Saturday, September 28, 2013

Does Your World have a History

I'm currently reading this brand new book, written and now published by an online friend of mine. The first time I read it, it was all over the place with lots and lots of characters and tons of world history. Pretty much the first thing I had him do with his manuscript is weed out the world history, then we had to decide who the story was about.

Knowing your world's history is vital though, and I told him to most assuredly keep it. It was rich and detailed, definitely worth keeping. I mean, take a look at the four books of The Lord of the Rings. First you have this hobbit who might dream of adventure, but well, no respectable hobbit would ever have anything to actually do with one. Then he gets swept away on the adventure of a lifetime where he finds a magic ring and returns home richer than anyone ever dreamed - end of story, and likely that was all that was planned at the time.

The Hobbit was published in 1936 but I can just see it - there was this magic ring. Where did it come from? What kind of magic ring was it? How did it get into the bowls of a mountain? How did Gollum become what he was? Why was he all alone? All these questions niggled and picked at the inside of Tolkien's skull but he was a very busy man, and it wasn't until the prompting of publishers that The Lord of the Rings began to emerge (published in 1954 and 55).

As with all epics, and most any book really, it was vital to understand why people were where they were located, why they believed what they believed, and why this group of people thought one way, while another group thought another way. All of these things, and many more, dictate why people do and say the things they do during the course of your book. It is very important that you, the writer, know these things so your characters can make sense. Tolkien knew this too and the history of his world came out in The Silmarillion, written at the same time as The Lord of the Rings series but not published until many years later, in 1977 by his son. If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings and you haven't yet read The Silmarillion, I recommend it, but take time with the names. If you skim over them hoping sight recognition will be enough, you'll get lost very soon.

Back to the issue of your world's history: Even if you are writing about two men meeting in a town in small town USA in the year 2013, world history will have effect what they say and how they posture toward each other. Pick two men, each of any race you like; according to Google, we have 3 or 4 major races on this earth.
Australian (yeah, I was surprised by that one too)
You might list a few others in there, but mostly, they're just a slight variation of the above, changed by location more than anything else. Whatever your list, it really doesn't matter in this example, but you know that each man will react to the other differently for one reason or another. Heck, have both men be of the same race, and depending on the race, they too will react differently to each other. So, knowing something of your world's history will keep your characters real.

Knowing your world's history is different from writing it down. Yes, you should keep notes of some sort. Heck, do like Tolkien, and write out entire stories. Why not? The exercise helps, but where you, the writer, needs to know this history, and maybe your characters know some of it, your reader doesn't always need to know it all. Such information included in your book will only weigh it down into the bog of boredom.

I was pleased to come across a spot in the book I'm reading where a long-lived person came to a clifftop overlooking a city. This person had been around when the city was laying it's first foundation stones and raising it's first gleaming walls. The only mention of world history here was 'and then came the orcs came'. So can you imagine what happened to the city then? That was enough. The character did not go into the city. There was no further thought on it. Just one of those heart-string tugs. I thought it was a very nice touch.

Things of that nature are all you need to include as far as history is concerned. Someone might know something about somewhere, and they might spare a thought about it at some point. More would be too much, unless there was a reason to explain it to someone else. Be careful with such explanations though. There needs to be a reason and most people don't go into long, drawn-out stories of history.

How well do you know your world's history?
How do you use that history?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Meet your Character

So tell me, just how well do you know your characters? Tall, dark and handsome, or a curvacious blond might be good for starters, but is it enough to get you through an entire book? Far from it. Your characters need a personality. They need habits, quirks, and twitches, and above all, they need faults. No one is perfect.

The person who looks perfect on the outside may have an eating disorder, but that is so common, if you pick that, you may be leaning pretty hard into cliche. No, it's best to pick something else.

What to do? What to do? What to do?

One good thing you can do is Google 'interview your character'. There's at least one entire page of choices. Select one and fill in the blanks or answer the questions. Another thing you can do is take notes. Go ahead and start out with tall, dark and handsome. Give him a physical description, covering everything as if you were painting his picture and/or designing his next wardrobe (or both). Then as the story progresses, details might develop, like maybe he's near sighted but refuses to get glasses, or he's like me and has a hard time remembering names and dates.

Think of people you know, even if you only know them on Facebook, model your characters after them, or mix and match traits until you get something your character is willing to wear.

Most of the time, my characters quickly pick up a life of their own and my stories take on the feel of a movie playing in my head. Just like in a movie, my characters are who they are and they look like they do. I've never really had to model them after anyone, not consciously anyway, though I will sometimes pick traits from family members. In truth, my most frequent model is myself, or at least bits and pieces of me anyway.

Recently my character has been quite stubborn when it comes to scenes with his wife. It seems he wants to protect her from all the things and all the people in his world. Not that she is in any danger, but he takes his oath to protect her very seriously. Really, he and I are going to have to sit down and talk about this. I mean, his stubbornness is really getting in the way of telling the story.

A friend of mine once asked me to write a story around a female character so I came up with The Trials of the Youngest Princess. Like my other characters, she is something of me. And like many of my main characters, the traits I end up with are difficult to write around. My characters tend to be reserved at best, sometimes painfully shy, and sometimes a complete loner. So this little princess spends most of her time avoiding the things her mother wants her to do and lurking in the background. So I had to figure out something for her to find. I mean, the story had to go somewhere. Sometimes a character's traits and habits can be the driving force of your story, or at least the guiding force, since they will dictate what your character will do or will not do.

Other characters of mine:
A couple were orphaned
One had his memory taken away - the sacrifice needed to be able to cast spells
One guy was the only person from a planet of shape-changers who couldn't change to a human form off planet - where did he work? you guessed it.
One guy was born royal, but then he was denied and then shuffled off to grow up not knowing, not until he was suddenly heir.
Another guy was raised to be hated and assassinated only he survived - now what?

I also have a bunch of short stories, but you see the trend. My characters are more wallflowers than they are social flowers. Something is always in the way of life as it should be for them. But then that's what makes a book.

Let's look at it mathematically >>---> Character + goal / problem = book

Now these stories were all finished some time ago. They came out at a rate of 10 pages a day most of the time. Why don't I write like that anymore? Well, you see, I have this dozen or so books already finished, in need of polishing and editing, AND I also needed to develop my fan base and start blogging and all the other stuff that clutters up a writer's time. Back then, I didn't have internet and had no idea I needed to do these things. Back then I wasn't even planning on publishing - it was one of those unreachable things, so I didn't spare it a second thought. All I was doing was reading a new book. The fact that it was coming from my fingers instead of some bookstore made them even better. Therefore I didn't really need to take notes on my characters. It was like plugging in a movie and watching like ten or fifteen minutes of it and then writing it down. Now, I really need to take notes, especially when some detail dictates that something like eye color needs to change.

So, how do you keep track of your characters? Do you write it all down quickly? Or do you take notes of one sort or another? Or better yet, do you have another method? Let us know how you do it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Taking the Time to do it Right

Ever since I started on this road to publishing, I heard people lament how long it takes to get published. First there was the grueling effort to achieve an agent, and then there was another grueling wait, hoping they could squeak their baby in the door somewhere. The journey could take years, and there was no guarantee of ever succeeding. Many writers were impatient with this. I admit it, I was too. I'm no spring chicken and I had a dozen manuscripts to get out there. At an average of one book per year, provided that ball got rolling, that was 12 years. Add an unknown number of years just to get an agent (hoping that agent wanted all of my work, but possibly not), then add another unknown number of years to get into a publishing house. I would never see my last book published, if any of them.

With the advent of CreateSpace, SmashWords, and yes, Barns & Noble's NookBook, publishing became incredibly easy, even free, not counting the cost of a cover, and if you can do your own cover, the profits are all yours. I published one book through CreateSpace and B&N NookBook and have recouped my cover cost by 200%. One happy camper here.

However, those first indie books were a shining example of why the long, grueling route was the way to go. Fortunately, some indie authors were aware of this and acted accordingly. They went to the trouble of finding a good editor and multiple readers to help them iron out the issues in their baby. They also worked hard to spread the word that such action is vital to the success of their books. Me? I was very picky to begin with. I wanted my books to be the very best they could be. My first book, published through a seemingly reputable subsidy publisher, was error free, but certainly less than it could be, but what did I know?

Now, I've come up in the world. I have my own Kindle now and have read quite a few books so far. Not a lot yet, but I'd say maybe a dozen since getting it last Christmas. So far, by comparison, writers still need to slow down and take the time to ensure their book is the best it can be.

Reputation is still important. The reputation of the big publishing houses is still that they turn out great books, as as far as I can tell, they do. The indie publishing pool started out with a very bad reputation. Rife with errors and bad formatting to boot. Today, I think writers are slowly dragging the indie reputation up out of the mud, but we're not there yet.

Recently, I was asked to promote a book offered free, in an effort to spur interest in the rest of the series. Personally, if this had been my book, I might have made the mistakes at first (though seriously, less than I found), but I'd certainly have gone through the book again before trying such a promotion. Heck, even the reviews on Amazon should have been a clue to the writer that something needed to be done. I rated it 3 stars, but before I posted a review, I read a few of the other 3-star reviews. They too said the book was frustratingly full of errors. I didn't read all of those reviews, but when the top handful of 22 3-star reviews mention many errors, you'd think she'd have taken the hint. But no, she went ahead and pumped out another five books in that series, and has 18 others. Like I said, reputation matters and first impressions are paramount. I will not be reading any more of her books, and I actually liked the story, but if the writer doesn't care about the book, why should I?

So gee, people. Slow down. Even if you can't afford an editor, there are ways to ensure your baby is as polished as it can be. I have my computer read aloud to me. That nifty little trick is priceless. Even if you read aloud to yourself, you'll say the words your brain wants to be there; it's up to your eyes to catch the difference, and if they can't, the error slides by. However, your computer isn't so talented. It will read exactly what is on the page and even pause for commas or sound run on if a comma is needed. It also finds those pesky words that look almost the same but sound and mean something entirely different. As you can see, it is a very cool tool. I recommend you figure out how to use it ASAP. That aside, a good editor is still highly recommended, even if you think you can be your own editor, it's best to turn your baby over to another professional. You know, kings used to do that with their sons; it was too easy to overlook some kind of vital training or be to lenient with your own offspring. The same goes for your book.

Do you take time?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ducks all in a Row

I just finished a delightful book written by a member of a writing forum I belong to. I think it might have been her first, but I didn’t check. In any case, her ducks weren’t quite all in line.

We all know how much fun it is to catch those pesky little errors in our writing, heck, even good editors miss things once in a while, but those aren’t the ducks I’m talking about here.

There were three main threads running through this book:
  1. There was the girl meets guy thread, where she sees him and falls madly in love.
  2. There was the handsome cop who was investigating a murder and somehow figured the #1 girl was somehow connected and that her father’s murder was too.
  3. And then there were the teasing thoughts of the murderer inserted here and there along the way.
  4. There was even the beginnings of another thread concerning a batty old lady.

I talk in threads because I liken my telling a story to weaving a tapestry. Words paint pictures, and a tapestry is a plush picture with many layers of story, but lets get back to our ducks.
  • Primary thread – Romance – the story is always the same. Girl meets guy, guy meets girl, they fall helplessly in love. All that remains is how the story is told. In this book, we have a girl who was abused most of her childhood, and even sold as a sex slave where she was abused even worse, a fate she escaped from after a week. She returns to her first abuser, her father, and he very nearly beats her to death, only now does her grandmother whisk her away from this fate and she spends the next eight or ten years gallivanting across the country, and even going to America at some point. But that’s all back story revealed along the way without weighing us down with it all. The details need to be what they are to support the story being told.

The story starts with her return home after her father is murdered to settle family affairs and to locate and sell off her father’s prized collection of artifacts; she’ll need to money to survive. She doesn’t want to sponge off grandma for the rest of her life.

To do that, she needs a good fence. Insert handsome dude with tons of money, shady and not connections, and the reputation of a pirate, though nothing can be proved. His dealings with her were of a very different nature, preferring to tempt and tease her into falling in love with him. You see, he’d fallen for her long ago, but we don’t know that until later.

It’s a quaint thread, a little dramatic in my opinion, but I generally don’t care for romance. However, there’s only so many pages in a book and we did have to get abused girl all the way from ‘afraid of being touched or cornered’ to ‘craving at least his touch and much more’. I think it was pretty well done, however I’d have gone with a few more pages and a slower progression with this romance. Considering the parameters, I think it went to fast.
  • Secondary thread – murder investigation – handsome cop with a very charming smile has a desk mounded with files and papers. I’m not sure what they’re all for, but we can’t all be neat. He’s being pressured by his boss to solve a murder because the girl was the daughter of a titled member of society. The trouble is, there were no clues. The girl had gone missing for a few days, and then she ended up quite dead, where her family could find her, with a long-shafted brass key imbedded in her heart. Trying to determine her habits proved to be impossible since preserving her reputation and modesty were paramount.

Now here is where some of those duck go missing. For some reason, handsome cop feels that the murder of the main girl’s father was somehow related. I like logic, but I can’t even see gut instinct linking these two events together. The fact that two murders within high society occur within (lets say) a month of each other (no timeline is given on this) simply isn’t enough for me. Considering the pile of work on his desk, these two murders aren’t the only things our cop trying to solve.

He also jumps to the conclusion that somehow our main character is also involved, but I see no connection there either. Father dies before she returns to the city. Girl dies after. The only connection between the girls is that they are possibly peers in society and of an age. hmmm

Then a short time later, another girl is killed in the same manner, with a brass key shredding her heart. By the time a third girl turns up dead, eye color is mentioned. Still no real connection is made. It would have been nice if the connection, by the second murder at least, was physical resemblance, but that is never done anywhere, so you can see why I’m having trouble following this cop’s investigation. Then of course our main character goes missing like all the others, and our main guy gets involved.

Clear clues led them to her old torturer and his son who rented her father’s house. Once there, logic dictated they search for a cellar. Then came the fight scene and the rescue. Our hero saves the day and whisks the love of his life off to the hospital, leaving the cops to clean up the scene and solve the crimes – job done – murders solved – society’s daughters are safe again. Short of the final love scene, the book is finished.
  • The third thread I mention is more the kind of thread inserted for texture more than anything else. Occasionally, at the beginnings of some of the chapters, are the thoughts of the murderer as he is planning his action and rationalizing what he is going to do. He is of course completely wackadoodle.

Here again we learn that our main girl was ‘the right one’ all along, but if so, why did he try out three others first? They weren’t practice. You don’t ‘practice’ finding ‘the right one’, not when you know which one is ‘the right one’. So, as his work progresses and fails, he goes from searching to practicing. Even a wacko doesn’t do that, do they? I don’t know; it felt just off to me. And considering who this dude ended up being, a physical resemblance between the girls would have been more in keeping with everything.
  • I mentioned the beginnings of a fourth thread concerning a nutty old lady. It seemed as if her involvement was merely to serve an end, and yet she was so delightfully developed. Batty old ladies are fun to work with though, so I see this as opportunity missed.

She was having our main girl solve the problems of the girls and ladies of society because she was free to do the things society dictated those ladies dared not do. After solving one problem our girl learned that this batty old lady had a book she needed for research, so she felt confident enough to go ask for it.

Here too, I would have added a few more pages to make this thread just a little stronger. It could have enlightened us into some of the troubles society’s girls and women can get themselves into that would completely ruin them and their family’s reputations among that same society if they ever found out. It could have added plenty of humor to the whole book while at the same time not really interfering with the main threads. I like threads. Can you tell? Threads can add depth and texture to a story if given the chance.

Though I gave this book 4 stars, you can see how the fine details can make all the difference. Pay attention to the details. Your tapestry needs to be more than piece of cloth with a picture painted on it. It’s much more valuable if you can run your fingers across it and feel the texture, the hills and valleys, the rough spots and those that tickle, even the blood, sweat, and tears.

Are your ducks all in a row?
Happy writing

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Show and/or Tell

Hmmm so which should it be? Show? Tell? Both? When it comes to the gut of the story, telling is good. I mean, that's what we do, right? Tell stories? But when it comes to your characters, we need to switch to the visual. When you encounter someone, friend or stranger, on the street, the first thing you do is make a visual assessment. There are a ton of different things we notice when we do this, but one of the subliminal things is emotion. Is that person afraid? Happy? Angry?

There are several tells that give us a clue to this. A woman who is afraid but not wanting anyone to know it might have her arms crossed, maybe clutching her purse very close. She might also glance over her shoulder frequently and be walking hastily. A man might have many of the same tells. It's not likely he'll have a purse to clutch, but he might make fists instead. Think about it. What do you do when you're afraid?

Happy is pretty easy to tell. Grins are uppermost, a bounce in their stride might be another. Other than that, conversation could be chatty and possibly more bubbly than normal. Angry, might be nearly the opposite. A stomping stride, a stiff face, unwilling to talk about it, maybe unwilling to talk at all.

There are other things, but the point is you don't want to tell your reader that your character is afraid or angry, you want to show them, you want to involve your reader in your character's life, the closer the better.

Anything your character is feeling, be it an emotion or a physical issue needs to be shown. Talking about physical issues, let's say your character stubbed his toe. How long should you have him hobbling around? A stubbed toe might be rather minor but still, if you're going to introduce the injury, deal with it for an appropriate amount of time. If he or she is in a car wreck, it would be a much larger issue. Still, you don't tell of the accident and then overlook any of the physical repercussions, even if the character was able to walk away from the wreck, there would be bruises, maybe cuts. Maybe they don't need much attention, but really, at least an assessment is necessary, maybe an improvised bandage to keep blood from dripping all over whatever work needs to be taken care of before more practical care can be sought out.

So, while telling your story, don't forget to show us the things we cannot possibly know in any other way. Visual tells are vital to get your reader involved with your characters. For those of you whose characters are emotionless or highly controlled, this issue is also rife with tells. To tell us your character is hurt and then leave it at that is two dimensional and that character is then easily forgotten. If you can involve your reader in your character, earn their sympathy or even hatred, that is how your stories stay with your reader long after the cover is closed.

So do you tell? Show? Or do you do a liberal amount of both? I'm still learning. Tell me your secret.