02 March 2015

So He's a Vampire, So What?

A while ago I volunteered to judge for a writing contest. The first 500 words of a novel, to be precise. Most had fantastic ideas, most had decent hooks, some had good conflicts, a couple had great voices and most were clean as far as grammar and spelling go. However, I can say that every single one of them were lacking in (or completely lacked) one, very important thing.

The author hadn't given me a reason to invest my time or emotions into the characters.

Just how important is this?

Well, let's go back through my blog/ranting. What doesn't (usually) make a good beginning?

Starting in the middle of action.
Not letting the reader settle into the story.
Pacing that gives the reader whiplash.
A weak voice.

Now most of these can be salvaged, if the author gives the reader characters to care about.

The guy in a fight to the death can be interesting if we find out right up front that he is fighting to keep his daughter from being sold as a sex slave.

The cabin boy on the boat in the middle of a storm can't get swept overboard because he knows the secret of how to stop his now insane captain from raising a sea monster that will destroy the kingdom. Oh, and the captain is his father.

A vampire attacks a little girl, but one suck of blood and he realizes that she's poisoned him and now he's her slave. Just who is the bad guy here?



Stories are about change. And the most important arc of a story—as I've just recently been reminded of—is how the main character changes. They start out with a weakness that the reader picks up on near the beginning. The author takes the character through their own personal hell—sometimes kicking and screaming—until they realize that they need to change. They must change or they can't save the girl, save the world or even save themselves.

The best way to show a change is to show what things are like before anything new happens. This is another point where the stories I judges lacked. Not one of them took the time to show what a normal day looked like to the main character. It can take a few sentences to a few chapters, depending on your story, but this must be a part of the beginning of the book.

Vincent was your everyday, normal vampire—sucking blood, harassing the weak humans and partying with his rich buddies –until he makes the mistake of attacking that little girl who poisoned him. He had a feeling he shouldn't have done it, but she smelled soooo good. Now he has to decide if staying alive is important enough to bring down his own people, or if he will sacrifice his immortality to keep the vampire race from being wiped out.

If Vincent cares about the world around him before this, then the sacrifices he has to make won't be big enough to write a whole story about. If he doesn't care about his own skin then it doesn't matter when his new master sends him to kill the vampire leaders. Oh, and one of the leaders should be a relative he doesn't. That always makes things interesting.

Last year I went to a Comic Con panel titled “Why we love Joss Whedon.” The overwhelming response was that he creates awesome characters. Characters are why most readers keep reading. Give the reader enough about the characters to make them care. That is all.

What are some of your favorite characters and why?



23 February 2015

The Voice-No, Not the Show

The voice of a story or a character is better experienced than explained. So I picked a few from the seven books I pulled off the shelf.

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy
Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone—not least himself. One moment he was in his study, seven words into the twenty-fifth sentence of the final chapter of his new book And the Darkness Rained upon Them, and the next he was dead. A tragic loss, his mind echoed numbly as he slipped away.

Already I know that this is going to be a fun romp. This is not the main character, so we don't have a character voice, but the voice of the story. If I don't chuckle at least once per chapter in this book I will be very disappointed. If I want humor, fun and adventure, I'm in the right place.

Mistborn, by Bradon Sanderson
Ash fell from the sky.
Vin watched the downy flakes drift through the air. Leisurely. Careless. Free. The puffs of soot fell like black snowflakes, descending upon the dark city of Luthadel. They drifted in corners, blowing in the breeze and curling in tiny whirlwinds over the cobblestones. They seemed so uncaring. What would that be like?

I've got five words for this one: Dark, dreary, deep, precipice and beautiful.
The tone is dark, the world dreary, as is the character's tone. Both the writing and the point of view that the character is looking out from is deep, thoughtful and bleak. Still, I already feel like Vin, whomever she is, is about to be thrust onto a precipice of her life, one that will change her. The writing is also beautiful, which means I'm in for a real treat as a reader.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
I always get the shakes before a drop. I've had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can't really be afraid. The ship's psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn't fear, it isn't anything important—it's just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.
I couldn't say about that; I've never been a race horse. But the fact is: I'm scared silly, every time.

Here we have the brutal honestly of a first person point of view. This one dives straight to the heart of every reader on the planet, because who hasn't been scared even after someone else has told them there's nothing to worry about? Dad says there aren't monsters under the bed, but that doesn't stop my pounding heart each night as I try to go to sleep and hear the creaking of the floorboards. Just these first few lines let me know that whatever this book is about, I'm going to understand it intimately, because the character has already established that he might be afraid of the drop, but he's not afraid to be honest with himself.

With each of these examples, I already know how I will feel when I'm reading these stories. Readers are often looking for a specific emotional experience as they read, and the beginning of your story should give them a taste for what is coming.

This is one of the biggest factors in selling a story, it is also the mark of an author that has put in a great deal of effort toward their craft.

What novel have you read that has a voice that drew you in right away?


Next time: So He's a Vampire, so What?

16 February 2015

Pacing-Easy Tiger

Last time I typed about starting a novel in the middle of an action scene. Not the best idea. It can work—all rules can be twisted or ignored if you're good—but there are more intriguing and solid ways to being a story.

Years ago I was at a writing conference, and I signed up for a review of the first five pages of my manuscript by two almost professional authors and a small group of my peers. I was terrified, but I did it anyway.

My entry started out with my cast of swaggering, bad a** characters infiltrating the temple of the snake god, in the middle of the jungle. There was action, there was humor, there was a guy in cursed, pastel, chaos warrior armor with an ax named Daisy. It was awesome. It really was.

But it wasn't a good start. I learned most of what I typed about last time from this little group. Even so, I'm still tempted to launch into a story just like I do toward just-out-of-the-oven brownies.

Out of the way, awesomeness coming through!

For a long time, I still wanted serious action at the beginning of my stories. But I knew better, so I would toss in a little about what was going on—just enough not to totally confuse the reader—and then I would go to action. Because that's where the awesome lies.

Again, there are better ways.

The pacing of a story is very important, and the pacing of each scene is even more so. Especially the beginning.

The goal, as I mentioned last post, is to keep the reader reading. Simple, right? So things need to move fast so the reader doesn't get bored. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

One of the books I pulled out to read the first 500 words was I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells.

The main character of this book believes he exhibits all of the attributes of a serial killer, and he does. You might think it would start out with him thinking dark thought and drawing us in with the horror element of the story. Instead, it starts out in a mortuary, where the main character pseudo works. The scene is slow, but as a reader I get pulled in and immersed before I even realize that ten pages has passed.

Why, you ask? Because Mr. Wells sets the tone and the mood for most of the book with this opening scene. The main character is disturbed, but he does his best to keep himself on a normal track. He is obsessed with death—he practically worships it—and this opening scene shows the reader what the main problem of the character arc is going to be. I don't care that the scene is him and his aunt washing the body of a dead woman from the small town they live in. Not very action packed, but more, and better, is that I now care about the character and his problem. And the author allowed me, the reader, the opportunity to settle into the scene, the character and the beginning of the story.

Most of the other beginnings I read exhibited a similar feel. Slow and quiet, but intriguing. And then the author will twist something that makes me go, “Wait, what?”

And then I keep reading. Because I don't want to stop.

Objective obtained.

What are your favorite beginnings?



Next time: The Voice (No, Not the Show)

11 February 2015

Defiance

Hello all. Today we have the lovely and talented (and all around awesome) Adrienne Monson visiting. The second book in her vampire trilogy, Defiance, is almost here!

Be nice to her. Because I said so.



What did you have for breakfast this morning. What do you wish you would have had?
Raw almonds. Wish I could have had a Bavarian cream doughnut! Alas, I’m not young anymore… but I have a vivid imagination. So, it’s almost like I had one anyway.

What is your favorite accessory? How many do you own? What are you eying next?
Earrings! No idea how many pairs I own. I’d love to get a pair of Game of Throne dragon ones!

Toothpaste: gel or paste? Discuss.
Did you know you can make your own toothpaste with baking soda? You can also whiten your teeth with hydrogen peroxide! I don’t do any of these thing – effort factor, ya know? But to answer your question, don’t care!

Did you dream about vampires last night? If not, why not?
Lol. No. Guess I’ve already had my feel of vampire dreams. Now is time to move onto to other things… like hybrids or something. ;)

What has been the most challenging part of writing book 2? Or did it just magically appear on your computer one day?
Actually writing it was the challenge! I knew book one and three, but wasn’t sure how I’d bridge them with book two. However, now that I’ve written the whole trilogy, I think book two is my favorite!

What is your favorite aspect of the world you've created for this series?
I can only pick one? Hmm… I guess  enjoy putting a new spin on vampires. They’re still somewhat traditional, but I love making them unique to my imagination.

Of all the scenes you've written for this book, which are you the most proud of?
It’s always the dark scenes I like to write. In this case, the one towards the end with Samantha and Nik. I’d love to say more, but can’t without major spoilers.

Why vampires? Why not unicorns or werewolves or aliens? Tell us why you love them the most. So we can judge you.
What can I say? I was obsessed with them since I was eleven. I had to finally get them out of my system! At least, I had to start with them. There will be plenty of other obsessions I’ll get around to writing as well. J

In 250 words or less, tell us about your story like it is one of your children. Favorite story about it, best picture you have of it, the time you didn't kill it. That sort of thing.
It’s impossible to accomplish all that in under 250 words! But I can tell you, it IS like having a kid. You’re so excited about its conception, and it takes so much work to bring it into the world. But then, it goes in a different direction than you’d planned and you have to move with it. You have to work with it and take a lot of time and patience to rewrite and revise and make it perfect, and sometimes it won’t listen to you. But it’s even better than you planned!
My favorite story about it involves more spoilers, so I’m just going to say that Samantha surprised me as I wrote her character. I had everyone else pegged pretty well, but Samantha decided she wanted to be different than I’d originally intended. And I was so happy to have more of Rinwa in this book. She makes me smile!

Describe the feeling you get when you hold your book in your hands. Make us all jealous!

It’s the best! You think you’re happy when you finally finish the manuscript. Then, you’re ecstatic when you land a publishing contract. But seriously, holding the physical book in your hands and putting it on your bookshelf is total nirvana.  

So there you go!



You can stalk Adrienne here:



09 February 2015

Feet First-Dive Right in There

Action scenes, most often, do not make the best start to a book.

There, I said it.

Remember those seven books I pulled off of my shelf and read the first 500 words of? Not one of them started in the middle of a bar fight or an infiltration gone awry or a battle.

One of the books I pulled is Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International. I also peeked into Monster Hunter Alpha. If you've ever read Mr. Correia's novels, then you know they're packed with quirky humor, gratuitous violence and just enough plot to make things very, very interesting. The end of Alpha gave a few of my friends action fatigue—you know, like the Transformers movies, where you just wanted them to stop knocking down buildings and get back to why you should care.

Not even the Monster books started with action. And if any of them should have, it would be them.

This approach works great for a movie. The director doesn't have to slow down to let the character have inner dialogue or to describe the setting. A camera pans through the jungle, settling on a single woman (blonde, beautiful and armed to the teeth) crouched down behind a gigantic tree. Her eyes are riveted on a spot we can't see, so the camera turns and follows her gaze. An ancient temple is barely visible through the pouring rain, but we can clearly see the army uniforms. The woman's eyes then swivel to her right, where we see members of her faithful team—bright eyed and ready to go—waiting for her orders. She jerks her head. The tall guy raises his eyebrows and says through the radio, “You know we're not all walking away from this.”. She gives him a flat stare, to which he shrugs his shoulders and waves his hand for everyone to go forward.

A film has the distinct advantage of being able to set up a mood, a setting and characters through what we see and hear. No one has to describe the oppressive heat or how the pouring rain is going to hamper the upcoming fight, because we can see it. Ten seconds of panning replaces a paragraph or two of description. Then one line of dialogue as well as the character's outer reactions set the stage for the stakes. We're going in no matter what. The character is determined, her followers are loyal. That tells us loads.

But what about the same scene described in a book? I've read a few beginnings that are barely more descriptive than what I wrote above. An outline of what is happening rather than a scene being unfolded to a reader piece by piece.

Don't get me wrong, readers will fill in blanks, there is no need to put the type of trees or the exact brand of jacket someone is wearing (unless it's important) but after too much ambiguity they'll get lost and stop reading. We've all got other things to kill our time and emotional energy on.

As an author it's tempting to pull the reader in with action. Resist. In a novel, action is no replacement for getting the reader invested into the characters or the idea of the story. We write novels, readers read novels, no one watches them until they're made into movies.

And 99% of the time, the book is better than the movie.

Pull a book or two off the shelf (or fire up your Kindle) and read the first two pages. How does it start? Why did you keep reading? I'm betting that very few will start in the middle of danger or action. The story might go there in a few pages, but first an author must hook the reader into caring enough to read on.

What do you think? Action or not?


Next time: Pacing-Easy Tiger

02 February 2015

In the Beginning

A few months ago I volunteered to help judge a writing contest. The contestants were to send in the first 500 words of their novel and I, as a judge, was to grade them in a handful of categories. The categories were pretty standard for a writing contest. Here are a few:

Hooks
Conflicts
Characters
Voice
Pacing
Overall Impressions


First off, any author is sorely tempted (which is why we have editors and beta readers) to give the reader enough hooks and interesting tidbits about the story in the first 500 words that the reader will physically be unable to put the book down. Why did Frank just kill Judy, how on earth did they get into a volcano, he kissed her body as it sunk into the lava and then he just walks away? What's going on here?

I'm here to tell you that it doesn't work.

Believe me, I've tried.

The entries I read all had several things in common—both pros and cons. In an exercise for myself, I am going to spend the next few blog posts looking at beginnings.

I just pulled seven random books off of the bookshelves here in my office, and I read the first page and a half of each one—approximately 500 words. I haven't read any of these particular books in quite a while. I remembered what they were about, but not the specifics on the very beginning. Most of them drew this reaction out of me.

Oh yeah, that's how this whole mess starts.

Which leads me to my first observation about beginnings.

While it is important for the beginning of the book to draw the reader in, it does not need to be the most memorable scene of the story.

The reader doesn't know anything about the character or the world. How can the first 500 words be the most memorable? And if they are, the story has serious problems.

Stories are supposed to take people on an emotional journey. If the journey begins with the car blowing up, then there is no journey, just a bunch of police reports and funerals. And if we didn't know the people in the car, then who cares? There are no emotions attached, which means the reader didn't go anywhere.

The point of each page of a novel is to keep the reader reading. Not every conflict has to be life-threatening, and not every hook needs to be the end of the world. The reader needs enough of interest in the first 500 words to compel them to read on. The next 500 words should do the same.

Like I said, for my own edification, I'm going to delve into this for a while. Because while the first of your story doesn't need to be the most memorable scene, it is among the most important, because if it doesn't grab the reader's eyeballs and force them to keep going back and forth, then the rest of your awesome story wont' ever get read.

Next Time: Feet First (Dive Right in There)


19 January 2015

Cause and Effect

The other day I was making fruit smoothies. Orange Julius style for those who are interested. It was for a church thing, so a couple of us were in the kitchen at the church building, blending away.

Perhaps I should have prefaces with the fact that this was on a Saturday morning. Apparently the only productive and safe place for me to be on a Saturday morning is in bed.



Allow me to explain.

I'm a clean person. I hate putting a dirty spoon on the clean counter for two reasons, 1) it gets who knows what on the spoon (because let's be realistic, actually how clean are the counters in our houses?) and 2) it gets whatever is on the spoon on the counter.

In an attempt to keep any of these things from happening, I will often use a lid or a box to set my spoon on. Especially if our handy-dandy spoon holder thingie is dirty. Still. Again. Whatever.

As I was dumping ingredients into the blender, I put the end of the spatula on the back side of the foil, yogurt lid. Good idea, right? It fit just perfectly.

Well, after I got everything into the blender, it wouldn't turn on. I won't go into the almost bad words that were uttered in the church (because I did NOT want to clean out the blender we had used to make the peanut butter banana smoothies in) or the very technical checklist I went through to get the dang thing working. At one point I even poured all of the smoothie stuff out into a picture so I could get to the bottom of the blender. Nothing wrong. It worked fine. So I poured it all back in and ta-da, Orange Julius. Yum.

But where had the top of my yogurt gone? I had to use the juice can for my spatula. Probably on the floor, where I would be sure to step on it later.

Our activity didn't start for about 30 minutes, so I poured the smoothie back into the pitcher and put it in the freezer. Right before we started, one of the girls poured the smoothie out into cups. After she had poured at least ten, she said, “Uh, what's that?”

I said, “What's what?”

“That?”

I blinked. I'm sure I made a face. I grabbed a set of measuring spoons and pulled it out chop-stick style.

Stupid yogurt lid. How had it gotten into the smoothie!?!?

And now it was in pieces.

The disclaimer I gave the audience was funny, and quite awesome. I feel like having something go wrong at the very beginning allowed everything else to run smoothly. You're welcome, everyone.


And only two of the girls found bits of foil. I told them they were strong to have survived my assassination attempts.

As we were cleaning up, and still laughing about the whole thing, I got to thinking about how characters in stories need to have these little quirks. The need to keep the counter clean (which did work, by the way) resulted in foil in smoothies. One little thing. Who knows what can happen?