to discriminate against women.

Uh no. I could not disagree more.

If you envision a patriarchal society because it fits your world? That’s legitimate. Especially if you’re modeling it after a historical patriarchal society. What’s not legitimate is to write the female characters in that world as if they are not leaders or given to strengths of their own, despite their political realities. Even in traditional western households where the father brings home the bacon, the mom cooks it and raises the kids, women are often very strong and influential in their households. In fact, many are domestic queens. And that is being strong. Just because a women doesn’t carry a weapon, does not make her weak.

I don’t think every worldbuilding you make should be based on a political agenda, yours or someone else’s. I think there’s a dishonesty in that at times, if it forces you to write a world that doesn’t fit your story or is forced into an unnatural formation for the story.

That’s why advice like that quoted above needs to be disregarded. It assumes that everyone who is not writing the kinds of women that author wants to see written is anti-women. That’s just not the case. Maybe she’s just not your audience.

I do think it’s important to question your motives and decisions in worldbuilding. But don’t let manipulative advice guilt you into bad decisions for the wrong reasons either. The real world should always be an influence, yes. Because it is the only example both author and readers have about what a realistic world should look like. That’s why most made up worlds have religions. We know of no culture on Earth without them. That’s why male-female marital relationships dominate. That’s the world as we know it. It’s also why we often see men as soldiers and workers and women caring for the homes. That refection of reality is honest, not a political decision to discriminate.

At the same time, any author, if he or she is being honest about the world around him/her, will write women in diverse roles, because that is also the world in which we live. And readers will notice if your world is modern and those elements are missing. But if you’re writing an authentic historical setting, you should very much make that setting feel real and honest and reflect those realities in your books. That doesn’t mean you can’t step outside the norm to create interesting characters and elements which stand our from the stereotypes. You can and you should. But someone’s political agenda shouldn’t play a part in manipulating it, period.

The same is true of writing different races and anything else. Allow your world to reflect the world as we know it as appropriate to the time, setting, etc. It also should reflect your experience. And I think that naturally occurs. For example, I tend to write women who are housewives, women who are soldiers, women who are politicians, women who are teachers and more. I grew up with strong women who did many things and were influential leaders at home and in the community, so the women in my stories almost always reflect that when I invent secondary worlds. When I am writing historical settings, I tend to write something much more a reflection of the historical record. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you think you’re called to write stories about strong women in non-traditional settings, more power to you. If your story comes from a different place, that should be okay, too. Even if those with a different agenda don’t care to read it. Don’t be bullied by someone else’s guilt trip. There’s a really big difference between writing the world as it fits the story, setting, etc. and forcing the world to reflect what you want it to be. Both are viable, but just because you don’t choose to write the world differently than the story dictates doesn’t make you a bad person. So don’t let the kind of advice I mentioned cramp your style. Be conscious of your decisions, but also be true to yourself and your work.

You’ll write better stories, stories that will find the right readers.

For what it’s worth…


AbeLincolnDino_CoverV2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tip: 5 Tips For Choosing The Right Independent Editor

WriteTips-flat I get this question all the time: “How Do I Know What’s Reasonable?” about independent editors and their fees. You’d think people would consider me biased, but in truth, I’m not because although I have absolutely confidence in the quality of our work at Finish The Story and my own independent work, I understand the issue from a writer’s perspective and I want clients who hire me to be comfortable and feel they belong there, not constantly wondering if they made a mistake.

So here are some tips for choosing the right Independent Editor for you.

1) Do Your Research — Don’t take our word for it off our website or business cards and brochures, ask around. Check with people on our client list, others in the industry who might know our reputation, etc. Ask about what we do, how we do it, and the quality. Ask any question you can think of that. That’s just proper due diligence, after all, editing is an investment and your art is in the balance.

2) Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions — Feel free to ask us questions directly, too, about all of the same things and more. An editor who won’t answer questions is not one who values the communication necessary to work well with authors. It’s okay to be inquisitive. Better that than miscommunication that damages the relationship. Ask about past experience in your genre, for example. Ask about time frame and how they handle it when they exceed the quote: do they check with you before proceeding or just plow on and expect you to foot the bill?  (I always do the former.) Will they recommend your work to others in the industry if they feel it’s worthy? etc.

3) Ask For A Free Sample Edit — Most of us will edit 5-10 pages free as an example of our work. Take advantage of this.  You can get a sense of what we do, how we do it, and if it will be helpful to you in your process. We get a sense of whether you’re at a level that we can be of benefit. If I don’t think it’s worth the money for you to hire me right now, I’ll tell you honestly. Because I’d rather work with people for whom I can be of benefit, not people who need to spend more time developing craft. Because most writers can’t afford to come back again and again, and I don’t want to ghost write for you.

4) Compare Rates With Industry Standards — What are fair rates? Check the Editorial Freelancer’s Association’s posted Rate Standards here. You’ll get a really good sense from this if the editor you are dealing with is in line with the going rate. You’ll also get a sense of whether your expectations are realistic. In my experience, the latter is most often more of an issue than the former, because writers just don’t realize how much work goes into editing or what that’s worth, and they often undervalue it. If that sounds biased coming from an editor, so be it. But to do well, I have to make multiple passes of your document. I have to work with extreme focus, without distractions, and that means concentrating, and that can be draining. As a result, I set limits on how many hours I edit at a time and even per day. And I also only work on one project at a time, to avoid mixing them up in my mind. Not everyone works that way, but that’s how I get best results. And so I charge what I think is reasonable compensation. I’m still working on the low end of industry standards. But that’s okay, I’m new and still proving myself. But make no mistake, I earn your trust and I don’t have a single unsatisfied client yet. So check out my rates. I want you to know that I’m worth it.

5) Ask Their Prior Clients — Yes, I said this before but it needs to be emphasized again, because it’s perfectly fine to ask for references or track them down on your own. In the writing industry, people often know each other, and most are always happy to answer questions about someone they enjoyed working with or someone they didn’t. Don’t look to create drama. Tweet or Facebook or Email and tell them: “I’m thinking about hiring so-and-so as an editor for my project, and I was curious about your experience working with them.” If what they have to say needs to be kept private, they’ll let you know and find a way to communicate appropriately. If what they have to say is good, chances are they’ll be happy to say it loudly and often. But it never hurts to ask. I’ve never had someone refuse to be a reference in such cases.

So there you have it, five helpful tips for choosing the right independent editor. I hope these give some of you a better sense of what to look at and good questions to ask. Happy editing and continued success!

For what it’s worth…


Beyond The Sun revised coverBryan Thomas Schmidt’s debut novel The Worker Prince received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His other books include The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012), Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, or his website at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net.

Write Tip: Thou Shalt Not Sin With Commas

WriteTips-flatI know what you’re thinking: a Write Tip on commas? It’s so basic. I must admit, it’s the last subject I thought I’d ever tackle in one of these tips. But please don’t find it insulting. The more I edit, the more I find it is often the very basics of which we writers most need reminding. After all, commas matter.  It seems to be one of the more common errors my editing clients are making.  So perhaps a reminder might be helpful for us all.

Some examples:

She remained standing, firm in her resolve.

She remained, standing firm in her resolve.

Now, he knew it was over.

Now he knew, it was over.

Now he knew it was over.

Suddenly running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly, running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly running toward the street he realized how stupid he’d been.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese, and carrot cake.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese and carrot cake.

In each of these examples, you may notice how clearly the comma placement changes both the meaning and the pacing of reading each sentence. Commas provide separation of elements in series, separation of clauses, indications of where readers and speakers should pause in their inflection, and more. Lazy comma usage can do far more than demonstrate your lack of grammatical knowledge, it can also create real confusion in what you’re trying to communicate.

Here are 10 Key Rules for correct comma usage according to http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm:

1. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. “He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.”

Okay, yes, the comma before the “and” is often called the Oxford Comma, and some consider it unnecessary, which is fine when you have control of things. But some publishing houses’ style guides require it, and, more importantly, there are cases in which leaving it out can cause confusion when two list items appear to go together in ways not intended. Using a comma between all the items in a series, including the last two, avoids this problem.

Take the last two above examples:

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese, and carrot cake.

She served all of his favorites: tossed salad, macaroni and cheese and carrot cake.

Is it macaroni and cheese being served along with carrot cake? Is macaroni being served along with cheese and carrot cake? Are there two kinds of cakes: cheese cake and carrot cake? I think my point is obvious.

 

2. Use a comma + a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses, as in “He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base.”

Sometimes the conjunction makes the separation clear and a comma isn’t needed. But if there is any doubt, use the comma, as it will never be incorrect in this situation. In fact, one of the most frequent comma errors is placing it after the coordinating conjunction. For example,

He ran as far as he could and, then he stopped.

or less obviously perhaps:

Her statement was obvious but, in case there was any doubt, he paraphrased for the others.

A comma before the “but” would be appropriate, but after it is unnecessary and potentially confusing. We do sometimes pause after the little conjunction when speaking, but there is seldom a good reason to put a comma there.

 

3. Use a comma to set off introductory elements, as in “Running toward third base, he suddenly realized how stupid he looked.”

Again, you may omit the comma in such cases if the statement is clear and will not cause readers to stumble, but if there is ever any doubt, use the comma. It will never be wrong.

Several examples from above may serve here:

She remained standing, firm in her resolve.

She remained, standing firm in her resolve.

Now, he knew it was over.

N0w he knew, it was over.

Suddenly running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

Suddenly, running toward the street, he realized how stupid he’d been.

I see this one a LOT in editing.

 

4. Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements, as in “The Founders Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down.”

The term “parenthetical element” here refers to a part of the sentence which could be dropped without changing the essential meaning of the sentence, sometimes called “added information.” This can be one of the more challenging punctuation rules, as what is “added” may not always be clear.

Without hesitation, he ran.

Dropping “without hesitation” would still leave the essential meaning: “he ran.” The parenthetical, in this case, serves to add motivational i.e. emotional context to the action that follows.

 

5. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives.  If you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there.

A good example of this might be:

Sarah lives in a very old and run-down house.

Instead, you’d more often say:

Sarah lives in a very old, run-down house.

Here’s a good example of an exception,  however:

That lady is old and little.

Instead, we’d more commonly hear:

That was a little old lady.

Note the lack of commas between “little” and “old lady.”

 

6. Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Generally, use a comma to separate quoted material from the rest of the sentence that explains or introduces the quotation.

This can be difficult to remember because most of us don’t use quoted materially constantly.  But in fiction particularly, it is important when using speech tags or action tags for dialogue.

“General, we have word from the Governor,” the aide reported, handing Gent a message tube and stopping beside him.

or

Gent called back to her as he ran, “Don’t let him out of your sight!”

or

When asked about the issue, Congressman Roberts replied, “I have no comment on that matter at this time.”

But this one can also be abused and confused. As I see incorrect things like this way too often:

“Don’t do anything stupid, Keely!”, he yelled as he went to open his door.

 

7. Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast.

She smiled as their eyes met,  sadness and longing shining from their depths.

 

8. Use a comma to avoid confusion. This is often a matter of consistently applying rule #3.

I think we’ve covered this but it’s a good reminder.

 

9. Grammar English’s Famous Rule of Punctuation: Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb. “Believing completely and positively in oneself is essential for success.” [Although readers might pause after the word “oneself,” there is no reason to put a comma there.]

I see this one a lot, too.

“Mark my words, all of that garbage you’re ingesting, is going to be the death of you!”

No, no, no, no, no! The comma before “is” makes me shudder.

 

10. Typographical Reasons: Between a city and a state [Hartford, Connecticut], a date and the year [June 15, 1997], a name and a title when the title comes after the name [Bob Downey, Professor of English], in long numbers [5,456,783 and $14,682], etc. Although you will often see a comma between a name and suffix — Bob Downey, Jr., Richard Harrison, III — this comma is no longer regarded as necessary by most copy editors, and some individuals — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — never used a comma there at all.

That one’s often determined by personal taste and style guides. Just be consistent within the body of your manuscript. And be prepared for editors with other preferences to raise the issue.

 

So, there you have it, some examples of sinful comma usage to avoid, and legal ways to employ them instead. I hope this is a helpful reminder, even for those of us who feel current on our grammatical knowledge. I know I need reminders myself from time to time. For what it’s worth…


Beyond Sun Cover.inddBryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website atwww.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook.

Write Tips Guest Post: Bestseller Tips for Writing A Fiction Series by Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock series

WriteTips-flatHey Y’all. Thanks for having me here today. I’ve been a commercially published writer since I sold my first book in 1989. I know that makes my first book older than some of you, but like any good mom, I remember the birth-day of the book quite well. However that is a post for another day. Today we are talking about things every writer needs to do in order to write a successful series. The bestselling part – well that is up to the fans and readers. They make or break you, and if they love you, you are golden. So, (in no particular order) on to it!

  1. Keep it all straight or your readers will remind you for YEARS about how you missed this or that. I live in constant fear of breaking this rule. I am about to hire a continuity editor, someone who will create for me a bible of the Jane Yellowrock world, with every character’s: description, history, weapons, skill, ability, diet preferences, clothes, house floor plan, love life, and more. Also, history of the world Jane lives in. To this point in my writing career, I’ve never written more than a 4-book-long series, and it was easy to keep up back then. Now, not so much.
  2. Blood-Trade-Blog-Tour-175Develop a thick skin. There will be good reviews and bad reviews. There will be people who love you and your work and people who call you bad names on book review sites because you did something in your book they didn’t like.  I am very careful when I read reviews to pick ones that don’t A.) Call me names. B.) Seem to have an ax to grind against the world, and picked me as the whet stone. C.) Love me and everything about my books. When I read reviews, I pick ones that do  A.) Seem rational and calm and mostly sane. B.) Seem to have actually read the book and the series that came before. C.) Offer constructive criticism. I get really good ideas from reviews that are reasoned and well thought out. But mostly I am kind to myself. No matter how thick my skin is, I don’t torture myself and end up depressed.
  3. Maybe this should come first or last, for emphasis, but let your characters develop and grow. One of the first things a writer learns is to have good character development in every novel, but in a series, it is paramount to let them change and grow through problems and really develop. If you want a more in depth overview how to make your characters develop, there a lot of really good posts a www.magicalwords.net, a writing site created by two writing pals and me years ago. Here is one I wrote back
    in 2009 http://www.magicalwords.net/faith-hunter/character-development-%E2%80%93-what-is-it-really/ where I break down the how of character development.
  4. 9780451465061_BloodTrade_CV.inddBe willing to try new things. One of the worst things writers can do is let their writing get stale. Take a break, write something different every now and again. I have been writing inside the Jane Yellowrock world, but outside of Jane’s Point of View in short stories lately, and I am really enjoying it! In the series, I am locked into a first person POV, which I adore, but it can be limiting. Writing from third person, from another character’s POV, is very freeing, and also, it lets me see my main character through eyes of the secondary characters in the series. I had no idea she was so lean and menacing. And cuddly. Depending on the POV I am writing from.
  5. Voice. I think this is probably the most important part of a successful series. Finding the different voices in the stories and keeping them true.  There are many different voices in a novel: A.) Voices of each and every character, both internal thoughts (depending on the POV, of course), and dialogue patterns. Every character should not sound alike. Just like real people, they should have unique verbal and physical tics, and unique word placements and phrasing. B.) Narrative voice. This is the writer’s voice. It is composed of many disparate things: the tone of book, the setting, the character’s temperament, sentence length and the number of detached non-full-sentence-dangling-phrases to name a very few. This voice should remain constant throughout the book.

I hope this helped. Check out my books and website, and my latest release, BLOOD TRADE, from Penguin/ROC! Faith Hunter www.faithhunter.net https://www.facebook.com/official.faith.hunter?fref=ts

Faith Hunter is the fantasy author of the Jane Yellowrock vampire hunter series and a long time professional fiction writer. Including her other pen name, Gwen Hunter, she has over 25+ published books in 28 countries around the world. Her latest addition to the Jane Yellowrock series, Blood Trade, was released by Penguin/ROC on April 2nd, 2013. She is an original creator of and regular contributor to MagicalWords.net, an industry blog for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find out more about Faith at her home on the web, FaithHunter.net, or visit her official Facebook page to connect with her and other fantasy fiction fans.

Write Tip: Using Nuances and Subtext to Bring Characters and World To Life

WriteTips-flatOkay, this week’s write tip is going to be a bit different. I want you to watch this video first before you read the rest of this post. And you need to watch the whole thing to really get what I’m saying here. Watch it. It’s not cheesy. It’s surprisingly touching and funny. And you won’t know what I mean if you don’t make it through the first two minutes. So you have your assignment. Watch and then we’ll get to the tip.

In case you have trouble with the embedded video in your browser, find it on You Tube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcVXCeWk0PE

Now. Showing this to people I’ve gotten several varied reactions.

1) Oh, I would never make a fool out of myself like that.

2) Best dad ever!

3) That’s cute!

4) How creative and fun!

5) I couldn’t do that.

My own reaction: this is a man who loves his daughter enough to demonstrate it and celebrate it.

The typical father-daughter dance at weddings is symbolic. We all know why. It’s the passing of the torch of responsibility for the care of the daughter from father to husband. It signifies a letting go, a goodbye, an acknowledgement of leaving home and that everything has changed.

But not really.

What do I mean?

He could have just danced with his daughter. “Butterfly Kisses” is without a doubt one of the best songs written by a father for his daughter ever. It evokes memories for almost anyone who hears it. F0rget about the mention of Jesus and that it’s from a Christian singer. What makes this song work is that it paints pictures of experiences almost every father and daughter have shared and recognize instantly. And it does so over a moving melody with touching arrangement and score.

It’s the perfect tribute for a memorable moment. And in and of itself, I’m sure that it will be the song by which singer Bob Carlisle is forever remembered. So at any wedding, and it’s sung at thousands every year these days, it makes for the perfect accompaniment to this symbolic moment.

But something happens here. Something unexpected. Something that knocks us out of that moment and into another. It could have been cheesy. It could have been ridiculous. But it’s not. It’s done so well and with such good spirits that instead it is perfect. It absolutely makes for one of the most memorable and meaningful father-daughter dances I have ever seen. Because what I see here is a father who is remembering being silly with his baby girl and celebrating that by doing it one more time. He’s saying, “this dance is not for you or what you think, audience. This is for me and my girl. And it’s a moment we’ll never forget.”

It gives me chills. It’s a celebration of a father’s true love for his daughter, of the joy they find in each other. Of the magic that exists in a parent-child relationship. It’s one last chance to marvel and wonder at what they’ve found together in each other. And it’s a fearless example of self-sacrifice.

This father in no way looks like the type of guy who would just shake his booty like he does here. Now, I don’t know him. He could be a trained pro dancer for all I know. (I doubt it. He wasn’t slick enough, but it doesn’t matter.) The point is that instead of letting a moment be entirely melancholy just because it’s fitting, he decided to turn it into a celebration of the joy of fatherhood with his daughter.

Honestly, that’s love.

And to me, it’s a great example of nuances and subtext.

As an editor, I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers who write transparently. They don’t know how to impart subtext intentionally. Occasionally it happens, but it’s all an accident. It’s a lesson I admit to having to learn and continuing to learn myself.  Because for a story and a world and a character to be real, we as readers need to recognize them. And real people live lives full of subtext and nuances in everything they do.

The simple act of a father dancing with his daughter is just an example. You could assume the motive is transparent. It’s tradition. It’s something you’re expected to do. He doesn’t want to disappoint his daughter or family. It’s that simple.

And if all they had done was dance to “Butterfly Kisses,” that might be all we see here. But that’s not what happens.

Instead, they break it out into something quite different and unexpected and delightful. And from their expressions, their enthusiasm, we can see that it’s about so much more. Missed it? Watch the video again. Seriously.

These are not people who have rehearsed so much that they look like robots. They clearly rehearsed. They match their dance moves too closely for that not to have been the case. But it’s clear they are enjoying it. It’s not done rotely or robotically with no emotion. They look comfortable, relaxed and happy doing it. This is from the heart.

As a result, for me, it’s magic. And that’s the kind of magic we as writers need to earn to work into our stories to make them jump off the page and come alive.

You character hugs his wife goodbye before heading off to battle. It’s what husbands do. What soldiers do. But what else could be behind it? Maybe their marriage has grown cold and routine, and they have to work harder to recapture the passion they had when they first fell in love. Maybe they don’t touch like they used to, and the husband wants to remind the wife one more time that she matters to him, that she’s in his heart.

Or maybe the husband is remembering all the previous times they’ve said goodbye, not knowing if they’d see each other again. Maybe it reminds them of the friends, other married couples, who played out the same goodbye only the warrior never came home.

All kinds of things can be going on.

Our job as writers is to figure out what those things are for these characters and find ways to evoke it through their actions, their thoughts and their words, without necessarily spelling it out directly. It takes subtlety. And it takes good set up. Little hints and moments before and after that multiply together to tell us what’s going on in that moment. But it’s these nuances and the subtext that results which add a depth and poignancy, when done well, that brings both characters and world a level of realism that makes it pop. And sells it to your readers as s0mething they can imagine really happening.

So yes, it’s a wedding video. But I hope now you can see why I’m saying this is so much more. Because I think it is. And our stories need lots of moments with so much more, too. At least, if we want to elevate them beyond the ordinary to the memorable and special, that is. And I know that’s what I’m shooting for. What about you?

For what it’s worth…


Beyond Sun Cover.inddBryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction including the novels The Worker Prince and The Returning, and the children’s books 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (Flying Pen Press, 2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun (Fairwood, July 2013), Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age  (Every Day Publishing, November 2013) and Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek (Baen, 2014). He also edits Blue Shift Magazine and hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and can be found via Twitter as @BryanThomasS, on his website at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/bryanthomass?ref=hl.

Write Tips: Shortcuts For Formatting Your Manuscript To Meet Guidelines

WriteTips-flatAs an editor, I am surprised how many writers seem to struggle with manuscript formatting–either not doing it per guidelines, not making effort, etc. There are many reasons editors ask  for specific formatting. For example, when I turn manuscripts into publishers who use Adobe InDesign (a manuscript formatting software), there are sometimes issues with importing so they need things simple and formatted to make that easier and save time. Some editors find manuscripts easier to read double spaced, etc. and since they read a lot, they need you to make it easy so you can get a fair shot. These reasons may not sound compelling to some writers but the burden is on you to make the reading experience fun not just from writing a good story but also in presentation, so you should care.

To make things easier, though, particularly in Microsoft Word or Open Office, there are things you can do to shortcut formatting. Maybe you don’t want to worry about it as you write. That’s why I use Scrivener and let it do the work for me. But if you’re doing it all in a Word Processor, here’s three handy tips.

1) Converting Italics To Underlining or vice versa — Did you know that you can use the REPLACE function to change formatting? Well, you can. If you wanted to convert all italicized words to underlining, for example, a not uncommon editorial guidelines request, you simply have to pull up replace as follows:

Replace Italics Figure 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Pull up the replace dialogue from your menu.

2. Put the cursor in the first blank and type Control-I (Italics)

3. In the second blank, type Control-U (underlining) then Control-I and Control-I again. This will tell it to remove Italics.

4. Then hit Replace All.

Yep, it’s that simple. And you can do it with converting underlining to italics, bold, etc.

Here’s another tip.

2) Select All + Set Tabs — Suppose you need to fix the tabs on your manuscript. One way ti globally fix them is to use Select All.

Select All Figure 2

 

 

 

 

1. Find Select All On Your Menu or use Control-A to select all, highlighting all the text in your document.

Tabs Figure 3

 

 

 

 

 

2) Then on the ruler, click where you want the tabs.

Most of your text will slide into position. Places where spacing or margin markers were moved instead of tabs will have to be corrected by hand but this is a big timesaver in regards to an entire document as it will keep you from having to fix each tab one at a time.

3) DocX Line Space Removal — One of the more annoying features in Word is the additional space added between paragraphs automatically. To eliminate this, you need to do the following:

Select All Figure 2

 

 

 

 

1. Find Select All On Your Menu or use Control-A to select all, highlighting all the text in your document.

Paragraph Dialogue Box Figure 5

 

 

 

 

 

2. Pull Up the Character Dialogue Box by clicking the arrow in that section of your menus.

Doc X space removal Figure 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Click the box next to “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style” and then hit OK.

This will remove those pesky spaces throughout your document.

4) Quick Styles & Templates–If there is a particular manuscript format you use a lot, you can set up a template by formatting a document with the necessary formatting, including tabs, no spaces between paragraphs, double spacing, headers, etc. To do this, use a document and go through as follows:

Applying Styles Figure 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Highlight The Text you want to apply the style to.  

Note: You have to do this for every relevant style when setting up a template. It’s time consuming but that’s the only way to define the styles.

2. Click the appropriate style button.

If the default style is not what you want, then make adjustments to the text to add italics, underlining, etc. Do this without clicking a style button again for that text. We are going to reprogramming the definition of that button.

3. You can even include graphics.

This is handy if you are making a template for stationary, say, or something similar.

Saving Templates In Word Figure 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Click Save as, select “Word Template” in the document type and then name your template and Save.

The next time you want to apply this format to your document, you can then take the following steps:

1. Open the document you want to apply a template to. On the File Tab, press the Options button.

2. Select Add-Ins option from the menu on the left side of the Options dialog.

3. Click on Manage and choose Templates from the dropdown list. Press Go to open the Templates and Add-Ins Window.

4. Press Attach to open the Template Attachment Dialog. Select the template you want to attach to your document and then press Open.

5. When prompted, select Automatically Update Styles to change the styles of your document to match the styles of your template. Then click OK.

Yes, I know. It sounds time consuming. But only for set up. Once you have the template created, it’s a huge time saver. You can apply any template to any document so set up templates for the markets you submit to most and you won’t have to worry about spending long amounts of time reformatting submissions before you send them out.

Those are just 4 big time saving shortcuts for manuscript formatting. I’d love to hear others in comments, if you have them. Meanwhile, I hope this is helpful in freeing you up to write! For what it’s worth…


Beyond Sun Cover.inddBryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: 8 Tips For How To Approach Editing Your Work

WriteTips-flatThere’s nothing quite as enlightening for a writer as editing other’s works. I’ve learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do from my freelance editing which has helped me grow as a writer. So here are 10 key tips I’ve learned for Editing Your Novel:

1) Preserve The Fresh Eye — This can’t be overemphasized. I am not possessed of a great deal of patience. Never have been. But I’ve been editing for five years now, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned that has helped me improve my work. But none of that can be applied without having proper perspective. Putting aside your work until the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment at having finished such a monumental project fades (at least 4-6 weeks) is vital. Move on with other projects after a day or two of celebration. Get your mind on other things. You’ll come back much fresher and with better distance to be objective in reviewing your own work. After all, editing requires killing babies and nitpicking your favorite words and phrases, and you can’t be emotionally attached and do that well. This is an excellent time to send the work out for beta reading or notes. While you wait for that feedback, you can’t really begin editing in earnest, right? Or at least shouldn’t.

2) Watch Out For Intruder Words — This one is so vital I did a separate post on it here, but the basics are look for words like “saw, thought, wondered, felt, knew, heard,” etc. are all ‘intruder’ words. They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively.  They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness.  There are times when one might deliberately choose to use intruder words. But these should be done with careful thought and sparingly.   Otherwise “She felt the wind blow across her face” is stronger as “The wind blew across her face”.  Or “She heard a bang” is better written as  ”A bang thundered behind her.”

3) Don’t Abuse The Tags — Speech tags are so common that people use them without much thought, but the industry has come to lean more and more toward minimal usage. When you have two characters going back and forth, you don’t always need to identify the speaker. If one of them makes a gesture or action, you can describe that action instead, and we’ll know the dialogue in the same paragraph is from that character. Also, be careful not to use words that are not descriptors of speech patterns. “I’m coming,” Bob waved, “as fast as I can.” Uh, no. Try: Bob waved in acknowledgement. “I’m coming as fast as I can.” Which makes more sense? I’ll do a post on this later on but it’s something that can and should be looked at in revision. Eliminate as many as you can.

4)  Read Aloud — This is one I struggle with. It can feel odd to read things aloud to yourself, but it also has great value. Especially in finding run-on sentences, awkwardly paced phrasing and even repetitive words. I often read aloud when I am comparing one wording with another to find which is more natural. Just because our internal voice reads as we write doesn’t mean our words will translate the same way for others. Remember that writing is a rhythm of stops and starts. You may pause to choose words and then continue without realizing you’ve just created an awkwardly paced or long sentence, or even missed punctuation that would make it clear. Reading it aloud, or even listening to someone else do so (if you can bear it), can teach you a lot about where you need to make changes.

5) Set Daily Goals — Don’t try and edit your entire novel in one sitting. You will start skimming and skipping without even realizing it. Editing requires a very focused reading and most of the time 2-5 chapters will be more than enough to accomplish in one sitting. Finish them and take a few hours away to refresh before starting on more. It’s okay to set goals for what you want to accomplish each day, but allow flexibility that enables you to step away when you get that glossy-eyed feeling so you can preserve the quality over quantity of your editing time.  Even when editing other people’s work, I set daily goals, because I know that at a certain point I become less effective and my work suffers for it. This happens all the more so when I am editing work I’m so overly familiar with, like my own.

6) Work From A Checklist — Either based on beta reader or editor notes or you own writing experience, having a checklist can be an excellent tool. Cat Rambo provides examples here. What are the areas of weakness and strength you’ve discovered in yourself as a writer? What are things you need to focus on? Is there a particular arc or character speech pattern to examine and refine? Are there themes which you discovered as you wrote you want to work in and layer throughout? What about repetitive words? Do you need to add or trim description? Maybe you need to cut excess words? Having a checklist to refer to with each chapter can keep you from getting sidetracked by one aspect and ignoring others. It can keep you on track and remind you to address all of the issues which were on your mind when you sat down to commence the edit.

7) Evaluate Necessity — One of the most important things to do is to evaluate the purpose of every scene and character. What does this scene or character do to further the plot? How do they relate to the key conflicts? Do they advance the story? World-building is a legitimate way to advance the story but don’t overdo it. 3 pages of double spaced manuscript can be 10 pages in the finished book. Will readers really sit through that much description and detail about every day items, clothing, food, etc.? Did you really need a new character for that moment or could an existing one have been recycled allowing you to develop them further? Does that little vignette about the character’s past or emotional life really contribute to what’s going on now? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to be willing to start cutting nonvital characters, scenes, words, etc.

8 ) Be Willing To Work In Stages — Sometimes, especially when an area is a particular weakness, focusing on just one issue while editing is appropriate. You can do separate passes for pacing, removing extra words, character arcs, etc. if necessary. Don’t be so rushed to get it done that you don’t allow yourself the time to get it right. It’s a natural part of the writing journey that we internalize various skills as we go along and develop, but we don’t start out with mastery of them all or an ability to use them all simultaneously. Even as a professional editor, I can’t do a serious copyedit and developmental edit at the same time. I have to do them separately. The two tasks require different types of focus and thinking and one can easily distract from the other. So be willing to break your edit into separate passes or stages when required. Your book will be much better for it.

I’m sure I could think of more tips but that’s enough for today. Those are tips I find are not often remembered because editing discussions so often focus on craft and storytelling details, but how you approach the process can be just as vital to the success of it as those technical details. So I hope these are helpful in stimulating your planning and approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. By the way, these same tips can be applied on a smaller scale to editing short stories as well. And they work for both fiction and nonfiction. I edit all three. For what it’s worth…


BTS & Friend take 2Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.