I’ve had a crazy but very good week, with several projections in heavy negotiations and lots of prep, etc. so I did not have time for my usual WriteTip. So in lieu of that, here’s an interview I did with Sci4Me talking about my upcoming projects and so on. It runs about an hour. If you’re wondering what I’m up to, this should catch you up.
I’ll be back next Wednesday with a new WriteTip. Have a great week!
It’s hard times right now for all of us. With the new paradigm in place for the foreseeable future, we need entertainment more than ever, so here are two books of mine you can download and read for free on Kindle .
On October 15th, I started a new venture. I took a book I knew readers loved, because I’d tested it, but hadn’t sold to traditional publishing yet despite editors all praising it, and put it out via a small press called Boralis Books. Since then Simon Says has not only earned back my initial investment but exceeded it and received mostly 5 and 4 star reviews in doing so, a higher percentage than any of the other 25 books I’ve done.
Simon Says was hard to sell traditionally because I mixed genres—near future science fiction and procedural thriller—in a way that has not really been tested. Only JD Robb is doing it in any noticeable way. So publishers didn’t know what to do with it. But as friends and family who’d test read the book kept asking me, again and again, when’s that book coming out, I knew I was onto something. I didn’t get that kind of enthusiasm on my prior books.
And Simon Says, while it can stand alone, is actually book one in the John Simon Thrillers series, so as part of my strategy, I planned to launch a new book every quarter in that series and eventually add other series and titles. So here we are, 4 months after release as of February 15, and I’m so excited about the next John Simon Thriller, I’m releasing it 5 days early on February 10th.
It’s called The Sideman, and preview of several chapters has actually been up since Simon Says released. (A preview of book 3, Common Source, will be posted Feb. 10 when The Sideman Releases. It’s up for preorder now via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound will have it soon. To see what people are already saying about The Sideman as well as those sample chapters (3) and buy links, click here.
And if you haven’t read Simon Says yet, check out the same for it here and expect to see it on sale to celebrate the release of book 2 next week. I appreciate your support of this new venture and can’t wait for you to read my latest. Here’s the first reader review on Goodreads:
So by now most of you know I have a new novel out, Simon Says, and the next anthology, Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers, is out in 3 weeks, close on its heels. So I am on the promotion bandwagon for a bit. Here’s two chances to catch me live this week:
Monday: At 8 p.m. CST U.S., find me on Keystroke Medium Live on YouTube, Join me and hosts Josh Hayes and Scott Moon as we talk about writing, police, the book, and more. Be sure and login early so you have your name in the chat window and can ask questions.
Tuesday: At 3 p.m. in the afternoon, you can call in and ask questions as I join hostess Sherri Rabinowitz on Chatting With Sherri live on blogtalk radio. The call-in number is 646-915-9580.
I’ll be talking about my research process for writing the John Simon Thrillers, including real live ride-alongs with KCPD on all night shifts multiple times, and other adventures, and taking questions. Who knows? We may even give away a book or two. So tune in please!
This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.
In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:
A sympathetic character.
So every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well developed plot.
Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.
Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.
For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.
The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.
Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.
In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.
In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.
Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.
Diction has to do with tone and style, whereas syntax, which is closely related, has to do with the form of the sentence. The level of diction of a truck driver has a different level than a bishop, but both might use all three forms of syntax. Syntax and diction depend on one another. The truck driver may speak more base, slangy language than the elevated syntax of the bishop, for example. This is dependent upon levels of diction with which they choose to speak. It is also dependent upon the word order (syntax) they choose to use.
A truck driver might say, “I was having sad thoughts when I was alone.”
A bishop, “To me came thoughts of grief when alone.”
Just as Henry Standing Bear stands out in Craig Johnson’s Longmire because of never using contractions, another character might stand out for going to pains to use “whom” instead of “who” whenever it is grammatically correct or the opposite. Subtle grammatical quirks can be quite effective characterization tools. What if a character says “the killer musta wore gloves” instead of “the killer musta worn gloves”—“must have worn” being grammatically correct? Some of these quirks are quite common in usage and can be observed daily in those around us. Often they subtly reveal things about people’s backgrounds—education, social class, where they come from—that will make your dialogue more realistic.
Stephen King writes: “Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides.” When done well, dialogue can impart several bits of information about your characters just through word choice. Bishops, kings, politicians, professors and others all speak differently and with more sophistication and less common vernacular than truck drivers, plumbers, mechanics, and farmers. Add in gang members, foreigners, and others and you have a third style of diction as well. Use diction to differentiate between characters and help us know who is speaking without even requiring a speech tag. You can know the area of the world they come from, their education level, their level of class and refinement, their self-esteem level, their social circles, their religion or lack of religion, and so much more just via how a character speaks. The unique voice of each character will add depth and realness to your world and story like nothing else.
In my novel Simon Says, a tough KCPD detective is forced to team with a humanoid android to solve his partner’s murder. At one point, Simon points out the humanoid’s speech patterns:
["I function ninety percent like a human being in most respects," Lucas said as they continued up the stairs.
"Yeah, and at least ten percent is how you talk," Simon teased.
Lucas turned a puzzled look at him. "You think I do not speak like a human?"
"No normal human uses the cadence you use, no," Simon said.
Lucas looked disappointed. "Well, I hope you will assist me to do better. I am designed to blend in with humans and wish to learn."
"You want to blend stop saying things like 'in most respects' or 'I am designed,'" Simon said, shaking his head. "You sound like a machine."
Lucas hrmphed. "I will remember."
Just listening to them you can tell the difference. This is a prime example of syntax and diction at work. Now the same thing can happen with socioeconomic class.
“You, stop!” The detective stepped in front of the vagrant and raised his hand.
“What ya want?” the disheveled woman demanded, her dirty, unkempt hair hanging down off her forehead to obscure most of one eye, her nose brown with dirt and grime from life on the street.
“I have a couple of questions. Did you see what happened down there last night?”
“Huh? I was ‘sleep.”
“No way you slept through that,” the detective countered. “Were you here?”
Her face shriveled as she shook her head and looked away. “I don’ know nothin’.”
“You’re not in trouble. We just need your help. People died.”
“Not my pro’lem,” she said.
Dialogue can also tell readers about your world. Do they speak familiarly to present day people around us or like people from another place or time? Do they speak with familiar vernacular and nuance and pop culture references or are the references odd and unusual, even requiring us to work to understand them a bit? All of this is key to world building characters and creating a sense of place and dialogue is a key tool for accomplishing it. Here’s an example from Wager of My Heart by Claire Ashgrove:
“What seems to be the problem, Thomas?”
“A wreck, sir,” the man replied as he bounced the long reins to quiet the agitated horse. “Easy, girl. Stand now.”
“Aye. The crowd’s thick—I cannot make it all out. But a coach is twisted at such an angle I can clearly see the top of it.”
Perfect. Lord only knew how long it would take to right a coach. “Is there a way around?” he asked, his patience rapidly deteriorating. “I would prefer not to linger in this stench.”
“No, my lord. Not unless you wish me to drive over the onlookers, sir.”
Both the vocabulary and the descriptions clearly indicate a different time, in this case Victorian Era London.
Point of View characters engage in two main types of dialogue throughout a fictional work: external dialogue with other characters and internal dialogue with themselves. External dialogue we have described above. Internal dialogue is similar but is their inner voice and thoughts taking expression.
Here’s an example from my novel The Worker Prince:
“I can’t tell you what to do, Davi, but it’s a big risk.”
“Now you sound just like Farien,” Davi growled and drowned the words with another gulp from his beer.
Yao’s purple eyes softened to violet with sympathy. “Hey, I’m on your side here, okay? One man can’t change an entire culture.”
Davi wiped his lips on his sleeve and met his friend’s eyes again. “This man has to try.”
Yao sighed, sinking back into the couch again. “Why?”
Davi stared at him a moment, anger mixed with disgust. But Yao wasn’t the bad guy. You’ve got to tell him. Ignoring his internal voice, he shrugged.
“Have you spoken to Farien since?” Yao asked.
“No. There hasn’t been an occasion.”
“Maybe we could pay him a visit,” Yao said. “Be good to have the three musketeers back together again.” Yao loved references to the classics. Along with history, he’d read many novels.
“Sure. Of course …” Davi’s voice trailed off as he looked away, lost in thought. Should I tell him? He needed to confide in someone before he burst.
Internal monologues are often written in italics to differentiate them. When needed, “he thought, etc.” are used to indicate. In this case, we can see Davi has two conversations going on at once—one external with Yao and the other internal with himself.
J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord Of The Rings uses elevated diction combined with a formal syntax to suggest an ancient language:
Gimli shivered. They had brought only one blanket apiece. “Let us light a fire,” he said. “I care no longer for the danger. Let the orcs come as thick as summer moths around the candle!”
“If those unhappy hobbits are astray in the woods, it might draw them hither,” said Legolas.
“And it might draw other things, neither Orc nor Hobbit,” said Aragorn. “We are near the mountain-marshes of the traitor Sarumon. Also, we are on the very edge of Fangorn, and it is perilous to touch the trees of that wood, it is said.” (The Two Towers)
So using different dictions is a great technique and device for characterization. If a character is a con artist, they may use different diction externally than they do internally. This tells us about your character. Or they may fake an accent they don’t really have, etc. Also, the character’s internal dialogue will reveal what they choose to reveal and not reveal to various characters which tells us much about their motives, emotions, etc. Internal dialogue is where characters debate decisions, mourn mistakes, and so much more, and it is necessary for storytelling because we cannot see what we are not shown, so it provides a method of showing what is going on in the inner life of characters that is essential to building good conflict and drama in your story.
Remember that characters may speak differently to one character than another depending upon their relationship, their motives, etc. If hanging with old friends from the old ghetto, one may slip into a dialect left behind in childhood for those interactions even if the character usually speaks in a more refined way with characters outside that world and life. Ever have a friend from a foreign country or the U.S. Deep South who talks with one accent with you but goes home and slips back into a native accent? People speak to a lover different than a mother or a sister or a boss or a priest. One also speaks differently to a king or ruler than a fellow citizen and often to a teacher than fellow students, and so on. So remember to establish changes in dialogue appropriate to the circumstances in which the dialogue is occurring and who and to whom the characters are speaking. This will make your world come alive and feel realistic.
Lewis Turco writes in Dialogue: Characterization “is largely what dialect is about—identifying the persona and his or her traits, including the main personality trait on which much of the story will depend for its plot and the motivations of its characters.” Remember that characters who speak with the same diction only recognize the difference when speaking with outsiders. The same is true of dialect or accents. Characters with accents only know they have one when someone points it out or when talking with another character. Even then, to them they sound normal and the other person has the accent.
Dialect is a particular way of speaking that is different from other characters being represented in a modified written form to reflect its accent or peculiarities. It is particularly common in older novels, but frowned upon these days because it is often challenging for readers to read. Use dialect sparingly and only for strategic purposes. Often just a line or two is all you need to remind readers of the character’s accent. The rest can be rendered more naturally. Another technique is to render a few key words in dialect.
Here’s an example from my novel The Worker Prince, a science fiction space opera:
As he neared a tent, someone poked his arm—a smiling vendor who looked half-human and half-Lhamor, gesturing with his bottom two arms when he spoke, his forked tongue giving him a strong lisp.
“’ello, Capt’in, my frien’, wha’ever you nee’, I can ge’ for you,” he said with the accent of Italis and patted Davi’s back like they had been lifelong pals.
There’s a reason others of your race use translators. “No thank you, just passing through,” Davi said with forced politeness, moving on through quickly.
The Lhamori here is speaking in dialect, and a particularly hard to understand one, which is why I used it sparingly (though not sparingly enough according to some readers. It was my first novel.)
In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell suggests 3 guidelines for using dialect: Decide if dialect is absolutely needed in a scene. If so, go ahead and use it in the first spoken line. Use it sparingly after that, only as a reminder to readers of the voice.
Here’s another example from James Michener’s Soyonara:
I started to get up but Makino, the cook, grabbed my arm and translated, “She not angry. Only she say very dangerous Fumiko-san walk with Americans.”
“She wasn’t walking,” I cried. “She was sitting here.”
“Please!” Makino protested. “I not speak good. Trouble too much.”
Here, Michener is representing the broken English of a non-native speaker fairly well using dialect to give a realness to the dialogue, another appropriate technique. In this case, rather than odd or modified spellings, it involves missing words or rearranged syntax.
Generally speaking, it is advisable to avoid dialect and use standard diction. Remember, writing is communication and communication is about clarity first and foremost. Anything that might be a stumbling block for readers is to be handled with care.
Similar to dialect are idioms which means: “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as in kick the bucket or hang one’s head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics; a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people. (Dictionary.com)” Mark Twain is the U.S. master and Charles Dickens the U.K. master of idioms. Lewis Turco writes: “An expression may begin as the slang—or ‘popular jargon’—of a particular generation, but once it enters the language permanently, it becomes an idiomatic expression.” So, for example, where Brits might say “throwing crockery,” Americans would say “throwing dishes.”
Both Dickens and Twain exploit idiomatic expressions freely in their novels and sometimes develop or perpetuate them into greater popularity by repeating the same phrases over and over again in their works, giving them a stability in the language. Examples from Dickens are “heart and soul,” “jog-trot,” and “turn and turn about,” the last two of which are particularly British. Examples from Twain include “without you” (unless you), “by some stretchers” (lies), “back to the drawing board,” and “I lit out.”
The following passage from Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains some more:
The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.
Twain and Dickens both use colloquialisms to give characters distinctive voices. Huck misspells civilize as “sivilize,” which reveals his lack of formal education and uses “allowed” instead of “said.” He also uses adjectives in unusual and informal ways in phrases like “it was rough living” and “dismal regular” (instead of dismally regular). And he uses a lot of double negatives like “I couldn’t stand it no longer.” These details add authenticity that capture the time and place and bring the characters to life. Idioms can be a great tool for this but must be used skillfully and handled well to avoid confusing or drowning readers.
To write dialogue well, it helps to go out and observe people as well as to read a lot. If you are writing a historical period, find movies, newsreels, and others books and observe carefully, taking notes, on how people talk, turns of phrase, idioms, etc. To write teenagers, go to Sam’s Club or Costco or Walmart and sit in the food court and listen or to a mall or theatre. Note how the teens speak to each other verses adults, how they address strangers verses friends, etc. Do the same with anyone else you need to study in whatever profession: from cops to priests, jewelers to plumbers and more. Writing down key observations in a notebook will create an invaluable resource to jog your memory later when the time comes to write various characters, especially if you want to find turns of phrase, idioms, or other idiosyncrasies you can employ to added authenticity and bring characters to life. You want dialogue to sound believable and real, after all, and that means you have to write it so it sounds natural while still performing all the dramatic functions beyond conversation that it must to move forward your story.
I am overdue letting you all know about what I have in the works. This is partially because plans are still somewhat fluid, but also because I have been waiting until I knew more to share it. I think the time has come.
I have had several novels on the traditional submission pool for the past four years and while they get positive praise for their writing quality and page turning elements, publishers keep turning them down because they don’t know how to market them. Meanwhile, I continue to struggle financially and mentally with the frustration of seeing my career stalled.
Starting in October and November, I am going to begin self-publishing at least two, maybe three, novel series at a rate of one book every four months. These books will be available through a small imprint (still being determined if it is mine or an established small press) in both print and ebook and online via Amazon and other outlets.
So far, the blurbs and reviews are overwhelmingly positive for the first book: SIMON SAYS, which launches my John Simon procedural thrillers about a tough, Luddite Kansas City cop who’s forced to team with a humanoid android to solve his partners murder. Together they uncover a conspiracy that stretches across the ocean and deep within the KCPD itself. I describe it as Asimov’s City of Steel meets Connelly’s Bosch meets Lethal Weapon.
SIMON SAYS will be out October 15th from Boralis Books in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. A sequel, THE SIDEMAN, will follow next February.
Also releasing this month is my next entry in the INFINITE STARS: Definitive Space Opera And Military Science Fiction anthology series from Titan Books.
INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS contains a mix of new and reprint stories by George R.R. Martin, Becky Chambers (a new Wayfarers tale), Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Campbell (a new Lost Fleet tale), Tanya Huff (a new Confederation tale), Seanan McGuire, Olson Scott Card (a new Ender tale), Neal Asher, David Weber, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller (a new Liaden tale), E.E. “Doc” Smith, Kevin J. Anderson (a new Seven Suns tale), Susan R. Matthews, Brenda Cooper, Curtis Chin (a new Kangaroo tale), Larry Niven & Steven Barnes (a new Dream Park tale), CJ Cherryh, David Farland, Weston Ochse (a new Grunt tale), Mike Shepherd (a new Kris Longknife tale), CL. Moore, Gardner Dozois, James Blish, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Alan Dean Foster. The new stories in existing popular series are noted.
INFINITE STARS: DARK FRONTIERS releases in hardcover and ebook on November 6, 2019 wherever books are sold.
That’s it for 2019, but as mentioned, more to come throughout 2020 starting in February. I hope you will put them on your shopping lists.