Writing Safari 2#: Starting Out

Writing Safari 2#
Starting Out

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Once you’ve got all your gear together and you’re ready to get going on your literary safari.  You’re ready for the hunt, ready to face even the fiercest phrase in its natural habitat.

Before you set out, however, your guide gives you some tips to keep you alive and tapping those keys.


Safari Tips

  1. Provisions come first! 
    Your thinking and strength are impaired if you’re hungry.  Struggling to hit the space bar through a pall of starvation is no way to write a novel.
  2. Stay hydrated.
    Plenty of liquid is mandatory, be it water, juice, tea, or coffee.
    Ignore the fools who say coffee will dehydrate you.  Just
    make sure you don’t drink so much your hands are
    shaky and can’t hit the keys accurately.
  3. Writer’s block is in your head.
    Basically, if you think you have writer’s block, you’re going to get writer’s block.
    If you’re badly blocked, get up run around your house three times.
    Your brain will have an allergic reaction to the activity and start
    churning out
    creative ideas in response.
  4. Send regular updates to alpha readers.
    They’re like your compass, sextant, and charts.  If you get
    sidetracked, they can help you get back on the trail.
    And if you take to long to get where you’re going, they’ll
    tell you all about it. For months.
  5. Watch out for Sub-Plot Buffalo.
    You WILL run into them.  And, as every good safari hunter
    knows, a wounded
    Sub-Plot Buffalo is the most
    dangerous prey in the world.  If you must hunt Sub-Plot
    Buffalo, dispose of them in one shot, or they’ll circle around
    and attack you from the rear, just as you’re giving the
    Main Plot its coup-de-gras.


Of course, those aren’t the only tips your safari guide has for you.  They are, however, the ones that he feels you should know before you even reach the trail.  Onward!

Writing Safari 1#: Preparations

 

Most people think writing is like falling off a bike; it’s easy and everybody can do it.  Frankly?  They’re right.  It’s easy (if you know how to type or use a pencil) and everyone can do it (assuming basic reading/writing skills).

Of course, writing doesn’t necessarily mean good writing.  Being able to write competently is like being able to fall off a bike without hurting yourself.  Being able to write exceptionally well is like being able to fall off a bike so flawlessly you get hired as a stuntman for the movies. (And frankly, you’ve got a better chance at being hired as a stuntman than being a bestselling writer. Just saying.)

So, what does being a bicycle-riding stuntman have to do with being a writer? After all,  bicycle talent doesn’t have a lot in common with literary acuity, while authorship doesn’t usually involve broken bones and dare-devil status.

What they DO have in common is one very important thing; practice.  Or more specifically, the courage to keep practicing.

This is the first in a new series of articles “The Writing Safari”, about practicing writing and building the courage to keep practicing, no matter what.  So, pull on your pith helmet and load your gun for dictionary-size words and dive in!  Just keep a careful eye on the tall grass; you never know what sort of snarling grammar rules might be stalking us in the literary darkness.


Writing Safari #1
The Preparations

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 Pretend, for the moment, that you’re following a dapper gent like this into the wild, uncharted territory of the imagination.  Most people charge blindly into this wilderness, with the idea of hunting down their story and displaying proudly on their trophy shelf, but without any real idea of what they’re getting into.  This is where your safari guide comes in.  He’s hunted many a wily novel, tracked even the toughest of epics across the trackless jungles of the mind’s eye, and come back alive almost every time.

You’d best listen to him, especially before setting out.  He knows that being prepared is the best way to ensure you survive your expedition.  Here’s his list of items you should have before setting out.

Survival Gear
(must have)

  1.  Basic Plot 
    (a beginning, middle, and end are required, even
    if the details are very fuzzy and subject to change)
  2. A Character
    (Never start a story without a character in mind.
    C
    haracters set the pace and tone for the story.)
  3. A Setting
    (Even if it’s a globe-spanning adventure, there
    needs something that ties the story-world to the plot.)
  4. Notepad
    (Unless you have a eidetic memory, keep
    something handy for jotting down details.)
  5. Printer Access
    (Do NOT try writing a book without it.  Our brains
    are hardwired to miss mistakes on a computer screen.)

The Guide’s Recommendations
(good to have, like a tent in a rainstorm)

  1. Alpha Reader
    (Someone to read as you write,
    just help keep you on track)
  2. Sticky Notes
    (Sticky notes are the universe’s gift to writers.)
  3. Multiple Colored Pens or
    Microsoft Change Tracking
    (You need ’em.  Trust me.)
  4. A New Book
    (Nothing gets old faster than writing your own book.
    Keep a new novel on hand to refresh your imagination.)

All the Comforts of Home
(you want it, even if you don’t need it)

  1. Tea/Coffee/Chocolate
    (SOMETHING to distract you, reward
    you, and
    comfort you, every step of the way)
  2. Workout Regimen
    (Physical activity really helps creativity. And
    it counteracts the sedentary habits writers develop…)
  3. Someone To Brag To
    (Getting to brag about milestones is good for the ego)
  4. Stapler/Binders/Folders
    (not mandatory, but nice to have)

 

You’ve got the list written down?  Head over to the supply depot and load up, then check back next week for the next stage of the Writing Safari.

Why You Shouldn’t Edit Your Own Book

You heard me.  Even if you’re an independent author without enough liquid funds to hire an editor, don’t edit your own work.

At least, not right away.  The biggest advantage an editor has is perspective. They don’t have any stake in the book they’re about to edit, no emotional attachment to unnecessary characters and scenes, and everything is new to them.  They can look at it and see the bad for what it is and the good for what it isn’t yet, but could be.editing

You and I, on the other hand… objectivity is a precious commodity for us.  To put it bluntly, we don’t have any.  We either love or hate our book (I’ve heard of both… heck, I’ve done both!) and that doesn’t make us good editors.  If you love it, you think there’s nothing wrong.  If you hate it, you cut and chop where you don’t need to.  Most of us fall somewhere in between; love it too much to cut, but knowing it’s nowhere close to perfect.

Every writer hears it all the time, but an example helps a lot more than hearing it does.

Here’s what editors see and what we think we see when we edit our books. (example excerpt from my short scifi “Pyramid 76“)

Edit1

And here’s a mock-up what of what I see, even though I don’t realize it.  I know how the story is supposed to go (’cause we wrote it) so my mind fills in the blanks to lets me skim over the text, missing what it actually says.  You already know that this paragraphs says, but… you don’t know whether there are mistakes under those blurred out places.

Edit2Sure, it’s possible to edit your own work, but the amount of work required to cut through the mental blur just isn’t worth it.  The hard work that went into the 1st draft can be completely negated by poor editing.

Solutions?  Easy to come by.  The best one is to hire an editor.  End of story.  (hey, pun!)  Second best is to have beta readers read every single draft you write and point out every single mistake you make, even if it’s just an extra space after a sentence.  Third best; wait as long as possible before editing it on your own.  Time has a way of improving objectivity.  Sometimes, even a week is enough to have you saying “This paragraph is… absolute drivel” or “hey, a slight chance will give that sentence a great ring”.

The most important part, though, is simply knowing this mental blur is there.  You can’t fix a problem if you don’t realize it’s there.

Book Sales – Thoughts from Readers And Authors

Last week, another writer’s Tweet popped up in my timeline.  It wasn’t particularly unusual – just a book promotion on Amazon – but it was for White Wind Rising. I’ve been eyeing it ever since I saw Dan Davis‘ blog about the sequel.  Of course, I zipped over and was about to click the “Buy Now” button… and stopped.  The promotion had dropped the price of the book from $3.99 to $0.00 on the Kindle.  Right then, I decided I was going to wait until the sale was over.

Counter-intuitive, I know, but I decided I just didn’t want to take an author’s hard work for nothing.  It could be a product of being a writer myself, but I don’t think so.  As a reader, I want authors to keep writing.  Paying them for their hard work ensures that there will be books to read.  Taking a copy for free just doesn’t do that.

saledilemmaOf course, that’s just one man’s opinion and wouldn’t make for a good article.  I went and found other people and asked them what they thought about this sort of sale.  Here’s the question, verbatim:

When you see an author you like promoting their book as being on sale “Free” for the next day/week/etc, what course of action do you take?  In other words, what’s your immediate reaction?  What’s your secondary reaction?  What’s the final result of having seeing the promotion? What’s your opinion of these sales, in principle?

The answers were not only unexpected, but remarkably uniform, as well.  This list of people I talked to is by no means extensive, but even this limited ‘slice’ of interviewees paints an interesting picture.

Nathan Philbrick (reader and writer) –

My immediate reaction upon seeing a ‘free’ promo isn’t that different from a regular promotion or add; if the cover, caption, or description catch my eye, I’ll give it a look-over and will probably open the link for a more extensive description. If I see the word ‘free’ attached to something that simply doesn’t interest me, I’ll move on without much of a second thought. Assuming my attention is caught, however (usually by a well-constructed tagline), I’ll still read the first few sample pages on Amazon (or other site) before choosing whether or not to download a copy, even if it is free. I guess what I’m getting at is that even if a free book saves me two or three dollars, I’m still going to have to decide whether or not I want to spend my time and energy reading it.
I think these sales have their purpose and place in the self-published market (done them myself). As with any other promotion, however, I’d prefer to not see it spammed. Personally, I’m much more likely to be persuaded by an excellent product than by the word ‘free’.

Natti Guest (reader) –

“Free” would probably make me read the book. If I like the book, I would recommend it, perhaps buy it in the future, and if asked, I might write a review/comment about the book. My opinion of the these sales? They are a sales strategy that may or may not be beneficial. I suppose it’s a good idea to try to get your book out there and raise interest. Who doesn’t like free stuff? But at the same time, by giving out a book for free, one could argue that the book’s value might be hurt.

Stephanie Gregory (reader and writer) –

When I see an author whose work I really like to read part of a promotion or limited time sale, my first reaction it to click on the ‘buy’ button. My secondary reaction is to see whether it’s only available on Kindle, if there is a paperback version or failing those, if the book is available on Kobo. The final result for me is usually the purchase of said book. I think such sales are a good idea, especially if the book is a good one or if it’s a short story that links together portions of an author’s work, their previous books. You get more of a feel for characters and that world. I also enjoy anthologies because they give an inisght into what other creations an author can come up with. For example, Michael J Sullivan’s, Hollow World, was originally a short, but then he made it into a full length book.

Claire Banschbach (reader and writer) –

Usually when I see an author that I like running a discount on their work or doing a promotional “free” event, my interest piques in that book again. If it’s a book I’m very interested I will usually go purchase it right away or when I have a chance to. Like anyone else, I like spending as little money as possible, and getting a book at a discount usually puts it right up on the top of my to-read list and I make extra sure to write a review for those books. I think the reviews are the real reason that authors will discount their work, especially new authors. I know I’ve considered discounting my work to encourage people to pick it up and give it a shot. I think the promotion works to generate interest in the book and, if readers like the book, then in the author and his/her other works. I think it’s a useful tool to utilize every once in a while to help generate more interest in a book or author.

“Chicory Blossom” (reader) –

When I see a book for free from a beloved author, I jump on it like a duck on a June bug.
Even if I have a hard copy, I will get a free copy for the Kindle. You never know when it might come in handy, and, hey, it’s free.  I have already supported the author by purchasing a hard copy, so I have no guilt taking advantage of a free offer.  Additionally, if there is a book that is particularly useful or favored,  I will not hesitate to purchase it for under 2 or 3 dollars. If the book is useful enough, I consider the small price as good as free.
I am also more inclined to read an unrecommended or unknown author if the book is a free, and will make a concerted effort to purchase something later.   I have found several new favorite authors this way.
I am an avid fan of “free books,” and have a list that I check every day. I find that I must be careful,  though,  because it is all to easy to wind up with a long list of books that I will never be able to read, and they slow me down from finding the books I am looking for.   Also, so many of the free books out there are just plain junk (all due respect to the author for actually achieving a manuscript. )  Stories that wouldn’t be published any other way. There are too many wonderful things to read out there to have to waste time reading junk.

Stephanie B. (book reviewer) –

If you ask me, $3.99 is practically for free to me. Yes, I’m still paying money but I trust a four dollar book more than I do a free one. When I see these sales, I immediately check them out and confirm my interest or disinterest in reading the title. From there, if I want to read it I’ll buy it while the sale lasts provided it’s in the desired format. If I learn that the sale is for novel in paperback or hardcover format, I’m definitely more eager to jump on it. Of course, many sales these days are for ebooks. The end result depends on the book and author, but I will say most of my ebooks were probably purchased while they were on sale, which has left me with nearly 80 or so books and maybe half of them read (the vast majority of the unread novels were purchased during a sale).
I don’t see anything wrong with having the $3.99 sales (give or take a few). Unless the sale seems to be an ongoing event (never seeming to end), it doesn’t negatively impact my opinion on the novel or author. However, I find it disturbing that people believe they should cost less just because they aren’t paying for a physical copy. I’ll be the first to admit you probably won’t catch me paying $20 or $30 dollars on an ebook, but then again I don’t typically pay that much for an electronic purchase of a hardcover or paperback novel either. From my perspective, the idea that all ebooks shouldn’t be much higher than $10 or that they should be less is ludicrous. Whenever readers are purchasing a novel, specifically an ebook, they should remember they aren’t really paying for the physical aspects – they’re paying for the creative efforts of all those involved, the labor.
 Dan Davis (writer) –
A main reason for making your book free for a period is that it can help to get your book – and you as an author – noticed. A lot more people will click on a random free book than would take a chance by spending money on it. However! Just because you get downloads of your book it does not mean that anyone will even read it, let alone leave a review of it (and reviews are very important for any author) or buy any of your other books. It’s obvious that something that you pay for is likely to have more value to you than something you got for free.
This was the first time I ran a free promotion and after the three days was up I did not see any additional buys of Book 2 in the same series. Of course, it has only been a couple of days since the promotion ended so it may be that in a few days or weeks I shall see a return on that promotion. I have been contacted by a small number readers who downloaded it free and if even one of those readers turns into a true fan then it will have been worthwhile.

These opinions are quite interesting, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from them.  Suffice it to say that the way these people look at promotional sales changed the way I looked at the subject.


~note~
If you’d like to answer the question and have your response added, as well, email it to me via my Contact page.

Also, on a related note, Nate Philbrick wrote an article about book promoting on Twitter.  While not specifically about discounts, it’s certainly relevant.


Why Books Need Artwork

Last week, my serial novel ‘Twicebound‘ got an upgrade.  I bit the bullet and hired an artist to create some chapter-header art for it.  (if you read ‘Twicebound’ you know all about it already)  It looks awesome and has gotten compliments from quite a few readers already.

But this post isn’t about ‘Twicebound’.  It’s about artwork. Specifically, the difference good artwork can make on your story.  The ‘Twicebound’ header art is just one example of how big a difference it can be.

A lot of authors (myself included) dislike the mandatory nature of book artwork.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love beautiful covers and illustrations (most authors do).  The problem we have is that people are more likely to pick up poorly written books with high-quality art than books that are well written but have low-quality art (or none).

Your book has been edited by three well-known professionals?  It’s been formatted with painstaking precision?  Every reviewer you’ve sent an ARC has raved about it?  That’s great.   But if you put a stock art cover on it, no reader is ever going to pick it up, not when vast hordes of books with gorgeous cover art are competing with your book.  The fact that your book is far better written than those other books isn’t going to help you.

Why is this?  Good question.  I don’t have a good answer for you.  It could be because our snap-decision buying habits give precedence to a gripping picture instead of well-formulated blurbs.  It could be that we subconsciously think that a writer who put the effort into getting a beautiful illustrations for his book is more likely to have put the effort into writing a good book.  It could be a lot of things.  Frankly, though, it doesn’t matter WHY.  What matters is that it IS.

We’re writers; the covers and illustrations are part of our books, whether we like it or not.  So, put as much effort into making your book look good as you put into making it sound good.

Here are two examples, of my own experience.

Example00#Example01#

Example05#

These are screen-shots of an installment of ‘Twicebound’ from a few weeks ago.  The first is the actual episode post, while the second is the Twitter announcement of it.  The third is how Tweet view results.  (the engagement rate is 1.5%)

Sure, the readers really enjoy the serial, if the comments are anything to go by. There’s no denying, though, that the wall of text just isn’t… interesting.  At first glance, anyway, which is important for getting new readers.  And the Tweet… well, the Tweet is just boring.  No ‘grab’ to it, at all.  The statistics bear that out.

Example03#Example02#Example07#These pictures are the same thing, just with the newest installment of the novel.  The one with the new chapter-header artwork.  If that isn’t a massive improvement… I don’t know what is.  It’s eye-catching, intriguing, and just looks good.  And the numbers agree with me.  The engagement rate over four days (at the last check) is around 4% and the total impressions almost doubled.  Now, that doesn’t sound majorly impressive, except for one thing: the percentage for the first day was over 10% engagement at around 90 impressions.  THAT is an improvement.

Of course, numbers might not mean a lot to some people.  I just happen to be a numbers kind of guy.  If you want an example with visual punch, here’s one.

P76 coverThis is the original cover for my short story “Pyramid 76”.  I finished the story and had to have a cover to publish it with, so I whipped this one up on Paint.  It’s a standard self-published, no-effort placeholder.  My beta-reader hated it.  With a vengeance.  With good reason.  Would YOU want to read it?  Especially with THIS…

P76cover… as the competition?  After several months of letting Pyramid 76 languish with the garbage cover I’d rushed through, I finally got around to collecting the props necessary to create a new cover.  I took photos, selected the best one, then edited four different end results in GIMP.  Then, I let readers select their favorite and replaced the old cover with the new one.

The improvement here requires very large numbers and a mathematics degree to calculate it properly, if you ask me.  The original cover is a object lesson in what not to do with your cover.  The new one is cool, meaningful, and draws attention to the story in the best way possible.

As I’ve said before, the cover is part of your book; make it perfect.


What do you think?  Did I forget something?  Have you had a similar experience with your book? Have you ever turned down a book because of a bad cover?

Eight Things You Need to be a Successful Writer

Okay, maybe the title sounds a little ‘off’, considering the usual tone of this blog,  but I spent the last week researching SEO (search engine optimization).  Basically, it’s all about how you can make your website show up higher on the search pages.  I may have slipped, fallen in, and drowned in the endless sea of articles about SEO.  If that’s the case… well, I’m not sure who’s writing this article.

Anyway, I really did want to write about being an author and a successful one, at that.  Of course, ‘successful’ is a relative term.  If you’re thinking it’s synonymous with ‘multi-million dollar book contract’… you’re plumb out of luck.  As far as this article (and you, I hope) are concerned, ‘successful’ means writing a book that people actually want to read.  After all, if you’re in it for the money, novels are NOT the way to go.  If you’re writing novels and you’re reading this blog looking for insights, you’re probably writing them because you love writing them.

Of course, you probably need a lot more than just eight things.  These eight things, though, are the ones I think no writer can get along without.  Regardless of what genre you’re writing or how you’re planning to publish, you’ll need them.  They’re just not optional.

1. Pen.  You gotta write with something!  Sure, it Pendoesn’t actually have to be a pen. It can be a computer, a typewriter, a pencil, or you can even dictate with a recorder and have someone else type it up.  The point is, you need the tools of the trade.  (And pens are the easiest to find in stores.  Plus, if you lose things all the time, like some people I could mention, pens are cheap.  Ever lost a typewriter?)

2. Imagination.  This… ought to be obvious.  For your sake, I really hope it is.  All writers need imagination, not just novelists.  Imagination is why people are still writing books, instead of having light_bulb_ideacomputers do it for them.  Fortunately for all of us, this doesn’t mean you have to come up with 100% original content. It means than you have to tinge every story with your own special brand of creativity.  As far as the bottom line of the plot goes, most books are follow a specific set of patterns.   It’s the little differences that make it unique, the differences that the writer brings to the story.  Everyone’s imagination is unique and no one else has one like it.  (In the case of some of us, that’s probably a good thing.)

3. Books.  Some people will disagree with me here, but Booksbooks are one of the most important tools in a writer’s box of tricks.  If you’re writing, you’d better have stacks of books. Piles of books falling over themselves, waiting to be read, having been read, probably needing to be reread.  Writing is a product of the imagination; books are where the imagination goes to work out.  As a writer, your imagination should be trim and fit and books are the best way to keep it in shape.

4. Determination.  Here’s the tough part.  Sticking with a book can be tough and every writer knows it.  Even if you can get through the first draft with ease, the editing probably sticks you up something awful.  A book is one of the most labor intensive projects I know of, mentally speaking.  Going over the same sentences, time and again, to get them perfect, saying the same thing with different determination-stonewords… it can wear you out.  Even writing it in the first place can be hard.  Running up against a lack of inspiration, a scene where something is ‘just not right’, or even just getting bored (we professionals call it ‘disinterested’; it sounds better) can shoot your book down in flames.  The key?  Determination.  Apply stubbornness and get that next word written down.  Then the next one.  And the next one.  Then  stubbornly edit.  That book won’t beat you, because getting thrashed by a pile of paper would be pretty humiliating, wouldn’t it? There are few arenas where the value of mule-headed persistence is as obvious as in writing.

5. Readers.  Yup, you’re going to need them, long before you finish that book, and there’s no two ways about it.  Unless you’re a writer of unparallelled genius, you need at least one person to read your book between edits. Writing a book is a lot like driving an Indie readers500; you go around and around and around and around and around and… you get the idea.  By the time you hit the 50th lap, you know that story better than the back of your hand, which you’ve probably spent a massive amount of time staring at as you write.  Unfortunately, knowing it that well doesn’t equate to knowing where its problems are.  Knowing a story that well means you know what you were trying to say at any given point in the story.  What the words are actually saying is blurred by what you know they should say.  This is where your reader comes in.  Beta readers usually read the book after the story’s finished, but before edits, etc.  I prefer what I call ‘alpha readers’.  These are people who read as you write, helping to keep the story on track.  Regardless of when your helpful readers read your book, listen to their advice.  They can see mistakes that you’re blind to.

6. Red Ink.  I’m going to keep this one short, because it should already be drummed into you by every other ‘how to’ article and author interview out there.  red ink‘Red ink’ means editing.  And you’d better do it.  There is no trap so dangerous as thinking that your book has reached ‘perfection’.  The best authors always see their books as a work in progress, even if they’ve stopped working and published.  There is ALWAYS room for improvement.  If someone points out an error or a place that ‘could sound better’, thank them graciously and improve it.

7. Time.  You’re going to need a lot of it.  Even if you can write a thousand words an hour, twenty-four hours a day, it’s going to take you a week to write the first draft.  And let’s face it, what writer can slam out 24,000 words a day?  500 to a 1,000 a day is a far more realistic goal. calendar And that’s not counting editing.  And researching.  And waiting for feedback from your beta readers.  And looking for an agent afterwards.  Of course, the massive amounts of time needed shouldn’t discourage you.  Carve out 30 minutes in your day, an hour, two hours.  Putting together all the minutes makes the days spent working on your book.  Just don’t go into it expecting you’ll be a published, famous author this time next year.

 
 

8. Wisdom.  Hoo boy, that’s a good one, isn’t it?  Wisdom.  Hahahahahaha.  Erm, scuse me.  It takes a while to develop this wiseone. As far as writers are concerned wisdom means knowing what’s important and what’s not.  What needs writing and what doesn’t.  What needs editing and what doesn’t.  Which reviews should be taken seriously and which shouldn’t.  For the most part, the wisdom to know all these things has to be gained through experience.  It’s all about watching your writing and your books, listening to what people have to say about them.  It’s about keeping track of what works for when you write, and even just knowing which words sound good and which ones sound pompous or forced.  Eventually, you’ll be able to apply wisdom regularly, almost like you’ve been doing it your whole life.  Until then?  The best thing to do is to always assume you can improve your writing.

Hit Your Readers With a Stick – or ‘How NOT to Write a Book’

Oh, yeah, this is going to be a rant.  Listen close, too, because there’s a point to be made here.

First thing you need to know is that when I pick up a novel, I almost always finish it.  Regardless of how bad it is, I want to know how it turns out.  There are only two things that will make me drop a book unfinished.  First is swearing and ‘mature’ content.  I use ‘mature’ in a sarcastic sense, but that’s a rant for another day.  The second is if the book is just so badly written that it hurts to read.

Okay, I THOUGHT there were only two.  Turns out, there are three things.  I picked up a book by L.E Modesitt, Jr. at the library the other day.  The title ‘Haze’ wasn’t particularly interesting, but the cover involved a lot of space-ships.  Very cool and, with me being a space-travel nut, it got my vote.  I love sci-fi and any book that might have a swash-buckling smuggler and hairy co-pilot in it is going to end up on my to-read list.

Unfortunately, I have no idea whether either of those characters came into the story of ‘Haze’.  I got half-way through it, dropped it, and didn’t pick it up again.  Guess why.  Can’t?  Okay, here’s a hint; that book is the literary equivalent of a badly sequenced movie.  You know, the one that gave you a headache with the jerky POV switching?  Yeah, that one.

‘Haze’ is written in two different timelines, both for the same character.  One, ‘the present’, and the other in his ‘past’.  So far so good.  Not a problem.  Potential for a great book.

Well, the trouble starts with the time-scene switching.  The author picks up a stick and whacks you in the back of the head.  Okay, not really, but that’s what it feels like.  The time switching was usually done at the start of a new chapter.  So, you’d be reading along and suddenly you’d be in a totally different set of temporal co-ordinates.

Yes, a good writer might be able to pull this off, if he made if obvious that the shift had been made.  This wasn’t the case with ‘Haze’.  To give you an idea of how seamless the time-switch was, I had to turn the page back to make sure I hadn’t completely skipped an entire section.  Every.  Single.  Time.  The time change felt like I was listening to someone skid a record arm across the record.

Maybe it was a literary ploy on the author’s part, intended to make a point in the story.  I don’t know.  It was so jarring that I couldn’t finish the book. That is a serious, lethal problem for any novel.

Lesson learned? Continuity, people, continuity!  Readers don’t take kindly to being metaphorically knocked unconscious and yanked into a section of story that is TOTALLY unrelated to the preceding sentence!  Clever plot-devices are like magic tricks; if your distracting chatter is awful, the audience will leave before you get to the ‘voila’!!

Old-Fashioned… for a reason?

Yeah.  I know.  Most of us, devoted computer fanatics that we are, had an allergic reaction just reading the title of this article.  Yes, computers have moved mankind’s “quality of life” into a new age.  Yes, modern cars go further on less gas, cleaner than before, and quieter.  Sure, our cell phones tell us who’s on the other end of a call and hit the “refuse call” button if we don’t want to talk to them.  Our TVs and computers are instant windows to the outside world, whenever and wherever we want.

But just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good.  If that was the case, the H-bomb would have been the ultimate in morality when it was invented.  Nothing like a little brand-new atomic theory for putting you on the moral high ground, eh?  No, that’s ridiculous.  The problem is, all these big companies who are devoted to providing us with the newest and shiniest tell us that their newest product is the best.  Our friends and acquaintances inadvertently reinforce this, but getting the latest model and getting us jealous of their electronic finery.

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As writers, we can afford to be bamboozled by this blast of business brand boosting.  (Heh, look at all those Bs.  That’s alliteration for you.)  With the responsibility of word-crafting for a whole society, we’re supposed to be more concerned with what’s in the mind than with what’s in our hands.  Regardless of that, though, we’re supposed to write.  Which means we’re just like any other craftsman: We need tools to make our art.  And a real craftsman is scrupulous is his selection and use of his tools.

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Photo by Mike Savad

Which is where the two threads of this post combine.  Old-fashioned doesn’t necessarily mean good, but neither does new-fangled.  Painters have been using a very specific tool for centuries.  Master carpenters have, too.  Sculptors, metal-workers, chefs, and musicians all use the same tools they always have.  Sure, the tools might be improved with electric power and maybe some circuits to improve accuracy, but the tools haven’t changed.  So why don’t writers use their traditional tools?

Who writes with a pen anymore?  I know one author who does, out of the dozen or so I know personally.  Who uses a typewriter?  As far as I know, I’m the only one.  As far as I’m concerned, the typewriter is the pinnacle of writing tools.  Sure, it has its disadvantages, but its advantages more than outweigh them.  The typewriter is a writing machine, honed over decades and designed for its job as perfectly as it’s possible to for humans to design.  It’s a well-honed knife, a sculptor’s chisel, an artist’s brush.  Compared to my typewriter, my computer is a Swiss Army knife.  It can do many things serviceably, but few of those things really well.

Now, I know most people won’t agree with me.  Even my best friends and my family call me an anachronism.  Most of the time, they’re using it in a friendly way and often as a compliment.  But it’s true.  I like old-fashioned things.  I have knee-jerk dislike of a lot of modern things.  But ignore my preferences for a moment and ask yourself a question.

You’re a writer.  A serious writer.  You’re an artist, a craftsman, creating new things.  You use tools to make your art and show it to the world.

Did you pick your tools?  Did you carefully select them, to do a job as well as possible?  Or did you just grab the flashiest implement in the store because the advertisement made it look shiny?  Because it’s the newest thing, guaranteed to improve your productivity and work times?

Are you carving that story from pure imagination with a finely honed sculpting knife or are you hacking at that priceless block of creativity with a cheap multi-tool?

Writing realistic characters

Has anyone ever complained that your characters are flat, or “one-dimensional”?   Or maybe that they’re just “not interesting”?  It happens to a lot of writers, regardless of their experience.

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Characters are people made out of words. Make them ‘real’.

Now, the first thing you have to realize is that “one-dimensional” is an extremely mis-used word.  It does NOT mean boring, or without hidden aspects.  It means they don’t “grow” or change through the course of the story.  This is important!  A one-dimensional character can be a really great one.

One of my favorite story-book characters ever, Samwise Gamgee, (I shouldn’t need to tell you where HE is from) is essentially a one-dimensional character.  Certainly, he learned a few things and had to endure some awful hardships (seeing Frodo dive into madness), but he didn’t really change.  The Sam that came out of Mordor was the same one that went in.  It all depends on what you’re writing.  From Sam’s point of view, the Lord of the Rings was a job that got done.  From Frodo’s point of view, it was the end of his world and, more importantly, the way he looked at that world.

If people complain of “one-dimensional characters” in your writing, take a good, hard look at your story before making a change.  Those critics might not have any idea what “one-dimensional” really means. And your novel might CALL for a one-dimensional character; readers like to see change, but having a solid, immovable character can help to anchor them and keep the story from feeling too chaotic.

But, you say, I’ve done all that and I DO need a well “rounded”, changing character!  Okay, then!  Let’s get to work.

First, determine how the character will change.  This is going to be a little tough;  you have to know your character well.  Some people, when placed under pressure, will grow.  Others, under identical circumstances, will crack.  Your characters are people, but they’re people YOU created.  That means you’re going to have to know them really well.  If you don’t, you run the risk of having a character break under the strain and having readers think “Hey, this character was stronger than that!  He should have come through this ordeal with flying colors!”  Or, (worse) having readers think “Whoa.  There is no way this guy survived this!  He’s the kind who should have curled up in a ball and died in the first five minutes!”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  You can have characters who surprise the reader, sure.  But make sure those characters haven’t been portrayed as set-in-stone unchangeable.  Leave a little wiggle room; not enough to draw the reader’s attention, but enough to let them think “Yeah… yeah… I can see this guy doing this!”  A good analogy for this is Silena Beauregard from Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series.  She’s the classic little twit and Riordan spends just enough time on her throughout the series to firmly entrench her as such.  And then, in the last book, she ends up saving the day.   Sure, he never SAID she couldn’t be brave, he just inferred it, then startled us with a possibility we’d dismissed as ridiculous.

The most common “rounded-character” is the hero of the novel type called the “bildungsroman”, which is basically a story devoted to the development of the main character, usually a young one.  It’s to be expected in stories like these that the MC will go from being a kid to being an adult.  That’s character development defined, right there.

But what about stories that AREN’T about kids?  Adults, maybe?  The development doesn’t need to be so obvious; just let those characters learn to learn from mistakes, or go from being a take-charge person to letting others handle some of the story’s problems.  Maybe one of your characters likes coffee, but through the course of the story comes to prefer tea.  That’s character development of a more subtle kind, but can be even more important than the sweeping change of a coming-of-age story.

But all of this is kind of scientific.  Perhaps the best way to ensure that readers enjoy your characters is to enjoy them yourself.  That doesn’t mean you have to LIKE the characters, or love them, or even tolerate them.  Just enjoy them.

Go watch “Quest for Camelot”.  Wouldn’t you lay odds that the script writers LOVED to write the scenes with the bad guy in them?  He’s great!  He’s twisted, evil, hilarious, and he knows it.  He plays the foil for the super-serious heroine and her compatriots.  Sure, you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him, but he’s the perfect bad guy.

You don’t have to like the soppy girl-next-door or the punk-down-the-street from your main character.  Heck, you don’t even have to like your main character!  I’ve got a couple of them that I just cannot stand, but they’re great characters.

You need to know your characters.  They need to be able to sit down beside you and have long conversations.  Sure, if you want to, plot those characters out in every detail, planning their lives down to the second.  Keep careful notes about them to help you avoid inconsistencies.  But you’d better KNOW those characters.  If one of them walks in on you in the coffee shop one morning, you need to be able to recognize him by the nervous twitch in his hand when he counts out his change.  When she stumbles across you in the parking lot and offers to tie up your bleeding leg where you got knifed by that mugger, you’d better know how many years she went to college and how happy she was to get her medical degree.

Characters aren’t robots, mechanical devices to keep your story going.  They’re PEOPLE.  Remember it.  Make them your friends, your enemies, your acquaintances.  When you meet someone in real life, you don’t itemize their reactions, their likes and dislikes, and their abilities.  You know them well enough to remember all of that, or you don’t know them well enough to care.  Look at your characters the same way.

It’s the best way to make ‘real’ characters.  If your characters are fakes on note-cards, they’ll be fakes in your novel.  If your characters are so believable you wake up in the night, afraid your bad guy will walk through the door, and hoping your hero will be fast enough to save you, you’re doing something right.

Silent Valet; author’s best friend

Some of you might know what a silent valet is.  If you don’t, it’s basically a special stand, designed to hold a suit of clothing, ready for you to put on.  They usually have a special tray and hooks, too, for your wallet, watch, pocket-knife, belt, and anything else you carry on a regular basis.  Most of them look something like this –

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Now, you’re probably wondering “Uh, Michael…. what does a piece of clothing furniture have to do with writing?”  Good question.

Well, aside from the fact that I like to be a well-dressed author well and owning a silent valet makes that easier, this nifty piece of equipment can help you with your story.  Yeah, I know, it’s hard to believe.  Just trust me for a minute, please?

If you’re a writer, of fiction, that is, you have characters.  They’re  probably completely fictional characters (unless you’re basing them on someone real, which might be setting you up for a lawsuit, btw) and fictional characters require… well, character.  Boring characters make for a boring stories and nobody but a boring person wants to read a boring story.

Sorry about the repetition of the word “boring”.  I just couldn’t help myself.  It’s boring.  Sorry, won’t (boring) happen again.

Okay, once you realize you don’t want to have uninter(boring)esting characters, that’s when you have to figure out what to do about it.  Well, here’s where the ‘silent valet’ can help.  Imagine one, or buy one, if you’ve got that kind of mo(boring)ney to spend on your writing, and start putting clothes on it.

Each outfit you build represents a character in your story.  Yes, it sounds cliche, but clothes really do make the man here.  The clothes your character puts on his (or her) silent valet can help you define him.  Tough guy?  He doesn’t need a leather jacket and army boots.  Put expensive suit, an expensive watch, and a pair of gold-plated brass-knuckles on his silent valet.  Nerd-trying-to-play-bad-boy?  Drape a leather jacket over that clothes-stand, but put a pocket calculator on the accessories tray.

That silent valet holds all the important things the character has.  People wear clothing that they feel comfortable in, that they think is their “style”.  The accessory tray holds the things they keep close at all times; it might be a watch, wallet, locket, weapon, a money clip, keys, a thumb-drive.  The shoes on the bottom rack (or next to it) can tell you about the character’s job.  Are the clothes clean, or stained? Are they rumpled, or are they neatly ironed.  Are they garish, expensive, knockoffs, hand-me-downs, or functional?  Do they belong to this person you’ve created, or did some perfect stranger pick out the wardrobe?

Each item you put on each character’s silent valet will help you create, define, and express him.