Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


One of the toughest things writers have to face is fairly constant rejections. It can be devastating. Particularly after you've spent years working on a manuscript and have gotten through a couple of turnstiles. You're so close, but… And then, if you do manage to get published, that's not the end of it, either. I'm not talking about additional rejections from agents, publishers and editors. No, sir. I'm talking about the most devastating rejection of all, reader rejection. Yeah. Talk about messing with your mind. You got an agent to who liked the manuscript, an editor who liked it enough to buy it, and you got that sucker published only to get the ultimate slap in the face.

Well, buck up. What's the worst that can happen? So they don't buy your book. That's about it. No one is going to arrest you (unless you wrote something you shouldn't ought to have written) and generally speaking, no one is going to point with horror at you when you walk down the street. Granted, I don't know what you look like, so I supposed it is within the realm of possibility that they actually will scream and run away when they see you coming, but it won't be because you wrote a flop. And maybe it wasn't a flop. Who really knows? If no one bought it then no one knows what's in your book to judge whether it's a flop, so you do have that going for you. Okay, maybe that doesn't really help.

Right. It doesn't help. If you write a book, it gets published, and no one subsequently buys it, well, that is a rough one. Basically, your choice is to waste your time on promotion or get back to the job of writing. I'm not saying promoting your book is bad—you have to do that to some degree. You've seen all the blogs, websites, articles, and advice about promoting yourself. Yes, you have to do it. But if it's not working or if you're spending all your time on promotion you need to take a step back. You need to get back to work.

Sometimes, you are better off getting other books published then spending 80% of your time trying to promote a book that is just not selling. Yes, it is heartbreaking. Yes, it makes you feel like you are a complete failure and don't know what the heck you are doing. And it makes you ask yourself what you were thinking to believe you could write a book. All those terrible things and all those vicious voices in your head will ring loud and victorious. Your supportive spouse may even say, "Honey, maybe it's for the best. Just let it go and forget about it. I hate to see you suffer like this."

Eat chocolate. Watch mindless television.

Then go back and write some more. Because it's the only real choice you have.

Strangely enough, if you can write another book, and then another book, and somehow manage to get those published (despite your first-book-flop) you may find that elusive audience. You may find readers who do connect with your stories. And each book will be better than the last. And your audience will build. It may build slowly, but in fact, producing more saleable manuscripts and getting them out there is the best promotional move you can make. Don't throw money, time and sweat into past endeavors. Decide on a limit and then resolutely move on, even if it does hurt.

In the end, you'll have a backlist of books readers can choose from. And sometimes, having that list of publications gives you the credibility readers are looking for in order to make that first purchase and take a chance on an unknown author.

Writers write. Make your writing come first and all the other related tasks come second or even third. And strangely enough, you may find that writing is one of the best ways to cure the rejection blues.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Getting Characters Onstage

Started reading Jeffrey Deaver's The Sleeping Doll last night—I love his books. Although I've only read around 50 pages, I realized that I finally stumbled upon something that I may have done correctly and figured out for myself. It's the difficult process of getting a large cast of characters in front of the reader without hopelessly confusing them.

I wrote a manuscript—a Regency Mystery—a couple of years ago. It's called The Vital Principle. The first scene is a séance and there are 13 people present. One of them kills their host. So I had to introduce all 13 to the reader and not confuse the heck out of everyone. Initially, I had the heroine, Pru, study each participant as she glanced around the table. I made sure each character had some defining characteristic and hook the reader could use to identify the character. But it was still confusing—too many people and names to keep track of. Then I hit upon the idea of just saying, there are 13 people present. The people only get "introduced" as they are "needed on stage" because they are doing or saying something. Which stretched out the introductions over a longer interval so that readers could meet them "one at a time".

It seemed to work better that way.

Then low and behold, when I started reading Deaver's The Sleeping Doll and was relieved to see that I inadvertently stumbled upon an appropriate technique. There are a lot of characters that Deaver wants you to know about, right up front in this book. Most of them form the task force given the assignment of catching an escaped killer. And he did exactly the same thing I did. What a relief to discover that I was heading in the right direction.

So let's look at what Deaver did.

First: He introduces the bad guy and a surviving victim, the Sleeping Doll, in a "newspaper article" about the bad guy's murder spree and subsequent conviction. So we learn the bad guy's name and the fact that he committed Manson-esque murders, so we know enough about him to understand he's a really, really bad guy. We, the reader, have now "got him". We're also aware of the girl dubbed the Sleeping Doll, although we have not met her.

By the way, an important part of meeting a character is learning some basic traits or characteristics about that character. This lets you begin to build a picture of the character and gives you a "handle" for the character. Sort of like: Oh, this guy's an insane, Manson-esque killer with charisma. Okay, got him. The difference between this and the Sleeping Doll is that all we know about the girl is that she was asleep in a pile of dolls when the murders occurred and she escaped. So we don't know anything about her, per se. We know nothing about what she looks like, acts like or her character. So although we know her name, we don't know her. Yet.

This intro "newspaper article" runs for about 2 pages.

Second: Deaver introduces Kathryn Dance. She's the heroine who will have to recapture the killer, Daniel Pell. In this chapter, Kathryn is interviewing Pell. We learn all about Kathryn, her skills as an interviewer, and what she looks like. We get a closer look at Pell and learn more about his personality. We learn he is a powerful, in-control bad guy even though he's in prison. And we learn that Kathryn is just as smart and powerful in her way, so the "contest between them" is pretty evenly matched. This sets up tension because neither one is obviously weaker than the other. They are worthy opponents.

This section runs for about 6 pages. It "cements" the primary characters, Kathryn and Pell, and the reader now knows how each character talks, acts, and thinks.

I'm giving you pages so you can see how long Deaver takes to accomplish his introductions. It's not very long and you're given a lot of information about the characters. By the end of this section, you have a pretty good feel for Kathryn and Pell.

Third: Now the secondary characters start to roll in. But not too quickly. First we get Alonzo Sandoval. He gets a description and short exchange with Kathryn before we get the next character: TJ. He gets a longer paragraph of description, and a brief exchange with Kathryn. Then we get Juan Miller. He gets a very short description and a few words. Then all these characters discuss what is going on. That's three characters, but by now, we know Kathryn pretty well and we can pick them up pretty well.

Through the character interactions on the next couple of pages, Deaver feeds us tags to hang on the three new characters so we can remember who they are. Juan Miller is lanky and has a scar on his hand that is the remnant of a removed gang tattoo. TJ is unconventional and wears a T-shirt under a plaid sports coat. Sandoval is handsome and round with a thick black moustache.

These three get three pages of interactions with Kathryn. Not long for three characters, but he gives you tags and the reader is ready to move on.

Fourth: Back to Pell and his escape. We meet two guards but not for long. Although we get to know them well enough and for long enough to feel sorry for them. They get several pages though as Pell escapes. (And okay, it's not like I'm ruining the story—there wouldn't be a story if he didn't escape at the beginning and come on. You didn't think he was going to escape without bloodshed, did you? Come on.)

The next few chapters are the same—you get the point. He gives you a couple of pages as each new character is pulled into the drama. You get descriptions and interchanges with the main characters so you get a "feel" for how each character acts, speaks, and looks. You get tags to help identify the characters. A tag can be a personality trait like some weird speech pattern or a particular talent/skill such as Kathryn's interview skills. Or, a tag can be a physical trait like Juan's scar left from the tattoo removal. It doesn't really matter what the unique trait it, as long as it gives your reader a handle to remember which character is which. It helps if you also remind the reader about the relationships, as well, for example which character is a co-worker, which is a boss, etc, so the reader can establish those things as well. It lets the reader build the "society" of your story.

To summarize: If you have a lot of characters to introduce to your readers, remember a few things…

  1. Only introduce characters at the point at which they have something to do or say. Don't just introduce all the characters in the room if some of them are just sitting and listening. Only describe them when they actually take some action or say something.
  2. Try to give each main character a few pages so the readers can get to know them before moving on to minor characters. If you can do what Deaver did and get the two main characters interacting with each other for a few pages right away, it's even better. We can get the measure of the two characters and see if they are evenly matched, what their goals, strengths and weaknesses are, so the tension can begin to rise. It is the interaction between the two, and the relative strengths of the characters that will give rise to your reader's initial level of interest and tension. Tension is good but remember, you can't have tension in a situation where one opposing force is much stronger than the other.
  3. Make sure you give the reader handles for the characters. And try not to make the handles stereotypical. Like having a bespectacled librarian with her hair in a bun. Give us a librarian who looks like Arnold Swartzenegger. And is a woman. ;-) Repeat the handles when the characters are onstage so the readers immediately identify them. I'm not saying you should be repetitive and always say: "the muscle-bound librarian" every time you have the librarian in the scene. Vary the description—and toward the end, you can even let it go because by that time, the reader will know. But at the beginning, reminding the reader that the librarian's sleeves actually split when she nonchalantly picked up a carton of new books will remind the reader. Speech patterns are excellent handles because characters should each have their own way of speaking that should not be interchangeable with other characters.

That's it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Learning and Life

This evening while I was trying to figure out what the heck I was going to write about, I wasted an hour or so playing Age of Mythology (Gold Edition!). There is something about building up an economy for the express purpose of wiping your opponent from the map that is very soothing to my nerves, shattered by dealing with problems all day long. But I deliberately keep it at the moderately hard level because I actually want to win. For once. By the end of a long day, I need something to give me a boost of confidence. It's nice to think you can do something right, even if it's just creating monsters and killing off your opponent.

Anyway, the game gets my brain going. Or gives me confidence to tackle more problematic tasks like writing. I've often wondered how I come across in these blogs—I mean—how do I have the nerve to set myself up as if I know anything? One of the more disheartening aspects of getting older is that you actually begin to realize how little you really do know. All the confidence and assurance of your youth is gradually beaten out of you over the years until you realize how big and complex the world is and how very little impact you have on it. And how very little you truly know. Because there are vast mountains of knowledge out there. You can skim the cliff tops and you can explore a few of them, but for every mountain you scale, five more thrust their way up out of the earth's mantle. The higher you get, the more mountains you see. And that's good because one way to stay young is to keep on learning.

And that's what my blogs are really, truly about. They are not about me trying to give anyone else advice. They aren't about me trying to act like I know something. I know very little. In fact, I'm fairly shocked when anyone thinks I know anything. I know a little about a lot of things. I know a little more about a few things. But I don't know a lot about anything—at least not to the level I would like.

One of the things I have learned is that if I, personally, want to explore a new subject, whether it be writing, gardening or how ACLs get applied in Windows 2003 Server, what I have to do is pretend to teach it. Of course it's really better if I actually do teach it because people ask questions and force you to think. The prospect of questions will force you to learn more out of self-defense and the desire to avoid looking like a total idiot.

This blog is my way of teaching—me. If others benefit, well, goody for them. I actually hope people ask questions because that forces me to explore more, research, and find the best answers. Which is another opportunity for me to learn more. So, yes. It's all about me.

If you want to learn how to become a writer, then my advice to you is to write. And try to teach someone else how to write. And write about writing. The process of organizing your thoughts on various aspects of writing, e.g. structure, plotting, characterization, vocabulary, etc, will force you to learn it. Pick out examples from other books to show someone (even if you're just showing yourself).

I recently went through some of my favorite books and made copies of the pages where the authors introduce a character. I wanted to explore precisely how one character (the point of view character) describes another character to introduce the second character to the reader. How the descriptions stay in the voice and point of view of the POV character. How the POV character subtly inserts his or her opinions and prejudices into their descriptions and manages to convey the emotional climate of the scene through small inflections in the description. To me, the best descriptions are actually thinly disguised opinions by the POV character. The description is as revealing of the POV character as it is of the subject of the description. Double duty.

In fact, it is my conclusion that the best descriptions are not descriptions at all but internal dialog where the POV character is expressing an opinion about another character or subject. That's why some descriptions are dry-as-dust and skippable: because the author just wrote a technically accurate description without expressing any opinion about it. Scenery, whether it be a landscape, building, or character, is only interesting in the manner in which it brings out some emotion, feeling, or opinion in the person describing it. We really don't care if the room was 10' x 12' square with blue walls. We are interested, however, if the POV character observes a 10'x12' square room with blue walls and feels those walls closing in on him, suffocating him under depressing pall of sterile, pale blue.

So I blog to learn. Anything else is just gravy.