Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Can Your Character See

I've talked about this before, but it's been a while. You have to be careful how you paint your scene. Most of the time, as you make your way through your book, someone is seeing this or noticing that along the way, but really, unless you're head-hopping (I hope not), one person might not notice all the details of their surroundings unless they're actively trying to.

Different kinds of characters will concentrate on different things. There's the painfully shy girl who probably couldn't tell you what anyone wore, ever, and could never identify a killer if their life depended on it, even if they were in the room and ostensibly witnessed the killing. She might be able to tell you if the floor had been swept though, or what color socks she wore yesterday, probably every day of the week. This kind of character might not even notice what color the walls were painted or whether the curtains were open or closed.

There is the guy who might notice a coat only if it could conceal a gun, like Bourne in Bourne Identity. He might be able to tell you such things as how many men are in the room and if any of them might be inclined toward fighting, if they were ever challenged and not given the chance to run away.

Police officers are trained to notice a lot in a short period of time. They notice people, colors, and environment. Don't get me wrong; I'm no cop, but don't make your cops supernatural in their visual acuity.

With these variations in mind, you now need to consider your character's setting. The instance I have in mind came from the book I'm reading at the moment. This guy, a police detective, was strapped to a bed. He had been drugged, and though I suppose it's possible, waking to instant alertness seems a little off to me. I'm not questioning that though. The first thing he did was look around. That's fine, but if you're strapped to a full sized bed (specified in the book) I'm thinking you're not going to notice anything about the floor. Also, since he was tarazed and then drugged prior to being brought here, taking note of the decor might not be at the top of his to-do list, but he's a cop and he was looking around. He noticed wall color, ceiling color, the fact that the overhead light was hooked up oddly. Now, the floor was also described, but really, strapped flat on your back, the floor can't be seen and a cop might not bother with the floor, even if he was standing on it. His concern with the floor would revolve around traction. You might be surprised at how few people really take note of floors.

Another thing he noticed, that the writer was trying to clue us into early (maybe too early), was that at least one wall was curved. Now unless that wall was VERY curved, meaning the dome was rather small, such an anomaly wouldn't have been noticed in that first look-around. There were other details that were there for the writer's benefit, that probably wouldn't have attracted a second thought, not right off the bat. I mean, he has other things far more pressing to worry about right in that moment. There were strange people in the room. He didn't know where he was. Not to mention the fact that they had him strapped down. Not exactly the circumstances where one mulls over the decor.

In this description of a curved wall, one wrong word turned the whole thing topsy-tervy. The wall was said to be the 'back' wall. Now, go back to the orientation of your character, flat on a bed. Where would this 'back' wall be? Where is the door? Where is the bed in relation to the door? Did he need to look down past his left foot to see the door? Was the 'back' wall, the wall behind his head? No, there wasn't any window, but he made no mention of that little detail. How many rooms have you been in that didn't have a window? Would you notice the lack if you found yourself waking up in such a room? Would you think 'basement' first and maybe test the air to see if it smelled like one?

So, just remember when describing your scene. Remember what you can see, and remember what isn't there as well. Remember what is within his range of view and filter it by importance to the moment. In the case of this book, there was plenty of time to reinforce the roundness of the location and why there was no windows. Just beyond the door was culvert-shaped halls leading to and from divided and undivided domes the place was made of. He got a tour pretty much first off, so telling us in the first scene that one wall was not flat was a bit of overkill in the wrong place.You have the whole book to cover all the bits and pieces of scene surrounding your character; you don't need to crowd it all in all at once.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

To Edit, or Not To Edit

That is the question, or at least it seems to be in some cases. In short, yes, you should. Have I? Yes, I have in all but two of my books. Those two, I edited myself. I didn't have the finances, but I did want to get them out there.

However, it has come to my attention that more than likely, the problem of whether to edit or not has been the same for a very long time. One of the books I'm reading at the moment was published back in 1847. Now it's not a book I would just pick up, mostly because I'm fairly certain I'd never run across it where I look for books, but I am enjoying it even though the writing style is drawn out and flowery, making some of the dialogue seem rather tedious. What I find odd about this book is the sprinkling of editorial mistakes I have occasionally noticed. Now, don't get me wrong, the spelling is European, but I'm familiar with most of those discrepancies. I'm about three-quarters of the way to the end and I've noticed a handful of dropped words as well as a few typos. Giving when the book was published, I have no idea what kind of editorial services were available back then, nor do I know if the book was published traditionally (or as traditionally as was possible back then), or if it made it to cover by some other means.

Now I know how hard it can be to hire an editor. I'm not rich; in fact I probably live well below the poverty level. It is my hope that one day my writing will help me do something about that. Until then, I'm comfortable enough, but it also means that my hiring an editor is directly linked to whatever work I can find where payments can be brought in through my PayPal account, be it the sale of a book or two during the summer, or paying for my help with your writing. I don't claim to be an expert because I did all my learning here on line rather than from some expert in some sort of school. I simply don't have the money to pay for the luxury of going back to school.

Editing though - who do you trust? That's a good question. With the advent of self publishing, independent editors abound, and I'm sure the field will continue to grow. With all these editors out there, the choice is incredibly hard. Trusting your manuscript to just anyone is also very risky, or it can be. While I run across more and more editors, I suppose it is fortunate that I have heard very little about pirating of manuscripts.

So how do you choose? For myself, you have my most solemn promise that I will treat your manuscript with the same care I would my own, and I believe in keeping promises. For all those others - do your homework. Look them up. See if there is anyone who has used them in the past and ask them for their opinion. Heck, if you can, use the 'Look Inside' feature (if there is one) and read something they've claimed to edit. Sometimes authors will list who edited the book and sometimes not. Reading is the ultimate test.

There are different kinds of editors too. There's the guy who does little more then run your manuscript through his grammar and spell-checker. I firmly believe my very first editor did something of the sort, though he may have done a little more than that. As a writer hungry to learn more about writing, I learned nothing from him. That's probably at the bottom end of the spectrum of editors though. Don't scoff at the spelling bee champion out there, there are so many screwy words in the english language.

There are three main kinds of editors out there:
  • The copy-editor, the guy who checks your spelling, sentence structure, and such, isn't the only kind of editor out there. 
  • There is also the content editor, the guy who goes to the next level by scrutinizing your paragraph structure and story flow. This person looks at the story as a whole. They look for loopholes and inconsistencies. They also might look for loose ends, I know I certainly try to. 
  • And then there's the proofreader. This guy reads through the work looking for whatever mistakes they might be able to find. 
I guess I try to do it all. I know when I'm reading through some book, any of these issues will jump out at me anymore - too much editing my own stuff, I guess. Even formatting will annoy me if it's just all over the place. Appearance is just as important to me and a misspelled word.

So, in case you haven't caught on yet, I'm trying to break into the field in a minor sort of way. I'll never claim to be an expert, because I consider an expert...well...just that, someone with far more education than I had in the field. However, I do think I've gotten pretty darn good at what I do. Be careful out there as you surf around looking for an editor. Thar's sharks in them thar waters.

Happy writing.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Timeline

How do you manage your timeline? If your story covers several days, as most stories do, keeping track of timeline is pretty important – there’s only so many things you can do during the course of a day. Everything we do takes an allotted number of seconds, minutes, or hours.

Keeping track of some kind of timeline is even more important if your character is out and about, traversing the world in some way shape or form. Most of the time, my characters live in a relatively non-mechanized world. If your character gets around by car, Google maps helps by telling how long it takes to get from point A to point B at the applicable speed limit.

During my time as a dungeon master, playing the game, Dungeons and Dragons, there were times when we needed to calculate how long it took to get to and from the dungeon. Though there were not a lot of things to worry about during such a journey, things did need to be marked off and accounted for. Supplies were consumed and monsters were checked for day and night. Higher level dungeons always had a map to follow, and even in my writing I go by some kind of map, even if it isn't published along with the book. This is the chart and rules I followed then, and I use it now for my books; it's close enough for what I need, and it helps me keep things consistent.

Travel Rates per Day

                                                            Miles Covered per Day
Travel Mode                        Trail     Clear     Hills     Mountains     Desert
Foot, no encumbrance*         36         24         16            12               16
Foot, light encumbrance**    24         12          8               6                8
Foot, heavy encumbrance†    12           8          6               4                6
Camel                                     48         32        24            16               32
Elephant                                 36         24        12              8                 8
Riding horse††                       72         48        36            24              16
Donkey or Mule                     36         24        16            12              16
War horse                               36         24        16            12                8
Draft horse                             24         16        12              8                8
Ox                                          16         12        10              8                6

*This is a character with a 120’ normal speed; he can carry no more than 40 lb.
**This is a character with a 90’ normal speed; he can carry between 41 and 80 lb.
† This is a character with a 60’ normal speed; he can carry between 81 and 120 lb.
†† The travel rates listed here are possible, but it will kill the horse if only one is used for the entire trip. Typically, a rider only manages to achieve these rates by riding one-third the distance listed and trading his horse in twice at way stations for fresh mounts. At the end of the day, he and the three horses are exhausted, but all are alive. If a rider does not intend to kill or exhaust his horse, he should use the travel rates listed for the warhorse instead.
Characters and mounts must rest one full day for every six days they spend traveling. Those who do not rest suffer a -1 penalty on attack rolls and damage rolls until they do rest. If they go more than six days without resting, they suffer an additional -1 penalty per six days until they do rest, and they must rest one full day for each six days they spent traveling if they are to lose the penalty.

Why do I talk about timeline? I'm reading a book where at one point the timeline seems to have not been carefully thought through. For most of the book chunks of time are simply skipped over and days are not counted. Weather comes and goes, and for the most part that is just fine. It makes it hard to judge the changing of the seasons or guess at the time past, but such is only background and not important to the story. However, at one point they are sailing across either an ocean or a vast lake, the journey takes days and days, and they get caught in at least a couple nasty storms. The last storm comes near to sinking the ship, but just as it blows off, they see the shore they're heading for so they make for the closest beach. Now here's where the timeline goes a little wonky. After a night or two camping on the beach, men step out of the jumble, and you all have seen enough movies, you know how jungles can be, so understandably they need to hack a path back to where they are going.

Problem #1: How did these men know where to find them? I'm still working on this one. Maybe there's an explanation in the book, but she hasn't had a chance to speak to another character who'll answer her questions. As it is, I seriously doubt she'll ask though. It's one of those insignificant things she won't think of, I'm sure.

Problem #2: They had the girl (the main character) riding in a wagon, which is fine for what it's worth, but moving a wagon through the jungle would be a logistical nightmare. Now apparently this was done from time to time because they ended up on a road, but this was a terribly overgrown road and they still had to hack their way along. Have you spotted the anomaly yet? If they came this way, with a wagon, to find them, why do they need to work so hard to hack their way back? And if they came by another route, initiated by the need to do some kind of search by chance, why didn't they return by the already cleared route? Even if the miles were longer, the time needed to cover the distance might have been shorter.

And here is problem #3: They were camped, waiting for someone to come find them, for two nights - it says so in the book. Their journey to where they were headed took days, maybe even a couple weeks, or at least something of a dreary eternity - in other words, much longer than two days. Let's do the math. For the sake of argument, let's say it took two weeks to make this one-way trip. If it took two weeks to go one way, it needs to take two weeks for the party to make the first trip to find them - at the very least - not counting the randomness necessary to conduct a search, unless they knew exactly where to look - still the distance covered would be the same, and just from the tone of what was written, even though no clear count of days was given, it had to be much longer than the two days they'd waited on the beach. Let's even give them a little advantage. Let's say some alert someone on some high tower spotted the ship out to sea. Since they just came out of the storm and land was this obscure cloud on the low horizon, that would still only give the search party three, maybe three and a half days to find them. Why would they take so long to return with their finds?

As you can see, this timeline anomaly fairly jumped out at me and slapped me in the face. Be careful with your timeline, and remember that it affects everyone in your world, even if you know absolutely nothing about them until after they stumble across your path. It still takes them X amount of time to cover Y distance, and they'll be restricted to when they can start.

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