Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our Job: Create Interest

Sol Stein said that “you are in a long line of storytellers whose job was to keep the listeners attention.” Our primary tasked is to keep the attention of our readers. If you’ve ever wondered why a writer who refuses to follow the rules is able to get a book published and get people to read it, it probably comes down to him having done something that keeps his readers attention. Who really cares if he uses was every other sentence or hops from one head to another? Maybe we do, but we much more willing to overlook such issues if he is holding our attention.


He goes on to say that we hold a reader’s attention by getting the reader to want something to happen that isn’t happening yet. This is the essence of suspense, but don’t think of suspense as something that only occurs in the suspense genre; it occurs throughout fiction and non-fiction as well. Consider The Neverending Story. What the reader would like to happen is that we get to explore this fascinating land in which anything is possible. If we could actually go there, it would be a wonderful place to explore and we would enjoy ourselves immensely, but it isn’t the same in the pages of a book. What makes such a place enjoyable is that the tourist can discover things for himself, but if we tell him about it in a book, it would be more like watching slides from someone else’s vacation. So instead of showing the reader all that Fantasia has to offer, the author shows Fantasia as it is falling apart. We want Fantasia to be saved, so that we can see it in its former glory. It is the fact that we have not yet gotten what we want that keeps us interested.


An enclosed space, such as an elevator, is the best place for suspense, Stein tells us. An enclosed space doesn’t have to have physical walls, it could be a family unit, but we don’t hold a reader’s interest by providing an easy way out. We create interest by implying the disaster is imminent. If the protagonist and the antagonist are in an elevator together, we expect that one might attack the other at any time. That provides interest. But if they are separated, we lose interest. I once read a book in which the protagonist and the antagonist were half a world apart. It gave me no reason to fear for the safety of the protagonist.


Our job is to create interest in our story by giving our readers a thirst for something, but not quenching that thirst. We must increase that interest by tightening the space in which we tell the story and making it personal.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Write a Book in 2010

It’s that time of year again, when people start making new year’s resolutions. Right up at the top for many people, just below “lose weight,” is a resolution to write a book. For many people, I think writing a book is some sort of mysterious thing. Conceptually, they believe it is within their power to write a book, but three hundred pages is a daunting task. That could explain why so many authors send unedited first drafts to agents and publishers; it feels like so much of an accomplishment to complete the first draft that the author can’t imagine that there is more work to do. But that’s a topic for another day. If you’re sure you want to write a book, let’s take a look at what it is going to take.



Be Inspired


I’m going to assume that you intend to write a novel, since that tends to be what is on people’s bucket lists. Before you do anything else, you need an idea for a story. Some authors will suggest that the best approach is to come up with some interesting characters, throw them in a box together and see what happens. Sometimes that works, but I don’t suggest you try it for a first book. The problem is that some people throw their characters in a box and all they do is sit there staring at each other. To fix the problem, you have to modify the characters and try again. It’s easier to just figure out what you want your characters to do and then develop characters that will do that.


Ideas can come from anywhere, but since we want this manuscript to sell, we might as well start with the genre. What kind of books do you like to read? Its anyone’s guess as to whether books in that genre will be selling when you finish your manuscript, but you’ll have a lot easier time of it if you write in the genre that you read the most. Just knowing which genre you want to write in may take you a long way toward a good idea for a novel. You have some idea of what fits within the genre, so your story will fall somewhere along those lines, but give it a twist that makes it a little unusual and you are in business.



Write the Pitch


At this point, what you need to be able to do is answer the question of what the book is about and you need to be able to do it in one sentence. Some people will balk at this because they think that because they haven’t written the book they can’t know what it is about. What they miss is that many readers will make a decision about whether to read a book based on the first sentence of the back cover. While the reader may read the rest of the back cover and read a few pages of the book before buying the book, at that point, he is just looking for confirmation that the book is what he thinks it is. That first sentence has already given him a thirst to step into the world of the book. So we want our one sentence pitch to be good, but it is much easier to change our pitch before we write the book than after. The best thing we can do is to write what we pitch, not pitch what we have written.


A pitch might be along the lines of “A boy trains two dogs to hunt and learns what it means to be a man,” to draw on one of my favorite examples, Where the Red Fern Grows. Compare that to “A girl searches for a mother through an online dating service,” which comes from my first novel, Searching For Mom. Just by reading those two one sentence descriptions, the reader knows what to expect from the books and probably has enough information to know whether he wants to purchase the book or not.



Write the Synopsis


A lot of writers hate writing the synopsis, so why not get it out of the way? Actually, the intent here is to outline your book. I start with a structured outline that every story follows. Mine is primarily based on the work of Blake Snyder, who based his off of some other guys, so I’m not sure who deserves the most credit, but you can look at my outline from For the Love of a Devil for an example.


There is enough in that outline to write the synopsis, but you might find it works better for you to just tell the story in a one page format. Once you have done that, you can pull out the sentences that apply to each section of the outline and populate most of it. In any case, it is good to have the whole story on one page so you can work through the high level issues before you spend a lot of time writing stuff that isn’t going to work.


At this point, I also determine lengths for the various sections of the novel. You can do it in either word count or page count. Novelists typically talk in terms of word count, but I’ve found it easier to track where I am in terms of page count. I use a font and line spacing that gives me 250-300 words per page. I then know that the setup section takes about 30 pages, the inciting incident occurs on page 33, debate ends at page 72, the midpoint is at page 160, etc. I don’t always hit these page numbers on the nose, but it gives me a good idea of how much I must write for each and when it is time for a particular event to happen. Because writing is so much slower than reading, it is good to have a method like this or you will tend to write too much for one section and too little for another.



Write the First Draft


There’s no way around it, you have to do the work and write that first draft. This will take you longer than anything else. Some people like to work with a daily quota. If you write 3,000 words per day, you will have your first draft done in a month. I tend to be the type that writes nothing one day, but may put out 5,000 to 10,000 words the next. But however you do it, you are going to have to put in the time and crank out the words. Don’t worry too much about getting things perfect; just crank out those words and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.



Write the Second Draft


If you’ve followed me so far, you now have a 300 page manuscript. I know you’re proud of yourself and you’re anxious to send it out to an agent or send it off to a subsidy press or whatever it is you intend to do with your manuscript. This is the hardest thing to do, but I suggest you put your first draft aside until the buzz wears off. Go read a good book. (Read one of my books, if you haven’t already.)


After you’ve had a few days away, you can start on your second draft. The good thing is that it won’t take nearly as long. Your goal with the second draft is to find the big problems. Read through your manuscript. You are looking for chapters and paragraphs that might be better if in a different order or even deleted. There may be gaps you need to fill. You are looking for issues like attributes of a character being different in one section of the book than what they are in another. Does she have a mother and father in the second half, but her father is dead in the first half? Now’s the time to resolve those kinds of issues. I can assure you that there will be a few. There always are.



Write the Third Draft


You aren’t done yet. But this won’t take more than a couple of days or so. Go back to the beginning and read through the whole thing, out loud. Do the words flow from your tongue easily? Are there run on sentences? If you stumble over your own wording, think what the reader will do. Your goal for the third draft is to smooth out your sentence structure, so it flows well and doesn’t sound corny.



Write the Fourth Draft


The fourth draft is the least subjective draft. You are looking for spelling errors, word usage problems and grammatical issues. Before you do anything else, run the spelling and grammar checker in MS Word. It isn’t perfect, but it will help you spot some things that you might otherwise miss. It could take you a couple of hours to work through all of the problems. Some you will correct and others you will ignore. With a novel, there are plenty of things that are perfectly okay in our context, that would not be okay for a technical document, which is what MS Word checks for.


Once you get past the grammar check, print your manuscript. If you don’t want to print three hundred pages on your desktop printer, you might consider taking it to a place like FedEx Office and letting them print it. With a red pen in hand, read your manuscript. Look specifically for word usage problems and punctuation. Did you use affect when you meant effect? Did you use thy when you meant the? There are a ton of problems that MS Word may not spot. Once you have finished, make your corrections in the electronic manuscript. I suggest doing it from back to front, so that your corrections don’t mess up the page numbering, making it hard to match the marked up pages with the electronic pages.


Now, let’s read it one more time. Read it as if you are the reader. Don’t look for mistakes, but if you spot one, correct it.



Congratulate Yourself


If you’ve reached this point, pour yourself a cup of coffee with extra creamer; congratulations are in order. You have now completed your manuscript. There’s still a lot of work ahead of you before you have a copy of your book in hand, but you have written a book. Call yourself an author. Your manuscript is now suitable for sending out to agents, entering in contests or tucking away in the back of a closet.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Focus on the Beauty

There’s a rule in photography that we can apply to writing: focus on whatever attracted you to the shot. Or we could word it as, focus on the beauty. The idea is that if you see a beautiful sunset, or an unusual flower, or you like the way something is reflecting off of a building, that you zoom in or frame that aspect of the shot, to that when people look at the photo, their eyes are drawn to the beauty you were trying to capture. Don’t show the whole tree when what attracted you was the setting sun shining through the leaves as a butterfly rests on the blooms.



When begin to write a story or anything else, there is something that attracted us to it. With each of my books, I can tell you that one thing that attracted me to the story. In the latest one, And Thy House, what attracted me to the story was a parent teaching his children to reject God and then realizing that he was wrong, after they are too old to listen. The beauty I saw in For the Love of a Devil was the unconditional love of God, as revealed through the story of Hosea. I’m sure that other writers have similar experiences.



Once we can pinpoint that element of beauty that attracted us to the story, we should narrow our focus to that one thing. If you want the technical term, we are talking about theme, but that sounds almost too cold. We have a strong emotional attachment to the element of beauty in our story. If we aren’t emotionally attached to our theme, either we don’t know what our theme is or the story isn’t worth writing. Just like the photographer tries to highlight the beauty in his pictures, we want to draw our reader’s attention to what attracted us to the story.



Left to our own devices, we would probably do just that. If we didn’t have readers to think about and we thought of a story, such as a story about two penguins falling in love, we would probably stay focused on our theme, but we have to worry about tension and word count and genre. We have setting and point of view and we start throwing in these gimmicks that we think will make the reader more interested in the story. We can lose our focus and the beauty gets hidden behind other stuff. It’s easy to ruin the story.



In a personal example, I have a manuscript hidden away in a closet. I sent it out to a few agents, most of whom didn’t respond and I am partly glad. I tried to make the story into one about a wealthy man who has a girl show up on his doorstep, claiming to be his granddaughter, but he is unwilling to accept that as truth because it would be an embarrassment. It isn’t a bad story. I enjoyed writing it, but I keep thinking the payoff isn’t strong enough. What it comes down to is that I didn’t focus on the beauty that attracted me to the story. The beauty of this story isn’t the grandfather who must learn to be more accepting of people beneath him, but it is the unlikely mother who has raised the girl as her own because her mother was unable to care for her. I found myself drawn to that beauty as I wrote the story, but kept trying to make it about the old man.



Someday, I intend to revisit that story, but I’ll focus on the beauty. The plot will change. The decisions will be tougher. The characters will be nicer, but the result will be a much better story.



Question: What is it that attracted you to your stories?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pronzini's Errors

Cool, windy Monday in late April. Pale sun, scattered cumulus clouds. Nice day for a long, solitary drive into the country, especially when you had a partner and best friend who was getting married in a few days and who was turning everyone concerned into basket cases with his prenuptial mania...

There wasn't much traffic on Highway 101 south of King City, and when I turned off at San Lucas there was no traffic at all...

-- Bill Pronzini, Quarry



I don’t quote this directly from Bill Pronzini, but rather from my friend Richard Mabry who wrote a recent post about the Rules of Writing. Richard identified a number of rules that Pronzini violated in this passage. He begins his book talking about weather; he writes in first person; he uses be verbs; he includes backstory and Richard also mentioned that he didn’t introduce tension early. I will respectfully disagree with that statement, because we see tension in that the narrator is out for a drive to get away from his friend.



Rule violations or no rule violations, I like this opening. Richard argued that Pronzini gets away with these rule violations by having a following. There may be some truth to that, but I’d like to suggest that he gets away with it for an entirely different reason; these rule violations are good writing



Before you get your bloomers in a knot; I’m not saying that the rules are completely wrong. I would, however, like to say that we generalize the rules too much and there are cases in which the rules either don’t apply or should be applied differently. Let’s look at what Pronzini has done and try to figure out why it works.



Talking about the Weather


The rule says not to talk about the weather, and Pronzini appears to have violated this, but if we take a closer look at his opening, what he is actually doing is giving a sense of place and pace. Through his words, he paints a picture of lazy sort of day. In a few words, we know where this guy is and what he is doing. It is not unlike a television show or a movie showing the exterior of a house or and office building before showing the interior, so we know where the story is taking place. But in this case, we aren’t in a house, we are outside, in a car, driving a long a deserted stretch of road. If we want readers to see that, we need to talk about the weather.



Writing in First Person


The big problem with first person is that it traps you as a writer. Rarely will a character see the whole story unfold, so by writing in first person may not be able to move over to where the action of the story is taking place. But this rule simply doesn’t apply to detective stories. The narrator of every detective story, whether first person or third person, is the gumshoe. While we may allow the reader to see more than the gumshoe sees, the whole point of the story is to follow the gumshoe as he solves the case, though the reader hopes to figure it out the facts of the case before the gumshoe reveals what he has discovered.

Be Verbs


Excessive use of be verbs produces passive writing. This is true, but be verbs have their place. When we are stating the current state of things, we should use a form of be. But if we are talking about an action, we should not use a form of be. In the Pronzini example, he is describing the current state of things in which his friend is driving people nuts. It would be a mistake to use an action verb because it would imply change. If change is taking place, then the narrator really has no reason to run away.



Backstory


Backstory can be a bad thing, but I can’t really guess as to whether what Pronzini includes here is truly backstory or not. As far as I can tell, what is included here goes to the current state of mind for the narrator and thus has relevance to the current story. This would make the comments about his friend flashback rather than backstory.



In brief, Pronzini’s opening isn’t as big of a problem as we might think. We shouldn’t then think that they publisher lost his mind by agreeing to publish this book. But we might learn from an opening like this and see that the rules can be overly generalized.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Story


Editor’s Note: Wouldn’t you know it? Fiction Friday falls on Christmas, of all days. I’m spending the day with my family and I figure most people are too. What dedication for you to come by this blog on Christmas! Rather than reward your dedication with a post that says that I won’t be posting today, I thought I would invite you to come with me and visit Sara and her family as they celebrate Christmas.


Mark Jr. peered into the box—the last package—turned away from it and went back to the car he had been running across the hilly terrain of the couch. He mashed one of the buttons on top; the lights began to flash and the siren began to blare.


“I guess that tells us what he thought of that,” Ellen said. She put her own gifts on the floor and stood up. “I’m going to go fix breakfast.”


Her husband didn’t look up from his effort to affix a new scope to a riffle. Sara looked up briefly, but her eyes went back to the new book she had in her hand.


“That is, if you guys want breakfast,” Ellen said.


“I didn’t think you wanted a response,” Sara said, her eyes still on the pages of her book. The older Mark said nothing. Ellen walked out of the room.


The phone rang—once then a second time.


Ellen came back into the room. “That was the police.”


Mark turned his attention away from the riffle and stared at his wife. Sara’s eyes looked over the top edge of her book, while Mark Jr. kept running his car across the couch.


“They found a broken window at the café. They need someone to go down there,” Ellen said. “We’ve never had any trouble and then on Christmas…”


“You want me to go down there?” Mark asked.


“No, I’ll go. You wouldn’t know if anything was missing.”


“I’m going too,” Sara said, putting a bookmark in her book and standing up.


Main Street was deserted. The shops were closed. It was very different from the normal buzz of activity. The only people in sight were some police officers, gathered in a cluster at the instance to the café and a busboy from the hotel next door. He was standing at the hotel entrance, watching the police, perhaps to see if he could figure out what was going on.


The damage to the outside of the building appeared to be limited to the window for the pastry shop. It was shattered, but the double doors and the large windows of the restaurant were undamaged. One of the police officers was standing inside the pastry shop, talking to some of the others through the missing window.


“We’ve already looked around inside,” one of the officers said when he saw the two women approach. “We didn’t find anyone, but some of the doors are locked.”


Ellen pulled out a key and used it to unlock the front door. She and Sara went inside with the police officers. Other than a cold breeze blowing through the pastry shop, everything looked seemed normal. The dining room looked like it was all in order. They walked back to the kitchen. Nothing seemed out of place. They looked in the freezer. Nothing seemed out of place. They left the kitchen and looked over the rest of the building, going from room to room, unlocking doors as necessary, but everything was in order.


“I guess they just broke the window,” Ellen said when they were done.


In time, the police officers left and Ellen and Sara were there alone.


“Do you mind staying here until your Dad can come and put plywood over this window?” Ellen asked. “Or I can stay.”


“No, I don’t mind,” Sara said. And then it was just Sara in the big empty building. Most of the police officers disappeared, but a couple of them were clearly visible on the other side of the street. There was no reason to watch the front window very closely. She went back to the kitchen.


Everything was clean and ready for Saturday. The pots were hanging in their place. The plates were stacked neatly. It looked cleaner than it did when they knew an inspector was coming. Sara looked around the kitchen, not really having anything to do. She turned and put her hand on the door to leave.


Behind her, there was a noise, like something hitting metal. She turned around, but everything looked the same. There was another noise. It came from the direction of the dishwasher. Sara walked over too it. There was another thump. Sara grabbed the handle and raised the sides.


In the dishwasher, curled into a ball, was a girl. Her jeans were ragged. Her blond hair was tangled and knotted. She smelled like she hadn’t bathed in weeks.


“What are you doing in there?” Sara asked. “Get out of there. You could get hurt.”


“Are you going to turn me in?”


“Are you the one who broke the window?”


The girl nodded.


“Why?”


“I was hungry,” the girl said.


Sara looked at her, examining the girl, still curled up in the dishwasher.


“What are you going to do?” the girl asked.


Sara walked over to one of the big stoves and turned on the burner. She grabbed one of the big pans and set it on the flame. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll fix you something to eat.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holes

The movie version of Holes isn't that far from the original story. I say that based on my memory of the movie and the book. I watched the movie version first. But as a storyteller, there are a number of things that stand out in the way the story was told in the movie and how Louis Sachar originally told it.

The original story has a clear focus on Stanley Yelnats and the connections with the events so many decades earlier seem to be focused more on him. As I recall from the movie, a lot more emphasis was put on the events that caused the treasure to be hidden in the first place. In the book, we are told those things, but it doesn’t have quite the same poignancy to the death of the characters that the movie has. Good or bad, that’s the way it is.

Given the nature of the story, we might think the story is a coming of age story or a love story of some kind. In actual fact, it is a whydunit. Throughout the story, we have more and more information revealed about why the boys are digging holes. But it is only the reader who learns the full story, because the characters are unaware of much of the important parts. There are benefits to telling a story in this way, but it is a hard decision to decide to leave our main characters ignorant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Matching Titles

In case you haven't noticed, book titles are not unique. I generally track search results for the titles of my books. Anytime someone says something about one of my books, I want to know about it. The other day, search results showed up for <i>For the Love of a Devil</i>, but the author wasn’t me. For <i>And Thy House</i>, there’s no hope for uniqueness and I didn’t expect there to be, but what really got me thinking was when I saw two authors talking about <i>Thicker Than Blood</i>. One was new and one was old. One is a first book and one is the second book in a series. But it made me wonder if the publisher of the newer book gave it much thought when they  used the title.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to using a previously used title. If there is a popular book with the same name, then your book may sell more copies, just because it happens to show up in the search results when someone types in the name. On the other hand, by having the same name, you risk getting buried below all the other books with the same title. Add to that problem that people are likely to compare your book to the others. That may be fine, if your book is what they want to read, but it could be upsetting to them if they purchase your book, expecting the other. Your book may be fine, but they won’t review it as fine.

Sometimes, we want our title to stand out. Sometimes, it isn’t that important to have a unique title. Which way is better? That depends on the situation. Maybe what is really important is that people know the author.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Get Real Method (or why I don’t snowflake)

You no doubt have heard of the Snowflake Method that Randy Ingermanson recommends. For those of you who have heard of it, but haven’t taken the time to understand it, here it is in a nutshell:

    1. Write a one-sentence summary of your novel.
    2. Expand the sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters and ending of the novel.
    3. Write a summary sheet for each major character.
    4. Expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph.
    5. Write a one page description of each major character and a half page description of each minor character.
    6. Expand one-page synopsis into a four-page synopsis.
    7. Create full-fledged character charts.
    8. Take a hiatus and wait for the book to sell. In the meantime, make a spreadsheet showing the scenes.
    9. (optional) Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand into a multi-paragraph description of the scene.
    10. Write the first draft.

The basic idea behind this method is to develop a novel by creating progressively more detail with with step. For you software engineering folks out there, this method follows what we might call a Spiral Development Model. Some people really like the Snowflake Method. There’s plenty to like about it. It is similar to some other approaches I’ve seen and it has to be a whole lot better than a strict seat of your pants approach, but I don’t use it. Now, if you do and it works for you, my goal isn’t to try to convince you that you are doing the wrong thing. The purpose of this article is to say why I don’t use it and to describe the method I use.

 

Step one is great. Every good method I’ve seen starts with this same step. They may be worded differently, but the first thing you must do is to know what your novel is about. In my method, I also do something similar to step two, I do it differently. At this point, I use FreeMind with a generic outline based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, which is based on the three act structure. I figure a story is a story is a story, so I see no reason to go all the way back to Beginning, Middle and End, as the Snowflake Method seems to suggest, and break it down again when every Beginning breaks the same way, every Middle breaks the same way and every End breaks the same way. So, the first difference is that my framework is more detailed. For each major section, I write a short paragraph that describes what happens.

He loses me completely at step three. He calls for writing a summary sheet for each major character. If we have six major characters, that is six hours, plus the two hours we spent on the previous two steps. Basically, we’ve spent a day. I don’t write summary sheets. Still in FreeMind, I list all of characters major and minor. As I become aware of their traits, I add information. If the character is from another book, I simply copy the information. For example: next to Cora Gallant’s name I added “Kelly’s Confidant,” “Makeup Artist,” and “Kelly’s Childhood Friend.” Next to Carla’s name it says only, “Manager at Ellen’s Cafe.” There’s a lot more I could say about these characters, but I don’t need to. These guys are like friends. I know them well. I don’t need to go into a lot of detail, just enough to keep me from  changing the important points. Besides, what good will a paragraph do me if I’m not going to read it? I want everything on one diagram so I can glance at it.

To recap, at this point in my method, we have a logline for the story. We also have descriptions of what happens within every major part of the story. We know, for example, that the inciting incident for And Thy House is when our protagonist hears a Down’s syndrome man tell him that he is going to hell. We have details about the characters, but only that stuff we’re afraid we’ll forget if we don’t write it down. We have enough that we can go write the synopsis, if we like, just by pulling the stuff from FreeMind and writing it in a slightly better form. My method takes half a day to get to this point. The Snowflake Method takes two days.

In the past, I have gone and broken each major section into more detailed scenes, but for the most part, I’m not ready to do that yet. Anymore, if I know how a scene will play out, I’ll go ahead and describe it in FreeMind, but I’m ready to start writing. I know how large each segment should be, based on my total word count goal and I have a rough idea of what must happen. I find that if I try to define things too much before I begin writing that the scenes tend to be disconnected. There’s something about getting to page 160 and realizing that you have to have the guy ask the woman to marry him by page 166 that forces you to find a way to link stuff to his day to day activities.

At this point, the Snowflake Method calls for us to spend a few more weeks writing a more detailed synopsis. In fact, if you add it all up, the Snowflake Method calls for about five weeks of work before we begin the first draft. Agatha Christie thought a month was plenty of time to write a novel. It is a safe bet that she didn’t use the Snowflake Method. 

If you haven’t been keeping track, here is the Get Real Method in a nutshell:

  1. Write a Logline
  2. Fill out the basic story structure with our story.
  3. Record important character details.
  4. Write First Draft

Monday, December 21, 2009

Save 35% on My Novels

As a general rule, I try not to post twice in one day, but this is big news that won’t wait. You can now get all of my novels for as much as 35% off the suggested retail price. And Thy House, For the Love of a Devil and How to Become a Bible Character are all priced at $9.95 on Amazon.com. You can also purchase Searching For Mom at 25% off the SRP. Buy all four and that is a savings of $22.

Things Go Wrong

Generally, I don’t read guest posts and I certainly don’t link to them, but I happened to see a guest post by Steven James on Brandilyn Collins’ blog titled Things Look Bad? Make Them Worse. You ought to read it when you get a chance. He talks about how many people think stories are a series of events, but they are not. He then makes the statement that “you do not have a story until something goes wrong,” and he talks about making things worse to increase the tension in the story. I’m sure those of you reading this blog already knew that, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it.



I do want to talk a little more about this concept of going wrong. We’ve talked before about Where a Story Should Begin, but when do things go wrong? I asserted in that article that we begin a story when the protagonist needs to change, but is unwilling to change. For our discussion here, the key phrase is needs to change. The fact that something needs to change tells us that something has already gone wrong.



Let’s look at an example: I recently read Terri Blackstock’s Cape Refuge. At the beginning of the story, a village council is attempting to close down a half-way house owned by the parents of the protagonist. With this being a whydunnit, we aren’t going to find out why this thing has gone wrong or when it went wrong until near the end of the book, but something has gone wrong and by Steven James’ definition, we have a story. The murder will occur later, but something went wrong before page one.



Another example: In Searching For Mom, we begin the story with Sara receiving an assignment to write about her mother. The problem is that she doesn’t have a mother, never met her mother, will not have an opportunity to meet her mother and knows very little about her mother. Something has already gone wrong.



Blake Snyder described this as the stuff that needs fixing. As such, a story could be described as an account of how the protagonist attempts to fix stuff. Once the stuff is fixed or we reach a new understanding of how things ought to be, the story is over. That is what Steven James was saying when he said, “Romance stories are not about romance; they are about romantic tension. As soon as the actual romance happens, it is the end of the story.”



It is the desire to fix stuff that moves us through a story. But we need to keep in mind that the readers will grow tired if we pile things going wrong upon things going wrong. Some of the hardest stories to read are those where nothing goes right. That type of situation will cause the tension of the story to be too tight. The story will snap and the reader will give up. So, make things go wrong and make things worse, but do it within reason or risk losing the reader.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Videos - Again


Editor’s Note: Today I'm giving you another video. At four minutes, thirty-eight seconds, it is lengthy for a book video. Most of the ones I have seen come in at less than half of that. But please watch the video and then we'll talk about it.



This isn't the first time I've talked about book videos and it won't be the last. The current understanding of book videos seems to be that they probably help sell some books, some of the time, but we may have been able to sell those books anyway, using a cheaper method. In other words, we don't know how much book videos help with sales and we don't know if they are worth it, but they may be. They are certainly not a silver bullet. You can't just put a video out there and get thousands of people to read the book. For that matter, it is hard enough to get thousands of people to view the video, and it is free.


If you are a bestselling author, your publisher might foot the bill for a book video. For the rest of us, that is questionable. I did, however, notice that Thomas Nelson's Westbow Press includes an Online Video in the services they are offering. It will cost you $6,999. That video had better sell a lot of books if that is what the going rate is. Needless to say, a lot of us have looked at cheaper options. But what most of the book videos I have seen do is show images of the book, show images that look something like the area in which the story takes place and display text over the graphics. The text reads something like the Back Cover Copy.


For the video you see above, I took a different approach. If I'm watching a video for any length of time, I don't like having to stare at the screen the whole time, so a video without voices bores me. Voice actors are expensive, as is stock video footage. So, I hired some virtual actors who would work very cheaply. I then wrote a script that would have them introducing the story from the book.


Question: What do you think? Is this method more effective than the typical book video? Do the virtual cartoon characters detract from the more realistic characters in the book? Do you feel that the video has given you enough information to be able to tell someone else what the book is about?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Attitudes Sell Fiction

Let’s talk about demographics and psychographics. Demographics deal with such things as sex, race, age, income, education level and location, among other things. Psychographics deal with personality, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyles. There’s a fuzzy line between the two, since things like sex, race, age and education level can indicate some things about a person’s attitude, but it is helpful to think of them as separate.



If you are trying to sell a how to book, demographics are likely more important than psychographics. If the book is about how to write a device driver for a new piece of hardware, your target audience is like to be highly educated in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science. That could also be considered a firmographic (dealing with a person’s firm).



But when we move over into the fiction world, demographics aren’t as important. If we write a story that takes place in New York, we can’t assume that someone in Los Angeles won’t be interested. Just because the protagonist is a man doesn’t mean that women won’t want to read it. The amount of money a person has will not influence whether he wants to read a story about a rich man or a poor man.



Shortly after For the Love of a Devil came out, an acquaintance of mine looked at it, put it aside and said, “Too close to home.” As you will recall, For the Love of a Devil is about a man whose wife leaves him, but he fights to get her back. My acquaintance experienced a very bitter divorce in which his wife left him, even though he tried to get her to stay. I don’t expect he will ever read that book because it touches a very tender sore. Demographics won’t tell me that, but psychographics will.



Suppose we could look at an online community and we saw that many of them are hurting because of divorce. It would be a waste of time for us to try to sell a book like For the Love of a Devil to this group. What we would like to do is pick the psychographic attributes that would describe a person who would enjoy this book, find a group that has most of those attributes and market it to them. We can’t always do that, so the next best thing is to match the psychographics of a group with a book they are enjoying, find a similar book and try to sell that book to them. In part, this is why traditional publishers are more successful than self-publishers. A traditional publisher can select the book for the group rather than the group for the book.



But, if you are interested in seeing fiction sell, pay attention to psychographics. People’s attitudes, combined with the storyline, have a great influence on the sale of novels.



Question: In what way have you seen your own attitude toward things or life in general influence your desire to read a novel or to write a story?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lying in Fiction

Brandilyn Collins recently wrote about lying to the reader and put her finger on what I don’t like about close third person or deep third person, as she calls it. If you look at the article, you will see that she makes a distinction between the author’s narrative and the narrative of close third, but the example paragraph is exactly the same. As writers, we may say that it is okay to lie to the read in one while it isn’t in the other because in one the reader is listening to the voice of a flawed character and in the other he is listening to the voice of the author, who has had the benefit of having read the book several times and knows that fifty pages away the character is going to prove the character’s assumption wrong. But how is the reader supposed to know that?


If there is no difference between what the author says in his authority to what the character says in his flaws, the reader has no way of knowing whether the passage is written by the author or by the character. In first person, we don’t have that problem because it is so obvious that the narrator is a character within the story. In third person, the narrator may be an outside observer or it may be the author. I know this isn’t popular, but if readers don’t like us lying to them, maybe we should avoid writing in deep third person. Either it is okay to lie to the reader or it is not. If it is not, we can’t get around the issue by splitting hairs and saying it is okay because we are writing in deep third person.


Question: To what degree should lying in fiction be allowed? Does it really matter at all?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Most Popular Story

Some statistics that I have seen indicate that the most popular book category is mystery and suspense, with a 19% hold on the fiction market. I don’t know how old those statistics are, so it may be different now, but all we have to do is look around to see that mystery and suspense are popular. We can draw a distinction between these two, but we don’t need to, for our purposes. The story that is typically told in both mystery and suspense is that of the Whydunnit or Whodunnit, if  you prefer. There are nine other stories that we can tell and if we do nothing more than divide the rest of the 81% evenly between them, the average popularity of the other stories is only 9%. The Whydunnit enjoys more than twice the popularity of the other stories. In other words, mystery and suspense are hugely popular. Even romance writers are getting into the act by writing Romantic Suspense. If readers love the Whydunnit so much, it would do us good to understand it better.

What It Is

This type of story follows a very distinctive pattern. We have a puzzle and we must put the pieces together. Something has happened. We may know what has happened, but we don’t know who, when, why or how. Or maybe we don’t even know what has happened, but as we move through the story, we are going to gather the pieces until we can piece them all together and reveal the final picture, but the image in the final picture is always the same and yet it is the biggest surprise of all.

Why It Is Popular

Have you ever looked at two pictures in which one shows a path leading up to a closed door and the other shows a path leading up to a door that stands ajar? We can see just enough to tell that something is on the other side, but we aren’t sure what it is. We want to step into the painting and follow that path so we can push that door open a little farther and examine what stands on the other side. This type of story invites us to follow a path that leads to a door, though which we will discover something interesting.

How It Is Formed

Blake Snyder, in his discussion of the subject, talked about a process of turning over cards. If there is ever a time when a writer needs to use an outline, it is when he is writing this type of story. The characters alone cannot carry the story. We must know who, what, when, where, how and why before we begin to write. We must be able to lay all the cards out in front of us, but then we should turn them all face down. We should order them in such a way that the stuff about the who of the story comes last, so that the most shocking revelation will come at the end. As we move through the story, we should turn these cards over, one at a time.

Who It Is About

We typically thing the protagonist is the person a story is about, but in this type of story, that is far from the truth. In this type of story, the protagonist has the job of turning the cards over, nothing more. In fact, the protagonist isn’t changed by the story. Look at a television show like Monk, in which the story is always of this type. While the character changes throughout the series, due to other things, the cases he is on do not change the way he handles the next case. He solves the next case in much the same way as the last. The person who is changed the most and the person who the story is about is the same person who is revealed at the end. We put the final piece of the puzzle into place and we expect to see the murderer, but what we discover is that we have been staring into a mirror the whole time.

What Carries Us On

We keep reading out of a desire to see what is behind the next door. When we open that final door and look inside, we ask ourselves whether we would really respond the same way as the villain of the story if we faced the same situation. While we hope we would not, it is within the nature of all of us to respond in that way, if we allow ourselves. Unlike many stories, where we find it easy to hate the villain, this is a story in which we have a hard time hating the villain because the villain looks like us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Big Announcement

Great news! My latest book is out and available on Amazon.com. They even have the Search Inside feature turned on already. I didn’t expect it so soon, but I’m thrilled.


And Thy House Book Cover
And Thy House

What’s the book about? It’s about an ordinary guy who has little use for church and has raised his daughters outside of church. He has kept them away from their mother, who is the church secretary. But one day, this ordinary guy realizes that he is going to hell and his daughters are going there too, all because of him. He tries everything he can to persuade them that what he taught them was wrong, but they are even more against church than he was.

Something’s Not Right

I knew there was disparity between men reading fiction and women reading fiction, but I didn’t really see the situation for what it is until I saw a statistic the other day. Publisher’s Weekly was quoted as saying that of all fiction sold, 55% was bought by woman and 45% was bought by men. I really expected the gap to be much wider. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll see a sea of pink. Walk into nearly any bookstore and books for women will get preferential treatment. Look at the faces of most authors and you’ll see a lot of makeup. Talk to most men and you’ll hear them say, “I read more non-fiction than I do fiction.” Put that together and the picture you’ll get is that fiction is primarily a woman thing. We’re going all out to sell fiction to woman and still men buy 45% of the fiction sold. On top of that, many men don’t buy fiction because they read whatever their wives have around the house.

Consider that there are millions of book buyers in America. Now, if we take 45% of that, millions of those book buyers are men. It makes you wonder why publishers aren’t doing more to attract a male audience.

Question: What do you think? If publishers turned their focus toward men, do you think men would buy more books than women or is the gap going to be the same no matter what they do?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Video Fill-in


Editor’s Note: Today for Fiction Friday, I thought I would give you a video. I know we say we prefer reading to seeing a scene in a video, but sometimes we want to see it, even if it is a little corny.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting People Lost

Okay, so I was over at Mike Dellosso’s blog the other day and he had this short post about possibly writing about using Fiction to Evangelize. It got me to thinking about how that can be done. If you’ve read, How to Become a Bible Character, you know that it tells the way of salvation several different times. I can’t say that I was trying to do that, but it’s just that kind of a story. And Thy House is also that kind of a story. It is a about a guy who becomes a Christian and then has to deal with daughters who don’t think he should have. But is that the way to evangelize through fiction?


One thought I’ve had is that instead of focusing our attention on getting people saved, we writers should focus our attention on getting people lost. I don’t mean that we should write the most confusing prose imaginable. Some authors seem to think that is their goal in life, but if the message of salvation is going to have any meaning, people must see their need of salvation. A drowning man will long for a lifesaver, but if he had realized he would fall in the water, he might have put on a life vest. The problem with many people today is that they don’t really believe they are in any danger. Sure, they want to go to heaven when they die. Who wouldn’t? But most people figure they’ll get there somehow. They are all rich, fat and happy. They all see themselves as good people. Hell is for the bad people.


If we look at the message Jesus had for the leaders of his day, it was a message that even though they have the appearance of being righteous it wasn’t good enough to get them into the Kingdom of Heaven. They told themselves that they were okay because they kept the Law to the letter, but even they were unable to keep all of it. Jesus spent much of his time getting these “good” men lost.


For us writers to get people lost, it’s great for us to talk about the “big” sins, like murder, adultery, fornication and homosexuality, but just how many people commit murder or cheat on their spouse? Those who do don’t need us to tell them that they are sinners. It’s those good people who treat people with respect, help their neighbors, give to charities and occasionally go to church that we need to get lost. They really are decent people, but without Christ as their savior, they will go to hell just like anyone else. To get them lost, we need to turn the spotlight on the sins they do commit and show them that they are not worthy to enter the heaven.


It’s easy to write a book about an adulterer, but how do we write a book about the guy who leaves work five minutes early everyday or the guy who drives a few miles per hour over the speed limit? How do we make people aware that those sins make them just as guilty in the sight of God as if they had committed murder? There may not be an easy answer to that, but it is something we must consider if we hope to use our novels to evangelize.


Question: How much do you try to evangelize in your writing? Should we be doing this at all?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Not Called to Write

Terry Burns recently wrote about the calling to write. Some people talk about the calling to write. When you think about it, that sort of leaves the rest of us out in the cold. Who are we to say we even have the right to call ourselves writers if others are called by God to write, but we are not?


What I like about what Terry said is that he called what the rest of us do an offering. There’s an awful lot of stuff I do that I wouldn’t consider a calling. I work with kids in our church’s Awana program. While I enjoy doing that, I don’t see that as a calling. But that isn’t to say that isn’t to say that I’m doing it for myself; it is an offering. The stuff I do with our church’s website: that is more of a calling. I won’t go into how I know the difference. The point is that there are some things we are called to do and some things that we simply offer up to God as we worship him.


If you are called to write, great, but there is no sin in writing if you just have a desire to write and want to offer your talent to the Lord. Certainly, if you are called to write, then it would be a sin for you to refuse, but not having a calling to write doesn’t decrease the value of the offering. So we put our words on paper or on a blog and we hold it up to God. Take my words, formed in my inability, and with your ability, use them for your glory.


Question: Do you feel called to write? Would it make you feel different about writing if you were? Weren't?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Blacklisted Publisher

I wasn’t going to write about this, but it keeps coming up. Actually, I wrote about it once, changed my mind and deleted what I wrote, but if you haven’t heard, Harlequin continues to get blacklisted by writers’ associations. The board of the Romance Writers Association (RWA) blacklisted them several days ago and in response Harlequin change the name of their vanity press to DellArte. I’m not sure if that appeased Michelle Monkou and company over at RWA, but it didn’t appease Lee Child and company on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) board of directors. They voted to bar Harlequin from consideration for their Edgar award.



I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this thing. The publishers are supposed to be the publishing experts and yet, last year more books were published by POD companies than by traditional publishers. It’s no wonder that publishers are beginning to try to move into that market. But what is it that these association boards hope to gain by blacklisting publishers? That’s a hard question to answer. I’m sure that they will make the claim that it is in the best interest of their membership to shun publishers with predatory practices that allow the publishers to make money from manuscripts they have rejected.



When you consider that Harlequin puts out approximately half of the romance novels produced in America, just how meaningful would it be for an author to win the RITA when Harlequin doesn’t even show up? It is inconceivable to me that if this matter were put to a vote with the members of RWA that blacklisting Harlequin would pass easily, if at all. Essentially, this move would be telling more than half the published membership that their books will not be considered because their publisher has a vanity press.



So, if the association would be divided or opposed to this move, then why is it that these boards are unanimous? I somewhat understand the MWA, since they have little to lose by rejecting Harlequin, but the RWA risks losing all creditability by rejecting Harlequin. Certainly, they should express their concerns about how Harlequin does business and they should educate their members about the nature of self-publishing and vanity presses, but in whose best interest is it to take such a hard line stance? Like I said, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one.



Question: Do you see any personal benefits from the boards of these associations rejecting Harlequin? Are the people on these boards protecting your interest or their own personal interests?






And while we're on the subject, here is a video that responds to the same issue:



To be clear, I don't endorse AuthorSolutions and I'm not sure that I agree with everything in the video, but he does make some good points. This thing about saying someone isn't an author until they receive at a $1,000 advance is uterly ridiculous. I certainly agree with that. But even while we might support self-publishing, let's keep in mind that there is a big difference between publishing a book and selling it to a significant number of people.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Great Term Shift

People in the publishing industry are a bunch of liars. I was reading a literary agent’s blog the other day and she made a comment about a perfectly good book that she didn’t feel she could represent because perfectly good books don’t sell, only great books sell. Anyone who has ever picked up a book, read some number of pages and finally decided to put it down because it was just too boring, knows that isn’t the case and would be glad to have some perfectly good books out there on the market to replace some of those not so great books.


The problem is one of terminology. Imagine you are a literary agent and you have a book you are trying to sell. You can’t go to a publisher and say, “This is an okay book that I think you should consider. It probably won’t make you much money, but I don’t figure you’ll lose money on it either.” Instead, you have to go to the publisher and say, “This is a great book! This book is going to help you make up the money you lost on those other books you’ve been publishing!” The problem is that publishers don’t make money on most books. They do good to break even and they rely on the hugely successful books to make up the difference. Because publishers only want books that will make money, agents lie, or stretch the truth a bit by shifting the terms. A good book becomes a great book. An ordinary book becomes a good book.


I’m not sure if there is a solution to this problem. We would like to think that it would be better if people were honest. But as long as the publishing industry functions the way it does, who would dare try to sell a publisher an average book and yet somebody has to sell all those average books and somebody has to sell the absolutely worst traditionally published books out there. Is there a literary agent who wants to brag about having done that?


On the bright side, that means that I can claim my books are great. Who am I kidding? My books are better than great. They are excellent!


Question: So, what do you think? Does shifting the terminology cause any real problems? Am I completely off base? Do you care?

Friday, December 4, 2009

First Chapter: And Thy House


Editor’s Note: With it being time for another Fiction Friday and since my latest book will be coming out soon, I am posting the first chapter for your reading pleasure. To give you and idea of where this is headed, this is a story about a man who divorced his wife and raised his children out of church, but comes to discover that he was wrong after the girls have reached an age when he has begun to lose influence with them.



Chapter One


At the top of the steps, going up to the church building, the greeter pushed the glass door open. Martin shoved the door open even farther. The greeter stumbled and regained his footing as Martin brushed past him.



Another man held out a church bulletin. “Welcome to…”



Martin brushed aside the bulletin and made a beeline for the doors of the auditorium. Other greeters milled about the otherwise deserted foyer. A man and a woman stood at the double doors of the auditorium watching the people inside, blocking Martin’s way. The man looked up as Martin approached. He pulled the door open. Martin shoved this door even harder than the last, knocking it into the man’s face.



The man stepped back and rubbed his nose. Martin figured it served the man right. He hadn’t asked the man to open the door. But he hadn’t intended to injure him. He just wanted him out of the way. The door swung closed behind him. Martin scanned the crowd, looking for a particular head of hair. He scanned one section of the room, then the next, but didn’t see her. There were many people. They were all idiots, he thought. Up on stage, Wayne Hiller was preaching away, like there was no tomorrow. As far as Martin was concerned, he was the biggest idiot of them all. He was equaled only by Kim, the woman he had come to find, but he didn’t see her.



“Sir, is there something we can help you with?” The woman greeter spoke softly from the open door behind him. Just behind her, the other greeter stood with his head tilted back and a blood soaked handkerchief held to his nose.



“Kim Fraiser,” Martin spat the name at her, “Where’s Kim Fraiser sitting?”



The woman stepped forward and looked over the crowd. “I haven’t seen her today. She might not be here.”



“Where else would she be?” Martin raised his voice. More people turned their heads.



“I don’t know,” the woman said. She looked thoughtful. “She might be—I don’t know. She must be here somewhere. Maybe you can take a seat and wait until the service is over to look for her.”



Martin started to tell her he would do no such thing, but he saw a familiar face, that of Mark Dawson, coming up the aisle toward him. Just seeing his boss’s face calmed him some. He slipped the printed e-mail message he clutched in his hand into his jeans. Kim had caused enough trouble. He wasn’t about to let her mess things up his boss. In Martin’s eyes, Mark was as much of an idiot as Kim to come to church here, but he also stood between Martin and that promotion he wanted. That was worth overlooking some things.



“Is everything alright?” Mark asked in a voice so quiet that the people staring at them had to strain to hear.



“I’m looking for my ex-wife.” Martin spoke softly for the first time since entering the church building.



Mark turned to look back at the congregation, not scanning the building as the other two had done, but looking at one section, perhaps one row. “I haven’t seen her today.”



“She has to be here. She’s always here.”



“Usually,” Mark said, “but I don’t see her. Come sit with us. If she’s here, she’ll stick around for a while after church and she’ll be easier to spot.”



Martin followed the man down the aisle. What else could he do? It wasn’t like he could say, “No, I didn’t come for church. I just came because I felt like yelling at my ex-wife.”



She deserved everything she got. He felt the folded page in his pocket. She had these people fooled. They all thought she was something special, but Martin knew better. “I’m spending the week with Mom,” the e-mail from Joanna said. Kim wasn’t even supposed to see the girls without him being there. He considered calling his attorney, but decided it served his purposes better to show all these church people what a hypocrite their church secretary was. Besides, he knew what his attorney would say, “Joanna’s considered an adult now. She can do what she wants.”



They reached the seat where Mark had been sitting. A woman Martin recognized as the owner of a restaurant he had visited a few times moved over and Mark sat next to her, leaving Martin the outside. Obviously, this was Mark’s wife. Martin wasn’t sure why he hadn’t drawn the connection when he’d seen Mark in the restaurant before.



Martin settled in his seat and having nothing else to do, listened to Wayne Hiller.



“I look at this passage and here this man is in hell…”



Martin suppressed a laugh, realizing that Wayne thought the passage was true.



“…he first cries out for help for himself. I’m sure any of us would do the same. The fire in hell is hot, but notice what it says, starting in verse twenty-seven.”



Martin watched for them to put the reading on the screen so he could see what was in the passage, but the congregation had their heads down, staring at open Bibles. Mark handed Martin his own Bible and looked at the one in his wife’s lap. She moved it so that they could both see it easily. Martin looked at Mark’s Bible, loaded down with bookmarks and pages of handwritten notes. It reminded him of how Kim’s Bible had always looked. He hadn’t thought that Mark would do the same thing. Mark was no sissy. He had proven that a few months back when they’d found three guys trying to break into the paint shed. Two of them had been cooperative. As was the third one, after Mark chased him down and tackled him.



“It says that this man prayed that someone would be sent to his five brothers to warn them, so they wouldn’t have to suffer the torment of hell.”



On the page in front of him, Martin found the verse the pastor had referenced. For what it was worth, it appeared to match what he said.



“When we look at a group of people like what we see here today, we expect that there are some who have never accepted Christ as their Savior. Maybe that person is you. Maybe you aren’t sure if you are saved or not. Maybe you know you are lost and you want nothing to do with Jesus.” Wayne looked right at Martin when he said that.



That only made Martin angry. Kim must have known he would show up and told Wayne. She knew he would go looking for Joanna. Martin looked away.



“What this passage tells me is this someone is praying for you. It could be a friend or family member, the person sitting next to you. We have a lot of people on our prayer list because they need salvation. But it could be someone like this rich man, a brother who has already gone to hell and doesn’t want you to go too.”



Nope. No brothers.



“Maybe it isn’t a brother,” Wayne said, as if he had read Martin’s mind. “Maybe it’s a parent, a grandparent, a spouse or child who is praying for you, even from the depths of hell.”



The thought crossed Martin’s mind of the years he had been married to Kim. “I’m praying for you,” she had told him on numerous occasions. He had found her on her knees crying many times. That went on until he found a line in a Dickens novel and started saying, “Woman, I don’t want you flopping down against me.” She stopped mentioning it, but Martin suspected something when she would lock herself in the bedroom, sometimes more than an hour at a time, and come out with puffy eyes. She had surely quit, after all this time, which was more proof that the preacher wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.



“You may be like the rich man’s five brothers who wouldn’t repent, even if one rose from the dead.”



That would be worth seeing, Martin thought. Lots of people would show up at church if they started raising the dead. Martin looked over at Mark and Ellen. They both stared at the preacher, taking in every word. He looked a couple of rows in front of were they sat. A couple of teenage girls sat there, next to a woman he guessed to be the parent of at least one of them. The woman stared at the preacher, but the girls were doing something else. At first, all Martin could see was the hand signals they were making. One finger. Three fingers. Two. Then he saw one of them holding several cards in her hand. He turned his attention to them. It made it easier to tune out what Wayne was saying.



The card game went on until everyone stood up and the musicians began to play. Martin looked around at the others. He still didn’t see Kim. He didn’t feel as much like yelling at her in front of all these people or in front of Mark. He had plenty to say to her, once the crowd cleared. They wouldn’t take long to disappear. Their eyes were on their watches. Women were gathering their purses. A few people were already heading for the doors, even while a few people made their way toward the front. It wouldn’t be long and Martin would be free once more.



And then it was over. The crowd flowed from their seats into the aisles and out the doors. Martin handed Mark’s Bible back to him and thought he would slip into the crowd, but Mark stopped him. “Let’s see if we can find Kim.”



Most of the crowd disappeared, leaving small pockets of people talking. A woman walked toward Martin and the Dawsons.



“Tiffany, have you seen Kim Fraiser?” Mark asked before she reached them.



She paused for a moment before she said, “No. She isn’t here. She went to see her sister last week. She’ll be back, Tuesday.”



It took Martin a moment to take in what the woman had said. Kim wasn’t in town and hadn’t been all week—not even in the same state. So where’s Joanna?



“I’m Tiffany Hiller,” the woman said, extending her hand to Martin, “the pastor’s wife.”



“Martin Zale.” He shook her hand.



“This is one of my guys from work,” Mark said.



“We’re glad to have you here,” Tiffany said with a smile that seemed genuine. “Are you going to eat with us?”



Martin gave her a dumb look, not understanding the question.



“Bumble Bee has a lot of us over for Sunday dinner,” Mark explained. “You’re welcome to come.”



“I don’t think so,” Martin said. He had already spent more time with these people than he intended.



“Maybe some other time.” Tiffany smiled again. She walked off, but not far before she spoke to someone else.



“You really are welcome to come,” Mark said. “There’ll be plenty to eat.”



“No, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Martin turned around and walked away before Mark could insist.



Out in the foyer, Martin saw the man whose nose he had busted. The man took a step back as Martin approached. Martin didn’t say anything to him as he walked past. He did notice a drop of blood on the man’s white shirt.



The crowd hadn’t cleared out of the foyer as quickly as they cleared the auditorium. Martin didn’t realize what was causing the bottleneck until it was too late. Wayne Hiller stood in the doorway, shaking hands and talking to people as they made their way out of the building. Martin thought it was arrogant of him to stand there like everyone wanted to shake his hand. He looked for another door and saw several people walking out that way. He turned to follow them, but the crowd kept pushing him toward Wayne. Martin persisted in pushing through them until he noticed that the music director stood at that door. Given a choice between the two men, Martin didn’t care, but he would have to walk around the building if he went out by the music director. He turned back around and followed the crowd, having lost a few positions in line. He regained positions, as he could, pushing past one person and then another. Most didn’t seem to care. They were all too busy talking to each other, like they were the dearest of friends, to notice a man pushing his way toward the door, while trying not to call too much attention to himself.



Martin had nearly made it to the door. There were only a couple of people in front of him. One of them looked like she wanted to spend all day talking to the pastor and the other looked like she was as impatient as Martin. He felt a tap on his shoulder. Thinking it was someone who wanted to squeeze past him, Martin ignored it. He stood there, waiting for the woman to finish talking and he felt the tapping hand again. Once more, Martin ignored it. Again he felt the tapping on his shoulder. Martin turned around to snap at the person bothering him.



Just behind him a Down’s syndrome man with graying hair looked up at Martin. The man was short—even shorter than Martin’s small stature. The man spoke in a barely understandable voice. “This is your first time here.”



“Yes.” Martin turned around, hoping the man was satisfied.



He must have been because Martin heard him speaking to another person. “Want to hear something important?”



“Of course,” the other person said.



“I’m going to heaven. Are you?”



“Yes, I’m going to heaven too.” The other person said.



The little man repeated the conversation with another person and another, each saying they were going to heaven. All the while, the woman kept talking to Wayne.



Martin felt the hand of the childlike man on his shoulder again. He knew the man would ask if he were going to heaven. Even after Wayne’s sermon that morning, Martin knew how he would answer. He wasn’t a bad person. He did more good than bad. And if those girls could get by with playing cards in church then Martin felt that he get into heaven too. He knew he had done more good than the Down’s syndrome man. The tapping continued until Martin turned around, ready to give his answer.



“You’re going to hell,” the little man said.



The ready answer Martin had thought of wouldn’t work. He tried to think of a retort. This was why he didn’t like church. He pushed his way past the people in front of him and out the door.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rationalizing Not Backstory

No backstory, is the mantra. It kills the story. But it keeps showing up, time and time again. Is it because we’re just all a bunch of bad writers? Maybe we just don’t see backstory as being the problem that people keep telling us it is. Maybe we just don’t understand. Whatever the case, backstory creeps in and when we consider how closely backstory is related to flashbacks, there’s an obvious reason. The big difference between the two is that backstory comes from a different story while flashback comes from our current story. It isn’t always easy to keep them apart.



Instead of arguing against backstory, I’d like to talk about the underlying problem. I see the problem as one of rationalizing. Suppose a character is a rich garbage man. Because we don’t typically think garbage men will be rich, our natural tendency is to try to explain how he became rich and why he continues to collect garbage, but that’s part of a different story, making it backstory. It would be better to just say that he is a rich garbage man or make him more of a down to earth guy. Whatever we do, we should avoid the tendency to explain it to the reader.



Rationalizing is not limited to backstory. We may insert a plot element and then come back later with something else to show the reader why we weren’t fools when we decided to put it in. A character wants grandchild very badly. It may be that having a grandmotherly type woman in the story with no grandkids is sufficient, but we start trying to tell how she feels because she doesn’t have grandkids. It kills the movement of the plot because while we’re trying to rationalize her actions, nothing else is happening. It isn’t backstory, but it is just as bad.



If we find ourselves rationalizing, we ought to try to remove it completely. If that doesn’t help, we might try changing the plot so that we can leave out what we feel the need to rationalize.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Page Numbering Revisited

Anyone who has read this blog very long knows that page numbering is a pet peeve of mine. Admittedly, I almost numbered a book wrong the other day, so I understand that mistakes can be made. My real issue is with people who number a book incorrectly with no intention of trying to do it correctly. There are several publishers out there who make no distinction between the front matter and the text other than that they may leave off the numbers for the front matter or use lowercase roman numerals, but the result is that the text of the book could end up beginning on page 7 or 11 or some strange number that seems out of place. I found one publisher, NESFA Press, that even says in their style guide that they do not start renumbering with the first page of the text. Their actual statement says, “We do not re-start numbering with the first story page. (If it really bothers the editor not to use Roman numerals on the front matter, OK, but the pages are still numbered consecutively in one series from the very front to the end. E.g., page 10 follows page ix.)” In other words they are saying, we’re doing it wrong, we know we’re doing it wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But you might be wondering what right I have to say that it is wrong. I might not like the way other people number pages, but if they like it then maybe their opinion is as good as mine. To settle this, we go to the 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the defacto standard of how we ought to do things related to style. On pages 32 though 34 of this book, we learn how we ought to number pages. The paragraph related to this discussion is 1.103 which states:

The text begins with arabic page 1. If the text begins with a second half title or with a part title, the half title or part title counts as page 1, its verso counts as page 2, and the first arabic number to appear is the drop folio (3) on the first page of the text. If there is no part title or half title, the first page of the text proper becomes page 1. Page numbers generally do not appear on part titles, but if the text appears on a part title, a drop folio may be used.

In other words, the first page of chapter one is page one, unless we’ve divided the book into sections (one of which might be a section of lengthy front matter) and have used title pages to divide the sections. In that case, the title pages for those sections should also be included in our numbering scheme, but what the 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t call for is for the typesetter to number the text without restarting the numbering.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Sales Isn’t Always About the Best Book

When we consider book sales, the thing that separates the successful good book and the unsuccessful good book is the number of people who know about it. There are a number of books out there that are well written but don’t sell well because people haven’t picked them out of the noise. I say that at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to tell you that I think my own books fall within that category. For this discussion, let’s forget I’ve ever written a book and look at book sales from a broader perspective. Some people are concerned that with the influx of self-published books, customers will be overwhelmed by the options. I have news for them Customers are already overwhelmed by the options. That is part of the reason why bestselling novels do so much better than other books. If customers could go out and find the book they will enjoy the most at any moment in time, book sales would be more evenly distributed, but customers aren’t making a decision about which books they will like the best. Instead, they are looking for a book that is good enough to meet there needs. There may be some obscure book that the particular customer would like better, but good enough is good enough when all the customer wants is something to help him pass the time. Greater risk brings greater reward, but it also brings greater defeat. Rather than sample the obscure in hopes of finding that touches him in that special place, the customer avoids the danger of finding only another poorly written book and selects a book from those that many people have read and liked. If thousands of people have read the book and liked it, then it probably isn’t terrible, even if it isn’t the ideal book for the customer. So if we have two books that are passable, the one that is the most in the mind of the customers will sell better and will likely get better reviews because most people don’t like to disagree with the majority but they fill safe in saying bad things about a book that is more obscure. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

The How of Theme

I’ve talked about theme before on this blog, but as I look back, it was a year ago when I talked about it. To summarize what I said then, every story has a theme. The theme is what the story is about. The theme is like the statement you wish to prove through your story. For example, our theme could be that marriages would be happier if couples would forgive each other. I said that we should delete anything that doesn’t support the theme. I said that writing to a theme helps eliminate the problem of preachy writing. I also listed 101 Christian Themes. I stand behind what I said last year and I encourage you to go back and read it if you haven’t already, but I want to add to what I said by talking about the how of writing to a theme.



Know Thy Theme


To begin with, you may not know what your theme is. Sometimes we begin with the theme, but there are many ways to begin a story. We can begin with some characters, throw them in a situation and see how they handle it. In that case, we probably don’t know the theme. We may not know the theme if we begin with the story. We might know we have a story about a detective solving a murder mystery, but we might not know the theme until we have written a significant portion of the story. But one will. One always does because every story has a theme. Look for that theme and write to it. If you don’t, the story will be so cluttered with other stuff that no one knows what it happening.



Illustrate Thy Theme Through the Primary Plot


Using the theme from above, happy marriage come from forgiveness, the first thing we will notice about a story with this theme is that the primary plot is focused on illustrating this theme. We might have discovered we were writing a story with this theme after we began our story with an argument between a husband and wife. One of the problems the protagonist has is that he is unwilling to forgive his wife. She says some mean thing and he doesn’t do the right thing by letting it slid. Instead, he stores it away and uses it as ammunition for the next time they argue. Later in the story, as we are illustrating the result of change, we show how she responds when he treats her with respect and forgives her for words she used in the heat of a moment. As we near the endgame of the story, we address the question of how to handle a situation when she has done the unforgivable. Perhaps she reveals that she had an affair. Will our protagonist continue to respond in forgiveness or will he revert to the previous way of doing things? He can go either way, but to support our theme, if he responds in forgiveness then he will be rewarded with a happy marriage, but if he reverts then it will end tragically.



Discuss Thy Theme With Secondary Plots


Once we know the theme, we can look at the secondary plots and either write them to the theme or revamp them. The secondary plots aren’t just a place to tell some of the other stuff that is going on in our protagonist’s life. The best use of a secondary plot is to provide a safe place to debate the theme. This is why the love story usually happens in the B-plot. By love story, I don’t mean romance, but rather a story involving any two characters that love each other. For our example theme, the secondary plot could be about the wife going off and doing something with her sister. Now, they could go shopping and get into an argument about a sweater. That would give us a plot, but it wouldn’t add value to our story. Instead, we want the sisters to go off shopping and talk about possibility of the wife leaving the marriage. It is safe because the sister will love the wife no matter what she decides. It gives us a respite from the main plot. It allows us to discuss the various possibilities. Does she leave? Does she stay? Does she tell him about the affair? Does she not?



Pick Thy Half-man For Thy Theme


A half-man is a character that has confronted the beast of the story and failed. He faced the dragon to rescue the princess, but now his face is scarred from burns. We don’t just pick any half-man. In keeping with our theme, we must pick a half-man who tried to learn how to forgive his wife, but now he is divorced because he failed. He must warn our protagonist of the danger.



I think you’re seeing the theme here. We use the theme to provide consistency throughout the story. There is much variation in the plot, but the theme must stay constant.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Black Friday Interview

Editor’s Note: This being the day after Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I decided that today would be a good day to sit down with the three protagonists again. We’re sitting in Ellen’s café. It is all decked out in Christmas colors, there are strings of light and greenery that they don’t normally have and next to the staircase there is a tall Christmas tree. Shoppers are coming in carrying packages and the noise level is quite high, but we’ll see how we do.


Timothy Fish:
I want to thank you guys for talking to me again—especially you Sara. I can see how busy you are.

Sara:
I’m glad to get a break. I’ve been here since before five o’clock this morning.

Neal:
And you were here yesterday too, weren’t you?

Sara:
Yeah, but not all day. We had Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house.

Timothy Fish:
Which one?

Sara:
Ellen’s mother. Yeah, I wasn’t very clear, was I? That’s the problem with having three grandmothers.

Timothy Fish:
Neal, I suppose you’re home visiting your parents. You’re still in college, how is that going?

Neal:
It’s going okay.

Timothy Fish:
You’ve got another year before you graduate, right?

Neal:
Yeah, it looks like it.

Timothy Fish:
Are you planning on going on a mission trip again this summer?

Neal:
No, I’m trying to work something else out, but I’d rather not talk about it at the moment. You and I can talk about it offline, if you want.

Timothy Fish:
That’s fine. What I really wanted to talk to you guys about, since it is Thanksgiving week are the things you are thankful for.

Geoff:
I’ll tell you what I’m thankful for. I think yesterday was the best Thanksgiving my family has had in a long time. Mom even got along with Heather this year. Life’s a lot better than it used to be.

Sara:
I’m thankful to have a mother. And I can assure you I know what it’s like to be without one.

Neal:
Well, if you’re going to be that way, I guess I’m thankful that there are only three of us. There are only four seats at this table. I’m sure I’d be the first one to get dropped it there were another.

Timothy Fish:
We might just have to find another way of doing this, but I’m not dropping anyone. But, for your information, there will be a fourth pretty soon.

Geoff:
Anyone we know?

Timothy Fish:
You might—Martin Zale?

Geoff:
Yeah, I know him. I had his daughters in school. Valerie is in my class now. It’ll make an excellent story.

Timothy Fish:
I hope everyone else agrees with you.

Neal:
How long before it’s done?

Sara:
Yeah, do we get to read it first?

Timothy Fish:
It’ll be a few more days, but yeah, I’ll let you guys read it now if you like.

Sara:
Will it tell me who I’m going to marry?

Timothy Fish:
No, I’m afraid not, but you’re in it.

Geoff:
Does she beat anyone up?

Timothy Fish:
No, not this time. About the worst thing she does is to park in a no parking zone.

Neal:
We’d better call the police on that one.

Sara:
Am I in it a lot or just a little?

Timothy Fish:
Mostly as it deals with your friendship with Kelly.

Sara:
One of these days, I want you to write about me having a boyfriend.

Timothy Fish:
Everyone wants to put their two-cents in about what I should write.

Sara:
Don’t pay attention to everyone else. It’s my life, you ought to listen to me.

Timothy Fish:
We’ll see. But that’s all we have time for. I’m sure you’ll talk to me about this later.

Sara:
Count on it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey Day

Today is Thanksgiving, so in celebration of that event I thought I’d talk about a common misconception. Many people believe that turkeys can’t fly, but if you’ve ever seen one out in the wild then you know that is clearly not true. As the video below shows, turkeys are quite adept at flight.





Okay, so they have the grace of a duck, but they can certainly fly. But you may have noticed that these turkeys are leaner than the farm raised birds we feast on each Thanksgiving. I’m sure there’s some analogy to writing in there somewhere, but I’m not even going to try. I hope you have a wonderful time with family and friends as we celebrate surviving another year.