Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Neverending Red Pen

My red pen goes on, twirling, scribbling, crossing out. Are we ever finished with editing? Seems not.

There’s always something to be tweaked and scratched and altered and fixed, at least in my long fiction.

I’ve revamped and redecorated the prologue and first chapter for my novel Kings & Queens more times than I can even count: baseball intro—no not gripping, too kiddy—mock annihilation intro—scratch that too, for being a melodramatic cheat—back to baseball but with a completely different angle, darker tone and conflict. I suppose I should keep all my drafts, but I don’t. If I’m dissatisfied with something, why keep it around? It’s clutter to me. Some writers like to keep a record of how many versions they’ve had and changes they’ve made and they file them alphabetically with a color-coded graph and everything. Wow. I’m amazed at that level of organization. Skills I greatly lack. I'll definitely need to keep track of versions when I submit to agents, but for now, I just don't care.

I know where I started and can recall the big upheavals, but what I’m more interested in knowing is where I end up. I want the finished product to be excellent.

So again, for the umpteenth time, I’ve changed my prologue...a little bit. It’s always been short, but I hope it’s more gripping with it's new intro. Now I’ve got to go switch new for old on my various excerpts all over the web. I'll probably change it again. At some point I WILL let go of it. I promise.

Does editing drive you crazy? When does it ever stop?

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Aiming for a Knockout

If you’ve ever been bitten by a story idea, an idea that seems compelling and interesting but could never be grand enough for a novel, try condensing it into a bite-sized flash. Take that story idea, build it as you would, then burn and carve away anything unnecessary. The basic structure should remain. Choose words and sentences that say much more than what’s written. Every word must be essential. The fewer the words, the greater the impact.

The purpose of flash fiction is to deliver the basic elements of a story—main character, conflict and resolution—all with an economy of words and a punch at the end. This final punctuation can be a twist, a chord of irony, a humorous note. The story can appear to be one thing only to be illuminated in the finale as quite another.

This blink-of-an-eye exercise forces you to create a snap shot in time and build suspense and the element of surprise with harnessed language. If you can wield tension powerfully in a flash fic piece with 500 words or less, just think what you could do in long fiction.

Try it out, be creative, have fun and aim for a knockout. The bloodshed and thrashing of your work, though brutal, will produce a beautiful piece of art.

~Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cracking the Writers' Secret Code

Have you ever read a writers' forum or a blog and thought, huh? What in the world is everyone talking about? I'm totally lost. Why all the acronyms? Are these artsy fartsy weirdos in some secret society or something with its own language and handshake? I don't get it.

Yes, we are in a secret society actually, and we’re not actively recruiting at this time, but I’m nice and kinda rebellious too, not to mention a risk-taker, so although I can't cave on the handshake, I’m willing to share some of these secret codes so you won’t be so in the dark and can worm your way into the underground faction. But...ONLY read further if your promise to keep your source confidential. I’m really pretty fond of my fingers and tongue, thank you.

Finally, the mysterious alphabet soup codes of the WSWTFAYTAG are unlocked:

WIP = work in progress
POV = point of view

POVC = point of view character
MS = manuscript
MC = main character

PRO = Protagonist
ANT = Antagonist
NaNoWrMo = National Novel Writing Month, which is
November BTW
Nano = short for the above
cf. = confer, compare
e.g. = example
et al = and others
i.e. = means that is or in other words; frequently used incorrectly in place of e.g.
N.B. = note well
P.S. = postscript
DH = dear husband; not designated hitter as I now know ;)

DD/DS = dear daughter/son
MOD = moderator
S-MOD = Super moderator, they usually get a badge and a certificate how totally super they are
IMO = in my opinion
IMHO = in my humble or honest opinion
BTW - by the way
LOL = laugh out loud
ROFL = roll on floor laughing
LMAO = Laughed my a$$ off
NPI = no pun intended
TGIF = Thank God it's Friday
IA = I agree
ITA = I totally agree
IDK = I don't know
N/P = no problem
j/k = just kidding
j/w = just wondering
w/o = without
Thx = thanks
TY = thank you
YW = you're welcome
TC = take care
WTF = what the fu**
PP = new paragraph
SP = spelling error
GR = grammatical error
CC = correction
FYI = for your information
JSYK = just so ya know

DIY = do it yourself
FWIW = for what it's worth
BYOB = bring your own beer
WHC = we have cookies
BRB - be right back
GTG = got to go
HB = hurry back
WB = welcome back

AFC = away from computer, unless you're in a sports zone and in that case it'd be American Football Conference
CMYK = cyan, magenta, yellow and black/color plates used in printing
WYSIWYG = What you see is what you get, in reference to a web design program like Dreamweaver or CoffeeCup or a site like Wix.
IE = Internet Explorer
FF = Firefox
ISP = Internet service provider
URL = your website or blog address

AIM = AOL Instant Messenger
YM = Yahoo Messenger
AAR = Association of Authors’ Representative
P&E = Preditors and Editors
TNBW = The Next Big Writer
FB = Facebook
AD = Authors Den
BK = Burger King
MBIII = Marion Barber III, the Barbarian
G+ or Google+ = a secret society of social networking junkies
Tweet or Tweets = Twitter posts in bite sizes of 140 characters or less
RT = Retweet

Well, while this code cracking system won't get you into Bohemian Grove for their mock human sacrifice, at least writers will think you're one of the pack if you can speak the language. GTG. Have to work on my WIP and kick all my POVCs in the butt.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Battle Between Blatant & Invisible

Every writer spills their own world views and opinions into their writing. And if you’re writing about such topical issues, as abortion, gun control, the death penalty, cloning, vegetarianism, it’s nearly impossible to keep your opinion silent. Generally why you’re driven to write such a piece is to make your point shine and sparkle while chucking mud at the opposing one.

While you can certainly use your writing to relay your convictions or teach moral lessons, it’s best if you don't use your characters or narrator as soap box speakers. Readers know when they've suddenly been jerked out of Middle Earth and dumped into church or a political pep rally, and since the bait-and-switch was never noted on the ticket, now you've got them steamed.

I am a Christian and cannot separate myself from my core beliefs. I can create other characters with different opinions than me and make them believable, but I could not write a book centered around evolution let’s say, because I believe God is the Creator of all. While I’m friends with atheists, wiccans and homosexuals because I’m interested in knowing and loving people regardless of what they believe, I cannot write something with the intent of spreading a message that is contrary to my views.

One of my threads in Kings & Queens follows a character’s path to redemption. It’s not the main point of the book, but it’s still resonating because of this character’s hunger and need to feel free and forgiven. Instead of preaching, I demonstrated God’s grace in his life, and I didn’t expound on it in the narrative. Since I’m writing for a mainstream audience, that’s not fair to readers who don’t believe in Jesus or the Bible to suddenly get dealt a sermon out of nowhere. I’m not trying to preach. I’m trying to show.

Now in my story’s context, it’s not a “Christian” book, and it doesn’t matter what a reader believes because my beliefs are in the character’s experience. With his sin being so wretched, God’s grace is strong enough to speak for itself. The door is open for someone to think, Hey, if God can forgive a person like that, then He could totally forgive me. I can still impact readers who have the same kind of hunger as my character without alienating and putting-off the rest.

My sequel, Sapphire Reign, gets darker and has spiritual elements also, but now I'm trying to demonstrate God's power and love. Because there's an underlining spiritual battle going on, it's been a challenge to keep that God-element low-key in the story. It needs to be there but not in an obtrusive way.

Sparks of inspiration are birthed out of conviction, but when you’re infusing that fire and fury into a piece, and you’re intending on marketing it to a broad audience, step away for a while, then come back to it and try and read it as someone with a different view. Even members of your choir don't like to be preached at. In fiction, it's a total groaner. Does your prose sound like a protest, a sermon, a pointing finger? Is it too obviously drenched in your beliefs that it no longer sounds like fiction? If so, you’ll need to rework it so that your point won't be so head-bashing. Subtlety works best. Try to show and demonstrate as much as possible and speak a whole lot less. Stay invisible as an author so your readers won’t be reaching for tomatoes and stones.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Symphonic Zone

I love being active, but due to a mild ankle sprain from a klutzy encounter with a pothole in May, my fitness rotation has been limited. Though I could walk okay the day after it happened, my ankle was swollen and ugly for several weeks and it had this mild pain deep in the tissue. I also had this strange weakness when I walked, like it could easily pop again and give out at any moment, so I’ve been hesitant to put tons of pressure on it.

Don’t get me wrong, Tae Bo, Strippercise and Zumba—which I just got the DVDs for and am laughing my way through—are a total blast, but I hate monotony and need a variation of things to choose from. And for me, they take so much concentration on form and technique that it’s difficult to focus on anything else. Speed walking or running is all about rhythm for me. I find this internal music, this beat that every part of me is tune with. When I’m in that zone, my poetic juices start flowing. I don’t normally feel so poetic because I’m mostly writing novels now, but when I’m away from everything, escaping a little bit, if I stay alert instead of dissolving into myself, my senses pick up on the charms around me.

Lilacs conquer exhaust fumes and breeze caresses my skin in silky wisps and dogs who are miles apart communicate something only they understand and I’m glad I chose Orbit gum cuz the flavor lasts way longer than Extra and some dude oddly grills steak in the morning, making me crave it for breakfast.

Spring was so colorful this year, it honestly put autumn to shame. I felt like I’d finally met the real Spring after being tricked for years by a charlatan. I’ve never seen it look more vibrant, the reddish purple of sprouting maple leaves, pink, white, orchid and yellow blossoms, the lush and varied shades of green from pale to rich, so gorgeous, it leaves me breathless, and I’m amazed there are actually people walking around who can’t see God’s hand and splendor in it all.

It’s now on the cusp of fall. I love when the days are a bit crisper. It beats the sweltering heat of the season gone. Autumn is my favorite, so perfect for playing football, hiking and whatnot. I love the pumpkins and hayrides, the colored leaves and candy apples, the crunchy frosty grass and MLB post season, especially when the Yankees don’t make it in.

Even though there’s a slight twinge in my ankle and it still doesn’t feel 100%, I tested it with a 3-and-a-1/4-mile walk-and-jog, mostly jog, yesterday and that went great. No pain or anything, during or after. My husband has the day off today and it's gorgeous outside, not too hot or cold. So, I’m gonna leave my watch and MP3 at home, put on my new but broken-in shoes and go for a real run today for the first time in like forever and get back in my zone. I cannot wait for the symphony.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Finding Plot in Your Characters

Though characters are invented to highlight a block of moments in Fiction Land, they need to feel like they’ve existed before that time. If your MC is 24, this means 24-years worth of relationships, past experiences and events have shaped her and made her who she is in your story’s today. Build her yesterday as fully as you can. You not only have roots and depth to expose, you can find inspiration and angles of conflict you never would have considered or seen. Out of great character development, you find plot.

As an example, let’s do a sketch for a romance suspense novel.

We’ve got a heroine, a month shy of 26, 5'6", not stick thin or heavy, but a little curvier than she’d like to be from eating frozen dinners and ice cream out of the carton on nights when she feels bummed. She has golden brown hair, which falls slightly past her shoulders, jade green eyes, nicely curved eyebrows, a sweet round face. She's a college graduate, but like so many, she can't catch a break or get recognized for her talent in photography, which is her passion. She loves to capture not just beauty but true life and grit. Her main desire is to work fulltime as a freelance photographer or photojournalist so she can quit her job working for Jonesy, a sleazy investigator. She FINALLY just moved out of her parent's house and has an apartment. At least it's her own space, decorated without one gaudy flower in sight, smelling of yummy dessert candles and NOT fried onions, but it's not exactly in the best neighborhood. She would also like to find love at some point but doesn’t believe it will happen for her. She wishes to be more optimistic but turmoil seems to find her. She’s feisty, spontaneous, strong-willed but shy.

Why is she shy? Was she abandoned, abused, picked on all through school? Maybe something makes her self-conscious. A physical problem like a limp or a scar. I’ll go with scars. And she was ridiculed for those scars, so they go deeper than skin. I’ll put a scar on her left eyebrow, where she has to pencil in hair, and a few faded gouge marks on her cheek. She’s very conscious of them. She never, ever puts her hair up, preferring to style it in waves to somewhat conceal them. She usually dips her chin when talking to people she doesn’t know. She hates that she does that because she wishes to project confidence, but it almost seems to be a response she can’t control.

What caused these old scars? Fall through a glass door? Car accident? Dog attack? Dog attack seems right. That will give her a hatred and fear of dogs with which I can use to create conflict?

Who will not only compliment yet contrast her but also have a love and appreciation for dogs? Our hero will be 28, legally blind, 5' 10". He can see light and vague forms, but everything is drenched in deep, blurry shadow. He never uses a cane in familiar places. Everything's mapped out and paced in his head, like musical numbers. He lives on the heroine's hall, and since she's moved in, they've been quibbling almost every day over trivial things.

He’s adventurous and loves to shatter the limits people place on him. He lives in routine: shaves his head every morning, eats a good breakfast, always something with eggs, works out at the gym, gets his coffee black then spikes it with a dash of cayenne pepper. He's a journalist by day, gourmet chef by night. He’s chatty, witty and opinionated. He’s built and athletic. He can play a good game of 3-on-3 b-ball, learned by paces and sound. He's a little too self-assured, thinks he's Han Solo, and doesn't know when to quit.

Everyone is always complimenting his eyes, but there's no agreement on color, some say blue, others grey, others green. He knew those colors in early childhood before he lost his sight from a head injury, but they’ve become shrouded by new ones brought on by sound, colors he’s sure no one on earth has ever seen.

He can identify people long before they speak, by their footsteps, jingling keys or scent. Despite his quick ascent up the reporter ranks, people tend to treat him like he’s deaf, mentally handicapped or incapable of living alone, with the exception of his best friend Teddy, the hot dog vender on Court Street, and this little spit fire on his hall. She's never once treated him like some freak of nature. He gets kicks out of picking fights with her because she gets so easily steamed.

With a hunger to take on meatier work, he decides to get a guide dog to help him on self-imposed assignments. Suddenly his hall friend is no longer around, at all. He was getting used to her too. Not like he was going to ask her on a date or anything. Finding love is the very last thing on his mind. His previous girlfriend, who often boasted of her 15/20 vision and attractiveness, moved out nine months ago after three years and left him with nothing more than some kissoff note his crazy mother, of all people, had to read to him.

His new dog pal, Skippy, a chocolate brown retriever he's told, is cool, adept and friendly. He never barks or growls, but he gives out a little gruff any time he's called Skippy. Our hero changes his name to Bud, which seems to be more to his liking.

Just as our heroine realizes her irritation with her hallmate is actually a scorching attraction, he gets of all things, a dog. A DOG. She knows it's one of those aid dogs, but still, it's a dog, and all dogs are evil.

These two destined lovers need a plot now, something that pulls them together and additional conflicts that threaten to drive them apart.

Since he's a reporter, maybe he’s following the path of a serial killer/rapist, who’s been terrorizing woman along the East Coast. And maybe his blindness gives him a keenness for seeing things others can't. Nuances. True character. Patterns. Our guy studies the facts and sees a pattern emerge regarding location and type of girl chosen. He tells his theory to the police, but they disregard him because he’s blind, and therefore stupid. He ends up being wrong in his first guess. He persists, sure he's on to something, and learns his spunky neighbor is hunting too. When they report their joint findings to the FBI, everything around them starts to squeeze, making them think the rapist could be a high ranking official or cousin of the President or something. They're forced to go on the run while they hunt and try to prevent another slaying.

So, we’ve got these two sparring individuals and a dog stuck together, which opens up a lot of conflict possibilities and emotion. How will they deal? Will his hellcat ex enter the picture, or his overprotecting, overbearing mother? Will our girl overcome her fear of dogs, at least enough? Who's next on the raping killer's list? Is the FBI really letting him get away or is something else going on? Will he be caught and punished? Will I make the heroine doubt the man she's with? Will love find a way and win out beyond all obstacles and dogs? Will I scrap the serial killer angle altogether and go for something entirely different? A fight for survival in some catastrophe? A tag-team effort for a story and while investigating, they uncover some conspiracy? No. That last one won't work because she'd never voluntarily be anywhere near a dog. Needs to be by force, no other option.

Guess you’ll have to read my next novel. ;)

This is the start of a brainstorming session. I did all that on the fly by simply looking at her and dissecting the word shy. Then I'll take this primary workup, and go deeper, studying motivations and what makes these characters tic so I can discover ways they can help each other. Both of them are self-focused and need to break out of that mindset in order for their love to work. The hero needs to help her see the beauty in herself that she can't see. And she needs to help him to trust and to not be so averse to relying on others sometimes.

This is why getting into a character’s head and examining those whys and what-ifs is so important. It’s not just about placing a marionette into your story to fluff it out; it’s about fleshing out, examining, finding the story that’s beneath the one you want and hope to tell. Characters can shape and steer your work in completely unexpected ways and give you fresh and interesting plot ideas. So go introduce yourself and get to know those creations of yours, inside and out. Then tell that story. That's your winner.

~ Signing off and sending out Cyber hugs.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What's in a Character?

Every good character lives and breathes in his or her own fictional world and crosses the barrier of time, space and ink to reach outsiders and pull them into that world. For a character to successfully wield skills, magic and charm, be they friend or foe, fleshing out needs to occur. It's easier for some writers to do a complete sketch of their characters before ever writing one word of their novel. That's what I do. With them fleshed out, I can easily jump into the story and show who my characters are without having to explain anything. Here's a list of prompts you can use as a starting point for character makeup.

Full Name
Race, Ethnicity, Nationality
Weight/Body Build
Consistent Props
Nervous Habits
Distinguishing Marks
Physical Traits
Overall health
Property, wardrobe, vehicle

Socioeconomic Class
Intelligence Level
World Views or Religious Beliefs
Sexual Orientation/Values
Background Info
Main Desires/Goals
Minor Desires/Goals
Typical Day

General Disposition
Morality Level
Confidence Level
Trust Level
Hobbies and Interests
Recreational Activities
Greatest Obstacle
Greatest Fear
Motivations/Driving Force

Significant Other/Relationship/Marital Status
Love interest?
Lives with?
Fights with?
Spends time with?
Wishes to spend time with?
Family members/relationships, ages, occupations, conflicts
Best Friend
Other Close Friends
How does he/she view his family, friends, boss/co-workers, employees?
How is he or she seen by others?
By Society?

This is just a beginning list. Even if you never put most of these elements into the narrative or reveal them in dialogue, keeping them in mind when you're writing will help you think of your characters as real people and present them as such. But don't just fill in the answers and assume you're done. Delve deeper and find out the darkest, coolest, most fascinating aspects of your characters and make sure all that comes to the surface in your work. That's pure creative breath. That's what will make your work stand out and your characters unforgettable.

~ Signing off and sending out Cyber hugs.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Risking Life & Limb with Me, Myself & I

Many writers choose First Person, the glamorous realm of Me, Myself and I, thinking it’ll be easier than Third and also deeper and more intimate. That’s a huge misconception. For a mere handful of writers, me-me flair is an innate gift and greater intimacy and depth is achieved, but for most of us, First Person is tricky to get right and a poor use of it will condemn our work to the toilet, the fireplace or the rejection pile. I'm really, really starting to despise First because of the high flub rate. When I crack open a book and see "I grew up in Montana", I groan and put it down. I've been avoiding Twilight because I know it's in First, but I will get to it eventually, someday.

First Person can be subjective, where we learn all the main character’s thoughts, feelings, experiences and reactions. Or it can be objective, with the narrator standing at a distance, letting readers draw their own conclusions. There are different First Person Narrators you can use, such as:

The Partaker: experiencing and commenting on events as they unfold, can be in present or past tense

The Reliver: recounting experienced events and commenting with opinion

The Observer: recounting events as observed and being out of the main story

The Reporter: telling events, experienced and/or witnessed, in a detached, autobiographical style.

The Revolver: relaying events from multiple perspectives, often separated by chapter breaks or into mini books with each character’s name at the top to differentiate.

The Internalizer: recounting as an internal monologue, a memory drenched in opinion, often stream of consciousness.

The Orator: telling the story out loud without major interruption. This can be used in a frame, like if characters are sitting around a campfire, and one dishes on a spooky, personal experience.

The Writer: revealing the past through written form like letters or diary entries.

The biggest challenge when using a First Person Narrative, with the exception of the Partaker's journey and perhaps the Observer's outlook like in The Lovely Bones, is it looks back at the past, rather than taking place in real time, as unfolding drama and action. This dilemma can cause a lot of problems for writers. Here are some other perils I keep seeing in First Person Narrative:

A no-show voice. Voice is THE most vital thing when using First. This narrative choice is not just about relaying scene after scene through some zombie who's speaking as I. It's not. And I see this far too often. Voice is a combination of show, attitude, personality, belief, tone, vocabulary and feeling. It's all about revealing character without even having to say anything about the character. Readers should have a sense of who your character is in chapter one, paragraph one. If you're just giving point-by-point scenes, I'm sorry, but you don't have it yet. Keep working on it...or try Third.

A character getting up in the morning. Why is this a common intro in First? Really? Unless one is jarred awake by the sound of gunfire, a wake-up is dull. Yawning and stretching or staring at the ceiling is the kiss of death. A story needs to start close to action, conflict, conversation or the story question. Yeah, you say, but I’m showing normal routine, so the jarring moment will be, well, jarring. Trust me, no reader is going to get to that point if they can’t get beyond the bathroom run. Who likes mornings? Don’t do the wakeup call. Readers will hit not only hit snooze, they’ll smash the clock into pieces.

A dream. This is another nightmare akin to getting up in the morning. Dreams are a bad way to start any novel. Place readers in your story. If the dream is important, show it later, not at the onset. Or have it be a snippet, a teaser, and not a whole chapter long.

The long hello. Trust me, you will not have your readers at "hello", if it goes on for seven pages. I know it’s tempting to unleash a lengthy introduction and all sorts of background details in chapter 1, but don’t do this. It’s better if your character is engaged in activity, or put another character in the scene so you don’t even have to introduce in such a telly way. Exposition should trickle out not come down in a landslide.

A telly telethon. I often see too much telling and not enough showing. Just because you’re in First, don’t assume the show-don’t-tell concept doesn’t apply. You still want to engage readers and get them to identify with your characters and telling will have readers hanging up on you. Show.

A God complex. I've seen some narrators go all omniscient, breaking into other characters' heads. No. They can't be God. This is wrong. If your narrator is human and in the here and now, it should be, she later told me...not: Karen bit her lip, wondering if I was going to propose.

The dead-verb desert. Don’t be lazy. Just because you’re writing with a character’s voice, be-verbs seem the most authentic because that’s the way people talk, but too many will make your work drab and dry. Go for those juicier verbs sometimes so your prose has some sparkle and luster. You want the voice to be zingy and entertaining and alluring, and be-verbs just don’t own the power of seduction.

Tense tension. If your story is in the simple past, when your narrator talks about themselves or adds commentary, tense should switch to present very briefly. Because when you don’t shift, it puts the character in the grave. Just remember to switch back. [e.g. I couldn’t stand cake. VERSUS I can’t stand cake, so as they brought out that hellish thing with its mountain of frosting, a snarl contorted the left side of my face.] Everything needs to sound natural and conversational from the point in time in which you're telling it. Some writers bend over backwards to avoid a slip in verb tense, when really, it's the right thing to do. Sometimes the switch is needed.

Explosions of I. If too many of your sentences begin with I, that pronoun will shoot out like shrapnel and be just as jagged and deadly. Mix it up. Oh. And if you're writing about a sensory impression, just write the stimulus or reaction and omit: I saw, I heard, I thought, etc. You don't need those. Yanking them out will not only remove unnecessary I's, it will also help readers better identify with your characters.

Minimal hooks. Do not let foreshadowing be your sole hook. Have a good plot. I've read some published works that only hook with fortune cookie and crystal ball promises. Ever since childhood, I have despised blatant foreshadowing, when an author tells me what's going to happen before it does. This groaner kills tension. Subtlety is best. Foreshadowing should be a hint not a dead giveaway. Go for shifts in tone or atmosphere like music in a movie, instead of tacking on a little tag at the end of every chapter. Your "hook" will lose its barb and be totally ineffective at baiting anyone.

Abundance of detail. When showing your character engaged in an activity like peeling potatoes, you don’t need to note every slice-and-dice step. Eyes will gloss over. Sum up.

Forgotten senses. Sometimes noses and tongues and spirits are forgotten. There’s more in life to experience than seeing and hearing, so don’t forget to sprinkle your prose with various sensations. Blandness is distancing, so always think viscerally, always aim to bring your readers into the work and get them too identify with your characters.

Fluctuating voices. Narrators should not be schizophrenic, unless they literally are. When referring to a distant event like in childhood, the narrator should keep the same voice throughout and not slink back into a child's voice, except in dialogue.

Clock Malfunction. Some writers forget where they are in time. Know where your narrator is and where your story is and keep time warps from occurring.

When working with the perilous nymphs of Me, Myself and I, be deliberate, engaging, seamless and entertaining. Look out for potholes and keep your focus solid. Know where you are, where the narrator is, who your characters are and how to relay the story properly. If you can’t tell your story effectively, switch to Subjective Third. Subjective Third is as close to First as you can be, and it’s so much easier to keep your footing.

And on the flip side, if your Third Person scenes are feeling too distant to your critters or if an agent says something like, "you don't have a distinct enough voice yet", then rewrite scenes in First Person, and really think about the scene character's voice, tone and attitude when you do. Also add commentary on what's going on in the scene, express how the character truly feels in words. When you switch back, your Third Person will sound much closer and through the head of your character rather than via your fancy pen, and you will also have more content beyond the bits of action. Then rewrite all your scenes in that same style. Sometimes your work can have too much showing and not enough personality wrapping around it.

Rock on and keep writing.

~Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Being Safe at Third

I find the most engaging and revealing stories are those with a focused perspective, whether they be in First Person—told from the perspective of I—or in Third Person—told from the perspective of he or she. This means that only one character owns a scene, a predetermined block of narrative.

You can write an entire story through one set of eyes, which is Third Person Limited in its most limited sense. It holds one character's perspective for the journey, and that's it. You can only narrate what he or she experiences and knows. Meaning, if your character wouldn't know the name of some anatomical feature, the kind of gun that's being aimed at him or a song from 1950, even though you do, it shouldn't be in the narrative.

Third Person Limited can be extended to multiple viewpoints, changing per chapter or scene, but the same limited focus applies. You can use as many POVs as you want, but the more you have, the less readers will be able to identify with characters and experience the story. An example of this is Sinner by Sharon Carter Rogers, which was a fascinating concept to me with interesting characters, but I felt put off with its many perspectives. I couldn't keep them straight or give an accurate guess now at the quantity she used, but I'm gonna go with fifteen.

Now, with Third Person, you can use various degrees of penetration. Your narrator might give a glimpse of what's going on inside but never reveal direct thoughts like in this excerpt from the novel School Age by my friend Leslie DuBois.

* * *

Immediately after the break-up, Delia moved in with Donna Lee and her two roommates, Shannon and Sharon. She didn't leave the couch for weeks as she wallowed in her failures. The longer she moped, the more she failed. She lost her job as a research analyst for the National Science Institute. The only thing she succeeded in was annoying and imposing upon her sister and her two roommates.

"Delia, I love you, but this has got to end," Donna Lee said one evening as she came home from work.

Trying to block out the forthcoming nagging session, Delia rolled over on the couch and placed a pillow over her head.

“You've got to get yourself together. Jason was a no good creep. He's not worth all this. You've gotta get over him."

She didn't reply. Her sister just didn't understand. She had never been married. In fact, Delia couldn't think of a single relationship she had ever had that lasted longer than two months. Donna Lee was a chronic dater and never got too attached to any man.

"You know what your problem is? You've let Jason define you for so long you can't see yourself without him. I told you when you met him that you were too good for him and you didn't believe me. You think because your parents didn't want you that no one could ever want you. One charismatic grin from that trouser troll and he had you thinking that you were the most beautiful you had ever been. Well, you know what, Delia? You are beautiful. With or without him."

She kept her head under the pillow to hide the tears that had developed from the all-too-true words of her adoptive sister. Deep down she knew Donna Lee was right. She knew she couldn't carry on sleeping on a couch and dwelling on her pathetic life. She had to find a way to get on with her life.

* * *

Or you can use a more subjective method, also called Close Third, which filters the narration through the character's head, not only exposing thoughts, but using the character's attitude, personality and vocabulary to express the scene like in this excerpt from my novel Rotten Apples.

* * *

No one could have known, that in this sea of people, a stranger lurked, or at least, he preferred to be thought of as a stranger, a drifter of sorts, the kind of thug nobody'd wanna mess with. Detached...dark...mysterious...but suave when he needed or wanted to be. He loved to send a child fleeing in fright with just a beady-eyed glance. What a kick!

Westwood had been his home for little more than a month now. Just in some dive, not that he couldn't afford nicer. He simply preferred to dwell in shadows, be somewhat inconspicuous, since he was wanted under one of his aliases and everything. He did like to step out in spiffy duds, and luckily in this crowd of Lala Land snobs, Marco DeFranco blended in.

He clapped and smiled and reacted like everyone else, but he couldn't contain a snort when two girls stumbled in line. He'd come to this lame graduation to see his blond vixen, Jenna McCloud. The program noted she'd be giving a speech. On stage sat two blonds, a smokin' red-head with ample hooters trying to poke through curtains of hair and a dark-haired, four-eyed nerd, the valedick-whatever.

From this distance, Marco couldn't tell which chick was Jenna until her introduction. The second one to speak, she stepped to the podium. He groaned. Her speech resembled the first. Why didn't they just write one speech and take a section instead of killing us with the same frickin' blah-blah over and over again?

He squinted and studied her closely. She looked different somehow. That night at her house he'd only seen her briefly before needing to get away, and it had been over a month, but she just didn't look the way he remembered. She definitely held more fire in his fantasies. Maybe I just need to put fear back in her eyes. Hot thing.

After the ceremony, he leaned against a palm tree, smoking a cigarette and watching her as she fluttered about at the outdoor reception. Marco yanked in a drag to pull that menthol note down to his gut.

Jenna went and took the hand of another blond. They smiled at each other. Some dude took a picture of them, their arms wrapped around each other. Marco scrutinized each one. He cursed with a wisp of smoke seeping out of his mouth. What a fool he'd been! He questioned the wrong stinking girl. He'd seen them together before, but she had been at the right house, driving the right car, but she was most definitely not Calli Rosenthal a.k.a. Jenna McCloud. How? Too many frickin' blonds in this state, that's why!

Marco chucked his cigarette to the ground, crushed it with the sole of his dusty Armani shoe and sped off in his latest rental.

* * *

You can narrate with an in-between style, presenting thoughts, but not filtering through personality. Sometimes you may want to withhold thoughts altogether to leave readers in the dark about motive or future plans. You can vary the level of intensity in different scenes, but don't use Intensive for the first half of the book and then pull back for the rest. Switches needs to be less jarring and not so obvious, like an ebb and flow that readers never consciously detect. And beyond Third Person Limited, you can use Omniscience in either a Limited or Broad sense.

Limited Omniscience is a bridge between Limited and Omniscience, still keeping the main focus on one character, but perspective becomes the narrator's, and said speaker can interject things that are not known to the focal point character.

Think of this narrator as a powerless angel, stuck to Mr. MC by assignment, privy to everything he's experiencing and thinking and also knowing and observing things he doesn't. Stephen King often writes with a more focused Omniscience that bridges. In Needful Things for instance, the Narrator sticks to various townies as they deal with the sudden arrival of new store owner Leland Guant, who just happens to have the very thing everyone wants. King almost always had a scene character in those 700 pages.

In this style, anything in the narrative should apply to the focal point character for the given scene. The focus can stay super tight, where the narrator refrains from jumping into the POV of other characters until a scene break, at which point the narrator can then move on.

For instance, the narrator should not refer to MC's facial changes as a witness but rather as they are experienced by the POV character. Heat rushed to his face. Not: He turned red. With any kind of Omniscience make it clear in the very first sentence. Here's an example:

* * *

Kicking stones and muttering under his breath as he strolled down Chestnut Street, Knee-high Johnny needed to be concerned with more than his newest nickname, like the knife-wielding man in the bushes, licking his lips and waiting for him to turn the corner. If only someone would scream in the darkness and tell him to run. If only clouds would shift to conceal the full moon and paint an omen in the sky.

A whiff of cigarette smoke stopped Johnny in his tracks. His eyes ached, stretched wide to scan the deserted street for signs of life. Puddles of light from lampposts warped in the wet pavement. Coyotes howled in the hilly surround. His stomach churned with queasiness and a shiver scurried down his spine, and not from the 1 a.m. October breeze. Come on, fool. Didn't sneak out for nothin.

Determined to master his silly fear, Johnny gulped and took two steps but then he pivoted and dashed toward home. His speedy, little legs threatened to give way beneath him as he ran and ran, and a burn assaulted his lungs almost immediately. He could've sworn he heard huffing, splats, and a corduroy swoosh way behind him and then a stuttering on the pavement. He gulped and glanced over his shoulder, but no one was in pursuit. No one was there. Stupid! Stupid! Pea-brained, chicken turd. Freakin' imagining things.

When he reached his porch, he bowled over, gasping for air and cursing himself. After straightening, he bounced and peeled paint off the wooden railing while waiting for his breathing to even out. Good enough, he slunk into the house, careful not to let the creaky door make too much noise. The snores of his parents had never sounded so pleasant.

He tiptoed all the way back to his bed and wiggled under the covers, snatching them up to his chin. They're right! I'm such a baby, a shrimp and a chicken. Couldn't sleep in the cave for one freakin' night. Maybe tomorrow...Yeah. Definitely tomorrow. He had no idea why, but he couldn't stop trembling or still his chattering teeth.

Johnny never knew that being chicken was what had saved him from the sting of a blade and the coldness of death...the fate that befell poor Sally Mae.

* * *

Click Omniscience to read more about the common pitfalls and avoidances.

Least common is Third Person Objective/Dramatic, which sees everything from a bird's-eye view. It's kind of like a screenplay, only revealing what a character is thinking and feeling through action and dialogue. It can freely move from character to character because it never goes internal. The narrator is a mere camera, having no extrasensory perception or X-ray vision. The danger in using an Objective Narrator is it can come across cold and it's more difficult to make that reader/character connection. If an author has successfully pulled off this style, let me know. I'm curious to read a book in it, since it's the complete opposite of what I do.

You can also use Omniscience that only focuses on two or three characters. Perhaps you have a YA novel that follows three girls and you want to reveal what each of them is thinking and experiencing or you have a romance and want to show the heat or internal thoughts for hero and the heroine in the same scene. Take care when you do this. Pay special attention to character development and transition. When using a blend of POVs, the key is establishing the pattern early so it doesn't suddenly look like POV slippage in chapter 8 when the girls attend a ball game or the couple's eating out at Olive Garden and you're now bouncing back and forth.

Whatever you choose to use, keep your focus limited to only the characters that matter. Be consistent. I've read some books that switch to a clerk or a bellhop or a crow and they have no weight or importance in the story. If it's not an important perspective to show, don't show it. It'll only cause confusion and frustration for your reader. As a writer, Third Person Limited, Multiple VP is my method of choice right now. I love to write in that. It gives me a lot of leeway and the structure I need.

Choose wisely, my friends, and write on.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nixing Omniscient Nightmares

I'm going to be talking about the different points of view and narratives writers can use in novels. First, we'll start with Third Person Omniscient because I've noticed a trend in reading and/or critiquing the work of others on various sites, that some writers are using omniscience and using it badly.

Omniscience is where the narrator knows what everyone in the book is thinking and feeling and experiencing in any given scene. The narrator is not hemmed in by one perspective, but can show many or even none.

When you start off writing a novel, please only use this narrative style if you know what you're doing. Many beginners mistakenly use it because they don't understand how perspective works. When I began my first novel, I wrote willy-nilly because I didn't know any better. Luckily, I was reading books on craft at the time and was only a few chapters in. I fixed those slips promptly.In order for readers to identify and be engrossed with your characters, scenes really should be owned by only one character. That means from the beginning to the end of a scene, Bill can't know what Tom is thinking or see that his own face is turning red. Bill can only know what he himself sees, hears, feels, tastes, thinks, experiences. You can break this barrier without giving readers an arm's-length or jarring sensation if and only if you use an all-seeing narrator masterfully.

Although Omniscient Narrative allows for flexibility in it's umbrella-style relaying, keep these objections in mind:

Ø It creates distance between readers and characters because they can't identify with one character per scene. With head popping going on, extra attention to character development and exposure is needed.

Ø It can cause confusion, especially if you don't provide paragraph breaks or good reason for changing perspective.

Ø It went out of style with button-down shoes.

Ø It's unpopular.

Ø It can make you seem amateurish.

Ø It can reveal too much information, robbing readers of suspense.

Ø It can be too telling, a landfill of exposition and backstory.

An Omniscient Narrative can be intriguing and fresh if used properly, not in the head-popping, random manners I keep seeing. However, your work needs to stand out from the sludge written by clueless wannabes. If you decide to use such a way of telling, you can at least avoid having your work read like just another Omniscient nightmare. Here's how:

Ø Make it clear in the first sentence that you're using Omniscience. Having a God-like story-teller emerge in chapter 5 out of nowhere is very jarring and confusing to readers.

Ø Use it effectively, giving smooth transitions, revealing secrets to readers the characters don't know. You can even show a scene where there is no character.

Ø Make good use of knowledge in the past, present and future.

Ø Consider your narrator a character with personality and opinions, even if he or she is never named. If you think of your narrator this way, it will help you to stay focused.

Ø Keep the voice enthralling and consistent throughout the entire novel.

Ø Only shift to viewpoints that are important.

Ø Choose a tone, style and flavor that flows from beginning to end.

Ø Be consistent in the telling. Don't have four chapters in one POV and the rest a mishmash of whomever.

Ø Be creative. You can have great fun with an all-knowing perspective.

Ø Unless you're writing for children or a fantasy piece akin to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, avoid animal perspectives. You can reveal a lot through behavior. No need to jump into Fido's head.

Ø Show, show, show. Avoid lazy telling when story elements can be revealed through dialogue or action. Too much exposition and backstory will create drag.

Ø Have the ease of a steady cam.

If you unintentionally used Omniscience, squash any POV slips you find. Think of Bill. He can only know what he knows. He can't know about the bomb under his chair in the movie theater unless he knew it was there to begin with or about the girl who secretly admires him or that his waitress at Friendly's is addicted to online porn. Pick the most important POV for the scene and write it through that one pair of eyes.

If you're using omniscience with intent, be mindful of readers and make your work as clean and unjarring as possible. Use it with flair and consistency.

I'll talk about Third Person Limited tomorrow.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.