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Science Fiction Today and Characterizations of the Genre

Science Fiction Today

Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”
— Isaac Asimov

From the early days of pulp science fiction, the 1920s and 1930s saw the popularity of science fiction begin in earnest with Philip Francis Nowlan’s first Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2419 published in 1928. In 1937, John W. Campbell was named editor of Astounding Science Fiction and thus began what many consider the Golden Age of Science Fiction. There is a debate on how long that Golden Age lasted, some feel into the 1950s, but there is no debate that the novels from that era stand today as classics in the world of science fiction.

Among those classics, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series followed over the years by the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, an exploration of the future evolution of humans, and Robert Heinlein’s military sci-fi novel Starship Troopers.

During this time the first attempt to separate science fiction from fantasy began when Hugo Gernsback, at the time editor of Amazing Stories used the name scientifiction to describe the genre. He defined the term as “…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision…

Notable authors such as John W. Campbell J, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and others added their own opinion to Gernsback’s definition over the years. One point all of these authors agreed on was that the basis of science fiction is scientific theory and technology. Robert Heinlein’s term ‘speculative fiction’ written in a 1947 essay has remained the term most used to this day. The attempt to redefine the genre never completely took hold although speculative fiction is still being used.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new term arose. New Wave Science Fiction was used to describe a more literary and artistic feel to a sci-fi novel. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris dealt with human limitations. In 1965, Frank Herbert introduced an incredibly complex and intricate future society in the amazing novel, Dune. Phillip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? spawned the film, Blade Runner. These years also saw an explosion of social and feminist science fiction as exemplified by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The last forty years of science fiction has introduced us to a myriad of sub-genres such as steampunk and cyberpunk as seen in Neuromancer, William Gibson’s first novel published in 1984. Themes such as the environment, the Internet, biotechnology, nanotechnology, post-apocalyptic worlds, and the increasing list of sub-genres like steampunk, biopunk, and others have opened the genre to new horizons.

The most recent trends in science fiction discussed at Speculate, the Speculative Writers Festival in 2019 were as follows.

  • Climate Fiction – Dealing with climate change
  • New Space Opera – A grander, more technology-based and character-driven version of the old Space Opera.
  • Generation Ship – Where original colonists and their descendants travel on slower spaceships. A recognition of the vastness of space and that faster-than-light speed is impossible.
  • Gender-Focused – As we see in our society now, the question of gender fluidity is central to the story.

In reviewing the amazing and innovative stories that form the history of science fiction, it is evident that from the beginnings of Buck Rogers to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, science fiction continues to evolve with compelling stories to tell.

Common Characteristics of Science Fiction

While there are many aspects of science fiction that are shared with other genres, there are some characteristics that are unique to the genre. These identifiers should be present in the story.

1.       Time Frame – This is the one area where there is some flexibility. While most science fiction is set in the future, a sci-fi story can be set in the present or in the past but other identifying characteristics must be present.

2.       Advanced Technology – In the early days of science fiction, advanced technology while imaginative was not as difficult to create. In present day, technology advances at an exponential rate. It is considerably more difficult to imagine technology for advanced civilizations and stay ahead of current tech. Consider the tech, computers, communication, spaceships, ground transports, etc. that you want your characters and those they encounter will have, and be consistent.

3.       Worlds and world-building – Probably the most formidable and most exciting aspect of writing sci-fi is alien world building. Some authors spend weeks building and creating their worlds. When you are presenting a futuristic Earth or an alien world and civilization, pay attention to detail. Think about how your characters will live, eat, breathe, and what kind of clothing and transport they will have. Every detail is important and will add depth and reality to your story.

4.       Characters Creating a cast of characters for your story can be as much fun as world building. As we know from some favorite movies, there is no limit to the imagination. Again, pay attention to detail. How they breathe, ambulate, dress, communicate, and appear.

5.       Plausibility – This is possibly one of the most important characteristics of your writing. Remember that your reader has one frame of reference, the current world they live in. You need to keep your worlds, characters, and technology within a scope that most of your readers can understand. This does not preclude you from being innovative, but always remember to be plausible. Another thing to remember is to allow your characters to live in this world—nothing that you provide them with, from weapons to transport should surprise them. It should be normal. These guidelines apply to all genres except for fantasy where you can suspend belief. Which is a good thing if you are writing science-fiction fantasy.

Writing science fiction is challenging and exciting. Pay attention to these aspects of the genre and have fun!

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We will be covering world building, character development, and plots in upcoming articles.

Resources

Asimov, “How Easy to See the Future!”, Natural History, 1975

Asimov, Isaac (1980). In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. chapter 24. ISBN 978-0-385-15544-1.

Quoted in [1993] in: Stableford, Brian; Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). “Definitions of SF”. In Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit/Little, Brown and Company. pp. 311–314. ISBN 978-1-85723-124-3.

Roberts, Adam (2000). Science Fiction. New York: Routledge. pp. 85–90. ISBN 978-0-415-19204-0.

Sammon, Paul M. (1996). Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner. London: Orion Media. p. 49. ISBN 0-06-105314-7.

Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin (1st ed.). Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8057-7393-4.,pp=44–50

http://www.dirkstrasser.com/dirks-blog/current-trends-in-science-fiction

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Writers Unite! Workshop: Those Pesky Brand Names

Recently an author published a story on Amazon.com that included a brand name in the title. With the investigative algorithms that they utilize, Amazon caught it and politely asked the author, who complied immediately, to correct the error. Much effort ensued to change titles, ISBN numbers, and cross-references across the author’s extensive body of work.  

In this case, it was a simple matter of oversight. The author never considered there was an issue. The brand name was so commonplace, it never occurred that using it would be a problem. A lesson that illustrates the care needed to be taken when writing.

This is not to say you can’t use brand names. You can. However, the context that you use them in is essential.

In an article written by Michy and posted on the “Accentuated Authors Services” website, she notes the following:

•    If you have a character crying in your story, she should ask for a tissue, not a Kleenex.
•    If a person is cleaning the bathroom, they should be using bleach and not Clorox.
•    Babies should be wearing diapers, not Pampers.
•    When you order a soft drink, it should be cola not Coke.
•    If cleaning ears, one should use a cotton swab, not a Q-tip.    

The point is that brand names should not be used in describing a generic product that may have numerous other brand identities. However, don’t despair, brand names can be used when identifying something specific. Michy writes that if you are in a football stadium and the Goodyear Blimp flies overhead, it is perfectly acceptable to use its correct name. For a mystery writer like me, she also mentions that if you are identifying evidence in a crime, it is okay to use the brand name and type of a tire or an automobile or other items because it is unique to the situation.

What you must not do is use a brand name in a title. As we learned at the beginning of this discussion, algorithms exist to find such occurrences, and usage will be caught by the company or publisher through Internet searches.

There are times, however, when you can use brand names. If you mention that a character drove a Ford Thunderbird as a young man and loved the car, that is acceptable, but make sure it relates to the plot. The most important thing to remember is never to use a brand name in a derogatory way. Bad-mouthing a company or product is one quick way to receive a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney.

Another critical factor to remember is that brands are fleeting and can date your story quickly. That is why choosing the generic word for a product, if one exists, is essential. You want your reader to relate to the product more than the brand. The fact is using too many brands can lead to your story reading like a commercial. Brands can be distracting, so use them wisely and infrequently.

There is one other area where company names and brands are important. World building is not just a tool of the science-fiction or fantasy writer. All writers build their world, and it is essential to be accurate about location when setting your story in an existing town or city. Remember, some of your readers could live there, so be precise with places and street names, and especially business names. 

I tend to be quite careful about the names of individual businesses when I write. I often set my novels in New Orleans, and I will mention Jackson Square, Café du Monde, Preservation Hall, and other iconic landmarks or businesses but set the action of my story in fictitious locations. Again, this is to keep the possibility of any negative connotation being associated with a real business or brand. You should not, however, use the names of private companies. If your scene calls for action at a restaurant which is in a specific area and there is an actual restaurant there, make up a name for it.

Using the real names of well-known landmarks provides realism to your stories and enhances the reader’s experience. I once had a reader tell me that my description of a small town in California was exactly how she remembered it from growing up. She knew the town square, the ice cream shop I mentioned, and the corner drugstore, and said I must have spent a lot of time in her hometown. The fact is I had never been there, but I utilized Google Map’s street-level view to provide the ambiance and setting for that scene. Her reaction shows that an accurate representation to your reader brings them into your story.

Writing can be a challenge. With so many factors to consider, we must remain cognizant of the issues that can harm our stories. If you do, you will not have to worry about those pesky brand names.  

Resources:
http://accentuateservices.com/archives/567

Adam J. Johnson: Benefits of Indie Publishing: Part Two

Part Two

When you think of indie publishing or self-publishing, what’s usually the first thing that comes to mind? You usually think—not quite as professional, right? Maybe not as much earning potential? Well, I’m glad you stopped in because we are going to break these misconceptions today! One thing that traditional publishing does have the advantage of is that it is a bit easier to become nationally recognized through a traditional publishing house, but we will cover that in Part Three of this series.

Issue One: I won’t be taken seriously as a self-published author.

This is something that many indie authors fear. We struggle with it and convince ourselves that we need to keep sending manuscripts to big publishing houses so we aren’t “settling” for indie publishers. Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.

Self-publishing is quickly moving to the foreground for a lot of reasons. There are some who will say that a self-published author isn’t a professional writer. The main reason for that is they don’t gain the preconceived success that comes with traditional publishing. But that’s all it is—perception. There are writers with book deals who are just scraping by, and there are self-published writers who are raking in upwards of forty thousand a month. I don’t know about you, but I would call that success! It all lies in your perception and the work you are willing to put in. If you don’t see yourself as a professional writer (even if you have a day job), then you won’t put in the work of a professional writer. Ultimately, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, then you need to take yourself seriously and work hard at honing your craft and producing your best work! Which brings us to the advantages of indie publishing.

Issue Two: There’s not as much earning potential.

This is so far from the truth it hurts! The reason this is a popular notion is because of the instant accreditation you can get through a traditional publishing house. Publications and critics will see traditional publishing as a sign of quality because the work comes from a credible source. So you will have initial purchase orders, but as we covered in part one, purchase orders don’t necessarily translate into sales. Let’s look at how indie royalties work.

There are two ways you can go—completely self-published where you handle every aspect of creation, publishing, and marketing, or there are indie publishers who pick up some of the legwork. We will delve into the differences between the two in the next part of this series. Either way you go, the royalties end up pretty similar. Amazon royalties can vary depending on where and how you are publishing.

Through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), you can sell print books. After their cut is taken out for printing costs and a little to wet their beak, you are left with around 23-35% profit. Which isn’t bad when you consider that you won’t have an agent taking 15% of your profit from sales.

For ebooks through KDP, as long as you are priced between $2.99 and $10, you will profit a whopping 70% of your sales—something you will never see from a traditional publisher. With population growth and the widespread use of the internet and social media, that leaves you with literally billions of people that you can potentially reach. That’s easier said than done, though. That is why it is of the utmost importance that you build your marketing skills and practice them daily!

With an indie publishing company, you will, on average, keep a flat rate of your profits, and it can vary from 40%–60% of your sales. You also get the benefit of purchasing physical copies of your own book at cost, not retail price. So, with that being the case, say you decide to sell your book at $5 a piece. With 60% profit, you will make $3 per book sold. Meaning you will only need to sell 333,333 copies of your book to make a million dollars. I say only, but we all know that isn’t easy, either. However, it’s a lot better than the 1.3 million copies you would need to sell to make a million with a traditional publisher.

Other Benefits

Some benefits that I didn’t cover are that when you completely self-publish, you retain all of your rights and are free to do what you want with your work. This could come in handy in a lot of scenarios. Also, the rate of publication is exponentially quicker. You can have your book on the market in a very short time after the final edits are complete. As you can see, there are many benefits to self-publishing—it just takes a little more work than traditional publishing. So, if you are willing to put in the work, then you will be poised to reap the benefits!

Thank you for reading, and stay inspired! Stay tuned for Part Three in our Benefits of Indie Publishing.

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide- How To Write a Novel in a Month

 

WRITING WRITING A NOVEL

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide- How To Write a Novel in a Month

If you have any doubts about signing up for NaNoWriMo, let’s squash them today, with my NaNoWriMo survival guide. Here a few tips and tricks for how to write a novel in a month.

It’s November! And for us writers that means it’s time to draft an entire novel at breakneck speed. Is the end result always great? Hell nah, it’s about as draft as a draft can be. But is it fun, productive, and an epic way to tell yourself the story that’s brewing in your mind? You can bet your arse it is! If you have any doubts about signing up for NaNoWriMo, let’s squash them today, with my NaNoWriMo survival guide. Here a few tips and tricks for how to write a novel in a month.

Just Tell The Story

Encouraging NaNoWriMo survival guide badge, to help readers learn how to write a novel in a monthNaNoWriMo is all about challenging yourself to get your story down on paper (or screen) as fast as possible. Unburden those epic characters from your mind, and bring them to life through words. It’s about breaking the barrier of the dreaded novel, getting the hardest part (finishing) out of the way, so it has no power left over you. 50000 words sounds intimidating, but its not a hell of a lot when you think about it. You’ve got a main character, a couple of side characters, an antagonist, a plot to unfold, multiple character arcs, all drawing to a final showdown. You’ve got this. You’ll hit 50k in no time.

The First Draft is For you

In Stephen King’s ‘On Writing,’ he talks about how you write the first draft with the door closed. It’s for you, and only you. The first draft is like a foundation, upon which you build your novel. You’re effectively telling yourself the story, with the intention to polish it up, catch plot holes, weave in a theme or moral, and all that other pretty stuff, throughout your second draft. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Start writing your story, and let the characters pull you through to the end. The hardest part of this novel writing mumbo-jumbo is telling the damn story, so rush it down! There’s time for making it cohesive, polished, and epic after.

Let’s Do The Math

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide- Keep Calm and Write OnIt’s time to pull out the calculator folks, let’s dissect this baby and crunch some numbers. There are thirty days in November, that means, if we want to set ourselves a daily word count to achieve the goal, all we have to do is divide 50k by 30.

Run it through your calculator and you get 1,666.666 words per day. (Here we can see how the devil created this challenge and put his unique stamp on it.) So if you intend on writing every day of November, shoot for 1700 words per day. Simple.

But let’s be real here, are you really going to write every day? It’s unlikely. Whether you have work commitments, kids, blogs and social media to keep up with, or murders to go cover up, you’re gonna need some breathing room to deal with your personal shit. So let’s assume we can stick to a target of writing for twenty days out of the month.

50k divided by 20 is 2500

Now, 2500 words per day may seem a lot to some of you, but remember, that’s only twenty dedicated days to your NaNoWriMo challenge. While you’re pushing to write a novel in a month, it is only a draft. 2500 words of draft isn’t all that hard to get down once you get flowing, especially if you are following some kind of plot or structure. The trick is to write write write. Don’t keep checking your word count. Set an hour of dedicated, uninterrupted time, then check. If you’re done, then you’re done. If not, shoot for another hour, and go over if you can! You may save yourself another day of writing, or end up with an epic!

Remember Your ‘Why’

It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure and the challenge aspect of it all. Such demands can be stilling for writers and creatives. But try to remember your ‘why’ for taking up with NaNoWriMo. It’s not to win, It’s not to show off, and it’s not to write the most amazing novel that’s ever been written. It’s to tell yourself a full, complete story, and to break through that ‘novel completion’ boundary before it ever gets ahold of us. It’s a creative exercise to show us what is capable, with a little determination and consistency.

Exercises like this are great for an individual’s psyche. To have a positive end result at the end of a periodical commitment, reminds us that gratification and success takes time and effort. We are often disappointed and sunk into ‘lows’ due to our minds being wired to instant gratification in the modern world. Getting fifty thousand (or even twenty thousand) words down throughout a set period of time, where you are pouring in your heart and soul, rewires the part of the brain that expects everything in the now.

Look, we all have different reasons for doing things, but storytelling is an art in and of itself. It’s a beautiful element of human nature that we could scarcely live without. It’s been here from the beginning of time, and it’ll be here ‘til the end. Let’s not get lost in the intricacies of it all. Just tell the story, build the characters and setting, and enjoy the process. You’re a story teller by nature. Bravo! Now go do your ‘thang. Come back to this NaNoWriMo survival guide whenever you need a little nudge in the right direction.

Plotting Tools

Save The Cat Writes a Novel- Click to purchaseClick to purchase from amazon.com

I’m personally not a plotter. My work is pretty much exclusively character driven, and a plot tends to still me and crush my creative flow. That said, for a challenge like this, it helps to have at least a timeline of events you’d like to happen, so that you can easily work from one to the next without too much difficulty. You can always go off track and your characters can still surprise you, but the briefest of brief outlines offer a little guidance when you may be lost. Equally, if you don’t fancy writing at the point you’re at, you can jump ahead and write a scene that strikes your fancy. Win/win. It’s all words!

If you’d like a real structured plot to guide you, I personally recommend looking up the snowflake method. For everyone else, it’s worth checking out Save The Cat Writes a Novel. Even for us non-plotters, this book is novel-writing gold. It provides a guide filled with beats and moments for within your story, without tacking a rigid structure around everything. Do yourself a favour writers, and pick up your copy today. It really will help turn your novels from good, to great.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

(This is an affiliate link. I only provide links to products that I have personally used, bought, and love. I will never endorse a product I have no experience with purely for monetary gain.)

NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

All this aside, there are a few things we’re gonna need throughout November to keep us sane and on track. Us writers are a picky bunch, and we need a variety of items in order to complete our work. Below I’ve compiled a list of handy items to have on or around your desk at all times, and cues on how to use them.

  • A pad of Paper- for doodling on and scratching out notes.
  • A variety of pens- for even more epic doodles.
  • Tea & Coffee- because caffeine.
  • Coloured pencils or markers- to colour our doodles and highlight stuff.
  • A cat or other stroke-worthy cutie- because we’re writers. We’re lonely.
  • Alcohol (if of drinking age)- this helps…
  • Slippers and a Dressing Gown- comfort is key.
  • A chair cushion- once again, comfort is key.
  • A cuddly blanket- to hide from the screen when we’re stuck.
  • A teddy bear- to cuddle when times get hard. And to talk to…
  • An altar to the creative Gods- complete with candles, incense, frog eyes and snake skin, and blood for ritual sacrifice.

That should just about cover everything. Of course, bring yourself, your laptop, and your charger, and be sure to disconnect all your devices from the internet. We don’t need any distractions!

Well, that just about brings us to the conclusion of our NaNoWriMo survival guide! Doesn’t sound that hard, right? Seriously, as long as you set yourself a daily goal, and commit yourself to completing the challenge, you will succeed. It starts and ends with you. You can implement the above advice to streamline your experience, but ultimately it comes down to your dedication to getting your novel down on paper. You know you can do it, I know you can do it, so go do it! And if anyone asks you how to write a novel in a month, send them this way!

Share this post with your friends and writing groups, to help them achieve success in this amazing challenge right alongside you! And if you’d like to stay up to date with my NaNo activities and connect with me personally, head over to my Facebook. I’ll be posting daily NaNo tips and inspiration.

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide- How To Write a Novel in a Month

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Gary D. Holdaway from the Facebook group Fiction Writers Global has graciously shared this great article on how to survive NaNoWriMo! Read now for how to be successful as you write a novel in a month!

NaNoWriMo Survival Guide- How To Write a Novel in a Month

Also, check out Gary’s FB site: https://www.facebook.com/groups/490323944710900/

Good luck with NaNo!!!

Mystery Genre Workshop Part One: Plot and Structure

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 Why Do We Love Mysteries?

Years ago, a new bookstore opened in the city where I was living. An avid mystery fan, I hurried to the store on opening day. The smell of new books mixed with incense filled the air, the wooden bookshelves were polished, and the blood-red carpet pristine. Except in one section where yellow tape outlined the shape of a body lying on the floor. I didn’t have to look for the section sign, I knew exactly where I was. I had arrived in the world of mystery novels.

What is the mystique about mysteries that draws us to them? There are several reasons. First, the concepts of good and evil and justice are recurring themes in mysteries. The most satisfying stories for many readers are the ones where good overcomes evil and justice is served.

We are given a real hero to cheer for, whether that hero is a police detective, a government agent, or a florist. The professional or amateur sleuth personifies the good we treasure and brings the evil villain to justice.

There is another draw that brings us into the world of mystery. The puzzle. As a story unfolds, the writer provides clues, misdirection, foreshadowing, all of which allow the reader to deduce the culprit along with the sleuth.

From Christie, Doyle, Chandler, Cornwell, Connelly, McDonald, Evanovich, and Grimes to the unknown authors of tomorrow, they have given us hours of enjoyment as we attempted to figure out—Who done it?

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Let’s look at how to write a mystery story. I am a pantser, I do not outline my story in advance, but I know vital points about my story before I type the first word. I know who my protagonist and antagonist are and whether my protagonist is a law enforcement official or a civilian. I know the crime. Most importantly, I know the ending, which provides a target to focus on as I write.  You may take a detour or two along the way, but you must arrive at your ending. Once you know these items, you can create your plot. divider-2

 detective-156647

Clues to Writing a Mystery

 Plot and Structure

The plot in a mystery is centered around crime, commonly murder but not always. (If you choose a murder mystery, make the first murder early in the story. Murder mystery fans get anxious for a victim!) The novel’s central conflict is between someone trying to solve the crime versus the criminal’s efforts to cover his or her tracks. At the same time, a mystery is often set up as a kind of puzzle or game for readers, who analyze clues and try to solve the mystery themselves. (Isn’t that the idea?)

To Develop Your Plot:

  • Know your ending. It’s difficult to write a mystery if you don’t know who the killer is and why they committed the crime.
  • Know your beginning. How you introduce your plot is as important as the ending.
  • Allow your reader the confidence that they can solve the mystery whether they do or not. It is essential for your detective to work through the process, follow the clues, and solve the crime logically, as the reader might do. Don’t spring a solution onto the reader at the last moment, that’s cheating, and it will ruin your story and your credibility.
  • As to clues, foreshadowing is your friend. You don’t want clues to be obvious, but they must show importance later. Leave clues, your reader needs to be engaged in the mystery. Be subtle in those clues you do give, and no one said you can’t throw a few red herrings in to get them off the trail. Surprise your reader with plot twists, keep them guessing.
  • Know your basics. Who are your detectives, police professional or civilian? Who was murdered and how were they murdered and why? Who are the suspects? What obstacles stand in the detective’s way? Who is the killer? Do your homework, know your method of murder—gun, knife, poison—and make your story plausible.

To Structure Your Plot:

Act One:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • Reveal the crime.
  • Establish your protagonist’s goals and desires.
  • Determine your setting (important for sub-genres).
  • Introduce other characters (one may be your antagonist).
  • Set up obstacles the protagonist must face to achieve the goal.
  • Create subplots (often about the protagonist’s career or private life).

Act Two:

  • Raise the level of obstacles the protagonist must confront to raise the suspense.
  • Reveal clues as the investigation intensifies, including a core clue.
  • If a murder mystery, add another murder.
  • Sub-plot deepens.
  • Introduce red herrings and take away a promising suspect.

Act Three:

  • Motives are revealed.
  • Misdirection regarding the main plot.
  • Main clue revealed.
  • Sub-plot resolved.
  • Stakes for the protagonist raised higher.
  • Climatic confrontation with the perpetrator.

Notes:

  • Hook your reader. The first sentence, sentences, or paragraph must draw your reader in. For a mystery story, it is best to begin with action of some type. The murder occurring or the protagonist doing their job (a detective at a crime scene, for instance).
  • Establish empathy with your protagonist early. Your reader must identify with them and the goal they seek.
  • As stated in plot development, give your reader a murder/crime early in the story. Introduce the plot focus within the first half (but no later than the end) of the first chapter.
  • As you develop your plot, begin to consider the development of your characters and the secondary characters.
  • Pace your story, include waxing and waning action and offer a couple of mini-action scenes, and a more significant action scene in the middle, building to the final climax with the antagonist.

 

Plot is always essential to any story but imperative to a mystery. Every nuance of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the protagonist’s goal. Many writing “experts” like to purport that novels are plot driven and some say character driven. I believe you can’t have one without the other. Tomorrow we will examine the importance of characters and how to develop them within a mystery story.

 

Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing

WT - Write Daily

Deborah Ratliff: Rules. Rules. There Are Too Many Rules!

Have you seen them? The myriad of articles posted on the Internet explaining all the things you must do to write the perfect story. Perhaps, you have seen the equally extensive list of articles telling you what you should not do. The problem? Not every article agrees on what is the correct or incorrect way to write.

What is a writer to do? How do we decide?

After years of writing business-related manuals concerning policy and training, newsletters, and research papers, I decided to return to writing fiction. My story construction skills were rusty, as was my grammar. In the corporate world, I was fortunate to have an assistant who proofed my writing. I was not so lucky in the private world. I knew I needed to hone my craft, and what better tool to use than the internet. I fired up Google and began to search for everything I could find on writing, and well, it was overwhelming. No matter the topic — how to write an opening line, how to create memorable characters, when to use effect and affect — the results of my search returned more articles than I expected. Faced with so much information, I wondered how I would manage to wade through and find what I needed to write “the great American novel.”

I am not alone. A member of Writers Unite! posted the following after receiving conflicting advice on how to write:

“Help! I’m a new author and have been networking with writers and editors. I’ve become so confused by all the different pieces of advice, I’m struggling to write a simple sentence. In the recent past, I’ve been told so many rules that I can barely keep them straight.”

The member went on to list examples of the rules as they have been explained to her.

  • Do not use descriptions
  • Show versus tell
  • Never make any cultural references
  • Do not give backstory on characters
  • Vary sentence length
  • Do not use adverbs.

Let us examine these rules.

 

Do not use descriptions.

Descriptions are the soul of writing. Not limited to location or characters, descriptive writing should include the five senses. Written images of a room may not be as crucial as whether it was hot or cold, what aromas did the character smell, did light spill into the room, or was it dark and eerie. A writer can easily bore their reader by droning on about the wallpaper or the carpet fiber or the tea cozy, but there are times when it is imperative to set a mood. How a person lives or the environment around them can be very telling as to who the character is and provides a great deal of depth.

The key here is to not overdo. Pay attention to what your story needs and nothing else. If you do write descriptively, pare down those words to include only what you need.

Avoid a litany of characteristics. “She was young, her hair long and blond, athletic build…” Instead, weave those characteristics into the story, “Preparing for her run, she pulled her blond hair into a ponytail…” and be certain that her “run” was essential to the plot.

 

Show versus tell.

The bane of every writer’s existence is this rule. Writing “experts” pound this rule into us at every opportunity. The fact is, it is a great rule and one that I fully believe in following. Anton Chekhov’s famous quote is the quintessential example: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This rule harkens back to being descriptive. Allow your reader to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see, so they become fully immersed in the world you have created for them.

Should you always show versus tell? Yes, however, there are times when it is acceptable to move your story along and tell the action, instead of showing it. Remember to keep those moments very rare. “Jack, his face reddened, hands clenched, spun and left the room, slamming the door behind him.” You have set up that Jack is angry, describing the sound of the door slamming is not necessary.

 

Never make any cultural references.

Ask someone writing historical fiction not to make a cultural reference, and they will laugh at you. This is a specific rule. If you are setting your story within an exact timeframe, then cultural references of the era are vitally important to the credibility of your work.

The obvious reason for this rule is a cultural reference will date your work. Again, you need to keep the context of your story in mind. There may be times when a cultural reference is integral to the plot. I think the mention of social media, cell phones, or Instagram, among other references is acceptable providing they remain general.

 

Do not give backstory on characters.

Really? Exactly how do we bring depth to our stories if we do not provide pertinent backstory? Once again, this rule harkens back to the use of descriptive prose and show vs. tell. Do not write copious paragraphs about your character’s backstory but show by intertwining the information within the events and dialogue.

 

Vary sentence length.

Again, I agree with this rule in general. You need to vary the length of sentences and paragraphs to keep your reader from being bored and to maintain the pace of the story.  Sentences that are too long can cause your reader to lose interest. Short sentences can make your work seem rushed and choppy.

However—and there is always a however—when writing a scene with high tension, short sentences convey that sensation to your reader. Short, powerful sentences describing fight scenes mimic the action. Longer sentences express your character’s thoughts and reflections and help slow the pace of the story when necessary. While this rule is one I believe writers should adhere to, it is also one to suspend when the story calls for it.

 

Do not use adverbs.

Short of a lesson on the use of adverbs, which could be extensive, let’s agree that too many adverbs are not a good thing. According to my go-to grammar guru, Grammar Girl, verb modifiers are often “redundant or awkwardly placed.” She quotes master writer Stephen King who complains about them in his book On Writing, saying, “’I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,’ but he doesn’t shout it loudly. He likens adverbs to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.”

Grammar Girl suggests that you use adverbs in dialogue if appropriate to how the character speaks. Otherwise, she proposes to “use them wisely and only occasionally.”

 

I return to the original question. What is a writer to do?

As I worked my way through the copious amounts of advice I came across, I began to focus on the advice of only a few “experts ” and to rely on grammar references like The Chicago Manual of Style and Grammar Girl for practical advice. Listening to too many voices will create chaos and fail to provide direction.

The reality is that these rules are guidelines. They can be bent or broken depending on the creative needs of the author. As you write, keep the “rules” in mind, they are designed to keep your work coherent and consistent but do not be afraid to go against the experts. Only you know what your story needs.

About the author:

Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. A few of her short stories appear in the Writers Unite! anthology Realm of Magic, published on August 1, 2018.

Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! which has 42,000 + members from around the globe.

Sources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/16383-don-t-tell-me-the-moon-is-shining-show-me-the

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

Guest Blog: Write What You Know — David Reiss

Once upon a time–when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was still in high school–I had a wonderful English teacher who treated his students as peers and insisted that we all call him by his first name; his enthusiasm for literature and drama was outright contagious. He convinced me to read outside my preferred genres, and he pushed me to write, write and write some more. A tremendously harsh critic, he somehow managed to be supportive even while delivering the most ruthless dissections of my prose. I was a bitter and catastrophically depressed teenager who approached each school day with apprehensive dread, but for his classes, I held a genuine anticipation.

Until one lecture when he insisted that creating compelling fiction required that we ‘write what we know,’ and all my enthusiasm burned away into ash.

At the time, I thought that he meant that our prose should be limited to our experiences and our areas of expertise. I couldn’t imagine any subject less interesting or worthy of consideration. How could the experiences of a morose, sheltered and awkward kid be relevant to the life of an inhuman denizen of a fantasy dungeon? I wanted to write about dragons and laser pistols, camaraderie and adventure!

I occasionally wish for a time machine so that I could leap across the years and smack my younger self on the back of the head. Because the truth is every experience is something you can learn from. I may not have ever soared above a battlefield then folded my wings to drop into combat like the gryphon protagonist from one of my short stories…but I knew the feel of wind against my face and could add that sensation to describe my gryphon’s flight. I knew what it looked like when a hawk stooped towards its prey. I knew what anger felt like, and fear, and hope, and sadness.

To ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean to write about yourself. It means to use your personal experiences to lend the power of authenticity to your prose.

There is a secondary meaning as well, and it is one that I try to take to heart more as an adult author: Research, knowledge and the acquisition of new sensory memories can make your writing more compelling. It’s tempting to feel content that having swung a baseball bat is sufficient experience to write a scene in which an armored knight wields a mace, and it is true that being able to evoke the memory of how your grip strained or how your shoulder shook at the moment of impact is important. But spending time researching how maces were used historically can help create a more powerful scene. Look up how much real maces weighed. Research the kinds of wounds that a mace caused. If you can, make a mace and create new sensory memories by beating up an old tire. Interview experts and NEVER rely on anything you saw in a Hollywood blockbuster movie because Hollywood is a lying liar who lies.

Try new things! Get your hands dirty in the garden, take a lesson in welding, bungee jump, hang-glide. Eat exotic foods and learn to mix cocktails. Live.

So, my advice to an aspiring author is this: Write what you know because you know much more than you think. And never, ever stop learning because who knows what you’re going to want to write about tomorrow?

About the Author:

While growing up, David Reiss was that weird kid with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. He was the table-top role-playing game geek, the comic-book nerd, the story-teller, and dreamer.
Fortunately, he hasn’t changed much.

David is a software engineer by trade and a long-time sci-fi and fantasy devotee by passion, and he lives in Silicon Valley with his partner of twenty-six years. Until recently, he also shared his life with a disturbingly spoiled cat named Freya.

(Farewell, little huntress. You were loved. You are missed.)

David’s first book, Fid’s Crusade, has just recently been published; this was his first novel-length project, but it certainly won’t be his last—he’s having far too much fun!