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: 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.

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…

Write Tip: Keeping Out The Intruder Words

WriteTips-flatOne of the things you learn on the writing journey is the importance of word choice. Certain types of words have certain types of impacts on your story, not just in evoking emotions or images, but in setting the tone, creating the voice, world building, and more. Some words create intimacy and a feeling of closeness in point of view, carrying readers inside the mind of your characters, inside the world of the story. Others create barriers, distancing them. Among these are Intruder Words.

‘Wondered, felt, thought, saw, 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.”

Can you see the difference?

One form describes something flatly, the other creates an experience of it.

One form is rather drab and ordinary, the other visceral and alive. And thus, avoiding such words can help you create prose that pops off the page, bringing your story to life for readers.

Like anything in writing, retraining yourself to avoid using Intruder Words takes practice. At first, you’ll have to go back through and weed them out, like the common passives “began to, seemed to, going to, starting to,” etc. These words are used so naturally in speech and daily living that they’ll pour out of you like maple syrup from a tree. And it will take building your conscious awareness to start relearning when and when not to use them.

Once you’re aware of the problem, however, the process of identifying and eliminating these words can actually be good practice. If like me, you struggle with descriptive phrasing and writing viscerally, they provide an opportunity to learn craft through lots of practice, because you’ll undoubtedly find these words invading your prose on every page. But over time, with practice, you’ll find your mind filters them as you write. “Stop, need a new word,” that inner voice will say. And then, after a while more, you won’t even think of them. At least, not automatically. And using them intentionally is the only way you want to do it when it comes to your prose.

Don’t worry. We’re not talking about something that will make you talk funny. There’s a difference between how people talk and how we must write, after all. As my English teacher Barbara Sackrider once said: “If you say y’all in my classroom, you get an F, but if you talk to me on the street and say ‘you all,’ I’ll look at you like a freak.” Okay, she was joking.  But her point was well taken by my 15-year-old mind. After all, English dialects are complicated and the rules of grammar are tailor-made to be broken by them.

Let’s compare two passages: one with Intruder Words and one without.

 

With

He gained consciousness sweaty and hot, lying on his back. It took a moment for the black spots to fade, replaced by the blinding sunlight and white sand stretching as far as the eye could see. Where am I?  The sandy landscape reflected sunlight and heat back at him as he sat up, shaking off the sleep. Scattered belongings—clothes, canteens, a shattered barrel and trunk, torn saddlebags—stretched off into the distance toward the remains of a wagon. He saw footsteps leading toward him, smeared and uneven as if perhaps he’d stumbled to where he lay. Sunlight glinted off flesh atop a nearby dune. Was someone else alive? Then he saw limbs scattered along the path away from the torso—an arm severed at the elbow, the hand still attached, fingers stiffened like claws, a leg severed mid-thigh, another cut off above the ankle—and he knew the answer.

Without

He gained consciousness sweaty and hot, lying on his back. It took a moment for the black spots to fade, replaced by the blinding sunlight and white sand stretching as far as the eye could see. Where am I?  The sandy landscape reflected sunlight and heat back at him as he sat up, shaking off the sleep. Scattered belongings—clothes, canteens, a shattered barrel and trunk, torn saddlebags—stretched off into the distance toward the remains of a wagon. Footsteps led toward him, smeared and uneven as if perhaps he’d stumbled to where he lay. Sunlight glinted off flesh atop a nearby dune. Was someone else alive? Scattered severed limbs—an arm severed at the elbow, the hand still attached, fingers stiffened like claws, a leg severed mid-thigh, another cut off mid-calf—provided the answer.

 

Which works better for you? Which is more powerful and draws you? Can you see the difference?

Don’t let Intruder Words intrude in your stories and on your readers. Instead, replace them with words that help bring your stories to life and draw readers in. It’s a sure sign of a writer who’s professional rather than amateur. It’ll help take your prose to the next level.

For what it’s worth…


The Returning Cover front onlyBryan 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.

INTERVIEW – Death’s Rival (Jane Yellowrock) 100 Q&A Tour Of Faith: With Faith Hunter

Faith Hunter has over 20 years in the writing profession, over 20 books written total in over 20 countries. Born in Louisiana and raised all over the south, she writes action-adventure, mysteries and thrillers under the name Gwen Hunter while The Skinwalker series, featuring Jane Yellowrock is taking off like a rocket under Faith Hunter.  SkinwalkerBlood CrossMercy Blade, and Raven Cursed have released so far with last two becoming New York Times Bestsellers. Another series, her Rogue Mage novels, a dark, urban fantasy series—BloodringSeraphs, and Host—features Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage in a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality, urban fantasy world. These novels are the basis for the role playing game, Rogue Mage (2012).  A co-creator and contributor to the MagicalWords.net blog for writers, Faith was a guest on SFFWRTCHT last May, and I fell in love with her Skinwalker series. So much so, in fact, that I included it on my 9 Great Urban Fantasy Series You Don’t Want To Miss list, which has been quite popular this month. To read our previous interview at Grasping For The Wind, click here.  Celebrating the release of her 5th Jane Yellowrock novel, Faith sat down with me here for a new interview to open her 100 Q&A Tour Of Faith blog tour, the rest of which can be found  at http://www.faithhunter.net/wp/2012/08/28/deaths-rival-urban-fantasy-blog-tour.

BTS: Nice to chat with you again, Faith.  This is your fifth time diving into the minds of Jane, Beast and the imagined New Orleans. What is the appeal for you of doing a series and revisiting characters and locations over and over?

Faith Hunter:  Thank you so much for having me here again. I had such fun the last time!

For one thing, my publisher loves New Orleans! Seriously.  And I was born and spent a large part of youth in Louisiana. Many generations of ancestors are buried there (along with the skeletons in their closets) in mausoleums and crypts and vaults. New Orleans was a port city and has long and amazing history to draw upon – hundreds of years – for my long-lived secondary characters. For instance, Leo Pellissier is 500 years old. If I want to go back in time and write a story of his early years, I have lots of historical data to draw upon. Having ongoing relationships with violent, nonhuman predators adds tension to Jane’s stories, and keeps the readers coming back.

That said, I do get tired of one setting, which is why some novels, including Raven’s Curse, which came out in Jan. 2012, and Blood Trade, which will be out in 2013, take place in other cities. Also, the short story Cajun With Fangs, which is in the compilation Have Stakes Will Travel (e-book to be released on Sept. 4,  2012) takes place in the very Deep South in a Cajun township and involves all new characters, which helps to keep the series fresh.

BTS: What ties the books together? Is there a through line or is it just world and characters?

FH: Jane’s life is the series story arc. Her self-discovery, her memories of her youth, which are slowly returning, her love life, and her future are part of that. But also the deadly relationship between the vamps and the witches, and the importance of the blood diamond – the dangerous magical artifact that is in Jane ‘s possession – will play a big part in the series ending.

BTS: In Death’s Rival, someone is after Leo’s job as top vampire of New Orleans, and, to top it off, a vampire plague is loose. How does your approach evolve with each new novel or does it?

FH:   Every book has to be based on something, a foundation that the returning fans can remember and associate with. So I try to use a lot of the same cues and clues, then add some new fillip to the mix that will grab them. The writer’s technique is called bait and hook, which means the writer dangles the known, with something hidden, the bites, and the reader is hooked. LOL

BTS: This series is classic urban fantasy with a mix of detective/vampire hunter and some paranormal. What, to your mind are the core elements of good urban fantasy?

FH: Good UF is a good mystery with danger to the main character or people the MC loves. Danger & mystery. And a few good fights. And some romance. (nods head) Gotta have romance in there somewhere!

BTS: Tell us about your writing office.            

FH: My desk is set up in my writing room, on the second story of my home. The lot is sloping so I am up in the trees, overlooking a creek. It is a wonderful place to write, though I often turn my back to the window while actually pounding away, to keep from being distracted by the hunting hawks and feral cats and the antics of the squirrels.

No music, unless I am writing a sweat-house scene where Jane’s Cherokee Elder friend leads her back to her broken and mostly-forgotten youth. At those scenes, I listen to AmIn (American Indian) flute and drum music.

BTS: You told me before you can envision 10 or 15 Jane novels. I know you’re an outliner, or as you put it “I outline wearing pants.” Do you have any kind of plan for those? Idea bank? Story bible perhaps? Or do you just find the idea when you need one?

FH:  I have a loose idea of how the series will end and I am slowly getting all the clues in place for it. As to firm outlines, I am only thinking one book ahead right now, so no future-story-bible. While I lay the foundation for the series ending, I am having so much fun!

BTS: What can we expect from Jane 6 and what’s it called? when will it arrive?

FH: Have Stakes Will Travel, the e-book compilation, is out on Sept. 4, 2012, Death’s Rival out on Oct. 2, 2012, and Blood Trade, Ap. 2, 2013. Blood Trade takes Jane to Natchez, Mississippi for fun, mayhem, a new form of vampire she has never seen before, and a lot of interesting men!

BTS: What do you want to write that you haven’t been asked to write or haven’t sold to a publisher?

FH: I want to do a few more Jane books, and maybe a couple of standalone spinoffs, one with Rick LaFleur as main character and one with Molly Everhart’s witch family. If I can find a publisher for them. The market trends will guide that, of course.

BTS: What do you see as the future of the fantasy genre?   

FH: The future is, as always, seen through a glass, darkly, but I’ll take a shot. I think people in general are very frustrated, so I foresee a lot more fighting and violence in the genre. I predict a new version of vampire, something not done before. I see a lot more historical settings and time periods emerging. And, because people are angry, lonely, and searching, I expect a lot more religion crossover novels. Ex: A character who is both Hindu and Orthodox Christian, and has no problem with the crossover religion, who brings his religion into the story, and the mythos of both affect the storyline and the character’s growth.

BTS: What do you have coming up next?

FH: The Rogue Mage World Book and Role Playing Game (set in Thorn St. Croix’s world) has been Kickstarted and is in production to sell to fans as I write this. It has Mega Fiction in it!

Have Stakes Will Travel is a short story compilation set in Jane Yellowrock’s world, releasing in September 2012.  I have a short (yes, it too is set in Jane Yellowrock’s world) in the anthology An Apple For The Creature (headlining Charlaine Harris) releasing Sept 4, 2012.

Death’s Rival will be out in October 2012, and it takes Jane deeper into her own Cherokee past as well as introduces a new story arc for the series. The cover copy says it all!

Jane Yellowrock is a shapeshifting skinwalker you don’t want to cross—especially if you’re one of the undead…

For a vampire killer like Jane, having Leo Pellisier as a boss took some getting used to. But now, someone is out to take his place as Master Vampire of the city of New Orleans, and is not afraid to go through Jane to do it. After an attack that’s tantamount to a war declaration, Leo knows his rival is both powerful and vicious, but Leo’s not about to run scared. After all, he has Jane. But then, a plague strikes, one that takes down vampires and makes their masters easy prey.

Now, to uncover the identity of the vamp who wants Leo’s territory, and to find the cause of the vamp-plague, Jane will have to go to extremes…and maybe even to war.

Faith Hunter can be found on Twitter as @hunterfaith, via her website at http://www.faithhunter.net, via www.magicalwords.net or on her official Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/official.faith.hunter.  Be sure and check out the rest of her blog tour stops and the tour schedule at http://www.faithhunter.net/wp/2012/08/28/deaths-rival-urban-fantasy-blog-tour. 


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. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  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 World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. 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: 15 Top New Year’s Reads For Writers

As my Holiday gift to fellow writers, who have been so supportive of the tips offered on this blog, I’ve compiled a list and brief descriptions of 15 really top writing resources to help you move forward in your growth as a writer. Links to either Amazon or Barnes & Noble are included for those who want to purchase the books or just read reviews. With the exception of one series, they’re individual books, organized by category. All on my shelf and well worth your time and money. Thanks again for the support you’ve shown me and this blog in 2011!

Standards:

On Writing by Stephen King — a go to book by a master storyteller. Part autobiography, part examination of craft and writing process. Widely recommended for all writers with good reason.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser — Yes, I know, the subtitle is about writing nonfiction. Don’t let that put you off. An amazing classic on how to write well which every writer of all genres and stripes should have on his or her shelf. Period.

Imaginative Writing: The Elements Of Craft by Janet Burroway — a standard textbook for MFA programs, very useful for any fiction writer. Really in depth examination of the elements of craft with exercises, tips and more.

 

Marketing:

Guerilla Marketing For Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson, Rick Frishman, Michael Larsen and David L. Hancock — Great tool to learn marketing on a budget. Walks you through all kinds of promotional resources you didn’t even know you had as well as breaking down the ones the pros use and how to plan your PR campaign like a pro. Very useful tool with great resources in the appendices as well.

Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore — great marketing book on the psychology of successful marketing and pushing through to the next level. A standard in marketing.

Getting Known Before The Book Deal by Christina Katz — A new standard for how to build your platform and audience well before your book’s release. A must read for writers of all levels.

 

Craft:

Screenplay by Syd Field — One of the all time most important books on story structure, often used at film schools, of great use to novelists as well. Learn how to follow the three act structure and develop your plot in a solid, powerful way.

Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass — written by a leading literary agent with years’ experience selling books and writing them. Agent to many big name authors. A really powerful book for any author on how to make your novel top notch.

Revising Fiction by David Madden — a great book full of tips on how to revise your novel to the minutest detail. Covers anything and everything with good organizational suggests for how to approach it and think through later drafts. Out of print but well worth tracking down used and easy to find.

Writer’s Digest Elements Of Fiction Writing series — a series of books by successful authors like Orson Scott Card, Monica Wood, Nancy Kress and more covering specific elements in each book: Plot, Description, Setting, etc. Very useful tools. Like a classroom in your bookcase.

The 10% Solution: Self-Editing For The Modern Writer by Ken Rand — life changing, hands down. A great, short, concise editing methodology which will improve your writing over night. A must have for writers. The one writing resources I seared in my brain and use daily.

 

Resources:

The Writer’s Guide To Creating A Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier — useful for any writer needing to learn worldbuilding. Although it’s specific to science fiction, the reasoning and tools apply to any genre. Very useful. Also out of print but easy to find used online.

Negotiating a Book Contract: A Guide For Authors, Agents and Lawyers by Mark L. Levine — Step by step guide to book contracts covers standard clauses, negotiation, and how to identify what you want and get it. A must read for anyone involved with book contracts by an author who also happens to be an attorney.

English Through The Ages by William Brohaugh — Another out of print gem which covers the origination of English words through history. Helps authenticate your language usage in writing novels set in particular periods, especially historical or fantasy ones. Easy to find used.

I Have This Nifty Idea…Now What Do I Do With It? by Mike Resnick — A collection of book proposals for best selling novels compiled and edited with commentary by Mike Resnick. If you hate writing outlines, proposals, synopses, etc., this is the book for you. How the pros did it. You can emulate it. Can be hard to find. Small press. But well worth the hunt.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎

4 5-star & 9 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

 

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Dialogue Better

Writing dialogue can be a challenge for some writers more than others, but it’s an extremely important part of good fiction. There are many tools and techniques one can use, the most important being to use your powers of observation. By listening to dialogue of the real people around you, you can learn how people talk, especially people of different socioeconomic, educational and age groups. But there are craft elements involved as well. Here’s 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue:

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.

Well, those are my 10 Tips of the moment for writing better dialogue. Do you have any others? We’d love for you to share them in the comments.

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Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

3 5-star & 6 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh$14.99 tpbhttp://bit.ly/qIJCkS

Preorder THE RETURNING here for June 19th release!

Writers, Be Who You Are: A Process Of Discovery

I love when I come across an article, as I recently did on a blog, where a person is so enamored with their way of writing that they insist it’s the only way to do it correctly. Pantser v. Outliner: it’s an old debate. And I think it takes most of us a long time to sort out where we fit on the very broad scale. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it may vary by project. Sequels, for example, do take more planning than the books they follow, perhaps. And certainly much experimentation is involved as one learns and develops writing craft to sort out what works and doesn’t for him or her. The only advice I feel absolutely confident in offering to everyone, as much advice as I tend to offer on this blog, is to Be Who You Are.

Don’t get me wrong, these advisors mean well. They’re very passionate about what they do. They have rightfully put a lot of thought into it and develop the understanding an comfort with it over time. But the writing journey for me, and most writers I’ve spoken with, has always been a process of discovery. You try something for a while then hear something knew and try it on to see if it fits. Sometimes you adapt it in full, sometimes you just take parts, and so on it goes as you fill your toolbox and learn new skills. In the end, much of it tends to become intuitive anyway. Some things need to be intuitive to be effective, others need more thought and deliberation every time they’re used.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. We are individuals, after all, unique beings with none exactly like any other. So why assume that such unique beings could have only one way to do something as complicated as writing? It doesn’t even seem possible when you think about it. No, I mean really think about it, setting aside those preconceived ideas. There. See what I mean?

So don’t succumb to any pressure to be like some other writer, no matter how famous they are, how much money they make or how much you like their work. You will never approach writing exactly like them. And that’s absolutely fine. Your journey is not their journey, and their journey is not yours. You have to find your own way. Sure, you can learn from their mistakes sometimes. You can even borrow their shortcuts, but there is no real shortcut to being the best writer you can be except trial and error and writing itself.

Along the way, you choose your tools, and no, they don’t all have to come from Sears. Ace Hardware has good stuff, too, and so does Target sometimes. Even Walmart. It doesn’t class down your writing to use what works for you and toss what doesn’t. That’s just smart. After all, writing is a personal activity and it’s also a business. Run it the way that allows and enables you to be most successful and never look back.

Be Who You Are, writers, and be proud of it. It will continue to change as long as your on the journey, and here’s hoping it’s the journey of a lifetime.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Lessons In Letting Go: The Author And His Babies

One of the more important lessons I’ve learned since I started on the path to writing professional fiction in 2008 is about letting my babies go. There is a point with every manuscript where you are so close to it, you want to just hold it tightly and keep chipping away its deficiencies, molding it gently and lovingly into the best baby it can be no matter how long it takes. And don’t get me wrong, revision is a good thing. Striving for quality is important and professional. Insisting on perfection, however, is not. Did that just rock you in your boots? Was it unexpected? It shouldn’t be. If there’s anything writing should teach you it’s that you’re not perfect.

Writing is often like holding a microscope lens up to the world and pointing out all the flaws and tears and imperfections. And the more you do it, the more uncomfortable it can sometimes be as things hit close to home and remind you of your own failures, weaknesses and imperfectness. Do you know what I mean? So many parts of me as a writer wind up there glaring at me from the page. And so many things come out through the writing which wake me up from my vain self-ignorance and glorious denial to provide a reality check. There’s always that point where I just can’t stop rewriting. I tell myself time and again “Just another little polish on those adverbs” or “Just another little trimming of expositional diarrhea” and the next thing I know I’ve done a whole new draft. Sometimes I even recognize myself putting back in things I’m sure I took out before as unnecessary. And that’s the first sign it’s time to set down the manuscript and think about what you’re doing.

Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about? And the more you study craft and listen to writers talk about it and read reviews and critiques and read other writers, the worse it can get. You realize “maybe I’m not there yet. I’m not good enough.” And you  know that if this work gets published it will be out there forever representing you. And you just can’t let that be your legacy. Am I right?

Why am I thinking about this on the eve of the release of my debut novel? It’s because my friend Patty saw the 4 star review I posted of my novel on Goodreads and lambasted me for giving my own novel anything less than 5 stars. I started researching and found bestselling novelist Kat Richardson, a friend of mine who’s also on Goodreads, has given her novels 4 star reviews. So I asked her for advice.

She said this: “I believe in honesty, not self-inflation. I don’t think the books are perfect and I think 5 starts ought to imply near-perfection. I have rated some higher than others because I, as the author, feel some are actually better realized products of my intent. ”

And that made me reflect on the times since I handed in the manuscript when I’ve gone through and nitpicked the novel, worried what reviewers will say, worried what readers will think, worried about the pros I respect whom I asked to blurb my book. And then the blurbs started coming in and they were so positive. And although yes, the authors may not be telling me the flaws they see, they are willing to have their name associated with my book in a sort of endorsement and that means something, right? It’s like being accepted into an exclusive club of sorts…like my writing just became legitimately professional level. Even if it’s beginning professional. After all, it doesn’t matter how big a name, every author had a first novel. And most of them have written better books since. So letting go is part of the process, isn’t it? And as hard as it is, it’s a healthy part of it.

For me, I would never rate my own book 5 stars out of 5 because I know it’s not perfect. I know I’m not perfect. I mean, I gave Robert Silverberg’s “Lord Valentine’s Castle” 5 stars. I gave “The Lord Of The Rings” 5 stars. My book can’t even begin to compare. In fact, by those standards, I’m thinking three would be stretching. I am no Silverberg. And I am no Tolkein. But Silverberg and Tolkein started somewhere, didn’t they? And it’s probably a place very similar to where I am right now as far as how they felt about their own work. Silverberg has criticized his own early work as not very good. I read it and thought it was still brilliant. So given that reality, should I really feel too concerned about putting something out there at this time that’s not the best I’ll ever write? My answer to that is: Of course not! What I have to worry about is putting out something right now that’s less than the best I can do at this moment.

Since handing in The Worker Prince final draft to my publisher, I’ve written short stories and most of the next book in the trilogy. I have found myself breezing through certain aspects of the writing which I really struggled over and agonized through when I wrote Book 1. How can that be? And through my chat with Kat and considering Patty’s pushing me I realized it’s a natural part of growing as a writer, learning craft and internalizing what you learn. Of course things you’ve learned get easier over time because they become like instinct. And other things need to be learned. I’m sure when I finish Book 2 and turn it in, I’ll be wondering if it’s good enough. Book 3 as well a year after that. My whole career I’ll probably release every novel I ever write with the same reservations. It’s natural. It’s normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s not time to let them go.

In so many ways for novelists, our books are like babies. We do our best to guard them, nourish them, raise them up to the best they can be. But then they reach 18 and it’s time to set them free, let them face the world on their own two feet and come into their own. It’s a natural part of the lifecycle of a novel or short story. And I’m pretty sure after what I’ve experienced that as flawed as my first novel is no one is coming to stone me or insist I retract it or apologize to every other person who’s a real novelist for besmirching them by daring to label myself the same, you know? Okay, it doesn’t release until October 4th so I may be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think so. Somehow I think I’m ok. And you know what? That’s a good lesson to learn.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Write Tip: 8 Tools For Using Humor In Your Fiction

Humor can be an important part of both character development and reader engagement. When used well, it can endear both writer and characters to readers. When used poorly, it can ruin an otherwise successful tale. Here’s some tips for how to use humor effectively in your stories and novels.

 1 ) The Running Gag– This tool is one of the stand-by tropes of good comedy. Typically employed following the rule of threes, the running gag will repeat three times, with each one increasing in absurdity and corresponding laughter inspired. The first two act as set-ups for the big pay off of the third. Study any sitcom or romantic comedy and you can always find running gags used to great effect. For example, a character slips on a banana peel on the sidewalk in front of his paramour’s door, embarrassing himself. The next time he goes there, he looks around carefully to avoid something similar but this time, something falls from above, knocking him down. The third time, perhaps during the finale of the story, he winds up ignoring the fear and facing running after her behind a banana truck whose cargo is falling out scatters across his path, leading to all kinds of slippery footwork. This is a basic slapstick example. Most running gags or more complicated. But I think it gives you the idea.

2 ) The Love-Hate Relationship– Nothing brings out humor better than two characters thrown together who are constantly at each other’s throats–not in the “I want to choke you to death” sense, but rather in the “hurling biting insults and cutting down” sense. Watching them each attempt to outdo the other can be mined for great humor and,  at the same time, used to build character. One of the best ways is for them to exploit each other’s flaws for their comments.

3 )  The Flawed Character– No one’s perfect. We all know this about ourselves. Your characters become more real when you also show this about your character. And the worst part of flaws? The way they embarrass us or put us in difficult situations where we look bad in front of those we want to impress. Exploit these situations, and you’ll find all kinds of humor in them. Another advantage is that readers are drawn to characters who are flawed in relatable ways. “Oh man, I know just how he feels!” That response endears your character to your reader and draws them into your story. It’s just part of using your character’s humanity to build empathy and sympathy and connect him or her with your readers, which, in turn, keeps them more involved and interested in your story.

4 ) The Subverted/Misunderstood Context– While creating empathy is helpful, at the same time, your character needs distance from readers for them to see the humor. If they identify too much, they won’t laugh at the humorous situation in which the character finds him or herself. It helps to have the character see the humor in the situation, nor matter how painful it may be, but again, make sure it is not too painful or offensive or the readers will be turned off. Key to this is subverting or applying misunderstood context. People interact daily with different worldviews and understandings of the context in which that interaction occurs. Mining that for misunderstandings and humor or allowing circumstances to subvert one character’s correct understanding of the context can be used to mine humor in the situation for readers.

5 ) The Fish Out Of Water– There’s always humor to be found in situations where a character is put in situations or places with which he or she might be unfamiliar or even made uncomfortable–a priest visiting a crack house, for example, or a Sunday School mom in an NFL locker room. The interactions with other characters who are comfortable in that world and even the character’s reactions can be used for great humorous effect.

6 ) Exaggeration– Exploiting a character’s perspective through exaggeration is a great tool to create humor. Pushing the character to the edge of their limits can result in funny reactions, dialogue and situations for readers and interesting ways of building or wrapping up a scene. It makes everything a bit more outrageous, but to use it effectively, everything the character does needs to have elements of exaggeration throughout. It starts small and builds to be most effective, until they are pushed to a point where they explode (figuratively, of course, in most cases).

7 ) Surprise– Another great tool is the element of surprise. If a character walks into their apartment to find all their furniture turned upside down or a totally unexpected situation, or if events unfold in ways that catch both characters and readers by surprise, humor can result. The surprise can be either physical or emotional, but as mentioned above, it can’t be too painful or offensive that it would alienate the reader. The character’s discomfort is fine and can be used for humor, but the reader’s own discomfort has more limits and must be carefully considered when using any of these tools. Be sure to arrange the elements of the scene to maximize tension and release. This will make the effect of the humor more powerful.

8 ) Satire/Parody– South Park, The Simpsons, and many other popular TV Shows employ satire and parody to mock socially relevant attitudes or even current events and point out flaws or ironies in these situations and you can too through your characters and plots. These two can be tricky to pull off well. Avoiding preachiness, for example, can be hard when it’s a subject on which you feel passionate. Take great care never to push the humor too far. Most especially, allow readers to draw their own conclusions. A few prompting remarks can be carefully exploited through dialogue but don’t overdo it. Especially if you yourself have spoken out publicly about such issues, readers will tend to see right through it and the moment may be destroyed. Still, satire and parody are classic humor tropes which should always be a part of your toolbox when writing humor.

So there they are: 8 Tools to be employed in adding humor to your fiction prose. Like any tools, using them takes practice and development of skills. Some do tend to have more natural instincts than others, but like most tools, these can be learned and incorporated instinctually into your writing arsenal. Despite being age old methods, they remain popular because they consistently work. If they work for other writers, you can be sure that, when done well, they’ll work for you.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Why I’m Not A Fan of FanFic

My take on fan fiction:

This past week I saw a blog post where someone pointed to “the real canon of Harry Potter.” Now, I’m not a Rowling fan. I have yet to read any of her books, although I’ve seen a couple of movies based on them. I have heard many people criticize the Rowling books for various reasons, and, in a nation of free speech, that’s your right, of course. But this particular situation took it too far and really riled me up. They implied this fanfic was better than Rowling’s version, the only true version. It was a complete alternate history of HP, told by this fan, who explained herself with diatribes about her issues with it. Boy, do I have an issue with that. And then a few days later, I saw a post about writer whose entire book had been plagiarized almost word for word and posted as fanfic by a person who changed the character names and then even went as far as to make up posts about their challenges during the writing process.

I have never written fanfic and I long ago stopped even attempting to read it. Like many, I sought out fan fiction as a way to get more time with characters and in worlds I’d fallen in love with. My hopes were high for a new escape and recapturing all the emotions I felt when I read the original. Unfortunately, I found that most fanfic is a poor imitation. Are there talented writers writing fanfic? Yes. But it’s not my point that no talent exists in the pool. Some even practice their craft and develop it writing that. I get it. But from quality and style to plotting and other factors, a majority of it, in my experience, just isn’t the same, and, frankly, all too much of it was just not good at all.  But on top of that, I always had doubts because of an inner belief that it’s not legitimate. And although I’ve not written anything popular enough to inspire such imitation, I’ll respond as if I had, because this is pretty much how I’d feel if it happened that way.

Basically, in my mind, fanfic is someone else ripping off a creator’s world and work and twisting it in whatever way they see fit. And that’s not freedom of speech, it’s copyright infringement, plain and simple. Fanfic might be said to be a form of flattery or mockery or criticism, but to me the latter two are more applicable and neither justifies it. You want to critique, write a review. What gives you the right to take a world I or someone else created and make up your own alternate history for the characters? Don’t get me wrong, I’d be flattered if anyone liked my world enough that it inspired them to create. But the flattery stops when they publish something using my intellectual property. It’s mine, not yours. For you to go in and mess with the plots, characters or worlds is disrespectful to my vision along with being illegal use of my intellectual property. Okay, maybe you don’t like how I write it. I don’t care. It’s mine, not yours. And I reserve the right to take whatever legal action necessary to shut you down. No, I don’t care if that alienates you.  Go make your own world and characters. Sell them. Get rich. Get popular. Great. But leave mine alone. You may be a talented writer, but if all you’re doing is writing about someone else’s characters without their permission the implication is you lack the creativity to create your own world.

That being said,  I have a couple of friends who got their start through fanfic.  Both are talented writers, but I respect them on the merit of their own original work, not their fanfic. One is even a bestselling novelist now. I understand fandom and the attachment one can feel to certain properties. I feel that way about Star Wars, Star Trek (to a lesser degree), Majipoor, Narnia, and Middle Earth. I love visiting them over and over and imagining them. I love wondering about characters and various aspects. It can be wonderful fun. But no, that doesn’t change my mind at all. I don’t like fanfic. It’s not a legitimate use of someone else’s intellectual property and never will be. The sole exception is cases where an author sets up a fanfic site and encourages it. Then permission to play is implied by the site’s creation and the official authorized publication. But that fanfic still is just fans playing, not creating canon. And yes, I know it’s established in fandom. So is selling drugs on street corners, which doesn’t make it legal. The established existence of patterns does not make the pattern less of a violation. If I joined a cult and the cult leader was sleeping with young girls and I objected, should I accept his argument that it’s their tradition and I am just ignorant of their ways? And don’t give me the argument about the damage caused by sex v. fanfic. I’m talking about the morality of violating one law v. another. Both are equally violations regardless of consequences even if the law treats them differently in sentencing.

I would think that if you write fanfic on my world and characters, you obviously are impressed with me. You may not like what I did with it, but it’s my right with my property, not yours, plain and simple fact.  I won’t read it, honor it, or in any way attempt to recognize its legitimacy or allow it to influence my writing, worldbuilding or plotting. I will ignore it as if it never existed. If I violate it in every way, I won’t care if you complain your is better. It’s not better. It’s a bastard distortion of the real property I created. It has no bearing on canon. It’s not even related to canon. It’s not real. It’s not true. It’s lies. It’s someone’s attempt to piggyback on my hard work without putting in their own sweat.  I never bothered to invest myself in Star Wars, Star Trek, or other fanfic (I am not talking about tie-in books) because I knew all this already and believed it. So what if it’s good? Why emotionally or mentally invest myself in something Roddenberry or Lucas could turn around and undo in a month? They have the right to decide what happens, and only they do. I want the real story, whether it turns out how I expect or like. Whether they revise it and change it so much it loses its power or not. Yeah, Lucas did a crappy job with 1-3. Yeah he made some changes to the originals I wish he hadn’t. His property. His right. I’ll cherish the memories I have of the original versions. Even save the VHS’ and DVD’s so I can watch them that way. That’s my right. But at least the person whose blood, sweet and brain power originated it is doing what they want. I salute them. If on the other hand, an author, such as S.M. Stirling, chooses to encourage fanfic, that’s their right. I respect that.

I respect fans. I honor their passion. I honor their desire to see more of the characters and worlds they love and their desire to be creative. But at the same time, I think a line is all too often crossed. And their time would be better spent pooling that creative energy and passion into creating stories like they’d like to read with their own characters and worlds than by copying someone else. Oh, I know many will disagree with me, but if they have not sold or written their own works, they really are missing a key point of reference to understand where I’m coming from. So, I’ll give notice, if my work ever actually gets that popular (which seems unlikely, yes, now that I’ve alienated a bunch of fans), keep this in mind: Don’t piss in my pool. Consider the sign posted.

NOTE: After careful thought and consideration, I have decided not to allow comments on this post. I rarely see comments on my blog anyway, despite getting 1500+ hits this month. And given the vitriol with which all too many express their opinions about this volatile topic, I don’t want to get into a situation of fighting off trolls or arguing. While certainly good debate is healthy, in this case, I am posting my personal opinion on a topic I feel strongly about and about which I prefer not to debate. You and other authors can have your opinions, I respect that. But I have formed this opinion since I first discovered fanfic twenty-four years ago in college and believe me, you’re not going to change my mind.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Doing A Good Interview–As Both Interviewer and Subject

Interviews are a fact of life for successful people–especially entertainment people like writers. At some point, you’ll be asked to do an interview about your work. How do you prepare? How do you stay calm and fight nerves? How do you overcome introversion or shyness? Interviews require different things from an interviewer and an interviewee. I do both, so here’s some suggestions to help you in whichever role you find yourself.

As INTERVIEWEE:

1) Be Yourself. The interview was requested because of a desire by readers and the interviewer to know the person behind the stories. So don’t let them down. Be you. Yes, you should try not to be you at your most obnoxious, but don’t overdo it either. Relax, take a deep breath, and be honest.

2) Ask To See The Questions In Advance. Most interviewers will happily supply a list of potential questions in advance. If they don’t, don’t assume they’re out to trip you up or embarrass you. They may just be unorganized. But if they do, go over them, think through and practice potential answers, trying to smooth out the rough edges so you can give them good soundbytes. Public speaking takes practice and even if the interview takes place in private or by email, it will be published in a public foreign so practice makes perfect.

3) Practice. As I started to say above, practice is a vital part of your preparations. Ask someone you trust–your agent or a friend or spouse–to interview you. Sit down like you would in a real interview and field questions. When you stumble, stop, and do it again. Get used to talking about yourself. It’s something many of us are not good at and never comfortable with. That’s okay but you should at least be able to exude confidence and calmness. And that may take practice.

4) Be Prepared To Say No.  You don’t have to talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable. Sort out in advance where your boundaries are and stick to them. Personal and professional can and should be separated for your own mental health. Some people are more comfortable sharing things than you might be. That’s fine. Being yourself means knowing where to draw line and not being afraid to do so.

5) Have Fun. Interviews are more fun both to participate in and read if you have a sense of humor. Don’t be afraid to use it. Figure out the things you like about what you do and share them with a healthy dose of humility. People like those who can laugh at themselves. And your attitude goes a long way in helping you fight off nervousness and relax.

6) Keep It Short. Don’t ramble on and on. Be as concise as you can in answering questions. It’s the interviewer’s job to ask follow up questions if he or she needs or wants to know more. Besides, holding back leaves you with more to talk about later in the interview. Don’t use all you’ve got on the first few questions.

7) Know The Audience. Who’s the interview for? Fellow writers? Talk about how you write, why you write, what your writing day and approach to craft are like. Readers? Where’d the ideas come from? What are the themes and how did you develop them? Who are these characters and why did you write them the way you did? Etc. Knowing who will be the target audience for the interview will help you comfortably shape your answers to  keep them interested.

8 ) Dress Comfortably.  It’s not a job interview. So don’t dress to impress. Dress to be comfortable so you can just relax. If you like wearing a tie, wear one, but if you don’t leave it at home. Don’t dress hot. Don’t dress cold. Be yourself but look presentable so neither you nor the interviewer are distracted by other issues. You’re there to relax and have a conversation. Make that easy on yourself.

9) Arrive Early. Don’t put the pressure on yourself of running late if you can help it. You don’t want to be disheveled or out of breath. You want to be able to relax. So arrive a few minutes early to give yourself a chance to get comfortable with the location and the interviewer before you get down to business.

10) Bring Bottled Water. Many interviewers will provide this for you. Sometimes your publicist will. Don’t be afraid to ask in advance and, if you forget, ask when you arrive. Have cool water to drink when your throat gets dry. Skip the soda or juice or other thick liquids which coat your throat or cause belching or otherwise inhibit smooth speech. Just have water so you can stay lubricated when you need to.

There’s 10 Tips to help you as subject of an interview. Now here’s 10 more for conducting one.

As INTERVIEWER:

1) Do Your Research. Research not just the subject, but read their books. Read past interviews they’ve done. Talk with people who have met them. Get to know how they talk, their speech cadence, typical vocabulary, hobbies, marital status and anything else which can help you. The more knowledgable you are, the more comfortable they’ll be. Know which subjects to avoid, too. Unless you’re working for a tabloid, your goal should be to make both yourself and the subject look good.

2) Prepare Your Question In Advance.  Don’t wing it. Follow-up questions can be done on the fly but your main questions should be written down and refined before you show up. Whether you memorize them or read them off a cue sheet is up to you but have them ready. Know what the intended audience wants to know so you can word your questions appropriately. Also know what the interview subject most wants to discuss so that you can be sure and ask about that. Be prepared.

3) Dress Appropriately. Like the subject of your interview, things will go better if you’re relaxed, but don’t show up looking like you just got out of bed. Be well groomed and well attired. It doesn’t require wearing a suit and tie, just not dirty or torn clothes and shoes. Look professional, even if it’s casual. So the interviewee feels respected and takes you seriously. A confident interviewee is a better interview.

4) Practice. Just like the interviewee needs practice so do you. Once your questions are prepared, run through them. Practice enunciating and talking slower than you might normally so that you articulate well and can be understood. Think up follow up questions which might need to be asked based on various answers the subject provides. Get comfortable with your wording so that you can avoid confusion and stay in control.

5) It’s Your Job To Set The Tone. If you’re relaxed, the subject will feel more relaxed. If you’re tense, so will the other person be. So be prepared to set the appropriate tone. People who are relaxed and comfortable talk more freely and longer.  Make it like a conversation between friends, not a police interrogation and you’ll have more success not only getting through interviews but scheduling the next one.

6) Choose A Good Location. You need a location where both of you can sit comfortable and relax with minimum distractions. If you’re interviewing a celebrity of any level, you don’t want fans interrupting for autographs every five seconds. You don’t want tons of friends hollering ‘hellos’ across the room at either of you. The best location would be somewhere quiet and out of the way, not public. Follow Hollywood’s example and scout the location, even if it’s an hour before. Give yourself time to adjust what needs adjusting, even the location itself.

7) Don’t Be Late. The Subject can be late but you can’t. Keeping somebody waiting whom you’ve scheduled for an interview is not just unprofessional, it’s rude. They are giving you their time out of a probably busy schedule. Any time you miss, will be time you lose, if they have somewhere else to be right after. Also, you’ll want time to relax and feel prepared so be on time. Early even.

8 ) Bring Liquids. Don’t let yourself or your subject suffer from dry throat. Have bottled water or a pitcher of water and cups ready to help lubricate your throats as needed. Don’t even let them ask. Just have it there where they can see it and help themselves. Your preparedness is part of setting the right tone to help them be comfortable as quickly as possible. And your consideration will go a long way in helping a stranger feel like you’re a friend.

9) Make Small Talk. Before you jump right in, make sure the person is comfortable with you. If you’ve met before, it may require only a few quick greetings, but if not, a bit of small talk goes a long way. Ask them about their day, offer water, make sure their happy with their chair, etc. Set a the relaxed tone with your attitude of treating them with respect and care and they’ll assume you’ll do that through the interview and feel much more at ease quickly.

10) Get It Right. Don’t put words in their mouths. If something’s missing or unclear as you review the interview notes or recording after, call or email to follow up. Clarify. Don’t assume. One of your goals is to capture their voice, so be sure it’s them, not you. On the other hand, take out any pauses or stutters or stumbles. Fix obvious bad grammar. Make them look and sound good. They’ll be pleased with you and both they, their publicist, and their friends will be more willing to interview with you in the future.

Well, those are 10 Tips For Conducting Interviews from a guy who has done a lot of them. I hope all 20 tips in this post are helpful. If nothing else, you can understand the responsibilities and concerns of both sides of the interview. Going in informed is always helpful. Have other tip? We’d love to hear them in the comments. Don’t be shy. We’re here to help each other.

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My latest project:

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Works In Progress

I don’t know that I have a big following really but lots of other writers do it, so here’s an update on what I’m working on right now.

My primary focus at the moment is two projects:

“The Returning: Book 2 In The Saga Of Davi Rhii,” which is at 65840 words out of 90000 planned. I have outlined the next several chapters, have the ending, now I really need to get back on the stick tomorrow and write a bunch of it. Finishing another Chapter by Monday would still mean I’m behind but at least keep me on track.

“Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales 6,” is my first gig as an anthology editor for any press. So far I have bought a story from Mike Resnick & Brad Togersen, an original as my headliner, and have several other stories in from Sarah Hendrix, David Lee Summers, Dana Bell, and Jaleta Clegg, amongst others. Tomorrow I have to read a bunch and see where I stand on this first batch before more come in, which they will be. We need 18-19 total. I also have to write my own story for it, which I have started, and which is a sequel to The Worker Prince, or actually, book 3 of that saga, but which actually has to be written to make it into the book.

Other projects:

Novels in the works:

“SANDMAN” — novel 1 in an epic fantasy trilogy. First draft completed except final two chapters but stopped due to wife’s medical crisis and need to polish The Worker Prince for publication. Lots of notes on worldbuilding and other changes. Needs a second draft and the ending written then out to betas. Will start this sometime this fall.

“THE EXODUS: Book 3 Of The Saga Of Davi Rhii”— This one is outlined and will complete the trilogy. I imagine it will be easier to write than book 2 has been, a) because the crises in my life are dying down and b) because it’s simpler in many ways. But it will wait until January or February as I try and get the North Star short stories and epic fantasy saga polished and on to their next phases.

“NOVO RIO”— my future steampunk story about an entrepenuer whose carbon cleaning toaster sized home machine revolutionizes the Brazilian city and becomes the object of industrial espionage, lawsuits, etc. Can’t wait to write this but lots of research needed. Will be a standalone but not sure if I can fit it in before Book 3.

Short Stories in the works:

BRASILIA — a tale of colonists starting their Brazilian utopia and discovering its harder than they thought it would be. Growing lengthy and may become my first novella. Only partially done.

THE DAY BOBBY BONNER WOKE UP STRIPED — comedic science fiction story about a failed college chemistry experiment which I got notes on and need to polish and rewrite the ending of.

THE NORTH STAR SERIAL Episodes 14-25 — these are outlined and commissioned and a book deal for all 25 stories pending. Now I just have to sit down and write them so Digital Dragon Magazine can continue running the serial. This will be a priority when “The Returning” is done.

DUNCAN DERRING AND THE STOWAWAY — comedic science fiction story originated because I loved the character and noir style I created in writing a story for the “Wicked Weeds” anthology my friend and fellow novelist Jaleta Clegg is editing, but also because Jennifer Brozek was doing SPACE TRAMPS and invited me to submit. But this one has only just gotten started and needs work. I missed that deadline.

THE HAND OF GOD (Worker Prince)— sequel story after the events of the WP trilogy which I am writing for “SPACE BATTLES” and which will be a priority over the next two months before I have to turn that anthology in.

THE UPRISING (Worker Prince)— prequel Xalivar story about the famous Delta V incident which haunts him throughout the WP trilogy and explaining what happened in that historical event. Needs to be written.

ESCAPE TO FAIRYLAND–one of my favorite stories which has gotten compliments from some professionals but still failed to land a home and really needs to be polished, reexamined and then out there submitting again. Story of an enslaved girl who escapes her captor while flashing back to how she got where she is.

 

There are a few more short stories in various stages but these are the main ones on my mind. At least it gives you an idea of where I am with major projects and what I have coming. Hope it’s of interest to at least a few of you.

For what it’s worth…

Thinking Up Ideas…It’s A Process, Okay? (video)

112232 — Click here or below to view.

 

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Finding Time To Write

One issue writers who work around dayjobs face is finding time to write. From job demands to family demands to everything else, it can be a real challenge. So how do you do it? Here’s some suggestions:

1) Write When You Can. Carry your laptop or notebook with you and write whenever you get a free moment. Whether it’s five or fifteen, such moments can add up and you’ll get more words than if you wait for the elusive big chunk of writing time which may never come.

2) Set Goals. It seems obvious but if you just write when you feel like it, you’re unlikely to be as productive as when you actually set goals. If you have a word count to meet, you have motivation to write. So set goals and work hard to accomplish them.

3) Treat Your Writing Like A Job. Can’t find time to write? What if you tried telling your boss that? If you’re serious about writing, you have to treat it like a job. Especially if you aspire to a career as a writer. That means setting aside time somehow and sticking to a schedule. It means being disciplined. It may require you to get family members on board so they won’t interrupt you during this time or will at least respect your goals for it. It will certainly require you to act like that time is work time and be productive.

4) Make A Time Budget. A time budget is a spreadsheet of your entire week, 24 hours a day, where you record all the ways you use your time. Some items have set times, like work hours, which must be blocked off. Others are more flexible. Start by blocking out what you absolutely must do, then see how much time is left and start blocking in other things you’d like to accomplish. If writing and reading are important, make time for them, then stick to it. Even if writing time isn’t an issue for you right now, making a time budget might be a good exercise. You’ll be surprised how much time you waste every week which could be put to better use.

5) Write With Others. Google+ has reminded many writers how productive peer group writing can be. You not only get to network and fellowship a bit, but the pressure of hearing clicking keys during writing time is a great motivator. Even greater is the encouraging support when you check in about word counts. Writing in a group setting like this can really be quality time.

6) Submit Your Work. Okay, you have to write it first yet, but the greatest way to encourage yourself to keep writing is to get positive feedback, especially when you sell a story. When someone else actually thinks what you’re doing is good enough to publish, it’s a huge motivation to set aside time so you can write more.

7) Use Beta Readers or Critique Groups. Unlike submitting your work, where you might get form rejections instead of feedback, working with beta readers and critique groups gets you guaranteed feedback. Some may be negative, but inevitably some will be positive too, and just knowing someone enjoyed what you did tells you you’re on the right track and motivates you to keep going. Finding time to write is easier when you know someone appreciates the results.

8 ) Hang Out With Writers. Even hanging out with writer friends without any specific writing time group goals is a great motivator to write. Hearing about their projects and accomplishments makes you want to have some of your own. After all, who wants to be the only one without a great new brag to share?

9) Learn To Say ‘No!’ One of the biggest obstacles to writing time is overcommitting yourself. Don’t do it. Learn to say ‘no,’ one of the first words most babies learn. If you don’t leave time for your writing, you can’t write. Set priorities and make writing one of them.

10) Reward Yourself For Success. If you meet your word count goal or writing time goal, reward yourself. It may be an ice cream cone or buying that special book you’ve been craving after a period of success. Whatever the prize, find ways to reward yourself as positive reinforcement for sticking to your goals. Ultimately, the greatest reward will come in other ways but you have to finish the book or story first. 

There they are, 10 Tips For Finding Writing Time. I hope these help you with your writing goals. What are some ways you find time to write? Please add to the list in the comments below.

F0r what it’s worth…

Write Tip: 15 Web Resources Invaluable To Writers

We all have our favorite tools we use when writing. But one of the advantages of the modern age is having a lot of great resources available right here on the World Wide Web. What are the tools you never write without? Here are 15 of mine:

1) www.dictionary.com This great website is a quick and easy way to look up any word you need and quickly right on the web. Other similar sites exist, such as http://www.merriam-webster.com/, but this one has become my go-to source. In addition to the dictionary, it also has a companion http://thesaurus.com as well as a reference, translator, quote engine and more. Very useful for writers of both fiction and nonfiction.

2) http://www.behindthename.com/ A source for etymology and history of names which can be invaluable for helping pick names not just at random but for their deeper meanings. Again other similar sites exist, such as http://www.thinkbabynames.com/. Either way, they’re quite handy to have around for naming characters.

3) http://geology.about.com/ and www.geology.com. Great resources for current and past information on everything geological. Wanna build a realistic world? Don’t forget your geology. What kinds of plants and trees grow in which type of environment? What might a map of your world look like? What exotic plants exist in a climate far from your own? These sites can tell you, stimulating your creative process and helping you make a more believable world.

4) Reference.com offers hundreds of links to references of all shapes, sizes and types from almanacs to dictionaries and literature. Sister site to www.dictionary.com but worth its own separate listing because it’s such a great resource.

5) Encyclopedia.com an online encylopedia with short articles on all kinds of topics to aid your research or even story generation. Offers links to published resources like Oxford University Press and Britannica right online.

6) Internet Public Library  a site offering links to full text books, articles and references for free.

7) Library of Congress access photos, manuscripts and an online library of books from the U.S. government’s key gatekeepers and copyright warehouse.

8) http://www.authorscopyright.com/ a blog offering news and other up to date information on copyright which every writer should be aware of.

9) Creative Writing Prompts offers over 300 writing prompts for writers to help stimulate you and get you started.

10) http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/ a site from SFWA providing information helping weed out scams. There are lots of people preying on our dreams out there. It’s good to have a resource to help avoid them.

11) querytracker.net find agents, see sample query letters and schedule email follow ups on your queries all from this handy database.

12) writenews.com Up to the minute news for writers on the publishing business.

13) http://duotrope.com/index.aspx Looking for a home for your story? This is a go-t0 source for many writers. View listings by genre, pay rate and more. Get weekly reports sent to your inbox. Easily find new markets. All in one handy online database.

14) English Usage, Style, & Composition A collection of reference works which includes American Heritage, Strunk & White, Fowler’s King’s English, and other indispensable public-domain works.

15) http://www.copyright.com/ The copyright clearance center is a go-to resource for finding out what’s in the public domain and what isn’t. Especially invaluable for nonfiction writers.

These are just a few examples of the numerous resources out there. What are your go-to web tools for writing? Please add to the list in the comments. In the meantime, I hope this list proves helpful to you.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Naming Characters

One of the most important tasks for a writer is creating character names. Everyone has their own approach. Some find it more challenging than others. Here’s 10 Tips which might help you with the naming.

1) Keep A List. Mary Robinette Kowal kept a spreadsheet of names when writing Shades Of Milk And Honey as a handy reference. So keeping a list is a tool professionals already know about. For one thing, when researching a particular period or locale, names are often unique to the period and locale. Keeping A List is a way to stay true to your research. For another, sometimes you’d rather focus creative energy on other details than stopping to think up names. Having a list can save time and focus.

2) Write The Story First. Some people use filler names until their plot, characters and worldbuilding are complete, naming the characters Scott or Bill or Mary or Linda as they write with the plan to go back later and research appropriate names. This seems particularly useful if you’re a pantser, when the characters don’t reveal themselves until late into a project, well into their arcs. In this way, you can write with the filler names but later find names which fit them better.

3) Draw From People You Know. My friends and family get a kick out of their names popping up in my stories. I’ve named both characters and worlds after my mother, for example. Sometimes I spell it differently just to make it more science fictional or something. Still, they know where it came from. I usually don’t even have to ask. In your case, if you don’t know how they’d feel, always ask. And one other bit of advice: don’t choose unlikable characters to name after them. No one wants a jerk to share their name. And in this case, they’ll be wondering if it’s a reflection of your opinion of them. So use them but do it respectfully and with permission.

4) Use a Name Generation Tool. There’s all sorts out there like: The Fantasy Name Generator, Dwarf Name Generator, Character Name Generator,  Elven Name Generator, etc. Some are charts you use to compile names, others generate them. Either way, you can come up with interesting names or even prompts. My tendency is to generate names then modify them to make them my own. After all, other writers probably use the same tool. But the value of them is stimulating your thinking and generating ideas as much as actual names themselves.

5) Use A Baby Name List. Lots of these exist, even whole dictionaries. If they fit your time period and milieu, they may be the perfect solution.

6) Use A Dictionary of Names. These often include both modern and historical names from which you can pick with more variety to better fir your characters. Again,t hey must fit your time period and milieu, but they can be an important resource for names.

7) Science Fiction Names Don’t Have To Sound Like It. Combine common names to make a new one: Veronica and Donna, for example, can become Donica. Use mythological or biblical names. Whatever you do, make sure they’re both easy to pronounce and spell. Readers and reviewers may use them a lot.

8 ) Use Terms Of Endearment. People often refer to each other by nicknames or pet names, why shouldn’t your characters? This should not be used in lieu of actually naming them but can be the name their most known by and remembered by from your story.

9) Pick Opposing Names. If you name your antagonist and protagonist with opposing  names, the names themselves add to the conflict between characters.

10) Use Names From Other Cultures.  It can be very interesting, for example, to name aliens with African names or Brazilian names or mix in names from various cultures to add spice to your worldbuilding. Names not only tell you a lot about a character but also about their world. Employ that to make your world more vivid.

There you go, 10 Tips to help you name characters. I hope they give you some ideas you haven’t thought of and maybe even some resources.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Fighting Off Writer’s Block

It’s the bane of any writer’s existence–Writer’s Block–like a monster in the closet, creeping out when you least expect it and stalking you with relentless determination. It can be devastating to your sense of creative flow in a project and frustrate your word count and other goals, when you’re on a deadline. For years writers have debated what to do about it. I’ve interviewed a lot of writers this past year and frequently ask advice on writer’s block. All of them have their ways of dealing with it. And many agree. Here are some tips to help you.

1) Write Anyway. As author John Pitts puts it: “Concert pianists and pro football players practice every day. Why shouldn’t writers?” Whether the music is good or bad, musicians work on their technique and craft daily to succeed. So should you. Don’t let this bane block you from your necessary exercise. Write anyway, even if the result is a crumpled page in the trash can. Some suggest this is a good way to get the block out of your system. Others merely that by writing you may push through it. Either way, you exercise your writing chops and that practice does you good.

2) Always Have Multiple Projects. Writer after writer has told me that when they get stuck on one project, they switch to another. I frequently have short story projects going while working on a novel just for such contingencies. And I also work on revising other projects, when I’m stuck on my main one. I find this keeps my creative juices flowing in ways that help me feel good and productive that day. Positive reinforcement and good psychological satisfaction is important for writers because motivation can be easily lost. It’s more fun to sit around and imagine the story than to actually work it out in words. So having multiple projects allows you to get word count and make creative progress on something, even when something else is blocked.

3) Identify The Block. To get past a block, you have to first identify the blockage. Where does the problem lie? Author Mary Robinette Kowal suggests: “Look at what’s causing the block. The way you react to working on the story can often tell you what’s wrong with it.” What spot are you stuck on? Where is the stress occurring which makes you just stop? Figure it out and you’ll be well on your way to figuring out why you’re blocked and seeking a solution.

4) Skip It. Author Paul S. Kemp writes scenes out of order: ” I’ll write according to my mood or as inspiration strikes. ” As a result, he struggles less with being blocked. There’s no one who says you have to write scenes chronologically or in any particular order. If one scene is giving you trouble, put a place holder in and move to another. Write something you have a good image of, where you know what to do. It’s better than not writing at all. You’ll keep to your word count and you’ll avoid the distraction of frustration by getting back to it later when you know what to do.

5) Change Your Approach. One way to work through a block is to approach what you’re trying to write a different way. This does not refer to pencil and paper instead of laptop and Microsoft Word, but rather to changing the Point of View of the scene or starting it in a different place or even changing the sequence events. Experiment. By finding a new approach, you can often overcome the block.

6) Ask Fellow Writers. One of the things authors often say about the community of writers is how advantageous the encouragement and support is that they get from their peers. After all, no one understands what you’re going through like someone else going through the same thing. Wherever they gather, authors discuss things like contract terms, agents, publishers, stories, and sometimes problems like blocks. Just by running through the issue with another writer, you can find yourself sorting it out before they say a word. And sometimes, they’ll solve it for you with a creative suggestion or by giving you a needed perspective. Don’t be afraid to make use of this resource. After all, the next time around, it could be you helping them.

7) Take A Break. Nothing frees up the creative juices from a block like walking away. Don’t just sit there getting more and more tense. Author/Editor Jennifer Brozek suggests: “I go exercise because then I realize how much I’d rather be writing.” It may not fix your exercise block, but it can fix your motivation block and motivation is key to writing.  Similar to getting a fresh perspective, it’s like getting a second wind–of motivation by reminding yourself how much you enjoy writing, something it’s very hard to remember when sitting at your writing station in a block.

8 ) Turn On The News. Author Nnedi Okorafor says: “All I have to do is turn on the news–stories galore.” Whether it’s to find a new project to work on when you’re stuck on the one you’ve been writing or to find a new way to look at the project on which you’re blocked, news stories are often full of varied perspectives which can shake you out of your thinking box and help you look at it with new eyes. And sometimes new eyes is all you need to break the block.

9) Switch Art Forms. If you’re creatively blocked in your writing, try making music instead. You paint? Switch to that for a while. Stimulate your creativity in a different way. It’s not only satisfying to your muse but it gives you the joy of creating and gets your mind off the issue. If you’re not obsessing over it, sometimes a solution will present itself the next time you sit down to write.

10) Accept It. Sometimes life just overwhelms you. In two years, writer Ken Scholes had major deaths in his family along with the birth of twin daughters and other crises. Despite signing a contract for multiple novels, he found himself unable to write. And he had to give himself permission to let that go and focus on what he needed to at the time. Once he dealt with grieving and family, the freedom to write returned. Sometimes you just won’t be able to get past it. Sometimes you just won’t be able to write. And sometimes there really are more important things you need to be doing. Forget the deadline. Forget the pressure. Get your priorities straight. Dealing with what you need to is the quickest way to get back to writing again. It’s hard to do for many of us. But sometimes the best thing you can do get over a block is accept defeat and refocus. This doesn’t mean you’re accepting it forever. Just for the moment. Once you’ve focused your energy on what you really need to, you’ll be writing again.

Well there they are, 10 Tips For Fighting Off Writer’s Block. Lessons learned from my personal experience and that of many successful writers.  Have others? We’d love to hear them in the comments. In the meantime, I hope you find something you can use. Happy writing.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories? But writing action can be a challenge for writers. When making movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few tips I hope will help you in writing action scenes for your stories and novels. I know these lessons have helped me.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my debut novel, releasing October 4th, The Worker Prince: http://bryanthomasschmidt.net/2011/04/26/novel-excerpt-the-worker-prince-chapter-1-opening/

For what it’s worth…

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Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

Hangouts: The Value Of Writing In Good Company

Tonight I had a great experience with my first Google+ hangout. Basically, myself and several other writers came together, connected by microphone and webcam to write. We chatted for fifteen minutes at the top of each hour, then wrote for forty-five. And it actually was helpful.

I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought of writing as something I do in solitude. I go to my office, shut the door and immerse myself. It’s always been something I needed to avoid interruptions. No phone, no TV, no spouse, no pets. Getting that time has sometimes been a struggle but my most productive times were always writing in solitude.

All that changed last March when I went to Rainforest Writer’s Village, a retreat in Washington state I had long heard about and wanted to attend. For four days, we wrote in mass, gathered in a lodge, and I must say it totally changed my way of thinking about the value of writing with others. Again at RWV discussion time was limited. But the energy in the room was invigorating. I sat next to the Vice President of SFWA, Mary Robinette Kowal, a published author and respected leader in our field and just being able to write next to someone of her caliber was encouraging. I felt like an equal, and I was in that process. And somehow that energized me to be productive.

So when the opportunity to do these Google+ hangouts came up, I was excited to try it. It was a very similar experience to RWV.  Mary was there again as were Jason Sanford and Paolo Bacigalupi–three very well respected published authors. Others were there like me who are just coming up. But we chatted as equals and wrote as equals. And it was quite encouraging. In fact, Jason Sanford and I both felt we got a lot of writing done we might not have without it. That alone makes it invaluable.

One interesting and challenging aspect of the writing life is how, as one grows in craft and experience, one adapts methodology, etc. Learning the value of writing in good company is one of those moments. I’m already signed up for Rainforest Writer’s Village again for 2012, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, these Google+ hangouts will be an awesome substitute.

If you’re like me and you can’t imagine writing with others around, I encourage you to take a chance and try it. If it doesn’t work for you, no one will fault you for just closing the window. But don’t miss the chance to share the vibes and network with awesome peers. It may change the way you look at your writing in good ways.

For what it’s worth…

Thank God For Beta Readers

Working on the sequel to my debut novel has been an interesting experience because of the unique pressures of a) trying to live up to the first novel which was well received enough to sell and generate some buzz from readers of excerpts and b) being a write as I go non-outliner in the midst of an employment crisis and divorce, focus has been hard. I have often felt lost. But I have the good fortune of some smart friends who volunteered to beta read and they have saved me in one very simple way: feedback. First, I deliberately chose three beta readers who had not read the original novel because I wanted to be sure the back story was a) poured out like sand through a tight hourglass and not b) like dropping a huge load of sand off a 747. I wanted to introduce only what was needed when it was needed and avoid the trap many writers struggle with and critics complain about in 2nd books of trilogies. I wanted a book which could stand alone for new readers. The advantage was of new readers was a) getting three creatives who are fans of space opera who can analyze the book on a level some of my non-creative readers couldn’t and b) getting feedback as I write which can help me better shape the book. In the process, they have had to wait for long gaps between chapters, deal with me rewriting earlier stuff to make new stuff work (I frequently just make stuff ut up as I need to to make the story work and go back later to make the other chapters work with that). They have been very patient. But recently I reached a point where I just felt totally lost. Writing the last half of chapter 5 and all of chapter 6, with 7 or 8 being the midpoint of the novel, I just felt like I had it wrong. So I brought in a beta reader from novel 1 and had him go over it. Boy am I glad I did. 1) he assured me right away that it felt like a novel that flowed from the other in style, voice, etc. 2) the characters were developing well and things seemed paced well and 3) he helped me sort out some ideas on story I really need to clarify to keep this thing going. Not only did Chapter 6 come together with a fun 10-page action scene at its close, but I also immediately outlined Chapter 7 which came together with good ideas for the various twists I want to include in the rest of the book. Oh, I don’t know everything that will happen yet, but I know the ending and I know the twists leading there, so the rest should flow. Thank God for betas. Some writers tell me they like to write in a vacuum, letting no one see their work until they’re sure it’s ready. The advantage is the manuscript may have less warts when readers see it, but the disadvantage is, when you’re on you’re on and you’re stuck, it’s all on you. My readers know the final draft will be much better: a) because one of them has seen the progression of book 1 and b) because they are also writers. And as they now all read the final book 1, they’ll realize that I will polish this up and add many nuances and fine details later, right now I just want to get the story down. I also know that I learned from the many drafts on novel 1 and novel 2 won’t, hopefully, require as much work as a result. And I know that they will enjoy rediscovering the book in its final form because other betas have and that’s the joy of publishing–taking a rough cut stone and polishing it into a precious gem. So you may decide you don’t need betas, but I am thankful for mine because they’ve already kept me going when I felt like it wasn’t worth the effort, and they’ve reminded me it’s actually pretty good, in spite of my distracted lack of focus, even when I don’t feel it. That alone is worth the trust I’ve placed in them. For what it’s worth…

Struggling Through Writer’s Block

Okay a few weeks ago, on a total whim, I fired off 7 Tips For Being Good Beta Readers, a post that rocked this blog. It has gotten more hits than anything else I ever posted. I have yet to see a single Retweet but yet readers keep coming. Since I had not been very good about blogging or writing at all, it was admittedly a thrill to write something people took such interest in. I’ve been trying to come up with a follow up ever since. My blog post on writing grief has had some hits, slowly. But my post on “Lessons From Editing” went largely unnoticed.

And now I can’t seem to think of anything I can actually finish. I offered to guest post on a friend’s blog while he takes some time after the birth of his daughter and his request for proposed topics sits unanswered. Sorry, Everett, not ignoring you, I just don’t have a clue. It’s almost like I wonder what I have to offer?

Now before you all start thinking I’m too hung up on my Site Stats link, it’s not the lack of hits that’s at the heart, it’s my depression. I am just generally down in the dumps. After all, in the last two years, I lost two dream jobs, a house we wanted to buy, went through several major medical crises with my wife who now divorced me. And I still can’t find a new job and I spend most of my time alone. Who wouldn’t be depressed? Writer’s Block has always been a bitch but this is taking on epic proportions.

Ironically, despite my blog block, I have been able to write on my novel. Oh I switch between excited about the stuff written and lackluster, yes, but at least I am getting words on the page. The story is progressing. Anything truly awful can be fixed later. But you can’t edit until you have a finished draft. And at least I’m getting somewhere.

Even my usual answer to writer’s block, the great standby which has seen me steadily through over the past few years, is not working. I always had several short stories going at the same time as I worked on a novel, so that I could always switch between them when ever the gnarly bitch reared her head. But right now, I just have a couple novels, and I still see no way out of the blog block, so I am resorting to the last chance.

That’s right. I am going to tame this bitch the only way I know how: write anyway.

Most of us are tied enough in ego to our writing, especially if you’ve made any sales or started networking enough to have people whose work you respect pay attention to your career, that we really loathe writing crap. We’d almost rather do anything than write when we know we don’t know what we’re doing. And although it’s often tossed out as advice at workshops and conferences to “write even when you don’t feel like writing,” such advice is often relegated to the category of good in concept, poor in practice and ignored. Because we don’t want to commit to paper words we will later read and say “I should NEVER have written that” as we scowl in horror.

But I’m doing it anyway. I am going to tame this  and write anyway. So here it is. Not a lot of great advice here for fighting off the block, the dreaded nemesis of any writer. But the advice I do have is write something, even when you don’t feel up to it. You never know what you’ll end up with and maybe, somehow, to someone, it’ll actually be helpful.

For what it’s worth…

How To Let Your Characters Grieve Well

One of the keys to good writing, writing which pops off the page and carries the reader away, is depicting characters’ emotions realistically. If we can feel what they feel, if it moves us to laugh or get angry or cry, we are hooked on the characters and their needs become ours. So how do writers learn to write emotions? Much has been written on stages of emotions and descriptive language cues, etc. But what really makes them pop is using our own experience.

As per my previous posts, I have been going through a very difficult time dealing with my wife’s mental illness and now with our divorce. I have dealt with anger, dismay, exhaustion, frustration, sadness, etc. But ultimately, the mental illness destroyed who she was in ways that she has not recovered from. She insisted on a divorce and I knew we could not remain together. As much as I was ready for it at the time, as many times as I couldn’t wait for her to be gone, what I am left with now that she is gone is overwhelming grief.

People define them with slight variations but according to rec0ver-from-grief.com, these are the 7 Stages Of Grief:

1. SHOCK & DENIAL-
You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.

2. PAIN & GUILT-
As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.

You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.

3. ANGER & BARGAINING-
Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion.

You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair (“I will never drink again if you just bring him back”)

4. “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS-
Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders.Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving.

During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.

5. THE UPWARD TURN-
As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly.

6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH-
As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.

7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE-
During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward.

The odd thing is the stages don’t actually progress in order necessarily. Sometimes you experience waves of them in mixed up order. It’s not just step one then on to step two, etc.

So where am I? I went through Stage 1 a lot during the whole medical crisis. Just feeling like “I don’t care if she’s gone” or “I can’t wait to be rid of her” or “I don’t love her anymore.” It was easy to do when she was telling me how much she hated me every day or verbally abusing me in other ways. It was easy to do because she was, in many ways, unrecognizable as the person I had once loved. Manic people are hard to love.

Stage 2 was a minor factor at first so I’ll skip it for now and address it more fully later because it’s where I am now.

I went through Stage 3 a lot as well, lashing out at her family for not telling me of her illness, for not making more effort to come and help me, and for being in denial of how difficult it was. Now that they’ve been here and dealt with her, they have a much better idea of the nightmare I was facing, but it was hard for me to communicate due to language barrier (they are Brazilians and speak mostly Portuguese) and cultural barrier. And because mental illness changed Bianca so much that you really had to see her to believe she was behaving that way.  When you’re in the midst of it though, you don’t have that logic. You just want them to empathize and act according to how you think they should act, period.

Stage 4 was a constant as well. I was in medical treatment for depression with meds and counseling. And it didn’t help that I had lost my job or that friends had turned their backs on us due to reasons I don’t full understand. Some of it was not knowing what to say or do to help us. Some of it was Bianca’s behavior. Some of it was my anger, too, I suppose. But I am left lonely, depressed, and reflecting on why and what went wrong and feeling abandoned. That makes it so much harder to deal with the other stages at the same time. You just have to tell yourself to breathe sometimes. You have to force yourself to leave the house and move just to remind yourself it actually feels good to get out and be alive.

Stages 5-7, I can’t even fathom right now, because I am stuck in the middle of Stage 2. The pain I feel is so constant and so overwhelming it almost chokes off my breath. It makes it hard to laugh or play or do anything joyful for more than a second or two. It makes it impossible to imagine a way out. Do I feel guilt? A little. Yeah. I didn’t express my love as well as I could. But then don’t all men fail at that or most? I also lashed out at her in anger. I regret so much those little instances, because her mania is not something she can control, but even knowing the person is not in their right mind is not enough to calm you when the stress and exhaustion overcome you. I spent months living with sleep deprivation and intense, constant stress. If you add to that my anger and depression, etc., it was a combination which led to me not loving her well sometimes. After all, as I said, the person I was dealing with was a manic person, not the woman I fell in love with. So now I feel guilt over that. Irrational? Maybe but it’s still there. Mostly, though I just feel pain.

I hurt because I feel like she died. The woman I waited so long for (see this post) died to me. I haven’t seen her since early this year. I have been dealing with someone else inhabiting her body and using her voice. And that person was impossible to live with and deal with–constantly out of control, constantly verbally abusive, selfish, childish. That person had no pleasant traits at all. Even her eyes looked wild and crazy, not at all the eyes I used to stare into and feel so loved. So I feel denied, robbed, assaulted. Fate, God, mental illness–choose one or all–stole my lover, my best friend, my companion, my wife. In a sense, they stole my life, my future, my happiness and my hope. And I feel so much pain and loss and anger and dismay, I couldn’t begin to describe it. Or can I? Maybe I have in this post. To make it all worse, I never really got closure. One day I left for Seattle on a writer’s retreat, and when I saw her again next, she was this manic person, not the woman I love. I never got to say “goodbye.”

In any case, I don’t know how my story will end, but I am sure I will continue to blog about it. I’m sure I will get to the last 3 stages at some point. Right now, I have to get through where I am. But why am I sharing all this? Why am I making this about me?

I am sharing it because this is real experience we can all draw from in our writing to make it better. Using our experiences and others helps us create real characters and empathetic ones and those are the ones which pop off the page. Yes, grief is but one emotion, yet it has stages involving many others. I am sharing this opening because I know there are things here writers can use to write well, and I want this blog to provide such information whenever it can. And all writing comes from our own experiences to some degree and the experiences of people we know or encounter.

So use it in your writing if you can. I know I will come back to it and do so. Right now the emotions are raw and fresh so that comes out in the words I use to describe them. If you deal with any situation calling for grief in your stories, read the stages, read what I’m experiencing and use it. It will make your characters and story come alive in ways that powerfully impact you and your readers. It will make your story/book memorable. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To write something that people will carry with them forever after and remember?

So now take what I’ve written and think about your own life and experiences and those of people you’ve met. What resources do you find there for improving your writing? What stories can you tell? What emotional experiences can you include in your characters’ journeys to help readers connect with them? Make a list. Keep a spreadsheet.

For what it’s worth…

 


Lessons From Editing

We finished the final edit on my debut novel The Worker Prince today. And while there’s still a road to publication, from sending out ARCS for reviews and blurbs, to racheting up marketing, to copyedits, artwork, etc., it’s a good feeling. This was my first time working through this process with an editor. And I put on hold writing the second book in the series to do it. Am I glad I did.

Amongst things my editors did, besides grammatical corrections and questioning passages for clarity, was to help me bring out nuances and aspects of the characters and story which I had glossed over or failed to exploit fully. This will make the novel richer and more meaningful overall, and it also had the bonus of helping me identify strains which can be exploited in the sequel. Their insights also went to worldbuilding, allowing me to exploit things like terraforming which are appropriate to my world but which I had not specifically touched on. Overall, I know the finished book is a lot stronger than it would have been without their help and I will be forever grateful to Randy Streu, Jen Ambrose and earlier editors Paul Conant and Darlene Oakley for their insights.

I continue to evolve in not just my craft but my approach to writing, and experiences like this only push me to self-examination and discovery of new ways to approach my work. For example, The Worker Prince being only my second novel, I have done more drafts of this book than I will of future novels, I suspect. In this case, my first draft was a basic concept of plot, characters and scenes. A lot of the gritty nuances and details came out in later drafts, where I sought ways to lend not only balance but connectivity throughout using various elements. For example, my protagonist has two names: his birth name, Davi (Dah-vee) Rhii, and his adopted legal name Xander Rhii. For much of his life, he goes by Davi, a name his adoptive mother liked because it was unique and non-stereotypical in their culture. But many of his colleagues and his uncle refer to him as Xander. As Davi seeks to come of age and discover who he is as a man, he really comes to own one name over the other. But the nuances of having some characters refer to him by one name over the other were important aspects of characterization and development of story I missed–which we discovered during editing.

There were also times I overstated things, either by repeating them too much or telling too much, which I could do better in showing or hinting at and letting the readers sort it out. Those are areas where my editors’ voices helped me find a wiser path for which I am grateful.

There were also little details, such as using more military-style language in battle and fight scenes, and setting up even minor characters as potential catalysts for action in the sequels, which came out in the editing. These things helped point me to a more focused understanding of what Book 2, The Returning, needs to be, and even to discover the arc of that story in a clear way I had failed to even as I’d started writing it. I typically write with a let the story unfold as it comes approach. But writing a three book series where the story has to flow from one to the next and the overall arc has to be well considered, this editing process on The Worker Prince helped me come to clearer understandings of the books to follow in ways that still allow some “letting the story come as it will” while also writing with a clearer plan. That will, no doubt, make those books stronger and better, and I am indebted to my editors for their assistance with that.

I don’t always get as detail oriented as I should in drafting stories. I tend to go back and add those things later, but learning to note little details and how they can be used throughout a story to bring out themes and deepen the world has been a great lesson for me.

So how does this help you?

1) Names/Language Matter–not only in the origins and meanings they may imply but in how they are employed by characters. How can you utilize the formality and informality with which characters address each other to not only reveal their relationships but deepen tension and characterization? How can you use terminology better in your story? Adding military language or creating formal language for various settings enriches the realism of your world for readers and adds a richness in texture to your story.

2) There Are No Little Things–little things like the necklace a character always wears, a notebook he/she always stops to write in, etc. can be employed to develop not only character but deepen the symbolism of the story. Do you employ any off these and are you using them to their fullest? Every little detail you include has the potential to be exploited for stronger nuance in the story. A few throwaways may exist but be careful to examine what you include and why and how they can be used to provide stronger meaning for readers.

3) Don’t overtell–We’ve all hear the warnings about Showing v. Telling but sometimes we feel the need to revisit plot aspects or character details we’ve already introduced because we fear the reader might not remember them. It’s a fine line to know when to do this and when not to but seeking specific feedback from betas and others on it can be of great help because this is one area where you can end up talking down to readers and nothing turns them off more than that.

4) Consider Future Stories–if you go in knowing you will be writing multiple books, spend time looking for ways you can exploit characters, props, and other details in the first book to set up things which will complicate or be expanded upon in later books. You may not be able to see it in the first draft or two, but as you move further in, you need to really look for this and develop those things well enough that readers will remember them by the time the sequels roll around.

Just a few lessons which I hope can help you on your writing path as they have helped me.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: 7 Tips For Being A Good Beta Reader

One of the things I’ve learned in the past year from working with editors and beta readers is how important a role these folks play in the creative success of any published product. Now there are good editors and bad editors, good beta readers and bad beta readers. I’ve been lucky with my editors so far but had a few beta readers who left things to be desired. (Actually my current crop are fantastic but took a while to find them.)

What you need to understand as a beta reader is that the author needs your focus and honesty to make a good book or story. In fact, without you, the story can’t be all it can be, so you’re actually participating in the creative process and can have huge influence over the final product. If it’s good–and even better because of your thoughtful attention–you can proudly brag about that, and I’m sure the author will credit you in the Acknowledgements as well.

So what does it take to be a good beta reader? Here’s Seven Tips:

1. Pay Attention. You need to read with focused care. Note everything that engenders a response in you. You don’t necessarily have to report them all in your notes, but pay attention, nonetheless, and analyze how that works as you assess the story. Because the author needs to know what works, what doesn’t, etc. This requires you to read with more effort and thought than you might be used to. So it may challenge you. But it will also enrich your reading life in later efforts by teaching you to look at things more deeply in ways you hadn’t imagined.

2. Ask Questions And Seek Answers. If you have unanswered questions or are confused, those are the first notes the author needs. Often we’re so wrapped up in our story with all its details, we don’t realize we’ve underexplained things or done so in a convoluted way. We desperately need you to point it out to us. And we’re thankful when you do. Sometimes what seems perfectly clear to us won’t be to you. This has happened many times editing my novel, and I’m always grateful for those chances to make it better.

3. If You Get Annoyed, Let Me Know. If I over explain or over foreshadow and ruin the surprise, I need to know. I need to know what bores or annoys you. You’re smart enough to realize when it was unintentional, so tell me, because I need to know.

4. Offer Me A Little Praise Too. I’m nervous and excited to put my work out into the world. I need to know the bad stuff, yes. But it’s also helpful to know what you liked. What made you laugh or smile? What surprised you in a good way? What made you want to shout and read it to someone else? Those things matter, and hey, the process is so long, I need the encouragement to keep going. Please let me know.

5. Don’t Be Afraid Of Hurting My Feelings. If I ask you to beta, I am giving you carte blanche to be honest. I need it to make my work all it can be. If I asked, you’re probably someone I trust or at least whose opinion I value enough to believe you can help. And although some of your notes may frustrate me, I won’t take it personally or hold it against you because I need your help. And in the long run, my writing will be better for it not just with this project, but every project to follow.

6. Take good notes. Either on the manuscript itself or via comments in Microsoft Word or on paper. Whatever the case note page and paragraph numbers and be as detailed as you can. The more you give the author, the more helpful your notes will be and the more impressed and grateful the author will be for your time and effort.

7. Check your political, religious and other opinions at the door. You should do this any time you read if you want to actually be informed by the experience. If you are only reading to reinforce existing opinions, your goal is not to grow. Being a beta reader is a challenge, growth is inherent for both you and the writer. It is liberating to set aside preconceived ideas and look at things in a new light, through someone else’s eyes. Reading it fairly doesn’t mean you have to agree or change your mind. But if you intend to help the author, you cannot operate under your own prejudices. Writers are human, our own biases do shape how we see the world and how we project it in our writing, no matter how hard we try to avoid it or how often some deny it. But it’s not your book. The beta reader’s responsibility is fair feedback, untouched by bias, to help the author make his or her book the best of theirs that it can be.

Well those are my seven. No list is perfect. But if you take my advice, you’ll have good success as a beta reader and probably get lots of chances to read stuff before anyone else. How cool is that?

For what it’s worth…

Space Opera: The Junction Between Worlds

Guest Post by John H. Ginsberg-Stevens

“But there was little sense, in criticism and reviewing of the fifties, of ‘space opera’ meaning anything other then ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn’ SF stories of any kind” – Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell, The Space Opera Renaissance (pp.11-12).
“Space Opera” always sounds so majestic when you first hear the term used. It conjures up a Wagnerian aesthetic, a vast, significant drama about to unfold. It evokes a grand canvas of interstellar wonders, of great empires and uncountable fleets clashing for the greatest prize: the galaxy itself! And then, you go to WIkipedia:
“Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. The name has no relation to music; it is analogous to soap operas . . . . “- Wikipedia entry for “Space Opera.”
Well, heck. Space opera, while sometimes a magnificent, even ostentatious form of SF, is not the literary equivalent of “an extended, dramatic composition”(as dictionary.com puts it); in fact, its name signifies a past of pulpish adventures, base entertainments, and corny characters and ideas. 
But this is as much of a stereotype as the former idea. As Kramer and Hartwell also make clear, there is no widely-accepted idea of space opera. Like a lot of genres, it is something that we recognize, rather than delimit. Space operas may be “space fantasy,” but there can also have rigorous science behind them. Of course, even when grounded in science, space operas are rather fantastical. Even the most logical novum is overwhelmed by the combination of high and low drama that the stories contain. And, for me, the key element of space opera is drama, in space, of course. It is the transposition of two very human sorts of story, the epic and the romance (in the classical sense) into the vastness beyond our humble little planet.
The first SF book I ever read was space opera. When I was about 5 years old I was looking through some books at a yard sale, bored to death of Little Golden Books, Dick & Jane, and even Classics Illustrated comics (I had started reading when I was 3). I saw some paperbacks but they had pictures of swooning women, frowning men in suits, or bucolic scenes that were about as thrilling as watching a tree grow. But then, I found something that I had not seen before: a book with a rocket ship on the cover! It was expensive ($2!) but I convinced my father to buy it, and I brought it home and read it over the weekend, twice.
I have only two clear memories of the book: Jerry’s constant need to overcome a string of obstacles, and the small rock hitting their ship. But it inspired me to find more books like it. The adventure was a draw, but so was the combination of drama and different worlds. It was not just the future that was compelling, it was the place, the venturing out to unearthly realms. The aliens may not have been terribly alien, but the otherness of the setting made the adventures more consequential to me.
I eventually abandoned westerns and dove into SF. I soon found that I liked certain types of books: I favored Heinlein over Asimov, Burroughs over Smith, Reynolds over Clarke. The big ideas were cool, but what made the stories compelling to me were the effects on regular people. Heinlein’s juveniles were as much about coming-of-age and finding your way as they were about technology and galactic wonders. Burroughs’ books, while more planetary romance, and Reynolds more socially-oriented works wedded high and low drama together. That fusion was what drew me to space opera, the mixture of (sometimes bombastic) epicness and (sometimes melodramatic) prosaic in the stories. My heroes were Bill Lermer, Podkayne, Rex Bader, and Tars Tarkas.
A few years after discovering SF I was pulled away from it by my family. When I started high school years later I picked right up back and read more Heinlein, Niven, Cherryh, Poul Anderson. I exhausted my tiny school library’s resources, which turned out to be a good thing, because it pushed me out of my comfort zone and, with the assistance of an SF-loving teacher, I branched out and discovered the scope of not only SF, but all sorts of fantastika. But I still sought out stories like those I had looked for in space opera, what we nowadays call “character-driven” tales. I credit my early discovery of space opera with inculcating that proclivity in my reading habits, of the need to know how even the most cosmic,massive events affected regular folks.
That to me is the value of good space opera: thrusting average people into extraordinary situations in a world that might be possible someday. That fusion of spectacle and a good yarn was an excellent basis for becoming a good reader, and eventually a writer. Space opera taught me a few things about life, but more than that, it taught about how to look at life, to appreciate the great and the mundane and how they interacted with each other. Despite the roots of the word, space opera not only entertained me, but got me to appreciate the juncture between the marvels that could be and the people we are.
John H. Ginsberg-Stevens blogs at http://eruditeogre.blogspot.com/ is my writing blog. A frequent columnist for Apex, SF Signal and other sites, he’s a writer, husband, Da, ponderer, anthropologist, geek, bibliophile, bookmonger, anarchist, and generally cranky malcontent.