Tag Archives: creative writing

How to write a good book – It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

As a writer I feel my wife, critique partners and beta stormreaders are the life’s blood for my manuscripts.  I’ve never been strong in spelling and grammar, so developing a passion for writing may have been a very cruel joke on me.  I rely heavily on them, more than one should, to catch my many typos, misplaced commas, tense switches, and many other issues that plague my writings.  In this manner I realize how lucky I am to have married a teacher who has a reading endorsement.  But as much as I lean on all of them to make sure my ideas are communicated properly within the guidelines of the English language, there is so much more that a writer needs to be aware of beside worrying about the difference between affect and effect, and the three different meanings of to, too, and two.

I recently decided to try out for another contest.  In it participants must supply their query letter as well as the first two-hundred fifty words.  This seems to be coming more common in writing contests – including the first two-hundred fifty words.

It comes out to about three quarters of a standard page in an 11 or 12 point standard font, double spaced.  When I decided to enter I knew I needed to revise it if I were to stand any chance.  Why?  Well, because within these two-hundred fifty words the writer needs to communicate several things to the reader.

As any writer knows, the first line of the story is also known as a ‘hook’.  The attention grabber that will make the reader want to continue.   It makes sense, you want to make sure the readers are interested right from the start, right?

The following words need to do much more.  They need to be interesting as well, of course.  And if you were to ask other people what the first page of a book should do you’ll get a list as long as the number of people asked.  It should set the scene, set the mood, demonstrate your writing style, create a visual of the main character, endear the character to the reader, establish the personality of the character, determine the motivation of the main character, and you get the idea.

None of the above is unreasonable.  It would make sense for the first few opening paragraphs to do any one.  In fact, you can do any number of those suggestions in that list.  You can set the mood, introduce the main character and demonstrate your style.  But many also warn that you should not have any exposition.  The action should start right out of the gate.  Make sure the reader knows they are in for a ride.

While this is great advice I can’t help but wonder if readers are really that demanding.  Would a reader really toss a book away if they didn’t find out the main character’s eye color within the first page?  Is it a deal-breaker if we don’t fall in love with the character in the first four paragraphs?  Is all hope lost for the book if we don’t know by the middle of the second page that the boss is filing for divorce and the administrative assistance has been harboring a crush for her?

Can’t setting the scene take a few pages?  Can’t showing a character living a fairly normal life before all Hell breaks loose be acceptable, even if the disaster doesn’t happen until the fourth chapter?

Some of the books I read years (decades) ago didn’t start off at warp speed (and I’ve read sci-fi, so it literally could have).  But I didn’t toss it in the garbage.  Have the attention spans of readers nowadays degrade so much that if everything is not available to them right at the start they lose interest?

Has the influence of living in an age of email, drone delivery, ATMs, and immediate gratification spoiled the readers and denied authors the chance to slowly building up tension, plot, and character creation?

In Moby Dick the whale doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way through the book.  Gone With The Wind starts off with an exposition about her Scarlett’s physical features and family lineage.  Many of the classics and famous stories of even the mid 1900’s would probably never find representation by a modern agent, let alone a publisher.  Not because the author was a bad wordsmith, but because they don’t cater to the interests of the modern agent or publisher.

As writers, if we want our stories to be read we must capture the reader’s attention before they lose interest, whether that’s in one sentence or a generous full chapter.  Perhaps such high expectations force current writers to dig deeper into themselves in an attempt to bring out the most in their writing.  Even if the level of expectation may be unreasonable, it still may impel our creativity to flourish.

This may truly be the best of time and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and foolishness…

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The Non-Science of Popularity

Roulette_wheelWhat if Star Wars never made it big? Is there a universe where Fifty Shades of Grey is just sitting on the Romance/Erotica shelves of bookstores collecting dust?   Can you picture a world where talking about a boy named Harry Potter is received with blank stares and requests for clarification about who he is?  What determines success and failure?

Marketing is a big, but not the only influence.   For example, I’m a big fan of Michael J. Fox.  I think he is an incredible actor and based on what the media reports is a great person (I never met him personally).  His most recent sitcom, The Michael J Fox Show (2013-2014), was plugged for months in advance with tons of fanfare.  By the time the first show aired many followers of the 80’s actor were excited to herald in his return.  Yet, it only lasted four months before NBC pulled it due to low ratings.

The (now) highly publicized book, Fifty Shades of Grey, is an uncontroversial best-seller both in print and film.  Yet, many people have criticized James’ writing, even her fans.  The marketing for the book when it first came out wasn’t nearly as prominent as Fox’s television series.

So why is one continuing to generate millions of followers and dollars while the other one never even got to finish airing all twenty-two completed episodes?  There’s more to popularity than marketing.

Perhaps luck isn’t the accurate term, but there is a component of randomness.  Perhaps the Chaos Theory as explained by mathematician, Ian Malcolm, from Jurassic Park, can be used to explain the behavior of the publishing industry.  The industry is made up of people, and they are, by nature unpredictable.   A query sent to an agent on Tuesday may be rejected, but if it was sent on Thursday instead, the agent may have accepted it just based on the kind of day they were having, or maybe earlier that day they had a conversation that helped them relate to the query.  Timing is as important to getting representation as location is to the real estate industry.  But even getting published doesn’t mean success.  Success, if you determine it by sales and popularity is a numbers game.

Fox’s show didn’t spark interest, despite fans wanting it to.  But E.L. James’ no holds barred…uh, you know what I mean…yet grammatically questionable, erotic story was a guilty pleasure that came out at the right time.  Despite the romance and erotica sections on Amazon and in bookstores being full, she struck a chord with readers who were willing to look past whatever mistakes may have been made in her writing.

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book outside of one single line – which was for a challenge made by someone who did read it and wanted to see if I can randomly open the book to a page that did NOT contain any sexual references…I was unsuccessful.  I am only relating reviews I have read or heard, I did not read enough to evaluate Ms. James’ abilities.)

Regardless of quality, content seems to trump all.  If the people want it, someone will provide.  If people don’t want it, it will disappear.  It’s a classic Supply and Demand concept.

There’s a reason why after Twilight came out the YA section in every bookstore became flooded with vampire books.  This was quickly followed by movies, tv series, ‘Team Edward’ vs ‘Team Jacob’ wristbands, spin-offs, spoofs and fan-fiction.  Almost overnight the world embraced vampires and werewolves.  Everything was into bloody fangs and fur.

Shortly after our love affair for the handsome undead and lycanthropes, the world moved on to the ugly undead.   Zombie hordes took over the theaters everywhere, it really did seem like a zombie apocalypse hit Hollywood.

So what have we learned?  If you can predict what people will fall for twelve months from now, you can make it big in the publishing world.  That really seems to be the main factor.  It’s not luck, but it is about capturing the interests of the masses, and that’s far from an exact science.

Is it too late to write about a young attractive vampire who falls for a zombie with an S&M fetish?

Speculative Fiction – Shaken, and stirred.

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I started writing my most current manuscript, Daughter of Lilith, as another fantasy novel.  However, since the main character of the story is part demon, and there’s a love interest I soon found myself writing a paranormal romance.  Gotta admit, it shocked me when my beta readers came back saying this isn’t fantasy.  I wanted to fight it, not that I have anything against paranormal romance, or any other genre.  Just never thought of myself as a romance writer of any sort.

While the romance sub-plot is important in advancing the story, it’s still a sub-plot.  I didn’t want to be a paranormal romance book like Twilight and the rest…

‘Wait,’ you say.  ‘Isn’t Twilight urban fantasy?’

The genre of speculative fiction is about as clean cut as insurance claim forms and the Federal budget.  What’s the difference between fantasy and paranormal? Can there be paranormal without romance?  If Bilbo Baggins moved out of the Shire and moved to Rivendell to chat it up with Elrond more often would such a story become urban fantasy since Rivendell is an urban setting?  Where are the lines drawn, and can it effect writers who are querying and labeling their works one way instead of an another?

Sadly, yes.  Some agents or publishers will see a genre and dismiss it.  Unfair?  For the writer, sure.  But in their defense, agents may receive hundreds of query requests a week, maybe even a day (honestly).  They need to have some filter in place, and if they select to filter by genre and are looking for urban fantasy and not paranormal romance, a query can be moved to the trash without a second or even a first look.

But many books and movies have more than one speculative fiction component.  I’ll take Star Wars again as an example.  You have space ships, lasers, and alien races.  Clearly this is a science-fiction movie, right?  Well, you have sword fights.  Sure the blades are made of light, but there’s no denying the techniques and battles are grounded in fencing and swordplay, a Medieval component and main form of combat back then.  You also have The Force.  A power that allows seemingly ordinary people to manipulate the world around them without any scientific explanation.  That’s practically a dictionary definition of magic.  Of course this is before the introduction of the midi-chlorides (don’t get me started on that). But for those of us who have grown up with just the first three movies…or rather the fourth through sixth movies, the Force had no explanation other than “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  On Earth this is known as duct tape.  So if it’s a field created by all living things, where do these midi-chlorides come in?  Okay, I’m going off on a tangent here, I know.

The point is many books, movies, and TV shows have both magical and sci-fi elements.  If a mage uses a laser gun, or an astronaut lands on an alien planet where shaman can make it rain by casting a spell, how do we categorize these works?

There’s usually a clear line drawn between what is considered science fiction and what’s fantasy.  It’s only worse between similar genres such as fantasy, high fantasy, magical realism, paranormal romance, mythic fiction, urban fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy…you get the idea.

The truth is most of these sub-genres overlap, and personally, I believe nit picking over what label to attach to one’s work should not be a prime concern for the writer, agent, publisher or reader.

If you want to say the story is paranormal because the main character is a ghost, fine.  If that ghost is also a wizard, call it fantasy, who cares?  And if that wizard created a time machine using midi-chlorides, make it sci-fi, no problem.  But if the inventor is Merlin, I guess we’re looking at Mythic Fantasy, right?  And if that time machine needs to be delivered to Arthur before Morgana unleashes a horrible spell that will destroy the entire planet, throwing it into eternal chaos for one thousand years, and Merlin must trek four hundred miles and battle her forces to get to Arthur we have ourselves a good old fashion Epic Fantasy tale…unless it takes place in modern times and Merlin fails, in which case it would be dystopian.

The aspirin’s on the bottom shelf, I’ll get you some water.