Sunday, March 31, 2013

Chapter and Scene Transitions: Variety or Reliability?

What is the best way to transition between chapters, or from one scene to the next? Is it good to use the same transition device throughout your novel, or to vary it from chapter to chapter?

I've seen the following transitions. Feel free to comment add any that I miss:

  • Don't even try. Just end chapters on a cliff-hanger.
    • If done well, and not done in every chapter
  • End every chapter with a question.
    • This keeps the reader engaged, but the question needs to be interesting, not too difficult, and answered quickly in the next chapter
  • Copy a word or phrase from the end of one chapter, and use it in the set-up for the next
    • This can either be clever or corny, depending on how carefully it is done
  Here's a writing prompt. Write out the scene or chapter, and then try transitioning to the next using each of the options above. Which works best? Would you always use that, or use a different type for each chapter, and why?

Writing Prompt: They always warned me that this job would kill me. I just never thought it would be so soon, or so embarrassing...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Deadlines: The Blessing and the Curse

I have good news about one of my ongoing writing projects. There is a manuscript I've written about the Greek pantheon and the unfortunately-talented young school teacher who tries to keep the gods in line. It's complete, but for a few chapters that describe exactly how some of the gods reach the final scene. (I've implied how they arrive, but it's probably better to give a full description for the readers to enjoy.) Also, I've lined up an editor for this manuscript.

Where's the downside? Well... I need to add eight or nine scenes before April, when the NaNo event begins. As of April 1st, I'll be concentrating on the "Paradise Found" book idea.

Having deadlines is good, because it makes a writer take time out of his or her busy schedule, and put words to page via whatever medium you prefer. Unrealistic deadlines (like the one I've set for myself) can either add to the stress level, or produce some amazing results. I'm hoping for the latter.

Here's a bookend writing prompt. You can personalize it to your own experience with deadlines or use every detail as written in the prompt.

Bookend Prompt
Left Bookend: She paced back and forth in front of the board, aligning resources, personnel, and timelines with what she hoped were reasonable expectations. An event this big never happened without some mistakes, but she wanted it to be as perfect as possible...
Right Bookend: The moment the door shut behind the last of the crowd, she collapsed on the nearest settee, completely relieved.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hello, My Name is Sidekick.

In my post a few days ago "Coming in Second", I described the second chapter as a good place to introduce new characters and to show your main character's background through action and dialogue, rather than with a listing of their personal history.

When we left my main character from "Paradise Found", Joe Carrigan's boss had just given him an ultimatum... and was about to give him a partner too. The trouble is, I'm not sure which character to introduce as the partner. I need to show the reader another police officer (who is important later on for what happens to him), and the archangel Michael (who is important later on for what he accomplishes).

The way I see it, I have 2 (okay, maybe 3) ways of presenting this:

  1. Only introduce the police officer as Joe's new partner. Show how Joe and his new partner get along by having dialogue, body language, and perhaps a short listing of each man's major accomplishments on the police force.
    • The weakness in this is that it leaves the introduction of the archangel Michael until later.  While it's fine to introduce stock characters, minor characters, and/or villains later in a book, the sidekick/co-hero ought to receive more attention sooner in the novel.
  2. Leave the other police officer in the background for now, and instead introduce Michael as Joe's new partner.
    • This option has some weaknesses, though, because of the way I'm writing angels. As beings of pure spirit, even if Michael looked human to everyone, he wouldn't be able to physically interact with the world. It's difficult to explain how he manages to get into and out of the squad car without ever opening the door, not to mention the fact that he wouldn't be able to arrest anyone, kick in doors, or help Joe out in a fight. As an over-involved witness, Michael's lack of interaction with the world can be excused or rationalized. As a cop, it would be questioned by the reader too thoroughly and too soon.
  3. Introduce the police officer as Joe's new partner, and have them interview Michael in the same chapter.
    • This option seems to be the best, because it includes both of the new characters. The only danger in the third option is that the chapter could become too lengthy. Long chapters are okay, but only if the pacing is fast enough to keep the reader engaged, but gradual enough to help them catch the character identifiers and plot points.

If I'm going with the third option, I would introduce both new characters like this:

Joe kept his grumbling to a minimum, because the partner with whom the captain had saddled him was a good man, and reliable in his work, if a bit too preoccupied with it. In other words, Detective Aldo "Al" Starek was very similar to Joe, in bearing, experience, and - somewhat - even in appearance. Al's hair was curlier than Joe's, and slightly longer, but they each had the same large, brawler's hands, the same skeptical glare, and the same half-amused smirk. The last two were hazards of the job.

Detective Starek led the way to his desk, saying, "This guy shows up out of nowhere, saying he's got information on the seven murders that happened today."

Joe scoffed. "Only seven? Slow day in paradise, isn't it?"

"That's the thing," Starek claimed, "There have actually only been six, and he started giving his statement before we'd even heard about the fifth. Either he's involved, or--"

"Or he knows someone who is," Joe was able to finish Starek's thought easily. Joe looked at the man who sat on the far side of Starek's desk, trying to size him up before speaking to him.

The uncannily-aware informant was difficult to describe. One moment, Joe looked at him and saw a twenty-something man, with powerful muscles and an alert, darting stare. The next moment, Joe would have sworn the man aged a couple of decades. The powerful muscles were still there, and the stare was just as mobile, but he seemed more confident, as though he'd seen countless military campaigns. Joe thought it was no wonder they released descriptions of suspects with age ranges of twenty years, rather than five.

"Are you seeing the same thing I am?" Joe asked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him, or if the informant was wearing some kind of malfunctioning holographic disguise. He hadn't heard of those existing yet, but he figured he'd be the last to know. Unless it came up during a case, Joe wasn't likely to notice.

"He's a cool one, definitely," Detective Starek asserted, seeming to miss the age fluctuations that were so apparent to Joe. "When I told him that he'd jumped the gun on a few of the murders, he smiled, and said something about this place acting differently."

"Acting differently than what?" Joe wondered aloud. "And what did he mean by 'this place'? Our squad room or Chicago?"

Starek gave a hopeless shrug. "He wouldn't say. It seemed like he was waiting for someone, some detective other than me. Maybe you'll have better luck."

Carrigan and Starek came to a stop in front of the informant, and Joe crossed his arms, staring at the man with open disapproval. "I hear you're being evasive," he accused the informant. Joe had been to some training where they told him he was supposed to be more sensitive, to lead witnesses and informants carefully and politely through the interview process. The trouble was, Joe had found that more than a few witnesses and informants were the perpetrators. He still kept his temper in check, but he didn't feel the need to coddle a potential criminal.

"We've too many cases on our desks to waste time with you," Joe challenged the informant. "So, unless you have something solid for us to follow up on..." Joe's voice trailed off as the informant looked up.

The informant seemed to see Joe for the first time. Of course, he must have seen the two detectives heading in his direction, but maybe he'd just seen the uniforms, rather than Joe's face. While Joe couldn't say he knew the informant, it was pretty clear that the informant knew him. The look that the informant was giving Joe now was uncomfortably familiar.

The informant smiled. "Joseph Caleb Matthew Carrigan," he intoned in a calm voice, and then addressed Starek. "I need to apologize. Gratefully, my estimation of the number of murders was inaccurate. There have only been six."

Joe felt anger rising in his chest. How the heck did this stranger know his full name, including the one he'd chosen at Confirmation? "Look, mister, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but--"

"My name is Michael," the informant replied evenly.

"And that's all I can get from him," Starek told Carrigan, not bothering to whisper. "The story about seven murders, and a first name. He claims not to have a surname."

"Come on," Joe complained, "everyone has a last name, even if it's just what town they're from. Where's his ID chip?"

"That's the other weird thing..." Starek admitted abashedly, "he doesn't have one."

You can introduce more than one character in a chapter, but make sure to differentiate them. In this chapter, Michael and Starek are different enough because Michael is being vague and infuriating, in addition to not being a cop. Detective Starek is described as being similar to Joe, but that's acceptable because there should be a certain rapport between them. Similarity helps toward that end.

Here is a writing prompt for expanding your first few chapters: Take a writing idea you have already been working on, and take a character you haven't introduced yet. Introduce the new character with dialogue and a progressing plot. If you can hide plot points inside characterization, such as my mention of Michael lacking an ID chip, then your audience will be more likely to read each paragraph carefully, looking for those hints.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Marathon Writing: Introduction to Camp NaNoWriMo

I'm about to embark on yet another NaNoWriMo event. For those of you who know NaNo, I can already hear the exasperated sighs and see the hopeful but frantic looks. For anyone who hasn't heard of NaNo, here are the basics:

NaNoWriMo: A month-long writing marathon, where dedicated writers attempt to write at least 50,000 words of their next great novel, auto-biography, or other project.
  • You verify your word count through the event's website, and there are numerous forums, both for support and for distraction.
  • The website has a place for you to enter your daily word count, and track your progress.
  • There are 3 NaNoWriMo events each year. The main one is in November, which is National Novel Writing Month. The other two months are called Camp NaNoWriMo events, and April is one of those this year.

If you want to participate, it's a great way to have some external accountability, to help you write every day. Where's the website? Here:

In case you want to follow my progress on the "Paradise Found" novel, my profile for that site is under the penname "Armaita".

I'll continue to post here throughout the marathon writing NaNo event... though it may just be some notes about writer's block, or excerpts from my writing.

In honor of the upcoming Camp NaNo event, her is a writing prompt. I'll give you a few words, and you need to write as much as you can, including those words. This gets interesting, especially when your story is about a spaceship, and you have to include dolphins, cheese, and ceremonies somehow.

Writing Prompt: Write as much as you can, on any subject and in any setting, but use the following words - shoelaces, driftwood, lamppost.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Coming in Second

Once you've perfected the first chapter, it's important to follow up with an equally compelling, entertaining, and/or suspenseful second chapter.

If the first chapter is your hook to draw in readers, then the second is your opportunity to introduce the characters in greater depth. You've already shocked or intrigued your readers with the first chapter; use the second to explain who the characters are.

The danger, of course, is to launch into the backstory (if you managed to avoid it in the first chapter). This runs the risk of boring your readers into dropping the book and trying a different one.

Instead of describing your character with overwrought and weighty backstory, illustrate your character's background by showing how he or she deals with a situation.

For example, my current project "Paradise Found" opens with a fight scene where the main character is nearly killed for the identity chip in his arm.

In the second chapter, it's tempting to have paragraph upon paragraph of explanation. I'll provide a few examples. First, is how not to do it. The second (I hope) is better.

Warning... don't write your second chapter like this: Joseph Carrigan was an eighteen year veteran of the Chicago police force. He'd gotten his start in the anti-militia unit, followed by a three-year tour in anti-drugs. A short stint in IA later, Joe decided he would never hold a desk job again, much less one that had him looking sideways at other cops. So, he'd returned to the streets, and had been there ever since.

Try writing your second chapter like this instead: Joseph Carrigan stepped through the doors of his precinct, relieved to have survived his recent encounter with two muggers. A few years ago, he would have taken both of them without trouble. This time, he'd been lucky to receive only a goose egg on his head as a stern reminder of his slower reactions. While Joe was still enjoying the visual orchestration of chaotic movement of officers, detectives, witnesses, and detained persons, he saw one man moving with unusual purpose.

Even without the perfectly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and insistence on wearing dress blues at all times, Joe would have recognized the man who was cutting through the crowd in his direction. Officers hurried to get out of his way, detectives decided to ask him their questions later, witnesses ignored him, and detained persons tried to avoid eye contact.

Not that it mattered, of course. The well-dressed cop focused his hard, gray gaze only on Carrigan. Somehow, Joe managed not to flinch or look away. Joe had known men more intimidating than Captain Stillwell, but the names of those men escaped him as the captain came to a stop in front of Joe.

"I knew there was a reason we shouldn't let senior investigators patrol alone," Captain Stillwell said, loud enough that some of the officers stopped typing their reports on their handheld computers, and a few of the detained persons glanced toward Joe, wondering if he was in as much trouble as they were.

"Captain," Joe tried to explain, "I wasn't on patrol yet. It was a simple mugging, and I'm--"

"What you were doing patrolling before your shift, is beyond me," the captain continued, disregarding Joe's claims of being an innocent pre-shift crime victim.

"I'm fine," Joe groused, "not that you asked, sir."

"Well, why wouldn't you be?" Captain Stillwell demanded. "You're too stubborn to ride a desk like most cops with your experience, and--"

"The ID Theft Taskforce needs someone with my experience out on the streets, Captain," Joe argued impatiently. "Contrary to popular belief, you can't solve every case by staring at a computer screen!"

"And," Captain Stillwell overrode Joe's protest by speaking louder, "you're too proud to realize when you might need back-up. You're right about one thing, though. The task force does need you, so I'm assigning you a partner." The captain raised a hand, stopping Joe's exclamation before it found breath. "No argument, or I'll have you cataloging evidence until you retire."

Reluctantly, Joe shut his mouth, and his shoulders slumped. The captain didn't pull out the big threats like that unless he was serious. "Understood, sir. Who will I be patrolling with?"

Conclusion: The better option draws the reader into the conflict between the characters introduced in the second chapter. It also introduces the captain without going into backstory about where they met, whether they were partners, why they get on each others' last nerve, etc.

Here's a writing prompt. Try writing it in the second style. Include dialogue and just enough description to differentiate the characters. Remember, it doesn't have to be a fight scene to be exciting.

Writing Prompt: She just knew there was going to be trouble on the docks. If not today, then sometime this week. As she stepped past the pool of light provided by the guardhouse, she realized the trouble was about to start right here and now...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Variety of Word Choice

Have you ever read a book where the author only uses 3 words to explain how characters talk? For example, I've read several books that use only "he said", "she stated", and "they spoke" as prefaces to dialogue paragraphs. In fact, there are numerous other words (more interesting and precise) that convey the same basic meaning, but with better depth.

Here are a few examples. Instead of "He said", you could try: accused, advised, announced, asked, asserted, boasted, bragged, commented, complained, denounced, decried, explained, expounded, groused, grunted, heckled, inquired, insinuated, insisted, jeered, joked, lauded, murmured, muttered, nattered, ordered, persuaded, queried, reiterated, revealed, shouted, told, uttered, verbalized, whimpered, whined, whispered, or yelled.

I'm not saying you'll reach the end of your writing project without repeating a few labels for 'said', but at least your writing will be less boring and more descriptive. For example, there's a huge difference between 'whined' and 'ordered', or between 'joked' and 'accused'.

Using the right word will set the scene before you even begin describing the location or characters. The wrong word will make the reader confused about your characterization.

While I've provided synonyms for one specific word in this posting, you can apply the same principle to other areas of your writing.

Here are a few challenges, instead of our usual writing prompts:

  1. Write up an argument between 2 or more characters, without repeating a word that means 'said';
  2. Describe a sunset without using the words 'golden' or 'fiery';
  3. Craft a racing scene without using any version of the word 'speed'. (Avoid: sped, speed, speeding)
Have fun, and keep writing!

Monday, March 25, 2013

When Life Interrupts Your Writing...

Have you ever had one of those weeks (or months, or years) where you can't find the time to write? The car needs repairs, you just found out that your kids need follow-up dental appointments, and work has insisted that you stay late for what seems like the last decade? When you're that busy, how can you set aside the time and concentration to write well?

My recommendation is... make parallels to your busy schedule in your writing.

This doesn't mean that you should copy your life verbatim. After all, if you write up your frustrations exactly, then the dry cleaner who messed up your shirt or the fast food worker who gave you the wrong order just might take offense.

Instead, think about your main character's busy life. Is she a workaholic, or on permanent vacation? Either way, there are bound to be numerous events in her daily schedule that conspire to make achieving her goals difficult.

If you can work these details into your story so that they hint at plot twists, all the better. Otherwise, it will only be word-padding. The moment readers notice that you're adding words just to pad a word count, you'll lose more than a few readers.

In my current writing project, 'Paradise Found', my main character is trying to work on solving a case. Unfortunately, life gets in the way. He has to deal with a nosy neighbor, while fending off a supernatural attack. Have I written this scene yet? Of course not, life got in the way. However, I've made notes on it, and I'll be able to come back to it when I do have the time.

Writing Prompt: He would work out, he promised himself, if he ever found the time. As a fitness instructor, it should have been second-nature to exercise, but lately...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Include Annoyances

Here's another tip about doing quality word-padding: include the things that annoy your main character and his or her friends.

This doesn't mean that you should include a laundry list of irksome subjects. Readers probably won't enjoy pages full of a character's profile.

I've included a list of annoyances relating to the character, Shawn. The first example is the way to avoid writing about annoyances. The second is the beginning of your writing prompt.

Don't write: Shawn couldn't stand traffic, loiterers, pets who slipped their leashes, having a pebble in his shoe, or police officers who missed blatant traffic violations.

Do write: Shawn sat on his bike, silently thanking the manufacturer for using a comfortable seat in its assembly. The comfort of his backside was about the only thing that was going right this morning. Some careless pet owner had lost hold of a terrier a few blocks back, and Shawn reluctantly recalled his need to swerve to miss a few people loitering as they started through the crosswalk...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hectic Plot: The Suspense/Action Combination

How many books have been praised for being 'page-turners' or 'edge-of-my-seat' reads? There are two elements to capturing that sense of urgency: suspense and action.

Suspense: This can take the form of anything from Hitchcockian levels of anxiety to a simple description of your main character's environment. The important thing to remember is the stakes for your character. The captain of a nuclear submarine can have the same sense of urgency as a student who hopes the class ends before he's called to answer any questions. For each of those characters, the suspense comes from their relationship to the stakes of the scene.

Action: This can be external or internal. In recent books and movies, external appears more popular. It's easier to see a conflict when fists, knives, or bullets are flying. However, an internal conflict can be even more rewarding to write and to read because the outcome is less predictable and the battleground is more concentrated. Use your writing to convey the action, whether it's external or internal, in a way that emphasizes the stakes for your main character.

In the writing prompt below, write a scene with the character I describe. What are the stakes? Who is she fighting? What is the outcome? Is there a cost to her (for winning, or for losing)?

Writing Prompt: With papers clutched tightly in her arms, she started around the corner, only to see the person she was trying to avoid. She ducked back behind the corner and took a few deep breaths. Maybe she could wait here until he'd passed, or she could try to escape into the ladies' room across the way. If he saw her, though...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Supporting Cast: Partner or Sidekick?

In some novels, the main character can stand alone. This works in stories where the conflict is internal to the main character, or novels where it's the main character against everyone else.

However, for most story lines, you might want to consider adding a partner or sidekick to support the main character. What's the difference between a partner and a sidekick?

Some of the difference is in how seriously you take the secondary character. Does the secondary character have a detailed backstory and take up almost as many pages as your main character? If you answered 'yes', then your main character has a partner for his/her adventures.

If your secondary character receives far less time on the page than the main character, and only show up to crack jokes or drive the getaway car, then he or she is probably a sidekick. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important to know the difference.

In my current novel project "Paradise Found", the main character (Shane Carrigan) has an unwelcome and uninvited partner, none other than the Archangel Michael. There's no way I could write Michael the Archangel as a humorous or forgettable sidekick, so he's definitely Carrigan's partner. (That's a lucky turn of events, since the case Carrigan is working involves trying to avert the Apocalypse...)

In the writing prompt below, take the secondary character I've described, and write about him two different ways. Is he the main character's sidekick, or equal partner?

Writing Prompt: As I surveyed what was left of my racing car, I couldn't help but feel lucky to have a grease monkey like Lou on my pit team. He had a way of taking what looked like scrap metal and somehow transforming it back into a car that not only ran... it would help me leave my competitors far behind. Lou was...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Something from Nothing

You don't need a plot in order to write a novel, or even a setting. No, this isn't a joke at the expense of some of the currently published 'literary' works.

You can write an entire novel by asking two simple questions:
  1. Who is my main character?
  2. What character arc should I use?
By answering the first question, you will be able to fill in a lot of details about the setting. Is your character likeable? What is your main character's job? Does the character go out with friends frequently, or stay home and do arts and crafts? The more you establish who your character is, the easier it will be to figure out a plot line.

If you've written up a character profile with every detail from the character's cradle to her or her grave, and you still don't have an idea for the plot, there are a few possibilities. Either:
  • The character you discovered is a secondary one, and not the main character you originally thought, or
  • You're being too nice to the character, and don't want to thrown any problems at him or her.
If the former is true in your case, look to the other characters around your first one. Maybe one of those was your main character all along, hiding in the woodwork.

If the latter is true, you need to get inventive...and you can start by picking a character arc.

Do you want this story to have a happy ending or a sad one? Do you want your character to:
  • have a hard-won triumph,
  • experience a bitter-sweet loss, or
  • lose him/herself completely?

Pick one of the three, and then start lobbing obstacles and problems at your main character.

If you want to write a happy ending, make the obstacles challenging, but not hopeless. Think of almost any epic adventure story. The characters start out inexperienced, gain training as they travel, and then are able to overcome the villain, save the princess, win the kingdom, and/or get back home safely.

If you want a bitter-sweet loss, let the character have some wins and some losses along the way, and the lose at the end, but in some poignant, meaningful fashion. Think of action films and novels where the accomplished martial artist wins by saving someone, but sacrifices his or her life in the process. This is a mixed ending, leaving the reader feeling proud of the character's choice, but sad that the character didn't live to see the better world he or she helped to win.

If you want to set your main character on a downward spiral, get ready to write tragedy, and lots of it. The obstacles and problems in this kind of story are so severe that no one could handle them, not even your main character. The character's failure (either death or some compromise of morality) is inevitable... but you can stave it off and off glimpses of possible, happier conclusions... right up until the bottom falls out and the character loses. There are fewer examples of this kind of story, but when paired with satire or a bitter commentary on a societal norm, this character arc can be powerful, whereas the first two are just fun and fulfilling.

Try writing each of the three character arcs for the character in the writing prompt below. You can write a summary (a few paragraphs), or turn it into a longer project.

Writing Prompt: He directed one of his coworkers, motioning and pointing to show where the concrete had to be poured. As he baked under the hot sun, he wondered if there was anything more to life than this. It certainly wasn't what he'd expected, growing up like he had...

Have fun, and keep writing!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Make it Real

Word-padding is only a bad thing for a writer if done poorly. If a description can draw the reader deeper into your novel's universe, then using ten words where two would have worked is a fine idea.

Case in point, I've got a finished (but still too short) novel called "Olympian Outcast". (Think Rick Riordon's Olympians series with a dash of "My Teacher is an Alien".) At roughly 84,000 words, it's still too short to be taken seriously by any of the traditional publishing houses.

I've added words every way I could think of. I described the settings until you could navigate them with your eyes closed - and that includes Hera's floating cottage, currently anchored in the sky above Australia. I added debates between the secondary characters (*ducks lightning bolt as Zeus realizes she just called him 'secondary'*), debates that only tangentially touched on the main plot. I added dream sequences, flashbacks, pointless flirtation, and petty jealousies...and all of that only got me to 83,000 words.

Then, I thought back to what defined my main character, Celesta. She senses lies and draws power from those deceits. The power is even more intoxicating when a god or goddess tries to lie through his or her teeth to Celesta.

What I haven't done yet is describe how the transferrence of those lies feels to Celesta.

  • If it's the same every time, then I would effectively have a character tag. You've seen this in books before, when every mention of a character's name seems to be followed by a consistent epitaph or some description of a physical trait
    • Celesta felt the familiar surge of power enter her, and stumbled slightly at the impact.
Unfortunately, if I use the same sentence every time some deity so much as mutters a white lie, the reader will get bored, not to mention begin questioning Celesta's sense of balance.
  • If it's different every time, I can use more words, personalize each scene and each lie, and show variety.
    • Celesta wondered if Zeus realized how painful his lies were. She should have just been grateful that he wasn't hurling lightning bolts, but the lies he was telling about the disappearances felt jagged and unwelcome. His lies were powerful, but that power rushed into her, with little regard for whether she could handle it. Celesta clenched her jaw, closed her eyes for a moment, and regained composure before Zeus noticed anything was amiss.
    • Celesta felt the conflict in Ares' lie distinctly, as though witnessing in a single instant all of the battles Ares had ever instigated. His deceit was blunt and sharp at the same time, the lie crashed into her like a line of charging warhorses and pinned her down as though a cannonball had just knocked her into a tree. Celesta remained standing and shook her head, disoriented.
The benefit to describing each lie differently is that it reveals two things:
1. The characterization of the god or goddess who just lied, and
2. The differing effects their lies have on Celesta.

Not every story will have a supernatural element like that, but you can apply description to your main character's interactions regardless of the setting or character's identity.

For today's writing prompt, I'll give you a few characters and a trait for each one. Try to write a lengthy description relating the trait to the character. Is the description just good filler material, or does it give you plot ideas?

Writing Prompt 1:
Character - a carpenter, working on a chair
Trait - the carpenter is sneezing from the wood dust

Writing Prompt 2:
Character - a physicist, about to solve the 'three bodies' problem
Trait - a classic rock song is stuck in his head, interfering with his calculations

Have fun, and keep writing!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mary Sue in Moderation

Is a Mary Sue a bad thing? For anyone who hasn't heard this term before, a 'Mary Sue' is a character that's simply too good to be believable. Here are a few examples:

  • An investigator who is equal parts Hercules and Sherlock Holmes. Nothing phases him. He's at ease whether solving a riddle or taking on an entire bar's patrons in a fight... single-handed. No, literally. He had one hand tied behind his back during the fight, and won without anyone else landing a blow.
  • A school teacher with the patience of a saint and a night life the celebrities are in awe of. Whether it's teaching basic reading skills or tossing back shots, this teacher is miles out of anyone's league.
There's nothing wrong with having a character who is over the top. Readers want an adventure, after all. If readers wanted normal, they wouldn't need books, right?

Still, it's good to have some balance to your characters. Make the investigator have a brilliant mind, but be terrified of confrontation. He never solves his mysteries in person because he's too afraid of getting hurt. Or, the investigator could be strong, but he's always a few steps behind the villains. His sarcastic sense of humor gets him into trouble, his fists get him out of it, and his contact in the local police force shows up in time to save the day and clean up.

The book I'm working on writing now "Paradise Found" has a Mary Sue, but I'm tempted to keep him around. The secondary main character is Michael the Archangel. The more famous stories about him are all about physical prowess. This is the being who defeated the devil once, and is ready to do it again. Less well-known stories claim that Michael is a level-headed healer, more intent on helping people overcome their internal battles with evil than with bringing his often-depicted sword to bear on a problem.

The only thing that makes it okay to have such a competent Mary Sue as a character is that my main character is an equal counterbalance to Michael's accomplishments. The main character, Joe Carrigan, is past his prime, doubtful about the afterlife, and mostly just going through the motions. Carrigan is a good cop, and a good man, but only out of sheer habit. Michael can serve as a driving force in comparison to Joe's tired indifference.

For today's writing prompt, try creating your own Mary Sue character. Then, play with the traits to make that character more believable to your readers.

Have fun, and keep writing!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Peril of Backstory

It's tempting to know everything about your characters (especially the main ones). How else, can you write them convincingly?

Some details are definitely more important than others, though. For instance, you should know:
1. What your character looks like,
2. What his/her/its personality is,
3. What your character likes or can't stand,
4. How you character speaks (this will help with dialogue).

Beyond that, anecdotes from your character's backstory are icing on the cake. They might answer how your character's personality formed, or explain a certain dislike, but it's important not to get bogged down in the character's backstory.

Which would you rather read? The first is an example of my main character from "Paradise Found", with tons of backstory. The second is the same character, but with the bare bones information included:

"Paradise Found" Backstory Example A:
 Shane Carrigan just knew he was going to regret this. He'd been on the force for a couple of decades now, and should have known better than to let some civilian - especially a smart-aleck like this Michael guy - tag along.

Hadn't Shane learned anything from that ill-fated arrest five years ago? When a bust went awry in a densely-populated area, Shane had gotten the criminal, but not before three people died.

Ever since then, Shane had promised himself to work strictly within the rules. This Michael, with his uncanny knowledge of the murder investigation, was jeopardizing Shane's resolve.

Shane sighed and started toward the precinct's door. Michael stood there in the bull-pen flat-footed and uncertain until Shane called back, "If you're coming, keep up."

"Paradise Found" Backstory Example B:
Shane Carrigan just knew he was going to regret this. With all his experience, all of it instructive, some of it painful, he knew better than to let civilians play detective.

It didn't help that this Michael guy had a smart mouth and an arrogance that didn't match his age or apparent inexperience. But, the man had an unusually intimate knowledge of the murder investigation, and threats of prison hadn't shaken any of it loose.

Shane sighed and started to leave the precinct. Standing still as a statue, like a well-trained soldier awaiting orders, Michael didn't move until Carrigan called over his shoulder, "If you're coming, keep up."

Option B conveys the same plot information, but doesn't distract the reader with a piece of backstory that I don't plan to reference later in the novel. It's fine for the writer to know every detail of a character's life, but the audience is looking for an entertaining and rewarding read, which means skipping the less pertinent minutiae.

Take the following writing prompt and try writing it two different ways.
  • The first way, include as much as you can about the character's history. Try answering all of these questions, and you'll see what I mean about providing too much backstory.
    • Why is Jake working as a guard?
    • Where did he work before?
    • Was he fired, and if so, why?
    • Do the other guards know his work history?
  • The second way, focus more on the current plot, including just what you need to inform the reader about the character's motivations. Try answering these questions, and see if it helps you with furthering the plot.
    • Why are the other guards mad at Jake?
    • Does Jake have any experience that will help him overcome the situation?
Writing Prompt: Jake pulled on his uniform, checked that the locker had closed properly, and then turned to head for his post. Before he got three steps, he was blocked by the locker room's other guests. They didn't look happy to see him. "Guys," Jake said, holding his hands out to keep some distance between the other guards and himself, "I'm just trying to do my job, okay?"

 Good luck, and keep writing!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Big Bang: Writing Memorable Novel Beginnings

One of the most intimidating aspects of writing a novel-length project is getting the first scene exactly right. Potential readers will likely judge your novel (quite literally) by its cover, or maybe skim the inside flap.

Supposing that the cover art and teaser material have sufficiently intrigued your prospective audience, the reader might then open the book to read a page or two. Personally, I've spotted an attractive book cover, read the inside flap, and then not purchased a book because I couldn't stand the overall writing style of the first few chapters.

How can you avoid losing readers? The short answer is: you can't. Not all of them, anyway. Some readers won't even peruse the aisle where your book is shelved. If you've written sci-fi, there are bound to be dedicated historical romance readers who wouldn't even consider checking the back cover of a sci-fi novel.

However, for that niche market to whom your novel could appeal, it's important to get the first sentence, paragraph, and page just right.

There are a few ways to do this. You can:
1. Entice a reader with action,
2. Entertain with humor,
3. Stun with suspense,
4. Haunt a reader with horror, or
5. Dazzle with description.

No matter what you choose, it all boils down to the same premise: be original. Have a compelling hook, a reason for your reader to keep turning the pages until they decide they just have to buy it.

I'll use my current novel project "Paradise Found" to provide examples, and then give a writing prompt that you can use:

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 1 = Action
Detective Carrigan failed to duck quickly enough, and the thug's anvil-sized hand careened, unforgiving, into the back of the Chicago cop's skull. Motes of black jolted across his vision, and Carrigan knew that if he didn't start winning this fight, it could be his last.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 2 = Humor
He wasn't even on the clock yet, Detective Carrigan complained silently, and some joker was trying to mug him. Seriously, who picked a uniformed cop as his target? Everyone knew cops didn't have any money, and they were more likely than the average citizen to have a weapon. Well, cops were more likely to know how to use one properly, at any rate. Detective Carrigan went to draw his, but the mugger had other ideas.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 3 = Suspense
Carrigan could practically count the steps left between him and the police station, separating him from the back-up and safety of his fellow officers. Of course, he wasn't in shouting distance yet... something that the well-muscled would-be mugger was probably counting on. Carrigan kept walking, the rapid swish and snap of his dark blue uniform's pant legs betraying just how nervous he was. That, and the bead of sweat starting to gather on his brow. Carrigan tried to tell himself it was the Chicago summer, rather than nerves, but his thoughts were interrupted as the mugger leaped forward.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 4 = Horror
Detective Carrigan recognized the criminal at a single glance, and did his best not to panic. That was something civilians were allowed, even though it wasn't helpful. Cops, on the other hand, weren't supposed to show fear... not even when he was too far from the station to expect back-up and had a known criminal with the build of Frankenstein's monster closing in.

"Paradise Found" Beginning Option 5 = Description
Detective Carrigan loved Chicago. Even now, in the mid-2050's, it maintained some of its original architecture. Wide streets had narrowed over time, as bigger buildings supplanted and replaced older ones, but there were still some alleys where the original brickwork was visible. Unfortunately, Detective Carrigan was currently witnessing some of that brickwork firsthand, as a mugger pinned his neck to the bricks and demanded money.

Your Writing Prompt:
Here's the premise. Your main character is trying to purchase something. (Use your imagination... is it hand sanitizer, or a whole country?) What goes wrong with the purchase?

Try writing the premise using each of the 5 options: Action, Humor, Suspense, Horror, and Description.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wild Ride of Unpredicatble Plotwork

I tried to plot this next book out... but it had other ideas. What was supposed to be a clear-cut modernization of the Book of Revelation has morphed into a film noir, dystopian near-future story. Feel free to vote via the comments. If you could change anything about this writing project, what would it be?

In keeping with my other posts, there's a writing prompt below. It has nothing to do with the writing pitch for my upcoming novel project "Paradise Found".

Pitch for (working title) "Paradise Found":
My main character, Shane Carrigan, was supposed to be the hero. The only problem is that Shane doesn't care enough. He's a worn-out, used-up, pessimistic cop, so when the case he's working threatens to end the world, Shane either wants to sigh in relief or give the bad guys a standing ovation for their originality. Fortunately for the world, decades of duty and a lifetime of contrariness set him solidly against the villains instead. Unfortunately for Shane, he's outclassed and out-maneuvered. With help from his coworkers on the police force, an angel who doubts Shane's good intentions, and a devil who can't decide if Shane is worth damning, this Chicago cop must solve the case... and hope he's good enough to stop the Apocalypse.

Writing Prompt:
The door beckoned, and - like the naive fool I am - I opened it. Of course, trouble was waiting on the other side. What had I really expected? Biting back a sigh, I grabbed my coat from beside the door, shoved my keys in one pocket, and strode out to meet it...