Thursday, November 4, 2010
True, you can probably create something that washes cities aside in one blow - we have those today. What you miss out on is the human element. The man-and-machine staple for science fiction. In truth, you really don't want these kind of weapons. They tend to be wielded by props instead of characters which only extends the lack of belief from the weapon to the person using it.
So, there is my case for not having the ultimate doomsday device in your hands. So what should you be considering? I have a few loose rules I try to adhere to.
1. The weapon must have limitations. Be it fuel, ammunition, cost, or environment, the weapon should be constrained. Often this is expressed in range, rate of fire, or effectiveness. It shouldn't be able to kill everything, and should be subject to countermeasures that render it either ineffective or useless.
2. The weapon should be base lined on something that exists. Plasma cannon derived from today's heavy machine guns. Probes derived from the abilities of today's unmanned aircraft. The idea here is to anchor your weapon with something your reader can already relate to. A self-aware ball of gas floating from target to target is not going to be as easy to visualize with as a robotic flyer doing the same thing.
3. The weapon must cost the user. Be it weight, painful reaction to using, or even psychological distress, your device should be something of consequence - the "shadow" grounding the weapon and user with reality.
4. The weapon should have a weakness. It can be jammed, broken, or simply fail. Not saying that it would do this all of the time, but there is something to be said for a plasma cannon whose barrel falls off when over-heated. You can use your environment to induce failure - or at least force the unlucky soldier to clean or otherwise maintain the thing to keep it from killing him.
The tough part of creating any weapon is in keeping up with our own advancing technology. One-shot, one-kill weapons exist today. Others can get you even from behind a wall. We're rapidly coming up to energy weapons that you won't even see when they take you down. What does one do when a realistic terminator can identify, release weapons, and kill Sara Conner in the blink of an eye? I don't care how fast Reese is with that shotgun, she's gonna die. Your defense in these cases will have to be a form of countermeasure. Something to thwart targeting. Something to deflect the projectile or beam. A way to slow down or incapacitate the shooter before it even arrives at a firing solution. Guess what. Any device you create for this purpose must itself be put through the "rules". Counter measures must themselves be locked down by limitations.
An armored suit might cost more than the soldier, for instance. It may have an unacceptable fail rate or be easily tracked. How long can it run on power? If you blind its electronics, then what? Make armor effective against one type of weapon, and the enemy simply changes weapons. Make it effective against all weapons, and now your soldier can't move. In the end, the practical and economical solution will be to outfit the soldier with something less than this suit but still capable of meeting the widest range of threats. In this scenario, which I subscribe to in my novels, the idea is to avoid what you can and get hurt the least by what attacks you before you can kill it. This puts the element of risk, and drama, back into the scene.
I put this theory to the test in Rogue Dancer where Mikial thinks the armor and cloth she's wearing will keep her from being seen. She has on camouflage that would put the Predator to shame. Unfortunately, she has no clue about being silhouetted against the background radiation of an old crater. Oops.
Realism. For every "Ha!" there's an "Aw shit!"
What is pacing? For a reader, it is best described as that "page turner". The desire to keep on reading despite the late hour. Pacing is the undercurrent for your novel's plot - the force moving it forward. Pacing fails when the reader is compelled to either skip paragraphs or just put the book down and forget about it.
For the writer, pacing is a tempo that must be adhered to if they are writing any kind of adventure. Pacing is a meter to be watched with each scene, and part of a symphony hurling your reader to new highs - or giving them a chance to breath again. You have to do both.
Action and drama are the accelerators for pacing. Narration and back-story are the brakes. This is where the "show" vs "tell" monster lives for new writers, urging them to simply write down everything the author wants to move past rather than show through their characters' actions and dialog.
Jane was upset. This is narrating - telling. This slows pacing.
Jane slumped against the wall, her fists clenched. This is showing. This speeds pacing.
Jane didn't like Bob. Again, this is narrating.
Jane glared at Bob. "Go to hell!" This is showing.
Jane came from a poor family, and dressed in her older sister's hand-me-downs. Again, telling.
"You have NO idea what being poor is!" Jane seethed. "Try showing your face wearing your older sister's cast-offs and see how you like it." This is showing.
You want to start your action novel off with fast pacing, but remember that you can't keep piling it on forever. Every action scene will have a moment to gasp for breath. A chapter or two of battle needs to be followed by a respite. It can't be full speed ahead each moment or your reader will tire and dramatic effect dilute. You need to orchestrate your pacing for maximum effect, much as a horror writer sets up for that all-important scream.
With every scene you write must come the question - how does this advance one of my story arcs? If a long explanation of something in the scene in no way contributes to either the plot or character growth, then consider it with a jaundiced eye. Just because common sense says this or that should be, doesn't mean you allow it in. Your first and foremost duty is to the reader's entertainment.
Let me demonstrate the idea of drama over common sense. In my upcoming novel I will have my main character, now a hugely important figure in her society, engaging in battle. If I applied logic and common sense, her people would keep her far FAR from any potential harm, right? So, I had to dig up a reason to deliberately put her in harm's way simply so I COULD logically put her in harm's way. Why? Because sitting in a comfy building watching someone else fight is boring. Watching my character do what she does best is not. Sometimes you have to put your common sense aside for the sake of entertainment. It is not what your character should be doing in many cases - it is what the reader wants them to do. It is up to you, as author, to decide when to set a small measure of credibility aside in favor of action.
Pacing. It is the heartbeat of your work.
The simple rule is the one that works. In this case, “be constructive” is your prime directive. Better that you say nothing at all if the best critique you can give is derogatory in its approach. Simply telling a writer that they suck is hardly going to help anyone – including the reviewer who will be looked on as little more than a literary troll. Even the starkest wake-up call can be couched in language that doesn’t have to insult.
Let’s talk about the more common critique – the overview. This method is favored simply because it takes less time. The objective of an overview is usually confined to one of two goals – a litmus test or identification of poor writing habits/patterns. The litmus test just wants to answer the question – can this person write well or not? For me, it is best applied in one of two situations – when the writer is abysmally bad or damn good (ready for a publisher). These usually end in either a wake-up call or a push to submit to a publisher. The more common overview for me is the latter – pointing out consistent errors, be it poor sentence construction or too much telling verses showing.
Line editing is time intensive. This is a careful inspection of each sentence, and is exactly what you get when you hire a professional editor. Most of the time, these kind of critiques are reserved for private writing groups, but you can see them on the MySpace forums as well. If you receive such a critique, be grateful.
Regardless of the type of critique, I try and follow the same guidelines.
1. If I read something that works well – tell them. It is as important to the writer to know what works as what does not.
2. If I make a correction, unless the correction itself is blindingly self-explanatory, I explain why I made that correction. I never simply say “this is wrong” without telling them why.
3. If the writer is making fundamental mistakes, guide them to a resource that will help them. Usually, this means imbedding links to books they can purchase or articles they can read.
4. I try and provide a general synopsis at the end of reviews. I prefer to keep it upbeat and never insult or discourage.
5. If I am in a “wake-up call” situation, I try and be firm without being demeaning. Give them resources and let them know they can do better if they are serious about their craft.
6. I will not critique a repeat offender – if the person keeps on submitting the same mistakes without any sign of learning, it is best to leave them be. Either they don’t want to learn, or are a form of literary troll to be avoided. No sense casting pearls before this bunch.
7. The last thing I want to do is pummel a writer. If the best I can do is tell them how bad they are, and do so in such a way as to paint them as being an idiot, then I simply won’t do a critique. I don’t want to be seen as a literary bully, because that leads to people questioning me both as a reviewer and a writer. People don’t buy books from those they don’t like.
If you are on the receiving end of a critique, remember one thing. It took time out of someone’s life to provide the review. Do not ask for a critique unless you are putting your best writing on the table. The same goes for your not wanting to hear anything but how wonderful you are. Unless you are the hapless victim of Rule #7, your first reaction ought to be one of gratitude no matter how seemingly brutal the critique was. You should also take the advice to heart, especially if more than one reviewer touches on the same subject. There is no reason for being defensive. Let me repeat that. There is NO reason for being defensive. Two common (and equally wrong) reactions are “You don’t get it.” or “I am doing this for a reason.” Sometimes it is hard for a writer to realize that it is not what they think that counts – it is what the reader perceives. An acquisitions editor certainly won’t care about your artistic license for one moment. Of course, there is my favorite reply – “This was just a rough draft.” or “This was something I did last year.” Guess who won’t be reviewing any more of your work. This leads to a few guidelines I might suggest regarding asking for a critique.
1. Do not call down the lightning if you can’t stand the thunder.
2. Submit only your best.
3. Listen and apply lessons before submitting anything else.
4. Don’t spam critique requests across boards. This only drives off reviewers.
So, let’s get started.
The first thing you need is what marketing folks call “branding” – a single name people can associate with your work. Nothing says “beginner” like having your website name come after someone else’s domain name that you hosted with. You want it all – not just a part of the URL. This means you walk away from all these “free” site hosting folks who want a piece of your action.
For most, myself included, the domain name is one’s pen name. You establish your brand out front as the name of your website – such as www.kmtolan.com. Notice that I have not elected to put in the name of my book . Why? Because I plan on writing a lot of books, and they will all need to be brought under the same branding. The same goes for any fantasy world name you might use for a series of books – it will serve you well until you end up writing something else. So, my advice is to stay with something not directly tied to your novels.
Now that you think you have your name, you need to verify that you do indeed have claim to it. Several hosting sites offer to sell you a domain name cheap. I’ll stick with my own host site – “godaddy.com” as an example. They will offer you a domain name for less than a burger and fries. Part of the process will be a check to see if the name is already being used. If it is, then pick something else. Now, like many hosting sites, you will be asked to grab related domain names. Unless you really think this is going to be an issue with someone hijacking you (doubtful), I wouldn’t bother. Remember that your hosting site is there to up-sell you.
So, now you have a domain name. Congrats! Now on to the tough stuff.
You need a place to host your web pages, and there are plenty of hosting sites including “free” ones that you can “rent” from. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you to go with “godaddy” – they are 24x7 folks who have good rates. If you want to look elsewhere, then fine, but remember that this is YOUR website. No advertising unless you put it there. No added names to your domain name address to sully your branding. This will knock out most of the “free” sites that leech of your branding. Hosting should not cost you a lot of bucks – often you can rent space for less than ten dollars a month – and even for half that amount. Shop around. Don’t tolerate an expensive plan simply because you already have an account with such-and-such for email.
I could write a book on how to create web pages – and people have. Let’s just say that either you know how to create a site, or you don’t and will have someone create it for you. In either case, your website should follow the same general guidelines:
1. The landing page is where you showcase your work enough to spark interest. This is the web equivalent to your “hook”. The rule of thumb is that your visitors should click or scroll as little as possible before viewing your product. A web page full of you – without mentioning your books save for a link, is a Bad Thing. Get the title and blurb out there – at least from your latest work if not all of them. At the same time, don’t cram everything on the main page. A teaser for your books is fine, followed by a link to a separate page where you can go into detail. Of course, if you have little to provide other than your book, the main page could be your novel’s page as well.
2. Theme. All of your pages should have the same general look and feel. The background and text, as well as the format, should be common. It should also be an attention grabber, but not to the extent that it overwhelms your product or message. For those who can geek-speak, this means style sheets will be your best friend.
3. Navigation. You may elect to have the front page also be your novel’s detail page, however you will find that your page starts getting a bit too long after you warm up to the idea of having your own website. I would suggest giving your novel its own page, and leave the front to a catchy blurb and cover with links.
4. Outside Links. This is where you can direct folks to interesting areas outside your website – such as blogs and other promotional sites (or friend sites) that you participate in. Just remember, your goal is to have folks stay on your site for a bit – so don’t go crazy here.
5. News. People like a site that has refreshed content, and your fan base will be interested in what is happening next.
6. Blog. If you want to maintain one, then do so. It doesn’t have to be on your website (I use MySpace) but most host sites offer this. In fact, some sites are actually blogs and do quite well at it. Just understand that blogs are high-maintenance if you use them as your main site.
7. Forum. If you get popular enough, you can start exchanging messages with your readers, and a forum is way to do this. However, like blogs, this is not a necessary addition and often as not you can simply link to a forum you participate in.
8. Your book’s detail page. You want the cover out there. If possible, see to it that your image is not too high a resolution as you don’t want your readers waiting for the page to load. You want to talk about your characters, any background that may be interesting, and above all – provide an excerpt (preferably the entire first chapter). The excerpt tells your readers that you are the real thing – and not a wannabe who can’t write their own name legibly. This is your vote of confidence, and also gives a reader the same benefit as if they had picked your book off a shelf and leafed through it. If you are nervous about tossing up an example of your writing then don’t bother with a website just yet. If you don’t think your writing is that good, then chances are nobody else will either. As some of your material may be enough to warrant a page by themselves (don’t want your reader doing a lot of scrolling) then don’t hesitate to create separate pages and provide a menu to them. Don't forget the final ingredient - a way for them to purchase your book.
9. Images. As said before, and especially with your background image (if any), make sure they are not so large as to take forever to load the page.
10. Format and grammar. The page should be pleasing to the eye and not look crowded. The text should be easy to read, and can vary in fonts/sizes for variety (but only a little bit). Oh, and even one grammar or spelling error is not to be allowed.
11. Refreshing. Your site will always be “live” in the sense that you will be updating it with either new books or news. As time goes by, you will probably want to do a major revamp (I am in the midst of one as of this writing – which goaded me into this article).
12. Glitz. Marquees, flash presentations, background music, and other gawd-awful advertising gimmicks that turn a webpage into a circus tent. Avoid them. Also keep in mind that these things often require a lot of load time. You are selling novels – not used cars.
For those of you who haven’t a clue what HTML means, then read no further. This is something only your web creator would be interested in.
CSS 3.0 is the latest CSS standard as of this writing and brings to the table exciting things like event handling, rounded corners, shadow boxing, and opaque settings. You would think everybody is on board with this standard, but no. Microsoft remains the one holdout with their browser simply because they are still in a game of catch-up. You should style your website with CSS style sheets, and you should leverage 3.0 whenever you can – however you will need to maintain a separate CSS style sheet for Internet Explorer with override classes as needed to deal with their lack of support for the afore-mentioned goodies. To see the extent of the difference, view my site in IE, then swing back and view it in the latest version of Firefox. You might decide to stay with Firefox if you haven’t made the switch already. Eventually, IE will catch up, but up to version 8 it does not support these features.
Make sure you have a default color to show on your background until your background image loads. Preferably, it should be as close to the general color of your image. This allows a little less obviousness to the loading of your image.
Keep it simple. Sure, you can aim to avoid using TABLE, but if adding or re-arranging your site ends up taking a lot of time simply because of your complexity, then it is time to re-think. Humble TABLE is widely used for a reason. The new CSS TABLE might be a nice compromise, but I haven’t worked with it enough to know. I have worked with “liquid” designs using FLOAT but they are a royal pain to update. The idea is that you want to spend the least amount of time as possible when maintaining your site.
Epilogues are similar in fashion to prologues – the closing scene to the story’s opening scene. As with prologues, you are not necessarily going to employ an epilogue. Often, what new writers consider an epilogue is merely their last chapter.
So, when do you know that an epilogue is right for you? For me, it is an answer to that feeling of unfinished business. A final tie for those loose ends, or a springboard for an upcoming sequel. More importantly, it is an event that happens well after the story should end. An epilogue saves you a dreary extra chapter full of nothing but your attempt at filler between when the climax happened and when you know the unfinished business happened.
For me, an epilogue is all about cause and effect, and centers on how much story time should pass from “cause” to the final “effect”. If this length of time is great enough to jar the reader, and I can’t come up with anything worth spanning that time in a way the reader would find reasonably entertaining, then it’s time for an epilogue.
In my first book Blade Dancer, I saw no need for an epilogue. The final scene said it all.
In Waiting Weapon, however, the climax (cause) took care of an immediate global threat, but left unfinished both some negotiations and the final disposition of the characters. These things required several months of story time to logically be expected to happen. It would have taken me at least another chapter full of talking heads and little real drama to arrive at a final resolution. Enter an epilogue to tidy things up.
Rogue Dancer, my sequel to Blade Dancer, ended up with a completely satisfactory end scene, however there was no forward movement into the third planned book in the series. Here, where the primary plot was quite finished, the greater story representing the span of the entire series is still very much in motion. This is the “springboard” reason for an epilogue – so one was provided.
Once I have established the need for an epilogue, I follow a loose set of goals:
1. It must be removed in time and/or space from the rest of the story, but be part of it.
2. It is restricted to one scene.
3. It must not be a lot of narrative. Very much showing through dialogue and action.
4. It firmly ties loose ends to leave the reader satisfied.
5. It introduces a scene to intrigue the reader if a sequel is in the works.
Differences from a prologue are few, but important. An epilogue does not have to contain a dramatic scene or “hook” – usually you’re after a warm glow. Sure, you can pull off a “twist” if you want, but such a thing might be more genre-specific. I could see any horror story aiming to leave the reader with anything but a warm glow, for instance.
How far can you extend an epilogue? As far as you want, assuming you are still relating it to a story. A quick scene from the perspective of your main character’s children...or grand children, is quite permissible. Or someone looking up at a monument ages later. It really has to do with what unfinished business you are trying to close. What you want to do is ensure that the actions, dialogue, and thoughts of the characters in this scene adequately cover the jump in time in such a way to keep things connected and believable. What you want to avoid is narrative staring out at the reader such as “Five months passed, and this and that happened.”
Writer's Block is a symptom of several possible maladies.
1. Life. This is an unfortunate disease that intrudes on our writing often, and distracts us to...well, distraction. Often, you can clear up your symptoms simply by allowing the distraction to finish with you (or you with it). Walks, vacations, and certain dosages of alcohol in moderation have been known to help.
2. Loss of focus. Your story simply isn't that interesting to you, or perhaps you find yourself OH LOOK A SQUIRREL!!! The cure is to walk away from your story, or close the curtains.
3. Lack of vision. Folks just sit down and write a book. Yep. Sit down and write a book. Eventually, the road runs out due to a wrong turn, and they sit there...yep, writing a book. Yep. The cure for this is to start with a chapter outline so you know how the book starts, where its going, and how it will end. Sure, you will kick the outline apart, but that's what outlines are for.
4. Over eating. Or, in this case, expecting to completely finish a book in ONE pass. Mr or Ms Perfection quickly gets overwhelmed with a case of indigestion as they keep going back, going back, and going back in a perpetual spin/rinse cycle until malady #2 kicks in.
5. The tangles. If character A does this, and character B does this, then what will character B do with character A and ...OMG I forgot what this will do to character C! This knot can best be undone by simply jumping over the scene and moving on - then revisit it later when you know where it needs to go.
6. Stormrage Syndrome. Simply put - YOU ARE NOT PREPARED. You lack the skills to write properly, are too impatient to learn them, and suddenly find yourself fixing a spacecraft with a screwdriver. Learn the basics, be patient, and avoid anything standing before you that's tall, dark, and has bat wings.
Prologues tend to be misunderstood creatures for new writers. By their very nature, they seem to be the practical way to start a story. The opening scene, if you will. That’s what snares folks. My story must have an opening scene, hence it requires a prologue.
Truth is, ninety percent of most stories don't need prologues. What you end up with in most cases is a thinly disguised first chapter. More often than not, the “prologue” ends up being an info-dump as well, an excuse for the writer to get past the initial explanations in long droning narratives.
Now the neat thing about prologues is that, when you do need them, they serve as a perspective on your story that might otherwise be impossible to provide. For me, that is the key – the perspective must be completely different. A chance to step away from something your main character knows, but you want the reader to be aware of. A well-crafted prologue can, through dialog and action (not narrative) prepare the reader far more than any back-fill will.
Most stories do not need such preparation – so think twice before considering a prologue. It really must deliver the bang for the buck so that the reader will both tolerate and appreciate the change in venue between the prologue and the start of the story.
My own rule on prologues is that they should be separated from the main story in both time and distance. They are best presented from the point of view of other than the main character. This character may or may not play a role in the main story. What is crucial for me is that the event itself should be something that itself has an impact on the story and is otherwise not able to be shown in the main story itself.
A prologue is indeed a complete scene. I prefer just one scene. A good prologue for me is a short one – we’re talking only a couple pages at best. We’re not telling another story here, we are setting up for one. The scene should be vivid, dramatic, and set the flavor for what is to follow. This is doubly important because the prologue will now contain your initial “hook” to grab the reader. If this scene does involve your main character, keep in mind that the reader already knows that your main character is going to live, so the element of risk here is minimal. On the same thought, never make your prologue a situation where a character is looking back at the story to come and reminiscing about it. You just told your reader that everything to follow has already happened...and sucked the drama right out of it.
I rarely use prologues, but in my upcoming novel Rogue Dancer I have to deal with a reader who may not have read the first book in this series. The prologue becomes a powerful tool to catch them up in a way that keeps their interest. I start with a short scene between two human officers on their respective ships arguing over how to initiate contact with a race they previously wronged. In this brief and heated exchange I provide more background detail on the main alien character and the opening situation than a page full of narrative ever could. And then all hell breaks loose and the scene abruptly ends. The next scene is the first chapter from the main character’s viewpoint literally a world away from the last scene – and she has troubles of her own. The reader, however, already knows her troubles are a lot worse than she suspects. They also know enough about the previous book as to not be distracted during the upcoming drama.
So, in summary, here is a quick gut check for you to help decide if you are dealing with a prologue or a first chapter (keep in mind this is just my opinion here):
1. It is removed from the main story in time and or distance. The first chapter begins elsewhere.
2. It is being told from a perspective that would be difficult to otherwise present.
3. It is one stand-alone scene.
4. It has impact on the story to come but is not directly a part of that story.
5. It contains a dramatic moment.
6. It tells something far easier than back-fill would in the main story.
7. It is not all narrative.
8. It has a definite hook.
9. It passes the “Do you really need this?” question.
Now, lets see a prologue in action - this is the prologue I mentioned from my novel "Rogue Dancer":
Ryan Donald leaned closer to the screen, his Irish temper barely under control. He wanted to strangle the bastard. “Commander, having your cruiser tag along is sending all the wrong messages, can’t you see that? These people are going to hate our guts for previously siding with the slave race their ancestors created. I’ll be damn lucky to get that princess or whatever the hell she is to give me the time of day without even more gunboat diplomacy.”
His antagonist, Vice Commander Powel, glowered back over the stub of a cigar he chewed on. Along with the crew cut, the man was all military theater. “Hogwash, Captain. You equipped those ex-slaves with three times the firepower and still got your butts handed to you by these…what’s that name, again?”
“Qurls,” Ryan patiently explained again. “Specifically, one of the four subspecies called Datha Qurl.”
“Oh yeah…them. Walking war machines, you said. Biologically specialized for one purpose. If the claws don’t get you, they act like a goddamn electric eel and electrocute your ass. And let’s not forget that other bunch who practically downloaded your mind.”
“That would be the Shandi Qurl,” Ryan explained, preferring not to be reminded of how those females had gotten into his head. He was well on his way to losing this argument.
“How much technology did you end up giving these aliens, Captain? Enough for them to silence those beacons you left behind?” Powel leaned back in his chair aboard the other ship. “We’ll be lucky if one cruiser is all you’re going to need. Hell of a way to make first contact by giving weapons to the wrong side. So who exactly is this contact of yours?”
“Her name’s Mikial. I saved her life during the war we started, and she saved mine when these Datha wanted to blow my ship and crew to hell and back. I don’t know what kind of leader she’s turned into…it’s all done through some kind of biological transformation. I got the drift that she’s probably going to be influential. I figure we’ll--”
A loud warble cut the conversation short, similar alarms pulling Powel from his seat as well. Ryan left the briefing room, happy to be rid of that pompous tin pot for a few minutes. He looked up at the tactical screens. He had not seen this much excitement on the cramped bridge since they left Earth.
“Tachyon emissions spiking fore and aft!” a Lieutenant bawled out.
So, how do you catch the fact that you might be trouble – that you are using props instead of characters?
1. You refer to your characters as a pronoun most of the time.
2. You have a hard time figuring their name.
3. You can’t describe them.
4. You are writing in First Person and delivering long monologues.
5. They are all-powerful.
6. They have no regrets, sadness, or any emotion. Just an “action figure”.
7. Character “A” sounds and acts exactly like character “B”.
8. The character does exactly what you want every time.
9. The character starts spouting your personal philosophies or opinions.
A good character starts out with a bibliography, be they antagonist or protagonist. You should know something of their history and how they were raised. They should have parents and friends too. The character should come with a full set of emotions – from pride to regret. They should feel pain, remorse, and generally be human beings like the rest of us – even if they are not human. They can make the wrong choices, have quirks, and exhibit unique traits. You should know what they look like, what they prefer to wear, and also what their ambitions and motivations might be.
Once you have established your character (and we’re mainly talking about your primary characters here) then you should see the character take on a bit more “life”. If you have to squeeze into their mindset in order to ask “What would they do?” then you are on the right track. If you start thinking “No, they wouldn’t do that.” then you are right where you want to be.
In critiquing new writers, I find that the greater majority of character flaws come in three flavors.
1. The super-duper action figure. He or she kills gods for breakfast, feels no pain, and can tear a person’s head off without a second thought. Welcome to Egos Gone Wild where the author is having a wonderful fantasy at the expense of good writing. The super is as often a villain as a hero in this case, and replaces any genuine emotions with large helpings of melodrama. They often live in either a Fantasy or Military SF environment.
2. The possessed character. Often found in First Person point of view, this character sounds like one long droning rant. Their dialog could be cut and paste into any Forum or diary. Sometimes, the voice box is a poet – spewing all these flowery phrases. Other times, they are simply a pair of eyes describing in detail the scene before them just as if the author was narrating what he or she is seeing – because what has happened here is just that. The author has reached in and made themselves a hand puppet so they can voice box their own opinions. It is so easy to fall into this sort of trap as a writer that I strongly suggest new folks to the craft avoid First Person until they really can understand how it works. First Person begs you to take over your characters.
3. The robot. Character walks into a room. Does this. Does that. Kills this. Kisses that. Says a few words. Walks out. Nothing is hard. Nothing is worth thinking about. They say their scripted lines and that’s that. Rather than a character, you have a plot vehicle to move things along as they’re supposed to go. They have no concerns because they have no opinions to be concerned about. Good little robot.
So, lets show two characters who really have minds of their own – in fact, they don’t like each other at all. Here is Rick and Jamie from Waiting Weapon.
“Only dead leaves answer an empty wind,” came a light voice in the melodic Me’Aukin language.
An olive-skinned young woman walked in behind them. She was small by human standards, but stood eye-to-eye with Rick. This was no ghost. Rick could practically taste the swirling eddies behind her thoughts. She wore an off-white wool sweater with brown leather lapels and cuffs that matched her tailored pants. Jet-black hair curled along a delicate jaw line, giving her a disarmingly fragile appearance. Rick knew better.
Like him, Jamie’s eyes were a deep ebony. They focused on him over a narrow nose, her expression no less intense than his own awareness of her. He noticed the moment of hesitation between her breaths. The subtle working of muscles along her throat. The intensity of her presence was stronger now than he ever remembered. The scientists at the Institute called it an empathic awareness. He called it stifling back then, and it apparently had only gotten worse.
Rick took a mentally clearing breath. “Ma’thell.”
“Ma’thelsa,” came Jamie’s more cautious greeting. “I didn’t expect to see you before I left.” She glanced at Andrea. “Problems at the site?”
“Nothing to be concerned over,” Andrea replied with a manufactured grin. “Going back to Corven?”
Jamie’s lips curved in an equally perfunctory smile. “Leaving shortly, as a matter of fact. I’m resuming my studies in political science at Lake Austin as ordered. Actually, I think Father’s nervous about having both Rick and I on the same planet.” Her eyes bored into Rick, her mind seeming to dig even further. “Still pretending to be human?”
He stiffened. “Are we going to pick up that old argument again?”
Jamie shrugged. “Don’t be offended. When it’s politically convenient for the Colonel, I pretend to be his daughter.” Her eyes lowered. “Forgive the interruption.” She turned to leave, and then paused. Rick was not sure if the shudder was physical or emotional. “Have you heard them?” she spoke once more in Me’Aukin. Her long fingers brushed against her temples. His startled reaction brought genuine relief to her face. “As I thought. Was it the whispers that chased you back, then?”
Sixty seconds. The time it takes a casual browser to scan your first page. Sixty seconds to make them want to read more, and for you to make a sale. Your cover and title did their work, and the back cover blurb piqued their interest. Now, in the first few paragraphs, you have to deliver the goods.
Sure, you have a lot of back story to generate in order to properly set the mood and pacing. Your story deserves preparation, and there is a lot to explain. Do it in the first page and you are finished. Your reader just moved on to the next book. You have just learned the cardinal rule – your reader’s expectations come first. Somehow, you have to deliver a scene that has impact and fits with your plot’s central theme, all without any prior setup for your character or story. Welcome to the “hook”.
A hook is just what it implies. It is a short scene designed solely to suck a reader in. Whether a prologue or first chapter, the first paragraph is the sharp point I use to jab a reader’s interest with. Then comes the barb in the following paragraphs to make them want to keep reading. While one can have a hook waiting at the end of a chapter to enhance the feeling of “I can’t put the book down.”, I am primarily going to talk about the hook at the very beginning.
Here are the general guidelines I use when crafting a hook:
1. It must be orientated toward action. This can be either physical action, or thought/dialog that raises enough alarm as to make the reader realize something is about to happen. In short, there must be drama. Too many new writers start out with their character in a safe situation – sometimes waking up in a warm bed. Oh yeah – that is really exciting stuff.
2. It must “show” more than “tell”. Nothing slows pacing like narrative and the information dumps they spawn. I try and keep narrative to a minimum, and concentrate more on showing an exciting setting rather than provide any background material. That can come later. This is another spot where new writers trip up. They are so eager to show this world they built, that the hapless reader is subjected to a long history lesson or grand tour of a land they have not had a chance to care about.
3. The scene and incident within it must conform to the general theme of the story. The reader will expect this. The last thing I want is for a reader to think that what they are reading has nothing to do with the title or back cover blurb that drew them in.
4. The scene must not appear to be contrived. Readers are smart enough to recognize that a scene is a red herring – placed there just to grab their interest. The opening scene, for me, should be the foundation upon which the rest of the story is built upon – not some incidental piece of fluff.
5. Building on both #3 and #4, a hook is not the place for me to show off my character. My intent is to show off my character through interaction with the story they are faced with. Taking the reader on a wild hunt just to show how good a hunter the character is means nothing for me if the hunt is not integral to the plot.
6. The hook is where you put your BEST writing foot forward. Perfect grammar. Perfect spelling. Excellent sentence construction. The works. First impressions are final impressions the moment the reader encounters sloppy work. Your entire pristine manuscript can be damned by one misstep at the beginning.
7. Never do flash backs into the past. Your hook must be in the present. Anything else is old news with no drama (your character obviously survived, right?).
So, there you are. Sometimes the hardest part of a story isn’t trying to find an ending, it is to find a suitable place for the beginning. Writers may find that their real story begins three chapters into the novel. So must their hook, which calls for some difficult decisions as you consign several chapters to the cutting room floor.
A word about prologues. Often, writers only think they need them. In many cases, the prologue is really the first chapter. The same rules for the hook apply if you do decide to have a prologue.
So, do I practice what I preach? Here's my hook for my latest novel - Waiting Weapon:
Jaw sagging, Richard Pinn watched the woman drift out of the crumbling inner wall. The apparition was not human, but one of his own vanished race. She wore a white blouse whose sleeves were richly embroidered with tiny brown and green fish. Me’Aukin Totemic symbols, he realized. The woman’s diminutive slender figure was enhanced by a hip-hugging green skirt that swirled around matching evergreen trousers. She had shoulder-length black hair sweeping around a narrow nose and thin lips. Large doe-like eyes seemed to burn with an inner torment. “Jamie?” he whispered.
“Rick?” Andrea’s voice came from over his shoulder. The freckled archeologist walked next to him, dusting dirt off of her rumpled red plaid shirt. “Um...Jamie’s back up at Kenner’s Basin and you’re staring at a wall.”
“I’m looking at a Me’Aukin woman in her late thirties.” Rick blinked his eyes, but the vision didn’t go away. His hallucination turned, paused, and looked over her shoulder at him.
“Meora Co’Oden,” she whispered. “Tanee, th’repes me’oke, du’tene Weth.” Turning, the image vanished into the wall.
“She just said that her name’s Meora from the Family Tanee of Clan Weth.” He looked at Andrea’s widening eyes. Rick gave an uncertain laugh. “I think I just saw a ghost.”
“I think you’re getting out of here,” Andrea replied with a stricken look.
Rick put a gentle, yet firm, hand on her arm. He felt far more fascinated than terrified. “It’s all right.”
“All right?” She pointed down the hall with her light. “You stand there like you’re in a trance, and tell me it’s all right that you just saw a ghost?”
“I don’t know what the hell I saw,” he replied, moving down the hall after the specter. “I do know that she was heading toward the dome room. It could be a hologram.”
“That I couldn’t see or hear?” Anguish pulled at Andrea’s lips as she stepped in front of Rick and turned to block him. “This place is dead, Rick! No activity... nothing!” Her voice softened. “You so badly want to find them, don’t you?”
He took a deep breath. Andrea stabbed to the heart of his desire with her usual accuracy. “Ok, maybe that’s more of what’s going on here.”
“You think?” Andrea snorted. “Your race slaughtered all the humans trying to share this world with them, then ran off leaving you and Jamie stuffed in a jar for a few centuries. That’s enough to make anyone want to see things.”
Rick gave the wall a skeptical look. “Just the same, I’ve hardly got a history of hallucinating.”
“No, but you do have a history of empathic, and possibly even telepathic episodes.”
“Only in those experiments with Jamie back at the Institute...which I’d like to forget, thank you.”
Andrea nodded slowly. “Well that, at least, makes some sense to me. Ghosts don’t. Jamie’s not another world away now. This could be some sort of subconscious communication between you two. Something new that’s manifested since you two parted ways.”
He gave a thin smile. “The only thing communicating between us is how much we can’t stand each other’s company.” Rick gestured down the hall. “Let’s just head down to the dome room. That’s where she seemed to be headed.”
There was also the unspoken third assumption – if New York’s publishers won’t take you, then you are not worthy.
What I didn’t know was the truth, although common sense about supply and demand ought to have kicked in. Most good writers don’t get in. Piers Anthony on his website puts the figure at one in one-hundred. Tom Doherty told me (met him at a local convention) a few years back that TOR was taking ZERO new authors that year and maybe one the next. When I had a chance encounter with him in Calgary last year at another convention, he simply said that things had only gotten worse in the industry.
The collapse of mid-lists is old news. A few imprints of the few actual publishers left in New York are not even taking on new talent this year. They are, however, reducing staff. Sure, there are authors I have met who still claim that it is easy to be published – but my own experience and the roar of so many other less fortunate authors tends to drown these voices out in my ear.
So where do these other authors go?
Enter the “Indies”. These are primarily the e-book/digital print folks. Unlike the large publishers, they are not hobbled by book returns and limited shelf space. This is a place where the editors still call the shots, not a marketing staff looking for the next Big Thing. Their industry is actually growing during a time where the major publishers are, as of this writing, losing market share and even collapsing. Or, to cut to the chase, this is a market that is still open to new writers and concepts. You rarely need agents. Response times to queries are often measured in weeks instead of months – or years. They also do not ask for printed manuscripts. Email – what a concept. There is no limit to shelf space, as your work will be presented through online bookstores.
Still, we are not talking the Promised Land here. One of the problems with these small presses is that they take very little overhead to get started. This can lead to scammers, publishers without a clue or business plan, and books on the market that show evidence of little or no actual editing. It is up to you to carefully select a publisher that is both financially sound and putting out good quality books. Hit their sites. Look for authors who have garnered awards – such as the EPPIE. Sterling reviews help as well. In other words, do your research. The Preditors & Editors website can help you sort the good from the bad, as can heading out to the Fictionwise Publisher List They only list proven publishers. Finally, check out their site for evidence that they carry a staff of editors and graphics artists. A small press should be organized the same as a large one – albeit on a smaller scale.
Once you have selected a publisher to submit to, make certain that you follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Assuming, of course, they are taking submissions. Smaller outfits can only deal with so many requests, and often close their doors periodically. You can expect to face a 92% or more rejection rate. This is not the publisher turning away good writers – this is the publisher turning away writers who are not ready yet, but were attracted by what they wrongly assume is an “easy” market. If the publisher is any good, trust me, they won’t be easy.
A word about prestige. You can often get on convention panels as a guest writer. Do book signings, and have folks gush over your work. You will also run into a lot of snobbery from the New York industry. Those folks are hell-bent to remain exclusively New York. From the editors, agents, trade magazines, and even unfortunately to the associated writing guilds, this industry surrounds itself with a moat of hogwash designed to defend their turf against the barbarian hordes. So, don’t set your expectations too high with this crowd. Sharpen your axe, and gaze patiently toward Rome.
A word about money. Don’t quit your day job after landing a contract with an Indie. With folks like Amazon and Fictionwise taking their cut, you won’t be getting bushels of money. Considering that few authors with traditional houses can live on their incomes, you are not in that bad a situation. At least you will get royalties, and some recognition. Just remember one thing. Money always flows TO you. Period. No exceptions. None. A publisher asks you for even one red cent then you need to run away from them. There is a wolf’s tail wagging beneath all that wool.
A word about promotion. You won’t be in the bookstores unless your publisher has made arrangements to list themselves or/and you can sweet talk a manager into some shelf space. Your world starts and ends with .com for the most part. You will have to promote your fool head off just the same. Author’s website. Reviews when you can land them. Forums. Conventions (great place to sell your trade paperbacks). If you don’t promote, they don’t buy. It is as simple as that.
Welcome to the Indies.
Here's a few things I would never do:
1. Drop into a forum group where I have had absolutely no input, or damn little input, and drop an advert. Groups around here tend to be like families. Few folks like strangers who just walk in, hawk their goods, and then leave without even bothering to check up on their post. Oh, you might get away with this in a few groups, but you run the risk of wearing out your welcome. Fast.
2 Spam. This is someone taking option #1 across multiple groups. Especially when the group is not aimed at readers.
3. Get on my knees and plead "Oh please pity me and read my book". Quite a few variations on this theme, but generally it is the author asking someone to read their book for a reason other than the book itself. Lots of confidence in their writing, eh?
4. Get on a mountain and proclaim that "I have the best book ever!" But wait - follow this up with the most annoying Flash adds, music, and God-knows-what. This is the positive variation of #3 and, for me, has the same results. Bye-bye.
5. Here's my all-time fave. Trick them! Yes, come in either as someone else gushing about their book, or otherwise lead in like you're really not selling your book. There is only one reason for any author to do this. A "trick" is meant to give someone other than the result they were expecting. Since, in this case, a reader is expecting a good read...
A promotional advert is very much like a query letter - except you are trying to draw in a reader instead of an agent. Most of the same rules apply, however. You have to bring your best to the table, and you have to engage your audience.
So, how do I do it? Here's how:
1. I advert only in groups that are already familiar with me through participation.
2. I only select reading groups. Writers groups are the other end of the spectrum. While I certainly hope they read my books too, I don't directly solicit them. Indirectly, yes, through offering what I help is constructive additions to the group forums. Sure, I will howl about new releases and such, but not in the same context as an advert.
3. I only advert in the Bulletins. Why? Because I don't want to knock anyone out of the top displayed messages. Because I am putting out an advert that does not require feedback.
4. My advert will contain a picture of the book, as well as its back cover blurb. More importantly (and I cannot stress this more) I include an excerpt. In an age where anyone with money and no talent can throw cash at a vanity press and become a "published author", the reader needs to see that you are the real deal. Not some wannabe who has trouble putting two words together without making three grammatical mistakes. Finally, I put up my author's website where they can read the entire first chapter free and buy the book too.
So there you are - my idea of what makes for a good advertisement.