Tuesday, May 31, 2022


HTWF is 10 years old. After all that time and over 500 entries, this is the last post (other than a coming Index Series).

Stories mean a lot to me. Certainly, they provide entertainment and emotional experiences. They also provide insights and readily accessed models for living in a complex world. The characters introduce people who are very different from myself, and, unlike real people, I can get into the minds of these characters and come to understand them.

I believe that people never exhaust their need for stories. Good stories. Stories from new perspectives. Stories that reflect how humans live today and those things that never change about us. Poetic expressions that feed us when we don't know we’re hungry. Tales that embed us more deeply in our own cultures or introduce us to societies that are lost or distant or never were (but maybe should have been). constellation good times and laughs and heartbreak.

So, after over 500 posts, I'm going to offer a few perspectives on storytelling, for storytellers.

Your audience. A lot of writers write for themselves and occasionally the combination of what's in common the rest of us and what's quirky pays off. For most writers (and most writing), I suspect there's more to be had by seeing storytelling as a form of communication. That means the writer is not alone. The writer is actually hoping to say something to someone else. To move someone else. Maybe convince someone else of something. To do that effectively requires real thought on who your audience is for a particular piece. And I agree with Vonnegut that the first draft is best written to one specific person. That will shape the language, the pacing, the details, and the arguments within the story. The next draft may be (and probably should be) to more people, but one person is a great starting point.

Thrills, surprises, and questions. Never write predictably. While it's important to engender participation in readers or audiences, stories that flow as expected are ultimately tedious. We love those twists and turns. It's also important not to explain everything right away. Questions, especially if they lead to worries about characters, keep us involved. Unless you're writing instructions rather than telling a story, withholding is a good thing. It's not deceptive. It's part of the contract with the readers.

Escalation. I often come across stories that have great things happening in them. But even when the choices and the actions are highly inventive, the tension goes right out of the story if the stakes are raised or the problems don't become more difficult. The simple solution is to organize the tasks, once a draft is done, so that more is expected with each one as the story goes on. That avoids one of the major problems with pacing, sections of the story that plateau. (Pacing can also be damaged by excess verbiage. That means making sure there's a reason for every word. Strong verbs. Fewer adverbs. Fewer qualifiers (some, a bit, rather). Too much exposition.)

Clarity. You can have the best story in the world and lose readers if they hit the spot where they're forced to reread. Or even worse, can't figure out what's going on. It's fine to include mystery (see surprises above). For some audiences, ambiguity is a good thing. Confusion is never good. A baffled reader is an ex-reader.

Characters. In most stories we love, it’s the characters we remember best. We reread (or watch) old favorites and follow a series because we want more time with Atticus Finch, Huckleberry Finn, Walter White, and Anne of Green Gables. Most writers I know start with a plot or a premise, but a high percentage won’t get to work on a story until the character comes alive for them. So characters are just as vital to most storytellers.

I’m one of those lucky writers whose characters talk (and talk back) to him/her. That’s why my easiest way to get to know them is through interviews. Others need to do more work at assembling the parts, and I know writers who have to create thick files of descriptions, pictures, and traits. However a character comes to life, the three elements that can be most effective to bringing them to life for readers are voice, action, and flaws. Voice comes across most often in dialogue, but first-person stories are founded on voice. When a character narrates, the perspectives, word choices, concerns, humor, and emotion reach us directly. While exposition may get tricky (point of view problems), empathy is readily available (except to those who just don’t like the character).

Actions show the truth of the character. What a character does may be aligned with thoughts and statements or diverge, but actions don’t lie. They reveal. But actions also make it possible to visualize and remember a character. Someone once told be, when I couldn’t remember what a friend who’d died looked like, see her doing something. It worked for her. It works for characters.

Flaws are the easiest and hardest ways to create a full and living character. Easiest because foibles and sins help readers identify with and worry about characters. Pages turn quickly when a character gets him/herself into trouble. Character arcs are steep and have real impact when a characters is broken, often dealing with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. So flaws make the creation of stories easier. Unfortunately, there is a psychological cost for many writers. Most students (and I’ve had hundreds) can’t bear to give their protagonists serious flaws. They say the makes them unlikable and will drive readers away. I suspect it’s because these writers identify too closely with the heroes and heroines of their stories and revealing their flaws makes the writers feel vulnerable. It does take courage to show evil in a character we love.  

Theme. Most stories, and any stories worth reading more than once, have something to say. In my experience, other than people who write propaganda, most writers don't know what they have to say until they finished at least one draft. The reason why the work means something to them only crystallizes over time. It may take some work to figure out what the writing process revealed. Not everyone sees it right away. And I've known some writers who have only figured out what they were up to while talking to an agent or a friend. But once you have that insight, it can direct rewriting. It can suggest imagery and what needs to be cut and and what might be missing.

Authority. Confidence shows in writing. Much of it flows from hard-earned skill, but a lot depends on knowledge. Well isn't necessary to research the times, the places, and the characters before writing a draft, touchstones in reality (even for fantasy works) suggest moments and choices that will feel right to you and your readers. Story logic also makes a work convincing. While every step in the logic doesn't need to be included, leaving too many out for heading off into different directions will make readers stumble. Own the worlds you create.

Curiosity. This goes in two directions. First, your own engagement in your story will increase if you look closely enough to wonder about it. When things are really working, it's likely that questions will take over. Answers will fill pages, and many of the answers you find will never make it into the story. But all that you learn, even when it's not included, will support the work. How many times have you read a story and had a sense that you were seeing just one piece of a larger world? That has tremendous power and appeal.

But don't restrict curiosity to yourself. Actively suggest enough to make your readers curious. Obviously, some of the questions raised will point to what will happen later on. But some will shape impressions of the characters and their relationships that will go unspoken. That sort of curiosity encourages the kind of participation that leads to readers falling in love of the work and discussing it with other readers.

In addition, it's always great when the mention of a historical figure or a place or a body of ideas or something else from the real world motivates people to look things up and learn more. In such cases, you may be opening new doors for your readers.

Entertainment. The first rule of fiction writing is don't be boring. It doesn't mean you need to write crazy and jarring stuff. Stay near the boundaries of your genres is just fine. Don't be afraid to exaggerate or use colorful language or experiment or introduce a character who makes you feel uneasy. A lot of fun comes from charm, pizzazz, and walking tightropes. Humor, at the right time, is also welcome.

How do you do all of these things? There are lots of hints in the How to Write Fast posts that precede this one. I hope some will be helpful to you. Mostly, whether you discover tips or find a mentor or dig into references, your success as a writer will depend upon writing and growing. It's great if you can dedicate yourself to it, but a lot of value can, from fairly minimal effort. I've had students who have committed to writing (meaning actually putting words on paper or typing them into a file) 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Stories can be created on a regular basis I following the practice. And the more stories you write, the better command of writing, over time, you'll have. We need good stories, so I hope you can do this.

I'll keep writing my own, but my plans don’t include writing more about writing. I think there's enough here to help out. I'm not going to abandon this blog, but most of my efforts will be aimed at making the advice more accessible. Some of these were written in a blistering speed, so I'll be making repairs. I hope to add some illustrations to add a little fun to each post. I suspect I'll find some things that I regret having written. Those might be reworked or removed. And, about every week, I'll suggest topics and point to the best posts that cover those topics.

I'll keep an eye out for any questions or comments and try to respond in a timely manner. This is not been a highly interactive blog so far, but, who knows? It might become one in its afterlife.

Thanks for reading. I wish you success.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Write Out Loud - How listening to actors, friends reading, and even your own voice can make stories better

Countdown to 10 years of HTWF: After 10 years and over 100 entries, this is the second to last post (other than a coming Index Series).

There's nothing like hearing actors, especially talented actors, read your words. Though my favorite part of writing is creating a first draft, a close second is having I read-through of the script by actors . Besides the obvious fun of being part of a team, it's an amazing learning experience.

Though read throughs don't include the action, they do include gestures, expressions, and, most of all, character interpretation. Often, I come to see my characters in a new way based on how an actor speaks the lines. How the ideas run together and show emotion and evoke empathy. So much comes through I just pacing the words in a way I hadn't imagined. Someone once described theater as poetry standing up, and the qualities of the words – a collaboration with language – is only evident when their herd rather than read.

Of course, actors stumble. Most often, that's because there's a better way to phrase the thought, and I've missed it. By the time a read-through is done, I've extensively marked up the script. Changes will be made, but not all them. This is a collaboration, after all. The director may ask for a different "take" on the line. An actor may, having experienced discomfort, ask questions that reveal the purpose of the line and make it easier to deliver. Sometimes, it's not a failure in writing, it has to do with a quality that the actor brings to the role that demands reshaping the words.

Something else happens when the work gets on its feet. Once the director has worked with the actors on their roles, blocked the scenes, and choreographed the actions, there is more for me to learn. The primary thing I'm looking for is the reactions of the actors when they are not speaking. This gives me a good sense of what's happening between the characters, and it gives me a good indication of what's happening internally — which provides much of the real value of the story. I get a sense for the power shifts and what's at stake in a way that's not made possible by simply reading the script.

Finally, there’s much to be learned from an audience. I always imagine specific people experiencing the story as I write, but real people can be different. This is especially true when it comes to humor. Some jokes that seem just right and are delivered well by actors still fail in front of audiences. The same can be true with emotional moments, which tend to be delicate. Sometimes they just don't work and need to be rethought. Most often the problem is earlier in the script, and it can take a real effort to find what needs to be fixed.

One thing that shows up all along the way is any inconsistencies in characters. There's something about having real humans speak the lines that makes any unconscious accommodations for offer intrusions or sloppiness melt away. Turning a character into a vehicle for a good line or bending their actions to fit the plot will stand out and be undeniable.

Now, not everyone who writes gets to hear actors read their words. The best solution is to trade off with other writers and read your works to each other. For novels and short stories, the main concern is avoiding the temptation to blame the reader or to be inflexible about how it should sound. For scripts with different characters, casting friends and having them read, even though they may have no training in acting, can be valuable if your expectations aren’t too high.

You can always just read it all yourself, of course. Reading aloud will reveal a lot more than silent reading. If you can get into role, even better. A lot of the insights into character will become available to you. I've found that, if there are multiple characters, I need to record my readings because I become too absorbed in the presentation, and I miss too much of what the reading offers.

One more option is using text-to-speech. This is available on all personal computers. Minimally, it reduces the number of typos and grammatical errors in your writing. They tend to stand out when you're listening to another voice. Though it can also reveal some awkward phrasing, it's no substitute for reading the work out loud yourself.

I'll add one more thing, though I'm still experimenting with this. I've long been able to get the voices of people for whom I write speeches into my head so that their word choice, cadences, and rhythms are reflected in my work. More recently, I found that I can do this for different characters if, in my head, I cast actors for whom I've written in the past. Lately, I've been extending this.

YouTube is an amazing resource for hearing different voices. By repeatedly listening to real people who are interesting and essentially casting them in my stories, I get a new way of experiencing the dialogue I'm writing. I'm not sure this is really working and making my stories better because I don't have enough experience with this approach yet. Still, it might be something worth considering for your own work.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Tone and Mood in Fiction

Countdown to 10 year of HTWF: After 10 years and over 100 entries, this is the third to last post (other than a coming Index Series).

What do you want your reader/audience to feel while experiencing your story? In most cases, it's whatever the main character is feeling. In commercial fiction, a lot of effort is put into creating empathy between the character and the readers because readers primarily read for emotion (according to Ray Bradbury). Often, in fact, writer/character/reader emotions are one and the same throughout the story. Perspective, mood, and tone coincide. 

Character perspective includes the emotional states of the characters through whom the story is told (generally, first person or third person limited).

Mood is the emotion evoked in the reader by the story.

Tone is the emotion of the narrator of the story, who may be the writer, one of the writers personas, or a character addressing the reader directly.

Now, a good dominant character, who carries along the writer and the reader creates deeply immersive experiences. Who doesn't like that?

Sometimes us. When a character is disturbing, we might not want to live inside him or her. Or, the story might demand a character with secrets. The intrigue and mystery we're looking for would be spoiled if we got too close. In a more positive way, a character who is brilliant or saintly might be diminished by too close a look. It's hard to feel that a character is bigger than we are if we are sharing all of his or her thoughts and feelings.

Humor often depends upon having some distance. Wit may require the writer (say, Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde) to step out from behind the curtain and address us directly. More often, humor depends upon the reader having a superior position. Many protagonists in comedies are flawed and obsessive and take themselves much too seriously. They may tell their stories as tragedies, but we, recognizing the absurdities, find their stories humorous.

Irony also depends upon separating ourselves, as readers, from the characters. The teen protagonist on Lovers Lane is interested in smooching, not in the escaped murderer who is approaching the car. Good horror depends on anticipation by audiences, our worrying about oblivious characters. Similarly, Hitchcock’s men discussing baseball, and not knowing a ticking bomb is under the table they sit around, creates delicious suspense.

Tone or Mood?

Both tone and mood are created by the writer (if the writer is successful). Mood is always present. Tone should only appear intentionally. 

For disturbing stories, I think of the Grandfather in The Princess Bride:

She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time. The eel doesn’t get her. I’m explaining to you because you look nervous.  

He dials down the tension for the Grandson deliberately. (And the actual writer, William Goldman, adds comic relief, while staying hidden, relying on mood.) 

For intrigue, I love the old Mission Impossible shows. With “Good morning, Mr. Phelps,” the narrator on tape made the mission and its goals absolutely clear, but the narrator never returns to divulge the plan, and, while Phelps specifies tools and roles he keeps many secrets from the audience. The omissions invite audiences to connect the dots and guess the secrets before they play out. The tone created by the writers is evident by their superior position. 

More subtle is presenting the pieces with no explanation. This is done brilliantly in a Better Call Saul episode (“Mabel” Season 3, Episode 1) that presents Mike’s efforts to understand how he was tracked. It’s almost a silent movie and challenges the audience to pay attention, think hard, and be smart while playing fair. It’s not just narration-free. It’s almost scientifically objective. I haven’t had to lock my brain in so completely since I watched Inception.  

Sherlock Holmes stories are told using Watson’s point of view so we can be amazed by Holmes’s genius. We feel (often) what Watson feels. It could be argued that this is all mood, but, to me, Watson is such an obvious stand-in for Doyle that the writer makes himself visible, so tone seems more accurate. 

As stated above, a witty narrator is always tone. And even a witty character feels more like tone that mood. We know Shaw speaks through Henry Higgins and Alfred Doolittle. (This was so obvious, the poster for Broadway’s My Fair Lady showed Higgins as a marionette, with Shaw pulling his strings.)

Huckleberry Finn is first person narration, and I’d say it is funny and ironic without Twain stepping out from behind the curtain. It’s one of those wonderful cases where humor comes from an authentic character voice and empathy for the character. The result: Our mood may not match Huckleberry’s all the time. Readers easily align and diverge from his feelings. 

Compare this to Dumb and Dumber, where the protagonists are presented as fools from the very beginning and never grow to be the equals of the audience. The directors present their tone for the movie and we’re forced to adopt it if we want to join in the fun. 

We also join into the fun of horrors and thrillers in a different way. The irony is baked in deliberately, with the creators being as manipulative as Shaw. I suspect people who can’t buy into such deliberate emotional design can’t enjoy such stories. The characters are oblivious; the audiences need to accept a superior position even as they surrender their emotions to the creators; and the creators work on the levels of characters, audience, and emotional design simultaneously. Isn’t that ironic?

Mood can be created in many ways. Setting, music, cultural triggers, genre tropes, empathy, diction, and more. In Get Out, Jordan Peele seems to use every tool in the box. The many approaches to mood are exquisitely balanced, making this film a masterpiece worthy of study.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Writing a Standout Author Bio

Countdown to 10 year of HTWF: After 10 years and over 100 entries, this is the fourth to last post (other than a coming Index Series).

There is a saying in sales that "people buy from people." It's a good thing to keep in mind as a writer. Whether you're chatting up an editor at a bar or pitching to producer, how you present yourself matters. Many writers are introverts without performance skills, so it may take an extra effort for them to make their presentations equal to the quality of their writing. But, in one case, it doesn't matter whether you're an introvert or an extrovert — writing your bio.

Unfortunately, even good writers fall down when they are creating bios for social media or contests or webpages or query letters. They write resumes. They list achievements, big and small. Try not to leave anything out and end up putting in too much.

An author bio is a sales document directed toward a specific audience, and it's also a writing sample. And, just as the salesperson creates collateral and presents him or herself in a way that shows value to a client or customer – and gets a commitment — your bio is a tool for bringing your stories to the public.

Your audience is someone who can help you. You may be seeking a writing partner to complement your talents and skills. A manager who can shape your career so it more closely fits opportunities. An agent may be able to open doors for you. Editors and producers might turn your words into a book, a movie, play, or a TV show. Sponsors of fellowships and grants may provide money and other resources. Competitions may provide prizes, recognition, and visibility. You probably know all that, but have you look at these helpers from the other side? Do you know what they are looking for from you?

They all want good stories, but what do they mean by good? What genres do they care about? What tone (dark? funny?) do they require? What lengths are important to them? Do they hope to attract adults or children? Do they have big budgets or small?

You don’t know the answers if you haven’t taken the time to know who they are and what they’ve done. Some of them may have credits listed in IMDB. Some may have query requirements on their Web sites. All have public records, friends, and associates. Or their organizations provide direction (as with competitions, where the readers are anonymous).

The first way you introduce yourself must be through showing you are professional enough and care enough to target your communication — your bio in this case — to someone who might find it valuable, based on evidence. Ask any editor, and he/she will tell you how often writers disqualify themselves by sending them queries or material that has nothing to do with their interests. Spamming someone is not a way to tell them you care. It's a horrible way to make the case you would be someone they'd like to spend time with.

So, in addition to providing your bio to people who would want to read it, know you, and explore your work, you need to shape your bio. That means cutting out whatever would not be interesting to its readers. It means highlighting whatever would. It means answering the first questions they have in mind and, possibly, raising questions in ways that encourage responses. It means having a good sense of what you can do for them, not just what they could do for you.

Of course, it's much easier to write an author’s biography that will appeal to one specific person (say, a producer or editor, especially one you've met). Shaping your bio for a group of people, whether it be fellowship readers or people reading your Twitter posts, is trickier. My recommendation is to not try to reach everyone. If you can think of one to three people who need most want to read your bio and could through your application or venue, right with them in mind.

Once you've met the needs of the audience you've chosen for your bio, it's time to make your case. You've established that there is a reason for your communicating with them, specifically. Now, why should they reach out to you? Though it may depend upon your audience, a good strategy would be to brand yourself in some way. What's your genre? What's your medium (screenwriting, books, TV, web series, etc.)? Is there a theme, human experience, or subject area that especially attracts you? It might be a good time to look across your stories and see if there's something common about them.

Next, qualify yourself. What relevant, recent accomplishments do you have? As some of your work reached the public? Made money for someone? Has relevant work being recognized in a contest? have you worked with someone who will be reading the bio, someone who might recommend you? As someone famous said something positive about your work that could be referenced? Can you provide links to text or look books or posters or videos of your work? Do you have non-writing accolades or credentials that both are relevant to the work the reader might be interested in and set you apart from other writers? (For instance, I know someone who wanted to write medical romances. She was a doctor, but didn't include that in her query letter bio. She got better results when she added that.)

Two things I've mentioned over and over again regarding qualifying information are relevance and being recent. Both are essential. Provided you have been writing for a while, you probably have relevant writing experience (or why would you be presenting yourself to this person?). And, if you had a measure of success and consistency in your work, your examples will be recent. But the danger of having a lot of accomplishments is talking yourself into how relevant they are. It's necessary to be selective, avoiding even things you really like to include. For those who are newbies, from is not having a list is too long. It's having any accomplishments at all. Don't worry. Be generous with yourself. Make a good first impression and realize that time is on your side.

“Recent” can also become too flexible for some writers. My rule of thumb is not including anything is more than five years old. If you have an MFA from Yale, don’t mentioned that you got it in 1982. If your teacher won the Pulitzer Prize, but she died 10 years ago, consider not including that nice comment she made about your work. Ageism is a real thing. As is a common reader question, “what have you done lately?”

Okay. You’re writing your bio for the right people (and you know who they are and what they need). You’re keeping it relevant and recent (and therefore short). Now it's time to make sure your bio is a good sample. Obviously, that means that grammar and spelling are impeccable. Everything should be clear and an easy read. Less obvious, since most of us have been trained on formulaic resumes, is the need to make sure your bio isn't boring.

Take a moment. Imagine that your bio is being read by someone who has a pile of 500 writer biographies on his or her desk. Most of them start the same way. "Davis writes exciting space operas about intrepid starship captains facing the unknown.” “Madison writes endearing romances about small town women in search of love.” “Betsy writes legal dramas about attorneys torn between obligations to the firm and the needs of their pro bono clients.”

Okay, not all the bios you’ll find on the Web are that bad. But they do fit common patterns. Going from cliche, general statements to lists of works published/produced to achievements (education, awards) to hobbies to the inevitable statements of about family and pets. Find some online. See how similar and predictable they are? (If you ARE lucky enough to find some that thrill you, save them as examples. Such are rare.)

Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the bio. “The same but different” is good enough, and the easiest route is to get conversational. Your voice – personal and friendly — is your salvation. How would you introduce yourself to someone you'd like to have as a friend? What would you say about yourself to a relative you haven't had a chance to meet face-to-face years? How would you talk about yourself to that reader you researched in your first step in developing the bio, imagining that reader as an actual person in front of you.

Unless overcome by nerves, you’d probably be casual and interesting. That works. That's good. It will save you from institution talk that stultifies listeners and readers. It might lead you to making your bio more of a story, one that includes surprises and emotional involvement. It might do what most of the other 500 bios don't – presents a real person, one, perhaps, the reader like to know.

So, the elements of standout bio are attention to the audience, voice, relevant and recent qualifications, specificity, avoiding clichés, brevity, and breaking the formula (at least a little bit). It means writing a fresh bio for each recipient (or at least refreshing what you have). It means not worrying about reaching everyone. (To stand out, you may actually have to write a bio that repels some people.)

And it may mean one more thing – adjusting the tone. Obviously, if you write humor, there needs to be some fun in your bio. If you write horror, your word choice is likely to be different from someone who writes romances. And, whatever you write there needs to be a level of confidence. A bio is not a place for apologies or excuses or belittling yourself. Remember: you're worth spending time with and they would be lucky to work with you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Five Things for Writers to Add, Five Things to Leave Out

Countdown to 10 year of HTWF: After 10 years and over 100 entries, this is the fifth to last posts (other than a coming Index Series).

It's rare that I don't find something, even in the work of a beginner, that delights me. It may be as little as a line of dialogue or a fresh idea, but I almost always have something to point to when I look to offer encouragement.

Ironically, I'm more frustrated by manuscripts that almost work. To read for a contest and find a page I know will cost the writer acknowledgment saddens me. And when I get lost in a story submitted to a literary magazine and see a scene that feels incomplete and will lead to rejection, it’s hard for me not to feel the loss. If only.

So, after all the pages, I’ve read by colleagues, potential contributors, competition hopefuls, and students, I’m offering my view of what deserves another look based on the tragic disappointments I’ve had. These naturally are subjective, reflecting the things that I look for or dread. Still, unless I’m eccentric, they might be worth considering before you hit send.

Five Things to Add

Flaws. The best way to create a boring character is to make him/her perfect. Some demon English teacher or inept editor has made writers terrified of creating unlikable characters. So too many stories are wrecked by heroes and heroines who are the equivalent of cottage cheese on white bread. I like characters who like mischief or suffer from cravings or bend the rules. I like them to face difficult choices and make the wrong decisions. I like strong villains who don't hold back and supporting characters to mess things up. I look forward to seeing a real arc that puts a happy ending in doubt and leaves scars.

Descriptions. A great conversation needs a good setting, but too many writers seem to imagine dialogue happening in white, windowless rooms. Exquisite words. Real conflict. But no context. Where are these characters? Sometimes, it's "in office." Or it could be "a living room." Both may be wonderful if I know what they look like, what they sound like, how they reflect the characters or, better yet, make them uncomfortable. Give me a heated discussion between two people attending a wedding, and I'll be happy, especially if I know what the bride’s dress looks like and that one of the people arguing is wearing uncomfortable shoes.

Shifts in power. I usually call these beats. Most commonly, a strong scene includes a conflict. The hero or heroine is struggling to achieve the story goal, which means he or she is looking for a certain outcome from the scene. Whether battling a flood or a villain or paralyzing terror, the scene should include gaining power or losing power. Coming closer to success or falling further away. If two characters are in competition, the scene generally has three to five moments when the advantage for one of them increases, decreases, or moves over to the other character. When the character I identify with wins a point, I cheer. When that character loses a point, I worry. That's good drama. It keeps me engaged. Just don't disappoint me by ending the scene without a clear understanding of how the situation has changed.

Surprises. I'm one of those people who usually knows who the murderer is long before the end of the novel. In other words, I'm a very active reader. That makes me appreciate twists and turns and especially (fair) surprises. Now, I don't need to come across what's unexpected on major issues. I can pretty well guess that the master detective will solve the case and that the romantic couple will live happily ever after. But don't make everything predictable. Don't show me just what I've seen before. At the very least, throw in some fun facts I don't know or have the character make a choice I hadn't anticipated.

Emotions. Ideally, I like complex emotions that reflect bittersweet experiences. I do quite well with stories that have the underdog win. I can stand up and cheer for a sports drama. I can take delight in a horror story that keeps me up at night and gives me bad dreams. I can even appreciate clever extrapolation or puzzle design in a science fiction story or a mystery. Both present intelligence and wit that exercise my brain in ways that are fun. But don't give me an essay or a diatribe intended to merely inform me or sell an opinion. That's not why I read fiction. Even worse, don't give me watered down stories where the emotion drains away because the writer takes no chances and doesn't seem to be fully engaged.

Five things to leave out

Exposition. I don't mean this literally. Every story needs to be clear and to have all the elements readers need for understanding. However, too many writers begin their stories with lots and lots of narrative about characters I don't yet care about and a world that hasn't caught my interest. At the beginning of the story in particular, less (a lot less) is more. It is amazing to me how consistently stories can be improved by eliminating most of the exposition in the opening scenes. As an exercise, I often have students highlight every bit of description, deliberation by characters, prologue, flash forward, and flashback that's in the first 20 pages. Most of it can be cut. Most of it needed to be written (so the writer would understand the story), but can be withheld until later or left out. The beginning of the story needs to set things up, but it also needs to raise questions. Too many writers answer all the questions in the early pages, distancing the readers and making the story dull. My rule of thumb is holding explanations and answers for as long as possible.

Realistic dialogue. I only want to hear what causes me to lean in. I don't want characters greeting each other (unless it's more than greeting). I don't want characters telling each other things they already know. I generally don't want characters monologuing. I generally don't want characters talking directly about their feelings. It's much more fun if they try to hide their feelings and fail. What people say in day-to-day life is generally tedious. They make arrangements to get their tasks done. They repeat (a lot). They courteously ask each other about their health. It's all very realistic, but I can get the same standing in line to get my drivers license renewed.

The weather. I'm fine with dramatic meteorology. I'm even okay with enough information to immerse me in the scene. But, too often, descriptions of a spring day or a winter evening that are comprehensive (really going beyond the weather, to be sure) and perhaps imagined to be poetic will stop a story in its tracks and lead me to seek diversion elsewhere. Description can do so many wonderful things in terms of creating mood or immersing me in a story or reflecting the inner states of characters, it's hard to not be disappointed when it's just there to be pretty.

Set pieces. Think chase scenes, fights, sex scenes, stunts, and jokes. If these are brilliant, they can be the most memorable part of the story. The problem is, few people seem to know how to write these. I think they get lost in their inner experience is and don't realize others are not sharing these experiences. Now, any of these can work if they are truly part of the story. They don't need to be marvelous if they advance the plot or deepen my understanding of the characters. The problem is that they often both bring the story to a halt and add nothing. A simple test: cut the set piece out and see if any of the story is lost. Obviously, if your genre requires set pieces (sex scenes for pornography), they should be there. Sometimes, readers skip past the actual story — seeing it as filler — to get to the set pieces. If that's your game, you understand that. Note: writing set pieces is an excellent exercise. Well worth trying. If what is created truly is brilliant and worth pausing the story, congratulations. Your readers will be delighted. If what you created is cliché or more of a delay than a delight, cut it.

Bad language. I'm not talking about curse words here. Though they can become both overwhelming and ineffective. It's all those words that undermine the prose that bother me. Adverbs. Limiters (some, a bit, most, etc.). Clichés. Weak verbs. Convoluted constructions. Anything that gets away from direct, strong, and clear writing diminishes the reading experience. I often feel like I'm hacking my way through a thicket when I read some work. My suspicion is that writers were so charmed by what they put on paper (which can include some wonderful plots and characters), that they couldn't see a need for rewriting. Or the words were too precious. Or they never read it out loud so they didn't notice the problems. Or they had ideas that made them feel vulnerable so they diluted them. Or they just got lazy. What comes across, sadly, is disrespect for readers (including editors).

I'm sure there are many other sins of omission and commission that could destroy opportunities for publication or derail a writing career. It's likely that I've missed your pet peeves. But, perhaps, some of these reflect a problem that hasn't been addressed yet in your own work. In which case, this blog might save some of your best work from extinction. That would make me happy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Research: A Quick Guide for Fiction Writers

Last time, I noted that I haven’t offered much in this blog about research, which is a vital part of most fiction. It inspires incidents, sets up surprises, and adds to authenticity. I’ll dig in a bit on research without turning this into a course in library science.

Note: I’m talking about research for fiction here. There are no quick guides for nonfiction research.

My first step in research is always to write down everything I "know" about the subject. This can be a lot or a little, and sometimes bits of it are inaccurate. This serves two purposes.

First, it often reminds me of interesting facts that could be useful in the story. Once I have my notes, I usually go through them right away, highlighting those sections that thrill me. (Often, my imagination will kick in and I'll end up free associating or speculating.

Second, I get a good sense of the holes in my knowledge. Both areas that are totally unexplored or unknown and items about which I only have superficial knowledge.

I respond to what's missing and what I'm curious about with questions. Usually, these come bubbling out of me without much effort. But even if I’ve filled pages with questions that I'm eager to trace down for answers, I step back for what I call a "360 view." (This is actually inaccurate, since I don't just look around, I also look up and down.) For something like exploring a real city, I have "go to" questions such as finding out about the weather or what the biggest industries are or the distinctive neighborhoods (especially ethnic sectors). People are shaped by the land, the politics, the history, the work they do, the hierarchy, and the places they come together.

A specific story may need detailed information about some elements and have very little to do with others. Not all questions are equal.The important thing is to focus on questions that can lead to other questions and might provide surprises.

Once upon a time, I'd take my questions into a library and get lost. Now I tend to search on the Web and get lost there. I usually set a timer. Sometimes, it stops the research (especially if I've strayed too far from material related to the project). Sometimes, the timer gets reset because I’ve found a rich store of information.

Anything that's worth noting is worth saving what the source is. This allows me to go back and check for something I might've missed.

Even though this work is for fiction, I'm careful about confirming what pops up. Urban legends are pervasive and can lead to trouble in two ways. First, because they often include a seed of bigotry or malice. Second, because they are likely to be widely known, reducing the impact for readers and audiences. Overall, I don't want to mislead people, even if it's good storytelling. So, in addition to checking what I've learned, I'll check what I "know." It is not unusual for me to have accepted false ideas that are common knowledge or to have attached an idea to the wrong subject.

It is the evocative and little-known facts that enliven a story. If they can be woven in (and not force fit), they can provide delightful surprises. Connections between ideas and facts, especially between people, can it provide even deeper value to storytelling.

I think we’re all curious about relationships and how both power and support are expressed in communities. These are subtle and require time and thought to uncover, but they often provide insights into our own lives. That makes research into relationships invaluable to bringing more to a story than emotional experiences. (Though, I always try to provide rich emotional experiences with stories. Bradbury said that was why people read fiction to begin with.)

Occasionally, the research will offer up themes or suggest problems (like drug addiction) that can be investigated in a variety of ways. These often point to incidents that might be included, ideas that people will expect to see in a story, and, perhaps, ways to structure stories.

Now, I have seen people become too enamored with what they discover in research. It's good to remember that this isn't an essay or a polemic (or shouldn't be). Most research, no matter how engaging, probably shouldn't be included in the story. The same thing goes for falling in love with a theme or a structure too early for most writers. I do know some who avoid the pitfalls and are able to make including what they've learned feel organic to the story, but usually the result is something that slows story pacing to a crawl or draws attention to itself.

Overall, it's great if research is playful and fun, but not at the sacrifice of failing to go deeply enough into the important subject areas. And, fundamentally, what's included from research must serve the story. In my case, this means cutting out a lot of stuff I think is cool in later drafts. Usually, the stories are better for this, and the research, no matter how carefully kept for later, is forgotten. But sometimes, the stuff that gets cut out is so compelling, my imagination holds onto it, embroiders it, and presents it back to me as a new story. And that’s a delight.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Getting Your Hero or Heroine into Trouble

Almost any external force that could make someone a victim can create a hero or heroine – provided the character fights back. Numerous stories have been written about protagonists faced with floods or disease or invasion or (unjust) arrest or many other disasters that can launch a story. Each of these (and gentler variations like being targeted by a bully or injured in a car accident are attacked by a dog, etc. etc.) can knock your main character out of regular life and into the need to make changes or seek answers.

Flaws, including the Seven Deadly Sins, can lead to consequences that push protagonist to change as well, and, in these cases, the character probably will need to deal with both the cravings that led to disruption and the unfortunate results of bad choices.

Stories kicked off by outside forces depend upon research and good world building. Knowing how people respond in real life to similar situations, the options created, and the natural escalation of problems create outlines of your plots (which is why stories with similar circumstances often have expected turns in the stories). Stories kicked off by internal forces (flaws) depend upon characterization, the people around the character, community (including laws and traditions), and the traumas and fears that make change difficult.

The challenge for stories about outside forces is avoiding making the character too stupid to live and anything that makes them so much out of control they become victims. For stories about dealing with flaws, key challenges are making the character too stupid to live and creating a character who crosses the line into such foulness that it is difficult to empathize with him or her.

All stories risk disappointing audiences with anything that could be overly contrived or lead to a deus ex machina ending.

So… I've covered world building and flaws (many times) and empathizing with characters in previous posts. I haven't written a lot about research – the primary requirements there are asking good questions, knowing how to dig through references (or ask a librarian), and exploring in all directions to suitable depth of knowledge. Perhaps I'll cover research in a future post.

This post is about avoiding the "too stupid to live" problem. There is no failsafe for that. There's always the chance that a reader or audience member will be more knowledgeable than you are, smarter, or just ornery. Understanding that, the best defense is having a toolkit of excusable mistakes.

Betrayal. We like people to trust us, so, unless they are very naïve, we’re in their corner. If they confide in, believe, or count on another person they know or have a relationship with (friends, family, comrade), it'll feel like a good choice, not a foolish choice. That's true even if the story has included planted information that might have aroused suspicions. Added to this, is the emotional reaction to discovering a betrayal, which provides extra protection against concluding the character is stupid.

Assumptions. Most reasonable suppositions and expectations won't raise red flags. If a reader or audience shares the assumption, the character will be blamed. This can be manipulated in many ways. The most obvious is assuming that the world after the disruptive event is the same as it was before. So, for instance, the character might go on a journey thinking people in neighboring communities have the same norms and expectations. Assumptions can also be used for irony if, for instance, a character moves from a strange world to our own (or one we are familiar with).

This doesn't need to be all cultural. We fall for tricks that include what appear to be normal artifacts in magician’s kit box. And most people good shy away from a lighter built to look like a revolver.

Distractions. Once again, this depends on our common experiences. Everyone gets distracted., Confusing, threatening, beautiful, and big (loud, bright, etc.) experiences can make us lose track of our wallets, what we're talking about, and where our children are. Pickpockets work in teams successfully when they have one person bump the victim and another lift the money or jewelry at the same time.

Habits and coping mechanisms. We all have ways we react that are instantaneous and difficult to train ourselves away from. Even years after World War II was over, my uncle would hit the dirt whenever he heard a loud sound. If you get shot at enough, that reaction is automatic. I've known people who smiled at unpleasant and even tragic news (I suspect because inside they were screaming).

Many people respond to a raised open hand with a class but a handshake even when the person is gesturing for some other reason. Since we all have unthinking responses, we've all experienced moments of embarrassment and trouble because of them. We'll give the characters a pass. And, if you as the author are concerned, previewing the response in a situation where it is appropriate or benign before the scene where it leads to trouble can extend reader/audience acceptance.

Logic. For less simple mistakes, focusing on information that leads to the wrong conclusion (and trouble) will bring along most people with your character. Even when missed or misunderstood points might be seen in retrospect, a logic of the moment doesn't feel stupid.

This is not a comprehensive list, and some of these might be used in a story in combination. Just by imagining some scenes with these defenses against looking foolish, you should find that too stupid to live traps become more visible. In many cases, novel solutions will become obvious and save you from losing your readers and audiences. And that should give you more ways to get your characters into trouble and increase the worry and concern that holds their attention.

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