Thursday, May 28, 2015

Leaving Them Hanging

In my youth, I loved professional wrestling.  These were the days of the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWE(sorry, hardcore fans, but I never counted ECW).  Yes, WWE eventually came out on top, but many forget that it was WCW that ruled the roost for a while.

One of the best things WCW did was leaving everyone pining for just a bit more.  As the nWo angle created suspense, each episode would end with a cliffhanger of some kind - wrestlers would be entering the ring as the screen faded to black, or some new surprise appearance would happen just as the credits began to roll.  It always frustrated me, but it also achieved its purpose - making me long for the next week to hurry up and get here so I could see what would happen next.

A good book is similar - it gives us just enough to let us know that what's going on is exciting, but it also leaves us wanting just a bit more.  We get so invested in the story that we frantically flip through the pages, always wondering what will happen next.

While this is great, so long as interest can be maintained, it does lead to one big problem - nothing ever gets resolved.  This can frustrate readers to no end.  Twin Peaks and Lost were notorious for always leaving cliffhangers and never resolving issues.  A good storyteller understands that readers will put up with this for a while because he or she is so invested in what you wrote.  However, they want there to eventually be some sort of payoff.

J. Michael Straczynski got this when he declared during Babylon 5 that no issue could go more than two seasons without resolution.  This allowed him to build in the cliffhangers that would drive folks crazy even though they knew that they'd eventually gain closure.

Since we become so invested in our characters, sometimes feeling as if they're members of our family, we want good things to happen for them in the end.  It can be exhausting to always have things a breath away from a climax yet never really get there.  This is the trap that we, as writers, must avoid.  Any novel that is a "stand-alone" has to resolve itself, and the author needs to stand by that resolution.  A series should go for no more than three books on the same theme(sure, you can write many novels in the same universe, but no one story should be more than a trilogy).  This lets our readers catch their breath, gain closure, and move on.

Some folks might enjoy the breakneck, never ending drama of leaving readers hanging, but, sooner or later, they'll just throw you away in disgust.  You may feel vindicated in some sick way, but you'll be feeling it alone, for all your readers will eventually abandon you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Accents

Developing an accent in writing is challenging.  For starters, most people read stuff in their own voice, and they aren't likely to give a character an accent separate from their own unless the writer can do something to make the character stand apart.  So how do you do so?

1.  Just tell people the character has an accent.  This is, of course, the least imaginative way to accomplish your goal.  However, there may be times you just have to cut through the bullshit and do it.  To me, it comes in most handy when you're going for something generic, like a British accent that a minor character has.  I don't think this is the best way to have your audience get to know a character, but if the character is minor enough, you don't want to spend a lot of time going into excruciating detail.  A throwaway description is good enough here.

2.  Tell people where the character is from.  Again, maybe not something I'd employ with a main character, but it'll work for a secondary character.  Maybe it's important that the guy is from China or the girl in the bar is from Australia.  Giving a background allows the reader to imagine the characters voice in context with the story.

3.  Dialogue.  This is tough to do, especially if you want to be credible without getting into offensive stereotypes.  Varying American accents are the easiest.  For example, if I want to make the audience understand that my character is more rural, I chop the g off of a lot of stuff.  Going becomes goin', and trying becomes tryin'.  I also combine words like "going to" into gonna.  For a character from New York, maybe I'll throw in the occasional "deese" instead of "these," while being careful not to overdo it.

Along with modifying words, the choice of words you use has an impact.  Someone from Seattle is less likely to say "fixin'" than someone from Kentucky.  "Y'all" is an easy one, and few people outside of New England "pahk the cah."

Foreign accents are, to me, trickier, mostly because, if I'm not careful, I'll end up as looking like a stereotyping idiot rather than a serious writer.  Hispanic and Asian accents are notorious for sounding like someone just fell off the Ignorance Truck, so don't throw in a lot of "choos" and "Ah, so sorry" if you want to sound intelligent and not like a schmuck.  I might mention that a Brit pronounces the "t" in "later" or that a Jamaican draws out his "a," but I always re-read these to see if I'm way out there.

Accents give our characters personality rather than generic blandness, but it's hard to do without sounding cliché.  What are some of the ways you've tried?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Legalities

Let me start this by reminding everyone that I am not a lawyer.  I am a writer, and, like most of you, my grasp of the law comes from that most famous of universities, Google College.  That said, I've had a few questions out there regarding what can be included in a book, so I thought I'd share how I intend to tackle them in my novels.

(Once again, this is only how I intend to tackle these issues - sad that we have to put up this many disclaimers, but if we don't, we open ourselves up to thorny legal issues, and since I'm not a lawyer, I have no desire to comment on anyone's situation but my own)

There are often questions about using brand names in novels.  For me, it's "yes, but..."  If I'm having a character use a specific product, like drinking a Coke, that's fine.  However, I have to make sure that the product is indeed a Coke(or a Sprite, or a Mountain Dew, etc.), and that I'm not using the brand name as a generic.  Xerox makes photocopies, but you're photocopying something, and you only Xerox it when you use that brand.

Also, I make sure I don't demean a product when I use it.  From a legal point of view, I can't do something that would degrade the product in the eyes of its audience.  Doing so would open me up to a defamation lawsuit, so if I take on a product, I'd better make sure its reputation is already in the toilet, like Edsel.

As a general rule, I always try to get permission from the company whose product I utilize, even if I think it's fair game under the law.  This way, there's is no doubt about crossing a line.  In my experience, most folks are flattered and happy to accept the free advertising.  Phillippe's in Los Angeles plays a part in Akeldama, so I contacted them a while back and asked for permission to use their name.  They were glad I asked, and they enthusiastically gave me their support.

On the flip side, someone will occasionally say no.  This happened in the same novel when I set the first vampire attack on a college campus.  The college in question initially gave me permission...until I told them it involved a vampire attack, at which point they got skittish because they feared what talking about violence would do to their image(as if prospective college coeds are really worried about vampire attacks when they choose a school).  So, to be safe, I dropped all reference to their name, and even to their state.

So, what about people?  This gets trickier.  I don't know a single author who hasn't used people they know as the outline of a character.  It's knowing someone real that makes the character more real.  However, I have to make enough changes that I can reasonably say my character and Joe Blow down the street are not the same guy.  While some people have been known to be thrilled they were killed off in some gruesome fashion, there are a few sticks in the mud who object.

The same thing applies if I badmouth somebody.  Actually, even more so.  If I come down hard on someone, that person's reputation better already be in the toilet.  I can get away with calling Scott Peterson a murderer because he's been tried and convicted of, well, murder.  But again, I can't do it to Jim Bob down the street because he hasn't been, and Jim Bob might take offense.  Similarly, I can crack at Albert Einstein but not Stephen Hawking because it's generally considered legally impossible to defame dead people.  I don't have to worry about Jefferson Davis' widow coming after me if I include him in a novel and make him the son of a crack whore.

In general, I use common sense.  If it makes me tingle or feel funny to include a specific person or brand name, I alter it.  Better safe than sorry in our litigious society.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rooting For Villains?

Crowley.

Darth Vader.

Sylar.

Rumplestilskin.

What do all of these folks have in common?  Kudos if you guessed "villains."  Bonus points if you guessed "villains we ended up rooting for."

What is it about a great villain that suddenly makes us want to corrupt the entire picture by turning them into some sort of tragic hero?  Do we like them because they act in ways we wish we could(and would if we were free from society's constraints)?  Is it because since most of our stories are told from the hero's point of view that they seem confident because we never see those moments of self doubt that inevitably creep into their psyche?

As we read more and more about our villains, we tend to empathize with them.  That, in turn, makes us want to see them successful.  That would be all well and good if it ended there, but since we could never openly root for such a scoundrel, our villain needs to turn to the good side.  This ruins our villains.

When I read or watch a story, I don't want the bad guy to be much of anything but bad.  The world is full enough of ambiguity without cluttering up our stories with it.  Yes, villains shouldn't be simple, but that doesn't mean they have to blur the line so much that we can't recognize which one is the bad guy and which one is the good guy.

Much like that Twilight nonsense that ruined vampires for a generation, stop trying to change villains into heroes.  Villains bad, heroes good, and rarely shall the two meet.  It confuses people and introduces more complexity into the fictional world than I care for.  If I want ambiguity, I'll stick with real life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Eccentricity

This might come as a shock, but as a writer, I tend to know lots of...writers.  Just like the population at large, we're a diverse assortment of every personality type out there.  So why then do so many of us feel like we have to fit a certain mold?

There are a lot of eccentric writers.  Some have goofy habits, some live in goofy places, and some wear goofy clothes.  Unfortunately, many of us feel we have to be eccentric if we want to be a "real" writer.  I've seen more than one person decide to wear pajamas to meetings, dye his or her hair purple, or wear sweaters backwards.  And if that's your thing - truly your thing - then go for it.  My problem is that most of those I interact with do such things out of a sense of obligation.  Many think they have to put on a pretense or people won't accept them as real, which, I guess, is some kind of precursor to being good.
(I just gotta be me)
The problem, of course, is that it's all phony.  Further, it's unnecessary.  It's hard enough in this world to be who you are.  Trust me, wearing funny hats or wearing sandals and socks isn't going to suddenly give you talent.  In fact, trying to be who you're not will take energy away from your writing and make it even worse.
 
Many of us have egos of crystal, so we put up these fake fronts to protect ourselves.  "If I'm haughty and look funny, no one will criticize my work because they'll be afraid I'll snap.  Better yet, they'll trust me more on what I write!"  What a crock.
 
It's okay to be eccentric, but if you're just as eccentric as everyone else, aren't you really just a conformist?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Grounded In Reality

Lately, I've been wondering if I'm too grounded in reality.  I don't mean that I have some kind of grounded worldview that rises above others.  Instead, I wonder if there's a problem with my imagination being unable to go too far afield.

I enjoy fantastic scenarios, but most of those scenarios occur within the world we all know.  Schism is about the current political landscape.  Akeldama is set in a shadowy vampire world that hides within our own.  Even the fantastical science fiction of Homecoming is set within our universe, only 6,000 years in the future.

Some of the books I've tried to read are set in a mystical fantasy realm that has never heard of Earth, or it's on some far off alien planet not even in our own dimension.  I put these works down because the backgrounds are so far from what I'm comfortable with that I can't get into them.  However, these types of novels are pretty popular, so I have to assume that lots of people can set aside their realities and dive into something totally foreign.

(Quick caveat - I enjoy some novels from the Star Wars universe, but that's a world with which most of us are familiar due to the pervasive nature of the genre)

I wish I could get past this.  I think the issue is grounded in my wanting there to be a degree of plausibility to my stories.  Yes, they can be waaaaayyyyy out there sometimes, but if just the right set of circumstances occurs, then I can see it happening in our world.  Without that plausibility, the stories descend into silliness for me, tales that are so far out there that I can't get into them.

So, do I lack the imagination necessary to enjoy some stuff?  Am I incapable of putting aside my homerism for what I'm familiar with?  My friends swear by some of these books - most in the realm of fantasy - but I can't get past the unfamiliar landscape.  I'll keep trying, but I wonder at what point I just have to accept that certain things are too much for my mind to enjoy.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Guest Post by Vanessa Eccles - Fabled Blog Tour

Today, I'm excited to share a post by Vanessa K. Eccles.  Vanessa is a very talented author whose website you may have noticed on the right side of my blogroll.  She's doing a blog tour for her new novel, Fabled.

 
Ever dreamed of a life that reads more like a book? Rowena did until she stumbled into a fairy tale that wasn't so friendly.
Fabled by Vanessa K. Eccles
Publisher: Bound and Brewed
Young adult fantasy/fairy tale
Rowena thinks the Grimm’s infamous podcasts are simply another teen fad until she finds herself trapped in a land of nightmarish storybook characters. She tries desperately to flee Mezzanine and return home, but Dresdem, Mezzanine’s wicked monarch, plans to use Rowena’s access to her world to bring dark magic and absolute rule into Georgia and beyond.
 
But when Rowena’s dear friend Madeline falls into Dresdem’s grasp, her battle with him becomes war, and all hopes of home are temporarily thwarted. With the help of an invisible hero, a beast, and an owl, she sets out to free Madeline from a deadening sleep. But Rowena must become her own hero when she finds herself bound by the kingdom’s darkest family. She must make the ultimate choice – align herself with her enemies or live on the run forever. 
 
Excerpt:
“Heads or tails?” Lil asked as she opened the door and stood in front of me.
“Tales.”
“When are you going to learn that heads always wins?” She snickered and rolled her eyes in amazement of my apparent naivety.
“Not always. Besides, tales are more interesting.”
Not understanding my word play, she shrugged and searched her pockets for a coin.
I leaned into the porch swing, coffee and book in hand, and watched as autumn's first leaves sunsetted the deadening grass. I rested the mug on my knee and let the cool breeze sway me back and forth while I waited.
Trying to ignore my little sister's attempts to aggravate me, I looked down at the fantastical book in my hands and realized how beloved, yet unrealistic it seemed. Most of us lead relatively dull lives and are content but never satisfied. The “happily ever afters” they crammed in our minds as children were merely lies, but I couldn’t help but dream of an adventure like the one I was holding. I wanted my life to be epic. Who was I kidding? Only characters in our favorite stories experienced magical lives. Mine had already been planned out for me − go to college, land a mediocre job, get married, and have 1.8 perfectly groomed, smiling children. That was it. The end. 
 
Links: Amazon | Goodreads | Smashwords 
 
Meet the Author: Vanessa K. Eccles graduated Troy University with a degree in English. She currently serves as executive editor of Belle Rêve Literary Journal and is founder of the book blog YA-NASisterhood. When she’s not writing or devouring books, she enjoys the lake life with her Prince Charming and their four dogs.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Introducing The Hero

Since we're simpleminded creatures, the majority of our stories have one person that's the focal point.  Sure, we build in lots of other characters, and some have a big impact on the story, but it usually comes back to one person who will save the day.  That's how my books work, even the ones I didn't intend - one character drives the story, and we see the journey through his or her eyes.

But where do we introduce this person?  For me, the answer has always been at the very beginning.  Call it a flaw of mine, but we see what's happening through the hero's eyes, so I need to get him in front of you fast.  In fact, the hero usually shows up on the first page.

That's not always the way to go, however.  Sometimes there's a need to build the situation prior to bringing in the guy or gal who will save the day.  I wish I had the skill of some writers and could do this, and I might try with a future novel, but it's hard because the hero is how we find out what's going to happen.

I believe that even if you hold off on introducing the hero, you can't wait too long.  Readers will get bored or will simply assign the role of the hero to somebody else.  I think we have an innate thirst to root for somebody, so we latch onto the first strong player we find.  This can create loads of conflict when the author introduces another character later and tries telling us that that person is now who we should follow.  I've run into readers who are so resistant to such a thing that they bail on the book entirely.

With rare exception, I don't think a hero should come in riding a mountain of glory from the start.  I like flawed heroes, because I think they're more relatable.  I usually introduce the hero in a moment of crisis so we can immediately get emotionally invested and see where this person goes.  Even in Akeldama, which starts with the hero finishing off a vampire, the main character isn't a full-fledged Hunter yet and is still under the tutelage of his mentor.  Such things help the character to grow, in my opinion.

Where do you start your hero?  How do you establish that he or she even is a hero?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Locked In

I love stories with over-arching arcs.  It helps me feel out a full universe within a story, and it becomes a world unto itself.  However, that doesn't mean that such things don't come with pitfalls.

I've talked often about the need for consistency in your writing.  The trouble with this occurs when you go so far down a road that you don't know how to get out.  Have you ever found yourself wanting to write something a certain way, only to discover that it would flip that world on its head?  I have, and it gets frustrating.  Maybe I want the aliens to design an overall battle strategy, but I've already locked them in as creatures of pure instinct, and designing cohesive strategy would destroy the premise of their existence.  Or perhaps I want a character to act in some devious way to achieve his ends, only to remember that I implanted a device in his skull that would immediately kill him if he ever did.

This is why planning is important, and I mean beyond a simple outline.  We have to have vision well past our first story and need to think just how far we want to go with what we're writing.  An outline can provide a path to part of the story, but it rarely goes far in order to keep the story free-wheeling.  And that's where we get into trouble.

When we fail to think past the horizon, we create all sorts of boxes that our story must fit into, and the further into said story, the more boxes we've created.  Readers abandon us if our world strays wildly from the foundation we just spent the past few pages or novels building.

It's a mixed bag - the road our journey runs along opens up new possibilities for future stories, but it also closes off others.  The best way to avoid this is to understand where you've created a box that is too restrictive, and to do so before you publish(once it's out there, it's too late).  So plan ahead if you can, but also look hard at the moment and know that each decision affects the ones afterwards.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Covers And Titles

I've mentioned the need for an eye-catching cover.  I've written previously about the need for a good title.  However, as I was browsing through a book store this morning, I came to realize that these two things are not the separate entities that I once thought.

There are three things you need to get the attention of a buyer at a bookstore(and, in my opinion, on Amazon as well).  The final thing is a good back cover blurb that summarizes your book's plot in a way that leaves the reader wanting more.  However, prior to that, you need the reader to pick up your novel so he or she can even read that blurb, and in order to do that, you need a cover and title.

The cover is the first thing that gets noticed.  It's a book's way of saying "Hi!  Come on up and see me, big boy."  It has to be alluring in a way that doesn't come off as cheap.  Too many bright and dazzling colors, and the reader will ignore it for being silly.  Too bland, and most will assume that what's inside will be boring too.

However, the title is only a fraction of a second behind the cover.  Sometimes, in fact, it occurs simultaneously.  I know that I look at a title and wonder two things - first, is it something that makes me want to know more, and second, does the title match the cover?

I think that second point often gets overlooked.  All too often a title and cover won't match.  You may come across something that reads Vampirical Midnight, yet the cover is neon green and has a picture of a clown on it.  Or perhaps you see a cover that's splattered in blood, with the shadow of a serial killer in the background, but the book is titled Zippy And The High Handed Day.  Either one would immediately cause me to put the book down without even reading the back cover blurb.

This is where the indie movement has and advantage over traditional authors.  In the traditional world, unless you're well established, you have, at best, a minor say over the cover, and barely more over the title.  Yes, you read that right - the publisher can(and often has) change your title.  Plus, they have their own artists and editors that will pick your cover for you.  However, as an indie writer, you get to do all that.  Yes, some view it as a pain, but who knows better than you what you want to convey to the reader?  You get to match up the cover and title, so it's all on you.

Spend time and match the title you sought with the cover you're building.  Together, they can draw in readers.  If they're done wrong, they can drive them away.