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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Story Balance

Last spring, the grass in one section of our yard failed to turn green. What we thought was dormant ended up being dead. Unable to figure out what happened, we called in an expert who explained that grass needs a balance of 50% soil, 25% water, and 25% air to thrive. The repeated heavy rain falls of the preceding months had suffocated the grass roots in this area, killing the grass. 

We live on a hill, have invested a small fortune in retaining walls, drainage systems, and sod, but the rains had been heavy and frequent, saturating that particular portion of the yard. 

Again and again. 

Lesson learned: Grass needs a healthy balance of soil, water, and air to thrive. 

Being a writer, I made the mental jump to writing. I realized that sometimes writers forget that stories also need a healthy balance of ingredients.

It’s easy to suffocate a story. Too much dialogue, you have a screenplay. Too much narrative, you have a snoozing reader. Too much plot and you have no room for character development. 

Most writers have strengths in some aspects of writing and weaknesses in others. Your goal in writing is to turn any weakness into a strength. How do you do that? First of all, you have to recognize the problem. This isn’t always easy because our beta readers may be too busy trying to be nice to speak the truth. This happened to me in a lovely writing group I attended for several years. 

Their praise made me feel good, but it didn’t help me grow as a writer. An agent who rejected my submission gave me more feedback. He responded with a nice letter explaining why he was refusing my manuscript. Of course, I had no idea agents seldom wrote aspiring writers. I was pretty good about writing thank you notes to any agent or editor who responded so I’m pretty sure I thanked him even though he pointed out a glaring weakness.

He kindly told me that while my story was well written, it needed more dialogue. In other words, it lacked balance. Which Ransom’s Bride did. The original manuscript was heavy on narrative. He suggested I revise it and let the characters talk to each other. 

Good grief. Write more dialogue! I had struggled with the dialogue I had written and now I needed to write more.

Dialogue may have been a weakness for me, but it isn’t a weakness for all writers. And 
many writers love to share their knowledge in books, workshop presentations, and now online classes. I got to work learning how to write dialogue.

Today I’m comfortable writing dialogue, but I’m careful not to err on the side of too much dialogue. Too much and I’d be writing a screenplay which isn’t my goal.

My goal is to maintain balance in my stories because I want my readers to walk away having enjoyed a good reading experience. 

As for our yard, we had to invest in yet more drainage to ensure that area would not be saturated during another heavy winter rainfall. We had to adjust the percentages and give the grass a healthy balance in which to grow.

Writers can create a story with a healthy balance of ingredients, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Writing Healthy

 Where have I been lately?

Well, three rounds of physical therapy in less than 12 months and the pain associated with the problem ate up a lot of time and energy. On the bright side, the third time was a charm. The” last resort” physical therapist watched me walk and immediately diagnosed the problem.

My gait was flawed. 

Now to look at me, you would never guess any of this. I didn’t limp or anything. And two medical doctors and two physical therapists who worked with me missed it. Their consensus opinion pointed to my IT band being inflamed. 

Yeah, like I’m a runner. 

Anyway, I was lucky and someone told me about a nontraditional type of physical therapy. One visit with someone who specializes in whole body movement and I was on the road to recovery. I learned that my off kilter walking stressed my right side, which torqued my back, which then sent burning nerve signals to my left leg. 

Weird, right?

What Was Happening?

My right side was doing all the work, pulling my left side along. Not that anyone except this guy noticed. So, how is that fixed? No more meds, no surgery, just retraining my body to walk correctly. 

Walk correctly? At my age? Yep. 

Because once you start walking incorrectly, your brain stops connecting with those muscles and telling them to work. The fix was simple–exercises to re-educate the brain-to-nerve-to-muscle function of the whole left side of my body. More exercises to strengthen the muscles to do their job.

Where am I going with this for writers? Well, I had spinal fusion surgery over ten years ago because my back went all wonky. Many many years of sitting at the typewriter (yes long ago in another galaxy there were typewriters) and then sitting at the computer contributed to my back problems. At some point after the surgery, I started walking incorrectly.

Writing and Movement

Writers tend to block out our surroundings while we write about our make believe worlds. Tapping away at a computer precludes moving around for most of us. Who wants to leave the story in the middle of a riveting scene? 

Oh my, hours have disappeared–but look, those tricky middle of the book scenes have all but written themselves. 

Of course, you haven’t moved anything except your hands for the past five hours.

We’ve all been there, done that. But writers need to insure their daily routine contains more than hitting a word quota. Taking time to exercise each day isn’t time wasted. First of all, it helps to keep your body healthy and extends your writing life. Second, you can use that time to give your brain a chance to hash out plot points, conflicts, or motivations of your characters. 

While writing, remember to take periodic breaks. Stand, stretch, or go fix a cup of tea. Our body’s musculature and skeletal systems need to move. It’s part of being a healthy human.

If you get too caught up in the story to remember to move, set a timer in another room to remind yourself. Make sure it’s loud and annoying so it forces you to get up and turn it off.

Protecting your body from writing ills now will ensure you avoid doctors and physical therapists in the future. Leaving you more pain free time to write. It’s a win win. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How Do You Know You’ve Written a Historical Novel?

Oddly enough, not everyone has the same definition of what a historical novel is. Some people say a story set 25 years ago is historical enough, while others say 50 years is the benchmark. And then there are those of us who say, what’s so historical about 50 years ago? You need to go farther back in time!
I didn’t know there was such a wide divergence on what constituted historical fiction until I decided to write about what makes a novel historical. All I knew was I had read an e-book purporting to be both historical and a novel, yet couldn’t see elements of either in the story.

The e-book I read fell into the category of a memoir because it was based on personal experience and lacked the structure of a novel. To me, the story also lacked the feel of a historical because the characters used the Internet and flew around in jets. The contemporary feel of the story conflicted with my vision of a historical novel.

A vision based on writing four historical novels.

Defining a Historical Novel

When I first started writing historical novels, traditional publishers removed any argument about what constituted historical fiction. According to their guidelines, if the story was set at least one hundred years in the past, it was historical fiction. As the twentieth century drew to a close, any story that took place prior to the twentieth century rated as historical fiction.

One hundred years, give or take a decade, works for me. As a former history instructor, I definitely believe a historical novel needs to have the feel of another era. I also think time needs to pass before an era can be studied enough to know what sets it apart from earlier eras. To me, history is like a fine wine and needs time to age. 

Reconstructing the Past

Based on that criteria, research of the time and setting is an important component of my story. I’ll need to reconstruct the past, being careful not to write with lenses clouded by modern mores. I want to go back in time, preferably to a period that pre-dates the life of any living human being. 

I’m not the only one who believes the person writing the story shouldn’t have lived the events. Until I wrote this blog, I only knew the e-book claiming to be a historical novel didn’t sit well with me. Not only because it lacked the structure of a novel, but because the writer had lived the story, he didn’t have to research an earlier time. Therefore, the claim on his title page was false. It was not a historical novel.

Importance of Labels

Labeling your e-book correctly is important because all the marketing information will rely on the subject label you choose. To put an e-book into distribution, you have to select the correct subject code in accordance with the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BIAC).

As an indie publisher you get to decide how to categorize your e-book’s subject. Think about your story. Keep in mind that labels help you sell your e-book, but incorrect labels frustrate the reader. If you mislabel your e-book, instead of gaining a reader who will share your work, you lose a reader who will tell others not to read anything you write.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Calling It a Novel Does Not Make It So

As an indie publisher you get to call the shots as to how to label your beloved manuscript. If you hang the word “novel” on your published opus, be sure it is a novel. The act of printing “Historical Fiction Novel” on the title page when the story is not a novel and probably not historical only serves to alienate the reader. You do not want the reader to feel he or she has been tricked into buying a mislabeled book.

How Do You Know If You’ve Written A Novel? 
Writing comes in all shapes and sizes from a short story to a personal memoir, but each type of writing has a structure or framework peculiar to it. A short story is not a personal memoir even though they are both forms of written communications.

A novel has its own structure. If your story doesn’t adhere to this basic structure, it isn’t a novel. All too often, an author will write a “slice of life” narrative, a meandering story that lacks the fundamental elements of a novel. Readers expect to find certain elements in a novel when they read it. 

Structure of a Novel 
What fundamental elements do readers expect to find in a novel?

  • a hero or heroine they care about 
  • a plot or skeleton the story hangs on 
  • a goal 
  • motivation 
  • conflict 
  • satisfying resolution

These elements give the story or novel a recognizable structure. Sure, novels contain much more than this, but we’re talking about the basics. If the novel doesn’t have a main character with whom the reader can empathize, there will be no connection between the reader and
the story. If the story doesn’t have an ordered sequence of events that move the reader from Point A to Point B, then the story isn’t going anywhere and lacks a plot. Plot has often been compared to a road map of where the characters are going and without a plot, the story lacks cohesion. 

Characters also need reasons for behaving as they do (goal and motivation), but if life comes too easy for them (no conflict), the story is boring. Tying all these elements together at the end in a satisfying way keeps readers happy. They’ve gone on a journey from A to B with a character they love who faced and overcame obstacles…

You get the picture.

Why Readers Crave These Elements 
First of all, these are the time honored elements of storytelling. Our ancestors didn’t sit around the fire at night to listen to stories that meandered all over the map about imaginary characters who didn’t do anything. Today’s readers aren’t all that different from those ancestors. They want a character’s story to have a purpose, for the character to make a meaningful life journey. Readers want characters who have solid goals and compelling motivations for what they. As for needing conflict, a novel without conflict is like taco sauce without the chili peppers. You still have a sauce, but it’s tasteless.

Lots of conflict makes readers happy because they aren’t interested in reading about Utopia, they’d rather read about how Utopia becomes Dystopia. They like to read about how the main character faces conflict and deals with it. They want to empathize and root for him or her. Readers want to watch as the character grows and changes.

Whatever the goal, the motivation, or the conflict, the reader wants it all packaged nicely at the end with a resolution that fits the story. No author wants a reader to walk away from the novel disgusted because the ending failed to satisfy.

Character versus Plot Driven 
Now, your novel may be more character driven which means character growth overshadows the plot, or your story may be plot driven, in which case the plot may be stronger than the characters. That said, the novel will still have a main character with a goal and reason (motivation) to work toward the goal, conflicts that prevent achieving the goal, and a solid resolution.

A novel’s plot does not meander hither, thither, and yon with no purpose. Its characters have to incite empathy, they have to make decisions, and change by the end of the story. They have to face conflict that can rip their beloved goals away. They cannot be given a story in which nothing really happens and their goal is easily achieved.

They need the structure of a novel. Only when you have created a story using the basic elements of a novel can you put the word “novel” on your beloved opus.

Next month we'll look at how I define historical novels.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Retrofiting Print Books Into E-books

We owned a computer testing company about fifteen years ago that specialized in giving Federal Aviation Administration tests and other commercial tests. Customers took the computer exams under our supervision using secure computers linked to a test database.

The test database was provided by a nationally known education company who built their reputation on after school tutoring and test preparation. They had taken their pencil and paper knowledge and slapped it into some software programming. The end product proved to be a cumbersome and frustrating system for test administrators, as well as test takers, to use.

One day a “from the ground up” testing software company approached us about using their test database. Once we learned about their program, we jumped at the chance to use their software to provide computer tests for our customers. The software was designed to provide digital tests, not to provide pencil and paper tests digitally.

Say That Again
Let’s look at that last sentence again. This company provided software written for digital testing. The old company had taken paper tests and slapped them into the computer. It may seem as if there was no real difference between slapping the old way of testing into a software program versus designing software for giving digital tests, but there was. 

But wait. How does this have anything to do with print and electronic book publishing? 

I often see a similar disconnect between a print book and its e-book counterpart because there appears to be a lack of understanding about the difference between print and e-books. Page after page, it is obvious the publisher–be it major traditional publishers or small traditional publishers or an independent publisher–hasn’t bothered to learn about e-book publishing, 

Still not sure what I mean? Let’s look at traditional publishing versus EPUB publishing.

Traditional versus EPUB
In traditional paper publishing, the font is locked in place. You can turn the hardback book in any direction, the print never moves. It’s fixed. If you want to read the text, you have to align yourself with the text. This is not true of an EPUB. This type of electronic publication is designed to flow the text to match the device the reader is using. Or even the direction of the device. You can turn your e-reader every which way and the text will change and flow into a readable format. There is no need for you to stand on your head to read your e-book even if you turn your tablet upside down.

Those Pesky Hyphens
Due to this difference, there are some elements in print that do not transfer well to EPUB. One print element I see all too often in poorly executed e-books is hyphenation. Print books use hyphens to help fit words on a fixed page. As I mentioned, no matter what way you turn that print book, once the words are printed, they are not going to move (unless, of course, you’re trying to read while imbibing lots of alcohol). 

Obviously, hyphens perform an important function in print books. That said, hyphens have no place in an EPUB because a hyphenated word can land anywhere on a page. The digital format precludes the need for hyphens. The words are going to wrap and flow. If a hyphenated word is not removed from the electronic version of a print book, it show  up anywhere on the page. Let’s look at an example.

Print version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led him into a lifelong career as an en-                       

(Okay, the hyphen example looks great in "Compose" but when I hit "Publish," the computer puts entomologist on one line with the hyphen! So imagine the tomologist part as starting at the margin on the next line.)

Tablet version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led 
him into a lifelong career as an en-tomologist.

Not good.

A good proofreader would know this and remove all the hyphens–a simple task with find and delete. Yet I see dangling hyphens all the time in e-books that were first published in print.

Scene Breaks
Another issue with shoving a print book into an EPUB is the correct placement of scene breaks. In an EPUB book I recently read, the publisher chose to format all the paragraphs with single spacing. To differentiate the paragraphs, the publisher chose to double space between them. So far, so good. 

This worked for separating the paragraphs, but no allowances were made for the scene breaks. Every paragraph was set apart with a double space. Nothing warned the reader of a scene break or change of point of view. No asterisk or cutesy symbol, i.e. a fleuron. 

What does this mean for the reader? Confusion. Jarring jumps from one scene to another. Unexpected change to the point of view character. It means being thrown out of the story and backtracking to figure out who is now controlling the story or where the characters are located. 

Connecting the Dots
How does all this connect to my opening anecdote about that first computer test company? I think too many publishers are still trying to shove a print book into the electronic format rather than learning how to create an e-book in its own right. Granted, a traditionally published author may have no control over the process of how his or her print books become e-books. 

But the indie published author has no such excuse. 

My suggestion for the indie publisher: Capitalize on the strengths of e-book format rather than slapping a print version into a poorly planned e-book.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How to Get Rid of Your Favorite (Overused) Words and Phrases

Many years ago I critiqued a 400-page manuscript by an author who loved the word, “smirk.” Smirk. Smirked. Smirking. All the characters smirked at everything. By the end of the manuscript, I detested the word in all it’s various forms. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve written that word in years. To this day, when I see that word in a story, I cringe.

Repetition of favorite words or phrases is something I notice when I’m reading. No matter how well written the story is, overuse reduces my enjoyment. How many times can the characters “snort in disbelief” or respond “saucily” before a reader tosses the book aside for something better edited?

Don’t misunderstand. We all have favorite words and phrases. They’re great when you’re drafting a new story. At this stage in the writing, it’s more important to keep the momentum going, not stop and debate word choice. While favorites are handy in a rough draft, they have no place in the final manuscript.

How do you get rid of them?

The time to get rid of favorite words and phrases occurs during the self-editing phase of writing a story. And yes, self-editing is part of the writing process. It’s helpful to lower the volume on the creative side of your brain and concentrate on the technical side of writing when self-editing. I say “lower the volume” on your creative side, because it will need to be accessed when you revise those favorite words and phrases.

The easiest way to find your favorites is to make a list of them in a notebook or on a spreadsheet. They are, after all, your favorite words or phrases. That means you like to use them. A lot.

Now grab a favorite from your list, do a search for that word, delete it, revise the sentence and voilá you’ve edited it out of your story. The computer offers writers an unprecedented capability to avoid repetition of a favorite word or phrase. Use it.

Also, be aware that new favorites are always popping up. Ask your beta readers to note repetition of words or phrases when they read your newest manuscript. Pay attention when you edit and keep an eye open for those favored words and phrases. Add them to your list.

I’m not saying you have to remove every single favorite word or phrase, I’m saying, be aware of them. If you feel that particular favorite word in that particular passage makes the story stronger, keep it. Be judicious in the use of favorite words and phrases. Avoid overuse and always reach for the best words to convey your meaning.