Thursday, July 2, 2015

Shock Value

If you're anything like me, you like what you're reading to surprise you.  It should make you wonder what will happen at every turn.  And, usually, what better way to put the reader on edge than to show that no character is safe?  Any character, including the main one, can be snuffed out at any moment, thus altering the direction of the entire narrative.

Unfortunately, this looks like it's becoming a fallback position for many works.  I know that Stephen King said that you should "kill your darlings," but this has become the lazy writer's way of introducing drama into a boring story.  Someone sticking around too long?  Kill them.  Need a murder investigation to hit turbulence?  Kill the main suspect.  Want the hero to have a reason to seek vengeance?  Kill his lover.  And on and on and on...so much so that the "shocking" twist becomes cliché and expected.

Does this mean you can't do it?  Of course not, but you should do it sparingly.  M. Night. Shyamalan was seen as cutting edge at first when he introduced the twist ending to his movies, but he has now become something of a running gag since everyone is prepared for his twist.  Here's a hint - if people expect your twist, it's not a twist.  If everyone sees a major death coming to shake things up, then the only potential surprise is who gets the ax.  Even an awesome show like The Walking Dead has used the "unexpected death" things so often that it no longer makes the impact it needs to.

When I say that death is the lazy writer's approach, I mean that death isn't the only way to introduce shock - only the most obvious.  Therefore, a writer really looking for a way to make an impact needs to find a way to really grab someone's attention.  Instead of death, maybe your main character was accidentally(or intentionally, depending on how dark you want to go) working for the bad guys. Or an introduced pregnancy could be shown to not only not belong to the main character, but that his girlfriend secretly inseminated herself with the sperm of another man.  Perhaps the helpful mentor was actually working to undermine the narrative and set himself up as a god.  Who knows?

Don't be boring when looking for surprises, and death is the most easily reached for.  Sometimes it's necessary in order to advance the plot, but look for other twists to keep readers on edge.  You'll be surprised the paths they'll follow you down if you just give them a reason to keep reading.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How Much Is Enough?

As I've been writing Fight Or Flight, the biggest issue I've run into is how much to include.  The first act is supposed to cover seven years, so I obviously can't detail every single thing and get it under 100,000 words.  However, it also can't be so compacted that it feels rushed and leaves out too much.

I've had problems in the past trying to figure this out, and I think a large part of it stems from my personal inclination to write a linear story.  I like to follow one person from A to B and get caught up in the minutiae.  That won't work in a take that spans years.

So what do you skip over?  What do you take for granted?  Will a time lapse dispel the tension you create?

Putting events on a kind of cruise control requires fine precision in order to maintain the illusion of tension.  Like the movie Click, skipping over too much leaves readers not caring about the details, and when readers stop caring about details, your characters, indeed your entire plot, gets caught up in apathy.

Ask yourself how large a tale you really need to tell.  Can you shorten it and still reach the end you want?  The question I'm grappling with now is whether or not to turn my three act epic novel into three separate novels.  Part of my personal stress has been in trying to complete this "one" novel by mid-August, but in reality, I'm writing three novels and mashing them into one.  When I realized that, it put things into a whole new perspective.

Tell the story you need to, but give the reader credit if you can.  Most will use their imaginations to cover blank spots.  Just make sure your whole novel isn't a blank spot.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Free Speech

I may be breaking my own rule by talking about this, but there's an issue out there right now that needs to be discussed - freedom of expression.  There is no greater right more sacred to writers and artists than the right to express oneself without fear of reprisal.  I'm not speaking about being free from criticism - criticism is part of free speech.  What I'm talking about is being fear from sanction by the government or through the use of violence by radicals.

There have been a few high profile items in the news recently about certain fanatics using violence to shut up criticism of their religion.  Basically, they're mad that their feelings got hurt.  I'm of the mind that if your faith can be shaken by a cartoon or by criticism, then that faith isn't particularly strong to begin with.

Watching your back for fear of idiots that can't get over that even "sacred" things can be mocked is bad enough.  What has mortified me more, however, has been the response by a number of folks who are saying that some kinds of speech don't deserve protection.  I think these morons fall into two categories - cowards and fools.

Cowards are those who don't want others to write or say certain things because they're afraid that the unstable among us will resort to violence.  And yes, I mean coward with every bit of sting in the word.  To shirk away because someone might go off the deep end is the epitome of cowardice.  What's worse is when you transfer that cowardice to others.  If you want to hide from the world and not express yourself, that's one thing, but it's quite another when you try and tell someone else not to express something because you're afraid of the reaction.  That is not a valid cause to censor speech, and those who think that way should be ashamed of themselves.

Fools are those who don't understand free speech and the law.  Some people have tried saying that "hate speech" isn't protected under the 1st Amendment.  Sorry, but that's patently false.  Aside from so-called hate speech being expressly protected by the Supreme Court(see Snyder v Phelps), who gets to decide what constitutes hate speech?  What one thinks is hateful, another thinks is insightful.  I promise that the instant you think something is too hateful for expression, something you love will fall into that category next.

It's not like the 1st Amendment says "Congress shall make no law abridging free speech, BUT you can't say something nasty."  Some try pointing to a case named Chaplinsky v State of New Hampshire and say that "fighting words" aren't protected.  What these people are missing is that the exception for this is limited to face-to-face personal insults, and broad based criticism isn't covered.  And the "fire in a movie theater" exception doesn't apply because no one is going to trample others to death trying to escape an inferno just because his or her feelings got hurt.

I urge everyone to look inside themselves and ask if they truly believe in free expression.  If so, then that means tolerating even that which you find repulsive.  The answer to speech or expression you don't like isn't to force another to shut up, but rather to answer them with your own speech or expression.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tension

Tension is the essence of any story.  A tale where no one gets heated and there is no tension is...boring.  Anyone can sit around on the couch and get along with everybody else, all while singing about unicorns and lollipops.  However, no one wants to read about it.

So how do we ramp up the tension in our stories?  First, by remembering that everyone has his or her own unique personality, and those personalities sometimes clash.  Perhaps your story could have the two main protagonists who are forced to work together have some kind of challenging detail from their past.  Maybe one is now dating the other's ex.  Or perhaps there was a bad business deal that caused both to lose a great deal of money.

Of course, that's all backstory.  The practicalities of tension are what you need if you're going to let the reader feel it.  Some of this can be done through dialogue:

"Gondolsky masterminded the crime.  I just know it."

"But we don't have any camera footage.  We can't prove it."

"I didn't have camera footage of you banging my girl behind my back, but that didn't stop it from being true."

Or maybe a character is trying to keep a secret that would alter the relationship and is sweating about it.  You could write about an inner monologue where he or she is wrestling with that guilt and is on the verge of telling.  Maybe the character is of two minds, so you have to bring that out.

Tension also comes from action and uncertainty.  Simple tension is easy - there's a car chase near a cliff where one wrong turn would leave the characters dead at the bottom of a ravine.  Complex tension, on the other hand, is much harder...say, the car in the above chase crashes and the main character can only rescue either his wife or his daughter and must decide.  Bring a devil's bargain into it and things go to a whole new level.

Find what tension your audience can live with.  Experiment.  Picture it and gauge how you feel.  Only then can you bring it out and put your readers on the edge of their seat.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Muse - Energy

I hadn't been this alive in a while.

My Muse had hidden before, but she was now all over me, grabbing my shirt and whispering into my ear so often that hers seemed to be the only voice I could hear.  I could even feel her hands on top of mine as I ran my fingers over the keys.

"It's so nice to have you back," she cooed.

I just smirked and wrote the next piece of dialogue.  "So, now that David and his group have discovered the radar stations, how are they going to monitor the enemy's presence?"

"Well, they can see Los Angeles is full of them, and now they have to figure out how to wipe them out.  He and Dwayne argue over the benefits of a nuclear strike, and an old aircraft carrier sits off the coast.  The Captain of that ship was killed in the initial attack, so there's a lieutenant commander in charge, and he's an old school boy who thinks the military still needs to run as one.  He and David argue over who has more rank, and they can't agree how to use the five jets that are remaining..."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I said, my hands flinging into the air.  "You're getting way too far ahead.  Let's focus first on the recon, then we can get into the battle."

She smiled.  "I'm sorry I got over-excited.  I'm just so glad to have you back."

Aren't I the one who's supposed to say that to you? I thought.  However, that thought stayed where it was - right now, I needed her to be enthusiastic.  She wilted after I ignored her for so long, and although the vindictive part of me found irony in her clinginess after so many years of my searching for her, I still knew I needed her.

"I'm glad you're back too, but let's keep it slow."

"A little foreplay," she said with a twirl of her hair.  "I like that.  Just be careful - I'm liable to tackle you if it takes too long."

Turning back to the computer, I stifled a sigh.  My Muse had returned, and she was more into me than ever.  Controlling her passion would now be the biggest challenge.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Elevator Pitch

My family and I took a day at the beach recently, and I ran into a woman from San Diego.  She mentioned she was looking for some good books to read, and I took the opportunity to give her my "elevator pitch."  She said she liked what she heard, and now I have another customer to add to my distro list.

The elevator pitch is something every writer needs to have ready to go at a moment's notice.  This should be a 20-30 second spiel on your novel that you can recite and, hopefully, interest others in your work.  It needs to be concise, yet not so concise that it doesn't leave the intended audience yearning for more.  Your pitch should make the person want to find out more.

Of course, you have to be judicious about when to whip it out.  Everybody knows that author - or inventor, or vacuum cleaner salesman, or artist - that tells everyone all the time about his or her novel.  Those folks get shut out at parties, and, eventually, stop getting invited altogether.  So don't be that person.

However, you need to be ready for when someone does show interest in your stories.   Be coy but not shy.  And practice your pitch so that you have it down.  After all, if you can't sell your book to yourself, how are you going to do it for others?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In The Beginning...

A key question all writers ask is, "How do I begin my story?"  Most of us know the basics of what we want to write, but figuring out how and where to start is always a challenge.  The beginning of a novel sets the tone for the entire book.  Do you want it to be action-oriented, setting a breakneck pace that leaves folks breathless throughout?  Are you looking to start with something poignant so you can immediately establish an emotional connection?  Maybe you want to start off with a love scene so your readers know right off the bat that such things are your theme.

I've heard lots of...well...crappy advice that there are certain things never to start a book with.  Never begin with a battle.  Don't start off with the weather.  Wait until later to introduce a death.  The list goes on and on and on.

The reasoning behind this advice is that you'll either bore your readers(no one wants to read a weather report) or that readers aren't yet emotionally invested enough in your characters enough to care about who wins a battle or who died.  I think these kinds of things are pure poppycock.  The beginning all comes down to how you grab people, not the particular method.  Maybe you're writing a war novel and want readers to know that combat is going to be a continuing theme.  Or you could be using weather to set the tone.  Even the dreaded "never start off with a dream" is misguided since you might want to use it to establish a character's psyche.

The point to remember in how you begin isn't so much what you start off with, but rather how it advances your story.  Describe the weather to set the scene, but don't give us an almanac.  Create a battle scene to let your audience know that the main character is either a reckless hero or a coward, but don't go into the subtleties of how a flanking maneuver works.

In my opinion, the beginning is the most important part, for it usually determines if folks will stick around with you long enough to understand what you want to say.  Plus, it enables the ending, for people want to know how the two tie together - does the main character grow?  Is the ending workable given how it started?  Is the tone consistent throughout?

Another challenge is figuring out where to pick up at.  Star Wars, for example, started off in the middle of the story.  It didn't delve into the vagaries of how the Rebellion began(until the prequels) because it wasn't important to know; it was only important to establish that the Rebels were the good guys and the Empire was the bad guy.  You need to also figure out how much your readers need to know.  Has a crime already been committed, or is witnessing the crime important to the story?  Has the battle ended, thus leading us into where the army goes from here, or are we in the middle of it, thus making us wonder if the country will even survive?  These things will set the tone for the rest of the book.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horses & Buggies

The horse and buggy was once the pinnacle of transportation.  The carriage provided shelter from the elements, and the horses provided speed and exertion, thus allowing people to ride in something resembling relaxation.  Now, of course, no one uses the horse and buggy unless he or she is looking for a romantic ride through central park.

The horse and buggy industry didn't go away because technology made it obsolete.  Rather, it went away because it was so focused on the means of its service that it forgot what that service really was - transportation.

Today, the publishing industry is at a similar crossroads.  Most of them are so caught up in protecting hardcover books that they've lost sight of their primary mission - to provide good stories.

In today's day and age, the only real benefit legacy publishers offer is distribution.  A lot of people still get their books from bookstores or Walmart, and since those places rarely stock indie titles, legacy publishers have a stranglehold on them.  However, those are now far from the only means of distribution.  The internet and the age of ebooks have given an alternate means of getting products(books) into the hands of the customer(readers).

It used to be necessary to have a traditional publisher because they could print, bind, and distribute your work.  They also had editors to polish your words and artists to design your cover.  The rise of independent artists and copyeditors for hire have eliminated this need.

None of this has stopped legacy publishers from doing what they could to hold onto the past.  They price ebooks as high or higher than paperbacks, despite next to no overhead costs at all being involved.  However, they have distributors to satisfy and relationships to preserve, so they refuse to adapt.  Further showing at least tacit understanding between them, none of the legacy publishers got bold and embraced the clearly growing phenomenon to corner the market.  Had someone like Penguin-Random House or Hachette done so, they'd own it by now, but that might put them out at cocktail parties, and they can't have that.

In business, you sometimes have to adapt, and that might mean hard decisions on which relationships to retain.  Sure, you can stick with what you know, but the market will make the decision for you.  In response to new technology, a thriving indie market that doesn't need the trappings of traditional publishing has cropped up.  In other words, automobiles are gaining steam, and if the horse and buggy doesn't find a way to adapt rather than keep cars from growing in market share, they'll simply fade away.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Rebuilding An Audience

When I first began this blog, I had to skip a month when I was out of the country on business.  The site had begun to gain readership, yet my job intruded and I hadn't gotten into posting ahead at that point.  The month off nearly killed readership since we all know that consistency is they key to keeping people once you have them.

Upon my return, I had to work very hard to get people to come back.  As a result, I haven't missed a regularly scheduled post since.  Even the days when life got overwhelming, I put something up so the audience would know I wasn't dead.  I believe this little bit of extra effort lets the readers know that they can count on me to be here in some capacity, and even if I put up something minimal, they know I'll be back on track soon enough(likely the next post).

Why do I bring all of this up?  Well, by the time you read this, I'll be in the middle of an exceptionally turbulent time of transition.  I have a job that will take me out of the country for the better part of a year.  Although I intend to continue posting to the site, I'm uncertain about when I'll gain full internet access.  It could happen immediately, or it could take several weeks.  Therefore, I'm posting ahead by about 6 weeks at this point(this post was written at the beginning of May) so that posts will continue to appear whether I have access or not.

This may all be unnecessary.  I might get overseas and find I have instant access and my blog wouldn't have skipped a beat.  However, that's not a thing I want to chance, and I'd hate for people to think, "Gee, he used to post all the time, and now there's nothing."  I'm simply not important enough yet for readers to keep checking back every few days, and a lack of posting will lead most people to shrug and move on.  Even if I posted something that gave a "return date," the majority of my tenuous audience would likely move on to other sites that are there more often.  Were my name King, Rowling, or Turtledove, I could risk going away for a while and be confident that my readership would come back when I did.  Unfortunately, my name isn't as well know yet, so that's not an option.
(Don't worry, even if I sell well, I will still be the same person - consistent, arrogant, and wildly frustrating  :-)  )

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Substitution

I've previously spoken about the legal issues involved in using brand name products.  In general, as long as you're not using the product to indicate a generic, and you're not disparaging the product in a way that would harm the brand, you're allowed to use known brands.  At the same time, it's always a good idea to get permission just to be sure.

However, there's another phenomenon I've noticed recently, and that's writers using substitute product names.  From what I've seen, it involves subtle variations to the name whereby readers still know what the author is referring to, but the writer thinks he or she has skirted the edge of legalities.  I've seen Twitter become Flitter, just as I've seen Kraft Macaroni & Cheese become Smack Macaroni & Cheese.

These are all well and good, but they do present a few challenges.  First of all, if it's readily apparent which product you're referring to, even if you've changed a letter or something, you could still be in legal trouble.  Product substitution in this case doesn't work because everyone knows which product you're talking about.  If you're going to disparage something, you need to alter it substantively enough so that several companies could think you're talking about them, thus making a legal case much more murky.

Of course, this leads to the second difficulty - if you change the wording too much, people might not know what you're talking about.  If you changed Xerox to PicItNow, your audience might not realize you're talking about photocopiers.

If a brand name is really that important to you, get the company's permission.  If they won't give it to you, consider changing it.  For example, I got Beretta's permission to use their brand name in Akeldama right off the bat, with the caveat that "bad guys don't use Berettas."  That wasn't an issue since the only person in the novel who uses a Beretta is part of the vampire hunting teams.  However, my main character uses a Glock 17.  It's a like an extension of who he is, but I was having trouble getting the company to get back to me(they didn't seem opposed - they just wouldn't return my emails).  I also knew that changing the name to "Flock" wouldn't get past the issue.  I finally copped to them not getting back to me, so I wrote and let them know I'd change all my firearms to Berettas.  Amazingly, I had permission to use Glock in my novel in less than four hours.

Putting in real products helps give us an air of authenticity since readers recognize them, but substitution is allowable if you're careful.  Just be aware of the challenges and know how vital it is to your work.