Monday, May 28, 2018

Writing Success: It’s How You Measure It

Did you know that 2,952 athletes competed in the 2018 Olympics? They were vying for a record 102 medals. Simple math tells us at least 2,850 athletes returned home without a medal. Since some athletes competed in different events and won more than one medal, the number of medal less athletes inches higher. Math is not my forte, but by my calculations only .05% of competitors won a medal. 

And yet, I’m sure there isn’t an athlete among those who returned home empty handed who regrets having the opportunity to compete. 

My favorite competition is the figure skating. I love watching the skaters’ dazzling performances, but even as I watch, hoping each will have a flawless performance, I know only one skater in a category will win the gold. 

Think about it how many hours these skaters have worked to perfect their routine. The gold medal beckons and they compete, compete, compete for the opportunity to go to the Olympics. But after all that work, many of them do not take home any metal.

Undaunted, they start planning for the next Olympic games. 

The Olympic competitions remind me of writing. Hour upon hour of learning the craft, writing the work, submitting it or publishing it, being knocked down, picking oneself up, and yet determined to try again.

Bestseller status is our gold medal.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 131,200 people are employed as writers in the U.S.A. This number includes all types of writing from cereal box ads to poetry with plenty of stops in between.

Pay ranges from the minuscule to the millions (of dollars). If you believe bestsellerdom means you’ve won the gold medal in writing, just remember 131,199 other people are trying for it, too. Based on the Olympic odds, not all those competing are going to win. Bestseller status doesn’t come any easier to a writer than the gold medal does to an athlete. 

How do you measure your writing success? Truth is, we often forget that success has meaning other than attaining profit. Success can also mean accomplishment in an something you do well. 

I am not a bestselling writer. Truth is, my family would have starved if we had relied on my writing income. I may not have attained name recognition or profit, but I believe I am a successful writer. While I would have loved to become wealthy from writing, it has never been about the money for me, it’s just something I love to do and get cranky if I don’t.

Mostly, I have had the satisfaction of having touched others’ live. I love that:

My home town set aside a day to celebrate a local resident whose accomplishments I wrote about in our newspaper. 

Two Alabama men were presented a prestigious award for mechanics by the Federal Aviation Administration due to an article I wrote. 

And then there’s the Aussie was so delighted to find my humorous essay on the Internet about ants in the water reservoir of my iron. She said now her “mates” would believe it happened because she had proof it happened to someone else.

Success in the writing world, it’s all in how you measure it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Point of View: Clarity is the Key Part 2

The POV sin to be avoided is head hopping. When a writer head hops, the point of view shifts from one character to another. The reader is literally hopping from one character’s view point to another character’s view point. By filtering a scene through more than one POV, it becomes less focused.

Let’s look at what I mean about head hopping with this bit of dialogue among three characters who work in the same office:

“Did you know Sherry had a breakdown last night?” Maxine poured herself a cup of coffee before shaking a packet of fake sugar into it. She liked knowing the office news before anyone else.
“No way.” Janine was surprised at the news about Sherry. How could she have missed something as huge as a nervous breakdown? She and Sherry had been working on the same project for weeks.
“Hospitalized.” Cora walked into the room in time to hear Maxine’s announcement and pleased she had the latest news about their co-worker.
“Mercy or General?” Maxine sipped her coffee, unwilling to let Cora see her irritation. Cora was always ahead in the latest office gossip.
“Mercy’s the best,” Janine opened the refrigerator, looking for the yogurt cup she’d scrawled her name on earlier that morning.

In the above example, I head hopped among three speakers.  The reader would have no problem figuring out who was speaking. Or what they were feeling. Or thinking. Some writers may believe that is a plus.


Isn’t there always a but? 

Head hopping diffuses the tension in the scene as the reader jumps from the feelings and thoughts of one character to another. The scene lacks focus.

A story told from more than one POV doesn’t mean mixing up all the POVs in a scene.  For maximum impact on the reader, a scene needs to be told from one POV. The best way to choose a focal point POV is to think in terms of the purpose of the scene. When I revised the above example, I decided Maxine was the focal point character. The scene needed to be told via her POV. 

Let’s take another look at the scene:

     Maxine watched Janine come into the break room. “Did you know Sherry had a breakdown last night?” The appalled expression on Janine’s face was all the reaction Maxine needed. She turned to the coffee pot and poured herself a cup of coffee to hide a smug smile.    
“No way.” Janine’s surprise echoed in the small room.
Maxine shook a packet of sweetener into her cup. She liked knowing the office news before anyone else.
“Hospitalized. For at least thirty days,” Cora said.
     When Maxine’s nemesis walked into the break room, she schooled her face into a pleasant expression. She refused to let Cora see her irritation as she turned and asked, “Mercy or General?”
     “Mercy’s the best.” Janine opened the refrigerator as she spoke, no doubt looking for the yogurt cup she’d scrawled her name on earlier that morning. 
   The same one that David, their supervisor, stole each morning. Maxine wondered when the guy was going to get enough courage to ask Janine on a date.

The narrative is basically the same, but I focused the reader on Maxine”s thoughts, reactions, and feelings to give the reader a more layered view of her character rather than a shotgun view of multiple characters.

Clarity of POV is an important component of building rapport between the reader and your characters so chose your POV for a scene wisely. Keep that rapport strong by staying true to the chosen POV, filtering every emotion, reaction, and thought through the POV’s world view.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Point of View: Clarity is the Key Part 1

I recently received an email asking my advice on how to change point of view (POV) in a story. There is a lot of advice floating around about POV with plenty of “rules never to be broken” countered by just as many “well, Famous Author did it this way.”

Truth is, I read a lot and I’ve seen a variety of techniques used to change the POV. I’ve also seen many definitions so just to be sure we’re all on the same page, let me define what I mean by point of view.

  1. First person is the “I” viewpoint. The story is told completely from one character’s POV which means the reader can only experience what the character experiences. 

  1. Omniscient is an all-knowing POV and the story is told through a “godlike” narrator who knows the thoughts and feelings of every character. With this POV, the reader experiences the story through the actions and feelings of the various characters.   

  1. Third person is a compromise between first person and omniscient POV that offers the best of both worlds. The reader gets the intimacy of first person with the perspective of omniscient since the story can be told by multiple characters.

There are pros and cons for using each type of POV, but knowing the type of story you want to tell helps a writer decide which POV is best for that story. First person can be limiting, but also works for many stories. An intimate memoir type story often calls for the first person. Some series are written in first person, but remember if you chose that POV, the main character must be someone interesting enough to keep your readers returning book after book.

With first person, there are no real worries about shifting POV since it’s always “I”,  but care still has to be taken that no other POV slips into the story by accident. Every emotion, reaction, and thought must be filtered through the main character’s world view.

When using either omniscient or third person, the writer must provide a clear transition when changing POV from one character to another. Often the POV change is separated by a line break which indicates to the reader that a scene or POV shift is about to happen. Another popular method is to shift with a new chapter. These techniques cue the reader to anticipate some change so they aren’t caught off guard.

However you chose to shift POV in a story, be sure and anchor the reader immediately to keep the reader aware of which character’s POV has become the filter for the story.

I’ve seen a more subtle signal of POV change in romance novels. These stories usually involve only the heroine and hero and writers sometimes shift the POV from the heroine to hero (or vice versa) within a scene to increase the feeling of intimacy. This gives another layer of emotion and perspective to the scene, but this type of POV shift must be done carefully. 

A transition sentence puts the reader firmly into the other character’s POV. This is usually done by using the character’s name to slide the reader over during an intimate exchange that involves only these two characters. Thus, the scene has been divided into two parts with the heroine’s POV first, then the hero’s (or vice versa). There is no jumping back and forth between their POVs with every sentence or “head hopping” which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Whenever using any POV, the writer must remain faithful to the chosen POV, filtering descriptions, interior monologue, observations, and emotions through the same viewpoint character. 

Head hopping is the POV sin to be avoided. I’ll discuss that in part 2

Monday, October 16, 2017

Historical Novelists: Check Your Facts!

I couldn’t believe the proofreader of my second published historical romance Ransom’s Bride felt it was necessary to verify every little detail in my manuscript. I was a history instructor at the local junior college. It wasn’t possible for me to write a historical romance without filling it with accurate historical details. If I wrote that a certain train went from Nashville to Atlanta on a certain day at a certain time, then that train existed and I had checked its time table.

Even though I was miffed at her thoroughness, I was also delighted because she found no inaccuracies. After reading some recently released historical fiction novels, both traditionally and indie published, I’m beginning to think some of today’s editors and writers need the services of my thorough proofreader.

Which is hard to believe since today’s writers have unparalleled access to mountains of information. The advent of the Internet has made it possible for any writer who wishes to research an obscure fact to find it quickly. No more weeks of waiting while that reel of microfiche, which your friendly local librarian requested from a faraway university or state archives, wends it way to you via the postal service.

Nor is there a need to amass a library of costume books in order to dress your characters in period clothing. An Internet connection and a few clicks of the mouse can put you into just about any museum or era specific website filled with beautiful examples of what people wore through the ages. A writer can easily locate the information needed to outfit a character appropriately for any occasion.

What surprises me the most is a total lack of understanding when it comes to the value of money in earlier time periods. We hear about inflation everyday. How our money buys less and less. Doesn’t that mean smaller amounts of money bought more in the past? Did you know $50.00 (USD) fed a family of four well for a week in the 1970s? Today, you’re lucky to get out of the grocery store with one half-filled plastic bag of groceries for $50.00.

If a historical writer is going to use money in a story, he or she has to have a grasp of the value of money for that era.

I started reading (note the key word here, started) a Regency era novel whose young heroine was being blackmailed for £10,000.00. First of all, I doubt few single young females today would have access to that amount of money, much less an unmarried, young female of that period. Second, a quick check of the value of £10,000.00 in 1800s England revealed it would be the equivalent of £700,000.00 or $1,073,663.34 today!

What heroine today would be able to drum up a million dollars to pay a blackmailer? On the other hand, what blackmailer would bother to demand that much money from a young female?

Another writer took two characters on a train ride in a story set in 1870. The hero that paid $150.00 for their one way ticket. Doesn’t seem like much does it? But run that $150.00 through a historical money equivalency calculator and those two tickets to ride a train from mid-California to San Francisco cost them $2,500.00. And this supposedly down-and-out hero just happened to have that much money in his pocket?

In another novel, a young, poverty-stricken character waltzed off to India in the early Regency period with a £150.00 stake. This guy was so poor, his sister died because he couldn’t afford a doctor. Guess what. In today’s economy, £150.00 is the equivalent of £10,000.00. Had he possessed that much money there would have been no need to go to India to earn his fortune. It may not seem like much today, but that £150.00 would have put the hero and his family into a comfortable income bracket in 1800s England. It certainly would have been enough to pay the doctor.

If a historical writer can’t get something as basic as how much money is worth in the story’s time period, what other fallacies would my check-every-fact proofreader find?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dialogue, Action, and Tags: Stay on Track

I’m not sure what’s going on in the publishing world, but I’ve noticed an annoying trend in the dialogue–action–tag sequences. It’s something one would expect to find in novels written by novice writers whose work hasn’t been edited. Imagine my surprise to find it in the published books of several longtime popular writers.  

Some writers (or maybe their editors) are separating a character’s dialogue and action by creating separate lines on the page. One line for dialogue and then a new line for action while the speaker remains the same.

Why is this a problem? Because a new indented line signals the reader something new is happening, not an extension of what’s been happening. 

Our eyes see the indent, register a new line, and our brain signals back, “be on the lookout, something different is about to happen.” Generally, an indented line in a dialogue sequence signals that a different character is going to speak. When a writer varies from this pattern, the reader experiences momentary confusion and can’t help but wonder– “Did I miss something here?”

All of which causes a break in concentration as the reader is pulled out of the story.

Who Is Talking?

I doctored this snippet from my novella, Susannah’s Promise. See if you can tell which of the two characters is talking. 

Naomi inched forward in her chair. 
“There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers,”  she said.
“Older than dirt?”
She couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth.
Naomi grinned. 
“Don’t forget, honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”
Naomi inches forward in her chair. The line indents to signal a different character is speaking, right? Maybe not, if the writer has decided to separate the action and dialogue.

The reader will expect a new speaker. When this doesn’t happen, the  story thread is broken. There’s a brief bit of confusion as reader stops to tray and figure out who is speaking in order to re-establish the continuity of the story.

Overuse of Character’s Name

To help keep the reader in the loop when separating dialogue and action, I’ve noticed some writers will tag the dialogue to keep the reader on track. For example:

Naomi inched forward in her chair. 
“There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers,” Naomi said.
“Older than dirt?” Susannah said.
Susannah couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth.
Naomi grinned. 
“Don’t forget, Susannah,honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”

Yes, I went a little over board above, but I’ve kept the reader on track with who is speaking and ensured the story thread isn’t dropped. That said, isn’t there an awkward feel to this example? An overuse of the characters names when there are only two characters in the scene? The reader should have no trouble knowing who is speaking. It’s up to the writer to correctly signal the reader when there is a change in speaker. 

Let’s look at the way I wrote this exchange in the novella.

How About This?

Let’s see what happens if we resort to keeping the dialogue and action of each character connected with no line breaks.

Naomi inched forward in her chair. “There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers.”
“Older than dirt?” Susannah couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth. 
Naomi grinned. “Don’t forget, honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”

In this version, the pattern is clear and the indentations mark a change in speaker. Confusion is minimized by keeping the action and dialogue in the same segment with no line break. There is no need to repeat character names and the reader can easily follow the story thread. 

Why would any writer want to be associated with a style of writing that causes reader confusion? 

I can think of one reason: padding a print manuscript. Print books traditionally count the number of lines per page, not the number of words. A 300 page novel full of dialogue with little narrative is considered, for print purposes, to be 75,000 words (250 words per page times 300 pages). Using that formula, a 300 page book of narrative with minimal dialogue is also considered a 75,000 word novel. 

By breaking up the dialogue and action, you get more lines per page. Over a 300 page print book that means fewer words need to be written. 

I can’t see any other reason for a writer to adopt this pattern of writing. I’ve even more 
unsure why a good editor would let it slide into print. The writer’s goal is to bring the reader into his or her story world and then guide them on the journey. If the reader has to re-read dialogue exchanges because the writer is using this confusing trick, why would a reader want to finish the journey?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Is Your Story Idea Big Enough for A Book?

Several years ago I was involved in a community drive to convince our local city council to add a dog park to the city park. I created the logo, researched dog park facts, wrote up a media packet, and set up a website. During my research, I discovered that not all dogs are a good fit for dog parks.
Sadie, our Catahoula Hound, pretty much failed the test because she’s a fearful dog who reacts with aggressive behavior in many situations. (We adopted her when she was about a year old and have no idea what shaped those first months of her life.) Here I was volunteering to help get a dog park built and I probably couldn’t use it unless we took Sadie at oh-dark-thirty, before any other canines showed up.

What’s this got to do with writing?

Glad you asked.

Stories come in all sizes and shapes, but sometimes a perfectly good story idea isn’t a good fit for a book. It may work well as flash fiction, a short story, or even a novella, but there isn’t enough there to warrant writing a whole book. Yet we get so caught up in the idea, we start writing, never realizing our concept won’t stretch far enough to be a novel.

There’s no need to ditch a good story idea. As a writer, you just need to be able to spot the problem, accept it, and write to the length that best fits your story idea.

How do you do that? Well, you need to know what makes a short story short and what makes a novel long. Short stories run from 100 words (flash fiction) to 1,000 words (short short story) to 10,000 words (short story) maximum. Novellas come in about 45,000 words. Novel lengths vary. Genre fiction such as romances or men’s action adventure novels can be as short as 50,000 words. Most mainstream novels clock in at about 100,000 words or more.

There are, of course, exceptions. But for our purposes, we’ll stick with the above word lengths.

How to recognize your story’s best length.

Compared to a novel, shorter stories have no room to sprawl. The number of characters will be limited, the time frame will be brief, and there will be no subplots. Which is why they are called short stories. They can be fun to write and definitely don’t require the time commitment of novels.

Novellas give the writer a little more leeway, but again, littering the landscape with too many characters and multiple subplots detract from the main story line. You may easily have enough for a tight, fast-paced novella that would never be enough for a longer novel.

Even though they are allowed to sprawl more, novels still need to be focused. Too many characters, as I mentioned in my last blog, and you clog the story pipeline. Same with subplots. Too many side stories and it’s easy to create a complicated, difficult to follow story. It’s also easy to forgot to resolve those numerous subplots.

Novels are filled with major and minor characters, a time frame that stretches as far as the writer needs, and well chosen subplots. This is why they aren’t short stories.

If you feel as if you have to keep adding substance to your story idea you might want to stop and take a closer look. This particular story might work better as short story or novella. On the plus side, short stories are becoming quite popular as readers are pressed for time in this busy world. Offering a free short story on your website can be an excellent way to give readers a sample of your writing. If the stars align correctly, they’ll enjoy your short story, so much, they’ll buy your books.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Population Explosion: Filling Your Story With Too Many Characters

I once read a manuscript for an aspiring writer who introduced 40 characters in the first three chapters. She wasn’t happy when my critique suggested she pare down the number of characters she named. She felt my suggestion, if she followed it, would ruin the story because all these characters were part of the story.

Not really.

She had named and described every character as they appeared in her story. Giving a name, description, and back story to Mary Jane the cashier who appears on page  two because the protagonist is buying groceries and she’s his cashier doesn’t bequeath name status on Mary Jane. She need to be “the cashier.”

Bombarding the reader with a sports arena full of named characters is no way to build a bond between the main characters of your story and the reader. 

In most stories there are characters who need to be named and those who don’t. Minor characters who exist to people your story world can be identified by their job, their hair color, or something else. Movie cast credits are filled with tags for actors who appeared in the movie but didn’t rate being named.  

Sit through the credits after a movie and watch the complete cast list. You might see Storm Trooper #2 or Lab Technician because if the character doesn’t have an important role in the story, one that propels the plot, then he or she doesn’t merit pulling the audience’s attention from the main story characters.

This holds true with the characters in your story. If they don’t hold an important story role, they do not need to be named or even described. They are generic characters who help flesh out the story world, may even have a brief speaking role, but who exist only to lend reality to your protagonist’s world. 

Peppering your story with the name of every character can be a major impediment to building a bond between reader and character. Just think of real life. 

I’ve often been in situations in which I didn’t know the name of everyone present. (With my tendency to remember faces but not names, this happens pretty often.) When my husband was in the Army, we moved frequently and I seldom knew anyone at the new duty station. Nor did I learn all their names much less their personal histories at the first Hail and Farewell party we attended. I did become better acquainted with many of them during our tour of duty, but it took some time.

Time being the key factor. 

In our stories, pages are time. Readers become acquainted with our characters as they read each page. Filling those pages with nonessential characters is a waste of the reader’s time. They can become lost in trying to determine each character’s part in the story. Frustration easily follows and they leave your imaginary world to try another, more reader friendly one.

You know the story world you created; your readers don’t. Your job is to facilitate their entry into your story world and to keep them riveted by connecting them to your  characters’ lives.

Not every character’s life, just the lives of those who are important to the story you are writing.