Monthly Archives: February 2017

Character – More than a great head of hair

I dream I’m walking through the grocery store. Look there’s a sale on Mean Girls! Jocks are buy one, get one free. Someone’s come out with a brand new product. It’s the Talent Show with a Sad Backstory and it comes in two flavours. I’m still trying to decide whether to risk it when I wake up.

It would certainly be easier if we could buy our characters ready made and needing just a bit of a warm up to be ready for our story. But if our characters are pre-cut and wrapped for us, what is left for us to do? There’s no room for them to grow. A Mean Girl #4 with the option to repent at the end of the story will only do what she is programmed to do.

There are sites on the web that help you get to know your characters. You can fill out questionnaires about them. What do they like? What’s their hair colour? What’s the size of their…oops better leave that one out it’s going to be a G rated story so it’s not like they’re going to get to use it. This is useful as a first introduction to your character. Kind of Match.com for characters and writers. But it only goes so far and then the age old question makes itself heard. Where do we go from here?

So we have a Biker who has blue eyes, red hair, listens to Paul Anka and cries during Little House on the Prairie reruns. But how is he going to react when you spill your latte grande on his leather pants? Even harder, what kind of dialogue can he have with the Emo girl who listens to Evanescence, has blue hair and red eyes and laughs all the way through Nightmare on Elm Street?

Let’s leave the quiz for a moment. Think about your best friend. What’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll bet you that it is not their hair colour/eye colour, what they wear, or how big their… oops still G rated. The first thing you thing of is probably a story. Maybe about the time you water ballooned your brother, or you got lost in the mall. When we think about people we know. We attach more importance to shared experience than we do to physical attributes. Sure we might be able to describe them to the police if they’re still lost in the mall, but when we’re talking about them with other friends, it is the stories that we tell.

So, back to the characters in the stories that we are writing. If we only think of them in terms of their physical characteristics and personality traits, they will come out flat and uninteresting. Creating a character is about more than following a recipe. We need to hear their stories. Why does Biker dude like Paul Anka? What the reason for the tears during reruns? Why is Emo girl hiding behind those red contacts? If we want them to talk we need to create a reason for them to have a conversation. We create a story that they will tell about each other. As their relationship develops the collection of common stories grows. We don’t have to put them all in our writing, but we need to know that they are there.

The funny thing is once we start listening to the stories behind our stories, characters become pretty easy. They become organic and rounded. They do odd things and go in strange directions. People who read our stories don’t feel that the characters are just pieces being moved on a board. They get interested in what is happening to these people. They root for them and they want them to succeed. Once you have your reader fully engaged with your characters, you have them hooked.

Character development is the next logical step. They learn from their experiences, just like we do. Ask yourself what you would learn if you went through what your characters had to. Then apply that insight to the way the character acts, talks and thinks. Now, not only are your characters three dimensional, but they grow.

So if the dream at the start was your character’s, why are they dreaming about cardboard people? What is going on that put them in that dream and not a different one? What are they going to learn from this dream.

And if this is a grocery store, where are the mangos?

Series vs Serial

A lot of people will tell you the only way to make money as a author these days is to write a series. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve neither made much money nor written a series. The concept is sound – pull people into your world and keep them there, buying book after book. Before you go out to become the next George RR Martin, there is something you need to know.

What a series is and isn’t.

A series is a collection of books which string together to make a greater whole. Whether it’s Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, each book builds on the ones before, making the reader wait anxiously for the chance to spend money on the next book. But there is something else they did brilliantly, they create a comfortable space for the reader to wait. Each book, especially the Harry Potter books wraps up the action for that particular book. Voldemort is foiled (or not) and the characters leave the school. Each book begins with preparation for Hogwarts, and closes with the end of term.

Think of a series as pearls on a string – each is distinct and self contained, but they are connected by an over-arching thread. The plot of the book is concluded, but the series is still open, questions unanswered.

There are two reasons why this self-contained plot is important. The first is in the nature of story arcs. They don’t rise up in a straight line of ever building excitement. Even within a book there are peaks and hollows in the arc, so the overall direction is to greater tension and higher risks, there are moments when the characters relax and get to be human, just a little bit before the next crisis. In your series the overall plot is even more essential, and those bits of reflection are of vital importance.

Think of the ending of Twin Towers by JRR Tolkien, where Peregrin is riding with Gandalf toward Gondor. He imagines they are standing still while the world turns beneath them. It is a wonderful image and it bridges the second and third book for us.

A good series will use those moments of ephemeral peace to create a conclusion for each book, which brings me to the second reason why the self contained plot of each book is vital.

You need to prove to your readers you know how to write a conclusion. I’ve read more than my share of books which left me staring in dismay as the closing words left me feeling cheated. It is bad enough to have read a book for that sinking feeling of ‘That’s it?”, but imagine working through five or six or more books to arrive there.

I often get the feeling the author didn’t know how to finish their story, so they just quit. Other times they are trying to be avant garde and show the futility of conclusions. Neither is satisfactory as a reader. If you are going to get readers invested in your series, you’d better show you can write a humdinger ending to make their loyalty pay off. The longer the series, the bigger the pay off should be.

Serials

There is something which disguises itself as a series, but is very different in execution. That is the serialization of a novel. Where a series has a number of stories strong together with an over-arcing plot, the serialization has one story and just takes a whole lot of books to finish it. Where the series wraps up the minor plot and points to the remaining questions of the major plot, the serial stops in a place which appears disastrous for the characters. A serial is one long wire with no distinction between one book and the next.

This is the cliff-hanger ending. Cliff-hangers come from the old serial westerns, when more often than not, the hero literally hung off the edge of a cliff. The idea was to entice the reader to buy the next magazine to learn what happens next. Now in case you think a cliff-hanger is easy, just stopping while the hero is in peril, it isn’t. There are a few things you must keep in mind if you are going to pull off a good cliff-hanger.

The first is that the peril must be real. If your character is hanging out an airplane door, fighting to hold on, you’d better not reveal in the next book that it hadn’t taken off yet and he’s in no real danger.

The second is a continuation of the first. The hero must be alone in their danger, or if their sidekick is present, they must share the same level of danger. Think of the old Adam West Batman programs. Robin could be in danger without Batman, but never the reverse.

Even if the side kick isn’t right beside the hero, there needs to some peril or problem which is keeping them away. Part of the real peril is nobody is standing off stage to immediately resolve the issue.

A good ending deserves a good beginning.

Just as series and serials have different ways of concluding each book, they have different ways of beginning the next installment too. In a series you are picking up the untied threads from the last book. One great way to do that is to show the cost of the previous book’s conclusion. What has changed for the characters? Now you’ve not only reintroduced your characters, but you’ve begun the work of building tension for this book. Unfinished business is not just for ghosts.

But as each book has a distinct ending, you want each book to have a distinct beginning. So while you pick up those threads, you add new ones which will be the plot for this book in your series. While this particular book may be number two or three or whatever in the series, you want to be able to bring new readers on board without sending them to buy the earlier books. You will write such a good story they will want to, but if they feel forced, they may just put the book down. As a reviewer, I read a lot of books in the middle of series, and the ones which impress me are those which pull me into the world of the characters, without feeling I’m on the outside of a clique telling inside jokes.

A serial novel starts differently, just as it ends differently. You have that cliff-hanger to resolve right? Only you don’t start with the resolution of the cliff-hanger. The cliff-hanger ending builds a lot of dramatic tension, you don’t want to let it all go right at the beginning. So you have a couple of options.

One is to go back to the cliff-hanger and instead of resolving it, you ramp up the tension further. Instead of the hero dangling by her fingertips out the door of an airplane, her hands slip and she has to grab the landing gear or fall.

The other is to resolve whatever issue is holding up the sidekick first. We see them get out of their relatively minor jam, while we’re dying to find out how the hero is doing. If you take option one, you go to the sidekick before you resolve the issue with the hero.

Now just as setting up a cliff-hanger takes planning and care, getting them out of the situation does too. Back to Batman, remember how he always had the solution to their problem in his utility belt? That’s called Deus ex Machina, which is a latin phrase meaning the author cheated. Remember I said the peril needs to be real? If your hero had a parachute in her fanny pack all along, the peril isn’t real.

So how do you get him off that airplane? You should have thought of that before you put him there. There are two possibilities.

The first is a mistake on the part of the villain. A thug is sent out to dislodge the hero and make it possible for the hero to get into the plane or off safely. Let’s say not only is the hero handing on by her finely manicure fingernails, but there is a bomb on board and the autopilot is taking the plane to its target. After the villain sets the autopilot, he jumps out of the plane. Our hero climbs into the plane resets the autopilot for a harmless destination then jumps out of the plane after the villain. Cue mid-air fist fight.

The second is the ingenuity of the hero. He does something which will force the airplane to land, or is able to signal for help from the now free sidekick. Again the resolution needs to be real and not easy.

All the element of the escape need to be set up ahead of time. Not pointed out to the reader with flashing arrows, but slipped in so the reader has an ‘aha’ moment, not a ‘what?’ moment.

A quick summary, series is a collection of stories which build on each other to come to a final conclusion, but the stories are distinct and have their own beginnings and endings. It should be possible to pick up any book in a series and enjoy it without having read all the previous books, though if you’ve done your work right, they’ll want to.

A serialization is one story spread over any number of books. They may or may not use cliff-hangers, but there will be less of a conclusion at the close of each book and less introduction of character and world at the beginning of later books. It really is better to read a serialization from the beginning.

Description, more than just a pretty place.

Description is essential to your story. It is possible to write a story without any description, but it is likely that the reader will find it dry as dust. Stories are much more interesting when you have a good setting and atmosphere. Now I know everybody says to start with action, and it is true that tossing your reader into the deep end can be a good way to start, but it isn’t the only way to start. Another way is the wide shot that focuses down to the character. Think of the opening of a movie. The action start is a James Bond movie, the wide shot is Forrest Gump. The reason the wide shot is tricky is that it can’t be an information dump.

A little valley nestled in mountains. The soil rich and fertile with crops ready to harvest. Only one town occupied the valley and it was shaded by a magical tree. As long as the leaves stayed on the tree the town and the valley would be safe and at peace.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about the valley, but there is no life in it. It’s supposed to be magical, but it comes across like a geography lesson. Try this:

Sun and clouds fought for dominance over the valley and shadows chased themselves across fields and orchards ready for the harvest. The breeze played in the leaves of the huge tree that stood immense and protective in the center of Plaskili. Under those branches the people of the town felt safe. Fire wouldn’t threaten, storms wouldn’t shake as long as the golden-green leaves of the tree shaded them. The breeze found a new toy as a leaf fluttered free from its branch and danced on the wind. The leaf skimmed over thatched roofs and contented people until it landed on the dusty ground in front of a young girl. Leanne wondered if she were the only discontented person in the valley. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her home and trust in the tree, but something she couldn’t name kept her eyes lifting to the mountains towering on all sides and dreaming about what was on the other side. At first she didn’t notice the leaf, then she thought it was from some lesser tree. She picked it up with equal parts awe and terror. Weightless and delicate in her hand – she could see the tiny veins that ran through it, already it was turning brown in her hand. Leanne spun to look at the tree and gasped. The air was full of leaves. They were dancing, spinning, falling. It was impossible to see the tree through them. She heard silence spread as others saw the falling leaves, then after the silence she heard muttering and a mounting panic. It no longer mattered what lay on the other side of those snowy peaks. Leanne knew that change had found her.

Now we know how the valley feels, we know that Leanne doesn’t feel like she fits in, and that something terrible is happening. It is shown not told.

Now go back and count how many adverbs there are. (Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, many have an ‘ly’ ending.)  None. Adverbs are usually a sign of telling. If you want to write “Jill walked lazily down the path.” Think about writing “Jill sauntered along the path.”

Now go count the adjectives. I count ten. (Adjectives modify nouns) Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs for telling, but you run into a different problem if you use too many of them. If you put one or two adjectives on every noun in your writing the reader won’t know what is important. The idea is to use the adjectives to highlight the things that you want the reader to notice, the rest can just fade into the background. I still suggest that you use a broad vocabulary. Don’t just say birds, say robins, or swallows or crows, it isn’t a car, its a truck, a heap, a limo.

The next thing about descriptive writing is to put emotion into the words on the page. One way is to use adverbs, but no one is going to shed a tear if you say. “John walked sadly down the street.” You need to create the sadness by showing the feeling of the character and how that sadness is reflected in their actions. You can use setting to increase the emotion by adding to it or by contrasting with it. This is called evocative writing in that you don’t tell the reader the emotion, but you evoke the emotion in the reader as they follow the story.

John forced himself to put one foot in front of another. He’d long since given up brushing the rain from his face. Night was coming quickly and the streetlights lit up as he stepped into a puddle. It was deeper than he thought and his ankle turned and sent him crashing to the pavement. He tried to stand but it hurt too much. Everything hurt too much. He didn’t care that he sat in the middle of a puddle he tilted his head to the sky and screamed his pain. All he wanted was one thing in his life that he could love, and he messed it up. John didn’t notice the whining, not until the rough, wet tongue licked water off his face. He thought his heart would stop. John threw his arms around his friend and held on as DogThing wiggled in ecstasy. Suddenly rain, dark, pain didn’t matter. All was right with the world.

 While description is essential to your story, don’t over do it. You want to avoid purple prose – writing which is so full of description it goes over the top and pushes the reader out of the story. Read Dickens, he got paid by the word, so lots of description.

The other thing you want to avoid with description is putting it in the wrong place. The time to describe the alley is not after the fight begins. Description will freeze the action and you don’t want to do that. Describe the setting at the start of a scene, use beats in dialogue to show more of it. Better yet have the character interact with the setting.

Instead of standing in the door cataloguing the paint colour and furniture in a room, have your character walk through it, bumping into things, sitting in chairs, wincing at the colour. In this way you have description, but you also have character. The settings which become almost a character in their own right are the ones which affect the people in the story directly.

Have a look at Character Assassination for tips on describing characters.

Suspense – what keeps the pages turning

All stories involve suspense. In a Romance, it is whether the girl and guy will make the relationship work, in a quest, will the heroes make it, and who will live or die? In a mystery, well it’s obvious.

One way to create suspense is a time limit. The problem must be solved within a certain time or the world will end. Or they may wish it had. That puts pressure on the character to make choices and it makes the wrong choices more poignant. It is important for you character to experience failure because that makes it believable that they might not succeed. The previous failure adds to the suspense of this attempt. Think of a pole vaulter trying for a world record. People are much more intent if they’ve already missed twice. Do not artificially try to pump up the suspense. Having a character debate at ten seconds on the clock whether to cut the red or the blue wire is a sure fire way to lose your reader. If I were a mad bomber I’d make all my wires hot pink and it wouldn’t matter. The colour is not important, it is the path the wire takes. The same goes for last minute remedies from poison etc.

Another way to create suspense is through secrets. One character knows more that the other, or the reader knows more than the character.  The secret needs to be something that will significantly change the dynamics of the plot. Hating pizza is one thing, Admitting that you’re a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy is quite a different thing. The more difference between what some people know and what others do will build suspense. One note about secrets. They have to significant to the plot. If you have a spy novel and the big secret is that one of the characters is a double agent, at some point it needs to come out and create a huge mess. If it doesn’t your reader will wonder why you bothered.

What is less obvious but even more important is the difference between what the character thinks they want, and what they will want at the end of the book. Those two should almost never be the same thing. Usually even the reader won’t know what the end might be until close to the conclusion though they will know that the character is getting it wrong.. That is what keeps the pages turning. It is this dissonance that fascinates the reader. If you balance it right you will have them up all night to find out what your character learns.

Suspense is about both character and plot. You need to pace your plot so that suspense builds gradually and occasionally lessens. Even the most intense thriller needs some relief. But all that careful plotting won’t matter if the reader isn’t cheering the character on and hoping that they figure out the puzzle before it is too late.

Suspense is also created when what the reader knows is different than what the characters know. If there is a bomb under the table (wired all in hot pink) the reader knows it’s there because they saw the colour blind bomber put it there. But the characters don’t know it’s there. They bumble about pouring tea, dropping spoons, getting close to discovering the bomb until the reader wants to shout at them. When it is discovered, the tension is already at a high enough point you don’t need artificial suspense to add to it. This dichotomy between the reader’s knowledge and the characters is not only about individual scenes, but can carry through the entire story.

Like everything else, suspense needs to serve the story. If the object of suspense doesn’t matter in the end, there is no pay off and the reader will be disappointed. If you don’t work on building up the tension around an object, it won’t carry the weight it needs at the climax.

Use suspense and tension to create an ebb and flow in the story. Edge of your seat moments and relaxed interludes. Also use it to reveal character and the inhabitants of your story work through the plot. Your reader will thank you for it.

Head Hopping and POV

The person that you write your story in will have a big effect on your Point of View. Person is whether you tell the story as if it were happening to you – I pulled up my gun and yelled “This is a stick up!” The advantage of first person is the immediacy. The reader is right there with the character and knows everything the character knows. Though sometimes the narrator is untrustworthy and withholds information. The challenge with first person is the character can’t read minds or know what is going on in the next county, so you have to use a lot of dialogue and other tricks to show the story in its fullest to the reader. While there are a few first person novels that switch POV to another first person narrator, they are few and far between. The ones that do it well are even fewer. If you are going to change into a different first person POV, you not only have to change the POV, but you need to change the voice of the narrator so it doesn’t read like one character with two different names. It is possible to mix first person and third person, but again, voice is essential as is making clear whose head the reader is inhabiting.

Third person is when we sit back a bit further and use ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I’ – Jim Bob ran into the bank waving his gun and yelled. “This is a stick up!” You have to work a little harder with third person to achieve immediacy because the reader is at greater distance from the character. The advantage is that you have a wider field of view. You can have the bank guard pull his gun to shoot Jim Bob in the back, and Jim Bob doesn’t know it. You can’t do that in first person.

There are a range of options in third person stories. You can stay pretty close to ol’ Jim Bob and just describe the action in the bank. Or you can pull back and watch the bank robbery in progress, but also comment on the action further away. The danger is that you lose even more connection with your character. There is also a style that is even further back called the omniscient narrator. In that case the narrator knows everything including what is going on in other people’s heads. Omni POV is the subject of great debates on critiquing boards everywhere. Done well, it is transparent as any other POV, done badly and it keeps the reader from engaging in the story.

There is no right POV to write in. You will use what is comfortable, or what your story demands.

So now we’ve defined the different persons a story can be written in, and some of the varieties of POV. Let’s look at that bank robbery and see what head hopping does.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention.

Frank was cleaning his nails when the idiot ran into the bank yelling about a stick up. Somebody high on something. He didn’t even have a gun. Then the idiot pulled his gun and blew a hole in the ceiling. Plaster dust wafted down on the screaming customers. Frank pulled his gun and took careful aim at the bank robber’s back before pulling the trigger.

Marion was counting hundred dollar bills for Mr. Smythe when she heard a shot, but she felt a sharp pain in her chest before she could push the alarm. Her legs gave way and she fell to the floor.

Mr. Smythe didn’t know what to do. Was the money on the counter still the bank’s, and thus insured, or was it his and not covered? He felt the hot steel of a gun barrel poke the back of his neck and decided that perhaps it didn’t matter after all.

Jim Bob grabbed the rich dude and spun him around to be a shield between him and the bank guard. He fired two shots at the guard.

Mr. Smythe’s ears rang. He might be permanently deaf from the noise.

Frank forced his shaking hand to be still and fired back.

Dang it, Mr. Smythe thought, that’s going to ruin my suit. Then he fell dead to the floor.

Jim Bob put both hands on his gun and emptied it at the blasted guard.

Frank knelt on the floor and steadied his hands before emptying his gun at the robber.

“Freeze,” shouted Sheriff Jones as he ran into the bank followed by his deputies. The bank robber and some old geezer in a guard uniform were pointing guns at each other and pulling the triggers though only the clicks of a dry fired gun sounded.

It was Deputy Bill’s first day on the job and he was pumped that they were responding to a bank robbery. That is until he saw the bloody corpses of employees and customers sprawled on the floor. He staggered outside to lose his donuts in the bushes.

I got confused about what was happening and I was writing the scene. That’s an extreme example, but even if you had several paragraphs for each POV it would be hard to follow. The problem is that we aren’t inside someone’s head long enough to empathize with them. If you re-wrote the scene all from one character’s POV you could create some emotional connection. The way I have it, it is more like telling than showing, even without the usual markers for telling. You can get much more out of the story that way. I’ll show you what I mean.

Jim Bob ran into the bank, his heart pounding. He was finally going to do it. He was making the big time. “Hands in the air!” he yelled, “this is a stick up!” People looked at him with looks ranging from fearful to puzzled. Oh yeah, Jim Bob thought, the gun. He pulled his gun and shot a hole in the ceiling. Now he had their attention. The customers were screaming and running around in a panic. He was THE MAN. There was a teller counting out bills for a guy in a suit. They looked like hundreds. He wanted some of them.

Jim Bob pushed his way to the counter. He heard a shot from behind him and the teller made this funny gasp as red blood stained her blouse. As she slipped from sight, Jim Bob grabbed hold of the guy in the suit who looked like he was dithering over the money. The guy would be a good hostage. Jim Bob poked him with the barrel of his gun, then spun around.

There! An old geezer in a uniform was pointing a gun at them. Jim Bob fired a couple of rounds at the old guy. This gun thing was harder than it looked. He missed the old guy completely though a customer that was hiding behind the guard swore softly and fell to the floor. The old guy fired back and the suit grunted and fell to the floor. Jim Bob had nowhere to hide. He had to take this guy out. He put both hands on his gun like they did on the shows and pulled the trigger.

The sound of his shots and the old guy’s were deafening. But he couldn’t stop. It was kill or be killed. He was still pulling the trigger when the Sherriff barrelled in through the door and shouted.

“Freeze!”

Jim Bob stopped pulling the trigger. He didn’t know how long his gun had been just clicking instead of banging. The bank looked like a battle zone. Dead and injured people lay on the floor and he could smell the blood, and other things. One deputy went white and ran out the door faster than he came in.

It is possible to write a good story with quick multiple POV, but it is a challenge. Check this story for an example:  The Drive Past Devil’s Butte

Nobody likes a Passive Hero

This article represented a colossal mistake on my part, and now I am fixing the mistake. Gooshy tomatoes are available at the end of the article for tossing at me for my failure.

Was + verb does not automatically count as a passive voice sentence. Dive in and let me explain what passive voice really is. Why you still should avoid ‘was’. And when you want to use the dreaded passive voice.

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets. I was looking for trouble and didn’t have to look too hard. I saw a mugging in progress. One of the thugs saw me and soon bullets were whizzing past my head.

Sounds exciting, right? So why are my eyelids drooping and my hand tossing the book on the floor? Take another look at our hero. He doesn’t do anything. Stuff happens around him. Try this version.

The city slept, her snoring kept me awake. Foetid air rose from grates as the subway passed. I grew up on these streets. I know the sounds they make, also when the space between the sounds means trouble. Some sap was making a gift of his wallet and gold watch to a pair of thugs. I stayed on my side of the street. The sap looked like he could afford a donation. Then the gun came out. Who pulls a gun after they mug someone? I pulled my own gun-not as big, but I knew exactly how to use it. Thug one took a bead on me, so I hit the pavement. The bullets made sure some body shop would be working overtime. I checked the window to get a location on Thug One. Our eyes met, his beady ones with my tired peepers. I shot out the window and the alarm shrieked. Funny how shots got my juices flowing, but alarms just gave me headaches. Thug Two showed up on my side of the street. He had me cold, so I followed my bullets through the window. I felt the brush of death as a bullet tugged at my coat. I kept going deeper into the store. Maybe I’d find a back door.

Now the second paragraph is longer. It usually takes more words to show the action than to tell about it. The advantage is that all those words do double duty. The action holds the reader’s attention, but they are also learning about the character of the hero.  A lot of the time the writer knows exactly what the story is about. They tell us the story and when you tell the story it is easy to slip into passive voice. It becomes about what happens to the character instead of what the character does. You do need things to happen to the character, but if you can attach those actions to something or someone it will be a stronger story.

The form of the verb ‘to be’ with a gerund after it creates a static situation. This is happening and continues to happen. There is no change. You want your characters to be actively shaping the world around them. Action is one of the triumvirate that reveals character. If you write with ‘was’ too often, you are muzzling your character. It will distance the character from the reader. It feels like the character is being moved instead of moving themselves.

Another problem with gerunds is that we try to load too many of them into a sentence.

Standing, wiggling his eyebrows and juggling watermelons, Bozo the clown waited his turn to pay for his groceries.

Poor Bozo is standing, wiggling, juggling and waiting all at once. That’s impressive, but we don’t learn much about Bozo from all that. The standing, wiggling and juggling aren’t really part of the action. It’s hard to imagine him doing all that simultaneously. Let’s get active and see what happens.

Bozo stood in line at the grocery check out. The child in the cart ahead of him looked very cranky so Bozo wiggled his eyebrows. Was that a smile? He picked up the two tiny watermelons and a squash. He started to juggle them. Everything went well until the child’s mother turned, saw Bozo and let out a piercing shriek. The child clapped its hands and laughed.

The two sentences give the same information, but the second one pulls you in and makes you feel like you’re a part of the action. Each of the verbs has it’s own object and subject. The gerund as an extra sneaky helping of verb is really one useful if the actions are all happening at the same time.

“I’m sorry,” Bozo said, wiping watermelon juice from his eyes, “It must be hard to be a coulrophobic,”

I can see him talking while he is wiping juice from his face. Using too many gerunds is another way of telling rather than showing the action. Try to give each action its own sentence. It will help to keep things straight and the reader will be able to follow the story better.

The goal of the writer is to entice the reader to enter the story’s world. That requires active characters who participate fully in the story. There are so many good words to use, so many interesting verbs. Let’s put them to work.

But ‘was + verbing’ is not passive. I made a mistake in the original article and am finally getting around to fixing the problem. My apologies.

Now on to when you do want to use the was + verbing. This construction is for when action is interrupted. I was walking down the street when the shooting started. The sentence begins with one action and ends with another. The other use for was + verbing is for action which continues through a scene. The birds were chirping in the woods. It made the place sound much too cheerful for a murder scene.

The passive voice is when things are being done to the subject of the sentence instead of the subject acting. Sound confusing? Yup, guess why I goofed up. A great many writers (and readers) think that any construction with ‘was’ is in passive voice.

But the first sentence in my example:

The city was sleeping, but I was walking its dark streets.

is not passive voice. The city is acting, I am walking. Boring, yes, passive, no.

Try this one

The city streets were walked by hordes of zombie clowns.

That is passive voice. The city is not acting. It is being acted upon by the horde of zombie clowns.

This sentence gives us the simplest test of whether your sentence is passive or active voice. Believe it or not it is called the zombie test. (Google it, I did not make it up.) Very simply you add ‘by zombies’ after your sentence. If the sentence makes sense, you are writing in passive voice. If it doesn’t it is not.

The city was sleeping by zombies. Does not make sense, thus not passive voice.

So, when do you want to use passive voice? Because if it were truly the ultimate evil in language, we wouldn’t have it.

You use passive when the object of the action is more important than the subject. In the passive voice example above, the hordes of zombie clowns is more interesting and probably more important to the story than the city streets. You want passive voice here.

When you are using a character as the passive subject it is trickier. Your character is important. Most of the time you want them acting, not sitting passively around being acted upon. Where passive voice comes in useful is to accentuate situations when your character, for whatever reason, is unable to act. They are tied up, unconscious, dead or whatever.

So there you have it folks, the real goods on passive voice.

Character Assassination

I need a character for a story. Lets call him Fred. Fred is 5’11”, weighs 185 lbs and has blond hair and blue eyes. Do you love him yet? What if I tell you he has a six pack? No? Neither do I really. I mean who names their character Fred, you’d always be waiting for him to yell “Wilmaaaa”. (Sorry, old guy joke,)

Lets make Fred a vampire, nope, that’s been done, maybe a… nope. Let’s see, what kind of story I am putting him in? Let’s go for a good slasher horror story. So Fred’s a mechanic. He’ll be able to whip up any kind of machine to slaughter bad guys by the dozens.

So Fred, the mechanic goes out to slaughter bad guys. He meets Wilma, neither of them have seen the Flintstones, so it’s OK. What isn’t OK is that they have nothing to talk about. She’s a hairdresser and he’s a mechanic. He does have nice hair, but there only so many times a girl can run her hand through even the best head of hair.

So I’m going to give Wilma a secret passion for muscle cars. Now she can talk shop with Fred and they’ll be deliriously happy. My readers, not so much. Maybe Fred needs a hobby. He knits sweaters. His grandmother taught him. But he’s embarrassed about it. What bad guy slaying mechanic wants to admit that he knits. Only they get chased into a wool shop by the bad guys. Fred needs a disguise in a hurry. What better disguise than a toque? (It’s a Canadian winter hat.) Wilma is delighted and impressed. She’s even more impressed when he stabs a bad guy in the eye with the knitting needle.

All this killing is working up an appetite. So Wilma whips up a steak that would make you weep, only Fred’s a vegetarian. Big problem …

Now Fred is starting to become interesting. He’s developed layers. So has Wilma. In fact it would be a good thing to give everyone a layer or two. Characters with depth are much more likely to make for a strong story. If you start hitting the doldrums, you can fall back on your characters minor traits for a plot device. Create some conflict between the kind of things that we take for granted, but only the best writers put into their books.

Next time you are looking at your characters, think about what they do in their spare time. How can you use that to create more interest in your story? People will follow characters they are attached to even when the plot feels thin. Yet even the best plot in the world won’t save you if your characters are cardboard cutouts.

I’ve seen much discussion about how much to describe those characters we’ve just given birth to. Some authors want to describe everything about the character down to what colour toe nail polish they’re wearing. Others hardly describe the character at all. When you read books, watch for how the characters are introduced. Does the story stop while the reader is given what I fondly refer to as the missing person’s description? Maybe all right if things aren’t moving quickly, but if you’re in a fight scene, you don’t want to stop for nail polish.

Personally I’m a bit on the sparse side. I get readers asking for more, so I came up with a standard to describe a character. I give two traits and a quirk. So they may be fat, smelly and talk like they’re breathing helium. Maybe they have red hair, they’re short, and have a vicious sarcasm addiction. You can always build on it later as the characters interact.

A lot of places offer detailed character creation checklists. You, the author need to know all that information, but the reader doesn’t, not all at once. Build your characters up in layers, give them quirks, flaws, and the rest. Your reader will love you for it.

Plotting to save your life

You have a great idea for a book. This guy meets a girl. So they fall in love. The End.

Sounds a little boring. Maybe the girl is in love with someone else, so the guy has to bump off the other guy so he can comfort the girl. Wait, this is beginning to sound more like horror than romance. That’s cool you can just change the category. But it is still boring.

Your story has a case of linear plot. It starts here, goes there and not a whole lot more. We already have a pretty good idea of how it’s going work out so why bother?

Your story needs a talking donkey, and no not the one from Shrek. What I mean is you need something completely unexpected that derails the trip from here to there. Think of your plot as a road. Flat boring, maybe the scenery is nice, but how long can you look at scenery. So lets shake things up. Let’s turn that plot into a roller coaster.

First thing you need to do is add some urgency to the situation. Make the passage of time count. This is your time bomb. If the hero or heroine take too long the world will end, either literally or metaphorically, your choice.

Now our hero is sweating; they don’t have forever. Good, so now we make life miserable for them. What is the one thing that they really, really want? Make it impossible. Send the girl to Antarctica, have the hero come down with something really nasty. Just as he’s ready to give up he gets a sliver of hope. She sends him a postcard with a penguin on it, oh wait he supposed to give it to his best friend.

Now you have conflict. All stories need conflict. People fight with each other, with the world, with themselves. Think of it as hot sauce for your story. It adds some punch. There is nothing better than conflict for shaping a character and plot line into something that will keep your readers guessing.

The important thing to remember is you can’t just add random conflict to the story. It needs to move the plot along. Each conflict must change something. A fight between the two boyfriends won’t matter if something doesn’t shift because of the fight.

The idea isn’t to make it impossible to know for certain what is going to happen next. We don’t want totally random. Drop hints about the big blow up ending.  The story is as much about the journey as the ending, so make sure you make the ending worth the ride.  Remember that time bomb? Now your story is more roller coaster than road. People are screaming and hugging each other and it’s flying around corners and doing loops. Your story has life. It has a talking donkey, it has a PLOT.

Now once you have a plot, you will need to understand the mechanics of story. Inciting incidents, plot points, pinch points and all the rest. The good thing is if you tell a really interesting story, those mechanics will pretty much take care of themselves. The reason you want to understand them is for editing and revising. If your story is off balance, go back and check to see if you have all the pieces.

Instead of explaining it all here, I’m going to point you to K.M. Weiland’s super fantastic blog where she explains everything using movies and books to illustrate. Check it out.

Helping Writers Become Authors

Cliches, let’s not think about that.

What is cliche, what isn’t? It’s a discussion which comes up in almost every critiquing group I’ve belonged to.

I am not going to try to come up with an exhaustive list. I don’t think that’s possible. We all like to poke fun at cliches, but when was the last time we considered what made a cliche a cliche?

I’m going to attack the issue from a slightly different perspective. Rather than declaring that vampires with speech impediments are cliche while twinkly vampires are not, I’m going to suggest that if you don’t have to work very hard at creating a character, plot line or setting you are in danger of being cliched. That’s because cliches are short cuts allowing us to move ahead without much thought.

Let’s look at bars, bars are a good example because they cross genres, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, even romances have bars.

So John is going into a bar, the reason isn’t important at this point, but we may come back to that. He walks into the bar and he has to stand in the door while his eyes adjust to the dim light. Recognize that? That’s the feeling that you’ve been in this bar before. There may be a bouncer cracking his knuckles and eyeing John suspiciously. The barkeep may be polishing the glasses or maybe talking to the customers. Maybe there’s music, perhaps live, maybe a jukebox.There will be a shadowy little corner where it may be possible to get in a little noogy or get away with murder. The acoustics will be such that John can hear the conversation in the booth behind him, but nobody will be able to hear what he says or does.

That’s a cliched bar. We’ve all been there in dozens of books. This bar is a useful little plot device. Maybe John will fall in love, maybe get in a fight, maybe die. We know all these things are possible because we’ve seen it happen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the bar is going to be more than a brief stop on John’s journey of self discovery, we will need to dress it up.

So why is John going into a bar? If he is looking for love in all the wrong places we will want to loud music and louder women, or men. He probably won’t have to pause to let his eyes adjust because it will likely be night. A little commentary on the decor will be useful.

John entered the bar and winced a little at the volume of the music pumping out of the speakers. He could see a distorted version of himself in the chrome bar rail. But he didn’t take the empty spot at the bar. There was a mirror on the wall there and he didn’t want to look himself in the face just now. He selected a wobbly litte table on the edge of the dance floor. Bodies gyrated under the strobes looking like so many mating octopi. The waitress placed the beer in front of him and he downed it with a gulp. If he was going to do what he came here to do, he would need something stronger.

Maybe he’s looking for a whiz-bang magical sword. We need a different kind of crowd and not so sleek an ambiance.

John pushed his way in through the crowd. Most of the crowd were dwarves. It was a dwarfish bar. He was careful to be polite, when a dwarf elbowed a human, it wasn’t ribs that got bruised. He made it to the bar where a troll handed him a drinking horn.

“Two bits,” it said.

John passed over the money and leaned on the rough wood that spanned the empty casks.

“I’m looking for…”

“Over there,” the troll said. “Two bits a pull, double if you break anything.”

He passed over more money and made his way toward a crowd that surrounded a sword that was stuck in an oak log.

“Hey, look where you’re stepping!” A pixie kicked him in the ankle.

John tried not to limp as he made his way to the sword. It was the ugliest sword he’d ever laid eyes on. The blade that wasn’t buried in wood was chipped and pitted. The leather of the grip was rotted. There was a dwarf that was pulling on it. He looked like he was in danger of rupturing something. One of the dwarves looked up at John.

“Yo, Thornpiek, gi’ it a rest. We got a live one!” Rough hands pushed him over to the sword.

“Gi’ you hands a good spit,” a dwarf said, “let’s see if you be t’ one.” The dwarfs all laughed while John stared at the sword. He took a deep breath and gripped the sword.

Perhaps John is meeting an intergalatic snitch.

John paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light of the bar. He felt a sharp pain in his back and looking down he saw the point of a Thr’xian dagger sticking out of his chest. He crumpled to his knee and a rough kick pushed him to the floor.

“Blasted humans,” the Thr’xian said, “always stopping and blocking the doors.

So while the concept of a bar might be deemed cliche, if you make it your bar it won’t be cliche. It will be a seamless part of the world that you are creating.

Don’t think, don’t feel

In my article on Show, Tell and Narrative Summary, a reader kindly pointed out to me that using words such as thought/felt/saw/heard are a form of telling. They are ‘filtering’ words in that the experience is filtered through the MC rather than coming to the reader direct.  Filters add distance between the reader and the story.

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Dang, Rebus thought, the Sheriff’s going to be able to smell that mash all the way out to the highway. He ran in the moonlit woods like a deer through corn. He didn’t know what he would do, but he had to try.

A strong arm gripped his shoulder and pulled him back from where he saw the still steaming in the stark white light. The hand over his mouth felt like old leather and steel.

Rebus relaxed and watched the inevitable. His uncle John wasn’t a man to be messed with, and he’d lay a beating on Rebus soon as look at him.

The Sheriff crept into the clearing gun in hand.

Rebus heard a rumble of laughter from behind him.

“See what happens to anyone who crosses me,” Uncle John said.

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When you’re writing you want to avoid the words in bold they weaken the immediacy of the story. That isn’t to say you never use them, but it is worth looking at each one and deciding if that is the way you want to leave it. Let’s have a go at removing the filter words.

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Rebus’ eyes watered.

Dang, the Sherriff’s going to be able to smell that mash from the highway.  He ran like a deer through the moonlit woods. Likely it was too late to do anything about the still, but he had to try.

The still steamed in the stark white illumination. A strong arm gripped Rebus and pulled him back. The leather and steel of Uncle John’s hand covered his mouth. Rebus gagged and the leathery palm moved slightly.

“You be still, boy,” Uncle John said, “Pay attention to what happens to them that cross me.” Laughter shook the crazy old man.

The Sherriff crept into the clearing, gun in hand.

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That’s better. You want more interaction with the senses, but without labelling the sense. We get the smell from Rebus’ watering eyes. We don’t need to label who’s thinking as the POV is Rebus, so he’s the only one we should be able to hear thinking. When he gets to the still, we know he’s seeing it. So you don’t need to tell the reader he’s seeing it, watching it, noticing it, or any of the other ways we try to make it clear that our character is taking in the scene in front of them. The feel of the hand and laughter works the same way.

I’m not happy with the scene yet, but at least I’ve removed the screen between the reader and what is going on.

Like everything else in writing this is not a hard and fast rule. You can’t just go through your book cutting every filter verb. Sometimes you need the filter verb to maintain the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes they aren’t truly filters but deliberate action. Telling us someone remembers a scene from the chapter before is filtering. Give us the scene and we know they’re remembering. But if the character is trying to remember something, then you need to tell us when they succeed. The rest of the filters work the same way, when it is a deliberate action, not a flag post for the reader, you need to keep it.

You’ll know which are which when you find you can’t possibly write around the verb.