Ask the Authors (Round 2)
The world your story is is set in controls the possibilities for the characters and events in your story. This is more obvious in science fiction or fantasy perhaps, where magic or advanced technologies are the norm and are to be expected, but there is world building involved in others genres as well. every story has rules which may limit what can and can’t happen. And in every story, it is the author who creates the world and determines the rules, and it is the author’s job to clue readers in to what that world is like and what those rules are.
This may be easier with stories set in a reality that reflects the world we live in and are familiar with, because then readers may know most of the world, but it is still the author’s job to paint a picture with his or her words in order to allow reader’s a clear vision of their world. You would think in nonfiction this world we are familiar with, but it may be a setting we haven’t been to, or it might be from past times which are unfamiliar, so nonfiction authors must find ways to convey their story world clearly, too.
How exactly we, as authors, go about that may vary, but it is a task we are all faced with. Readers are allowed a glimpse into the story world through the details provided, including sensory details that make an unfamiliar world seem more real and help familiar worlds to ring more true. Dialog between characters is another tool that helps readers to buy in to the story and emerse themselves in the story world, but it’s one that may be difficult to get right.
Today, our Ask the Authors panel members will be discussing how they build and portray their story worlds, real or imagined. Our panel members this week include DeAnna Knippling, Lilly Rayman, Mark Shaw, Ashley Fontainne, RA Winter, Jordan Elizabeth, Tom Johnson, Cynthia Vespia and Amy Cecil. Let’s find out what works for them and what doesn’t.
Do you prefer to set your stories in the real world or one which you’ve created?
My main series – The Unexpected Trilogy is set in the real world, yet with paranormal characters. Yet I have a work in progress that is set in a world that I have created.
Real world. Sometimes that requires an extensive amount of research yet using realistic settings gives the story a relatable connection to the readers.
I love to write magical realism. Taking the real world and bringing in those little details that take your breath away just gives me the chills as I write. In my older series, I brought in a realm we can’t see or touch but know are there. The spirits who surround my MC’s with love or nefarious tendencies were fun to write. In my new series, I take the reader to the underworld and Olympus to meet the Greek gods. I’ve read Dante’s Inferno, the Illiad, the Odyssey and I’ve read some Plato. They don’t all agree on the details so I rework characters for my own purpose. You just have to stay consistent with your details.
I prefer worlds I’ve created. There is more freedom to allow the story to take you where it will.
One that I have created, but I want my world based on reality to some degree. Okay, SF really has no holds barred when we use telepathy, teleportation, time travel, and FTL because those have not been accomplished yet, and probably never will. But if I set my story in the 25th century I’m not going to have cell phones and iPads, either. Our technology will be far past those devices by then, and I get riled when I read a futuristic novel set a million years in the future and the main character pulls out a cell phone or iPad! Please, try to come up with something fresh.
The real world is easier to write about, especially if I’ve actually been to the location. But creating worlds is half the fun. So I like to do both. Real world with fictional locations. For instance, in my novel Lucky Sevens it takes place in Las Vegas where I really grew up but the majority of the story is set within the fictional hotel/casino Saints & Sinners which I created specifically for the book.
I use a little of both. I take real places, real locations and set my story there, adding to them to fit into the story.
I drop small elements of the physical backdrop into the prose of my story, it’s another element of avoiding information overload or boring word filling. When the backdrop becomes a part of the story in a descriptive sense, it helps you avoid boring the reader, allowing them to paint the picture in their mind’s eye as to the backdrop. Here’s an example from one of my current works in progress – this is the opening sentences of the story “Miracle In The Dust” and Australian setting:
The track stretched out before them, disappearing into the horizon like a red thread cutting through the scrub that undulated either side of the dirt road. Travis sighed at the bull-dust cloud that bloomed behind their horse truck in the side-mirror. It had been a dry winter, and it was shaping up to be a long hot dry summer.
Hopefully the reader can see what I can see, an arid landscape of red dust across the Australian outback with scrubby bushes that dot the rolling plains of a large stretch of land, and a bumpy dirt road.
One of my favorite techniques is to just close my eyes and let my imagination immerse me inside the story, taking in all the smells, sounds, visuals and emotional responses of the characters in a particular scene.
I like to drop in descriptions here and there. I try not to overwhelm the reader with thick paragraphs. I’ve found it flows more smoothly if I add tidbits as the story progresses
Hopefully, we will always have forests, oceans, and mountains. We can just give them different names and locations. The same for cities. Maybe moving sidewalks, dining tables in restaurants that float above the floor. Music that enchants instead of rocks. There is so much the author can do to build his world.
That’s part of being a good writer. Its your job to take the image you see in your mind and paint it on the page with your verbiage so that the reader sees the same picture. It’s like coloring a picture. I used to really like to do the central image in the coloring books when I was little and I often left the background unfinished. But when I took the time to color in the rest of the picture it made it pop so much better. It was alot more visual.
With using a real location to start with, I have real locations that I can work with to make my descriptions. For example, in one of my books, it’s set in a town in Pennsylvania called Edinboro. This town has a small resort community around a lake. The house are not relatively large, but my main character has a mansion on this lake. I found pictures on the internet of the house I was looking for and described the house from those pictures.
In my only experience of world building I actually have an overlapping of the real world with my new world, via magic allowing for the main character to hop through the realms. The information that a reader needs about what my world and how it operates is provided in conversation when the main character first learns about the extra realm, and then when she finds herself in the new realm and has a conversation with a resident of the new realm who explains in conversation about the realm. Of course, this dialogue is broken up with some action and movement between the characters so that it doesn’t become an overload of static dialogue.
Again, I add in little bits. The hardest thing can be keeping true to your rules and not bending them as the story continues. I keep a notebook next to me of rules and beliefs to make sure I stick to them throughout.
Usually this has something to do with the plot. A world of telepaths, and the necessary laws that might govern invading someone else’s mind. Or a world where one race has this ability and another doesn’t. This could cause conflicts between races.
I set those rules in my initial outline of the story and then I may or may not follow them depending on the direction the story is going in. I’m a big believer in breaking rules but not without a good reason.
I normally go with what’s acceptable in that time period. I write historical and contemporary, so I usually don’t veer away from the beliefs and preferences of that time.
Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable.
Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?
No, I haven’t had anyone complain about anything that has happened in any of my stories. So far, all my published stories are built in this world with the supernatural being an element of the story, but I always try not to get too crazy with what my characters can or cannot do, to provide that element of “this could really happen!”
It has happened once or twice. I’ve wanted to hug the reader. “Thank you for catching that! I’m going to make a note for the next release. Also – why aren’t you my critique partner?!”
In my novel, Three Go Back, the mode of transportation is teleportation machines. Fossil fuel vehicles have long been replaced by these machines, and there is no longer need for fossil fuel. However, one of my characters is an old man, a professor of astronomy, who maintains a small jet. I left myself open with this, but no one seemed to question it. If fossil fuels are no longer needed, how does the professor keep fuel for his jet? I would have questioned it in someone else’s novel (LOL).
No, I’m very good at keeping my characters in check. I’ve had readers point out some elements that didn’t fit in some of my earlier work. For instance, I wrote about stainless steel in a historical and they noted it would not have been invented yet in the time period I was writing about. We all make mistakes. I’ve read alot of very well known authors who don’t remain consistent to the story or their characters and it becomes a let down. I try my best not to do that because it can ruin the story.
I haven’t drawn any maps since I played at writing when I was 14 years old, and that was more for my own use to remember where my world was based. In my writing now, as a published author, I try to use descriptive prose to help the reader to visualise backdrop, whether it be here on earth or in a world of my own creation.
I’ve never drawn a map of my worlds, but they would have probably helped in many cases. Usually the setting is a jungle or desert, and the characters must avoid a volcano or keep from getting lost in a desert. But would a map really help. Perhaps they can merely guide themselves by reading the stars and travelling north or south, east or west. However, when authors include a map, I do refer to it when following the adventure.
I drew a map once for a fantasy I was working on but I never actually used it. I use description to set the table of the scene and trust that my readers can visualize it from the cues I am giving them.
My Australiana setting is based off personal experience. My husband and I have travelled through Outback Queensland, and I intimately know the smell of the dry earth, or the smell of burning sap of a Eucalyptus gum tree in the scorching temperatures of Australia. And there is nothing more beautiful than the smell of rain hitting the dirt after an extended long period of dry. Having that sensory understanding helps an author to provide a detailed description that can pull the reader into the story for themselves. For other stories where the setting isn’t a location I have experienced, I scroll through the internet, researching the flora and fauna, going through images to get an idea of where my story is set.
I’ve been all over the world so can usually describe the places I’ve been in good detail – at least during the period I was there. And I can tell when an author has never been where s/he is writing about. Encyclopedias and postcards give you the colorful aspects of a foreign locale, but if you don’t know the culture or customs you’ll get it all wrong. During the pulp era authors usually wrote about areas they had travelled – China, Japan, Europe, etc. But the men’s adventure writers of the 1970s and later seldom left their home town, and were writing about Africa, Turkey, and Cairo, as well as other foreign lands with no real knowledge of the places, and most of it was terrible. But publishers were publishing, and readers were eating it up. How many western writers have actually rode a horse? Or could saddle a horse if necessary? Writing about a location is the same thing, you need to know what you’re writing about. Someone once said that if you read about a mesa in Louis L’Amour’s novel, you can go there and find it.
I don’t have the liberty to go traveling about like some of the big name authors do. But if I could I would because it lends more realism to the story if you know the secrets of a place because you’ve actually been there, not just from reading about it or seeing pictures and video. For instance I remember every bit of trips to Hawaii and Italy so I may set some future novels in these locales.
Yes, absolutely. I would have to say that the majority of my books are set in locations that I have been to.
I generally find that my world builds for me as I write.
I build as I go
I write as I go. Particularly when I’m writing an adventure fantasy piece I just move the story along to where it needs to go and then clean it up later in editing. The only time I really kept track of locations in my world was writing the sequels to Demon Hunter titled Demon Huntress. Because I was revisiting this world I already created I wanted to have my characters revisit places that I had written about in great detail during the original trilogy. That meant going back in to my previous work and finding out all I needed to know about these places.
Build as I go, with the actual place as a start.
I read back through what I need to. I’m terrible at keeping notes, I lose anything I do make, so it’s easier to simply read back if I need to confirm a minor detail.
Notes are very important.
I don’t do anything special to keep track. If I need to know what I said about a place before I just go back into the novel and reread what I wrote already.
All those are kept in my story boards, where I outline the story by chapter. Locations are put in there so that everything stays consistent.
I just want to say before I start answering, that I found these sensory questions the hardest to answer. For me, this sort of detail comes instinctively to me, and to answer these questions I had to think very hard about what I actually do in my writing to provide the answers to these questions.
I always ask myself what the main aim of the story is. The whole feel I want from the story influences which sensory details that I would concentrate on. Referencing back to my Australiana story Miracle In The Dust, the weather in itself is a main driving force behind some of the story. The sensory details I concentrate on is not only the weather itself, but the effects of the weather on the landscape. There needs to be a sense of desperation to the beginning of the story that allows for the miracle that I have planned to shine through.
I think about somewhere I’ve been in real life that is similar. What did I smell? Could I taste the air? What did I feel?
Knowledge helps. Imaginations also helps. Knowing which way water flows from the Great Lakes if your story is set in that area. What is the best fish to eat in Canada. Hint, they don’t eat mud cat.
Again, anything that helps to emphasis the main goal of the story, details that help building the right tension or feeling that will only improve the story and help to immerse the reader into the story. Moving back to my earlier answer where I shared with you the opening lines of Miracle In The Dust, and I referenced the cloud of bull-dust that billowed behind the truck. It’s a visual element that anyone who lives in outback or regional Australia takes for granted as being an every day element of life, yet it’s an integral visual element that helps me create depth into my story.
Descriptive words. Adding the sound in as a tension builder or a climax to a scene, for example when there is a gun shot is it a short sharp crack in a bar, or a long drawn out echo across the land. Here is an example of how I used sound within my writing in An Unexpected Bonding:
Rance watched in disbelief as the young man turned and watched the approach of the wolf. He must be stunned to stand there as the wolf launched in the air.
He squeezed his finger.
The shot resounded across the land.
I try not to write out the sounds. That seems too much like a comic book to me. (I love comic books, by the way, but its not the feel I want for my novels.)
Let me show you instead: From Pangaea: Eden’s Planet:
The outer wave struck the giant ship with incredible force. Suddenly, they could see nothing but ebony blackness in the view screen, and then the ship began to shake and vibrate violently as waves of immense energy tossed the Galileo Two from side to side like a small boat in a hurricane. The controls fought them, and the machinery whined like a screaming Banshee on a dark, moonless night. Warning lights flickered, dimmed, went out, came back on with a flash, and then repeated the sequence like a floundering fish out of water.
Someone screamed, but it was impossible to tell whether it had been a man or a woman. The safety harnesses held everyone safely in their seats, but a few loose objects had been lying near some of the computers, and these went flying through the small cabin, colliding with seats, computer panels, and sometimes—an unprotected hand or head.
Lightning bolts of pure energy sparked and crisscrossed the tornado-like funnel in a spider-web of violent beauty, at the far end appeared to be a gaping monster’s mouth. But the plasma would not let them go, tossing them around like the prey of some monstrous space creature.
As a romance writer touch is such an important factor in creating a sensory moment for the readers to feel as if they are as intimately a part of the scene themselves.
Touch isn’t just about a intimate moment, but something as simple as providing more descriptive imagery for a wolf, such as when a character sinks their fingers into the soft thickness of the wolf’s neck.
I enjoy describing the ground or clothes. Usually I’m describing the ground because the character just fell! I tend to abuse my characters.
Where ever it has an impact on the depth of the story, such as during a meal, providing a description that is “mouth-watering” and makes the reader want to actually be eating that meal as well. Of course, taste and smell doesn’t have to be pleasant. If you think about a thriller or a murder mystery story, discovering a crime scene can be filled with smells that are so offensive they end up having a taste element as well.
I write about smell a lot, but taste not so much. I’m going to make a note here to work on that.
I love adding in scents. You don’t get a lot of that in stories. Even if the reader can’t actually smell it (because its a paper book or e-reader), they can remember what a flower smells like…or a field after a rain storm.
One reviewer mentioned no one from California would ever refer to the state as “Cali” as one of the characters in Blood Ties did, which I found humorous. I grew up in Orange County, as did my mother, and we still have relatives there who use the expression. Another reviewer gave low marks for Whispered Pain because the story takes place in Arkansas, in the winter, during a freak snow storm. The person actually wrote they “researched weather patterns” online and it “never snows in Arkansas” which still makes me laugh. I have lived in Arkansas for over thirty years and experienced many snow and ice storms. I am sure the folks working for insurance companies processing thousands upon thousands of storm damage claims would agree with me!
Yes! They usually do it nicely, but I have had some people rip me to shreds over the setting of COGLING. The setting is a fantasy kingdom. The main character is living in a dusty, dirty city, and she must travel through the woods into the swamp to save her brother. I’ve had people send me the rudest emails about how I missed the mark on describing London or England in general. Um, it isn’t London or England. I’m not sure why I get so much hate mail about that because I clearly state the names of the city and country in the text.
No, but I do it all the time, so get it right and you won’t hear from me.
If your characterization is good, you don’t need a lot of dialog tags. But when you have four or five people speaking, you’d best use tags.
That’s tricky. I hate alot of “he said” and “she said” type of stuff. Writing dialogue is one of my strongest attributes as a writer so I just let it flow naturally using tags if I find I need to.
I use too many dialog tags and have diligently working to replace them with an action.
I tried to avoid the basic he said / she said dialogue tags. I do like to use some sort of description to identify the speaker, even if it is as simple as an action that someone does as they speak. It makes for a scene that moves along without being static and identifies the speaker.
Action tags work well and serve a dual purpose of bringing the action closer to the reader. A write just has to be careful that the action tag dedicated to the person speaking.
I use some dialogue tags. I like to describe what’s going on instead. Its a great opportunity to add in a smell or texture, or something the speaker is seeing.
I’ve only known a few authors who are good with dialog. The rest of us struggle with it, and I don’t think tags that go beyond “said” and “asked” are all that distracting.
I do. That is why I try to avoid them.
I try to write dialogue as I would speak, and ensure that all speech is contracted, meaning people doing in real life don’t say “do not” they say “don’t”. I also try and write appropriate slang into my dialogue for the characters background.
As I mentioned before, when I am in full writing mode, I try to close my eyes and watch the story unfold as though viewing a movie. From there, I write what I see, which includes the dialog between the characters.
Cut anything that isn’t necessary, it slows down the reader. Don’t do the phone conversation of “Hello?” “Hi, is so-and-so there?” “Who’s calling please?” “Oh, it’s Mr. Jones.” Why? Don’t. It’s boring.
I repeat it out loud to myself. If it sounds good, I leave it.
Again, I’ve only known a few writers that could write good dialog, Warren Murphy and Dan Cushman. The rest o us struggle.
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.
We’ve reached the final segment of Ask the Authors, which will bring our series to a close. This has been a fun series and we’ve covered a lot in regards to writing. In this segment, our panel members will answer follow-up questions for each segment and wrap things up, so let’s get started. We’ll skip over the introductory segment, as there are really no follow-up questions as to the panel members identity, but if you missed that one, you really should pop in and check it out. Our panel had a great line up, with DeAnna Knippling, Chris Dibella, Carol Riggs, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Janet Garber, Art Rosch, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili and Jordan Elizabeth.
I want to thank each and every one of our panel members for their participation. This blog is a labor of love for me, which means I can’t pay for guest posts, etc… The time and energy each author took to respond to all of my, sometimes lengthy and open ended questions is greatly appreciated. When asked if they would be up for another round in the fall, many said yes, so it looks like we have another round of Ask the Authors still to look forward to.
Our first segment takes A Look at the Writing Process, where each of our panel members found different things most challenging, from sharing and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to self confidence, to marketing and finding readers, to the actual act of writing. The process is never the same for any two authors. Some prefer to write without distractions, while others like to write with music or other things going on in the background. Many authors like to write in public places, such as coffee shops, while others like Tim Baker find this too cliche or just need their privacy for writing, like Carol Riggs. We approach our writing in different ways, as well. While Janet Garber writes in vigenettes, Cynthia Vespia writes her first drafts by hand, and authors like DeAnna Knippling just let the characters go and see what happens, and most of our panel members are morning writers, like Chris Barili. Most of our panel members claim to lean toward character driven stories, but I’m with Cynthia Vespia in thinking that all stories must be a little of both. Most, like Art Rosch and Chris DiBella say the titles of their books just come to them, usually before actual writing begins, while the book is still in the design stage. Be sure to check it out and see what each of our panel members’ best pieces of advise for upcoming authors.
The follow up question for this segment is: What are your top five writing rules for success?
1. Write what you want, don’t follow the trends
2. Characterization is key
3. Have fun with world building
4. Think outside the box
5. And of course show don’t tell
1. Learn your craft. Whether through college studies, mentorship, reading a lot, whatever. Learn what makes good stories.
2. Learn the business of your craft. All the writing in the world does you no good if you don’t know how to get it sold.
3. Find your writing tribe. A support crew of fellow writers is crucial for keeping you going.
4. Submit. Everywhere. You don’t get published if you’re not submitting.
5. Get your ass in the seat and do the work. Don’t wait for the stupid inspiration fairy or muse to sit on your shoulder and whisper bullshit in your ears. Write. Then write some more.
1. Jot down phrases and ideas when inspiration hits no matter where you are.
2. Work on making the language sing.
3. Submit like crazy
4. Don’t take rejections personally. Just move on.
5. Don’t ever give up!
One, be yourself. Write to please yourself. There is no other way to achieve authenticity other than to make your writing a means of exploring yourself, your humanity and the nature of your life experience.
If you’re writing fiction you need a great villain. Nothing propels a story like a character that you hate, someone whom you want to see brought to justice. I pay special attention to writing my villains.
Write with feeling or your readers will not feel anything. Emotion is the fuel of story. Be a storyteller, engage readers with plots that invoke high stakes. The ultimate investment in a story can be the life or death of the characters, or the survival of a society, or the triumph of a civilization. All the elements of story break down into conflicts of virtue versus destruction. What makes a story interesting, however, is when it’s difficult to tell who is good and who is evil. Things aren’t always simple.
A good book has three attributes. It should be entertaining, informative and inspiring. I can loosely define inspiration as the evocation of insight. Insight feels good and you know when a writer provokes an understanding of the human condition.
That’s not exactly five rules, but it’s an overview of things I put in my writing.
Tim Baker: I really only have one rule…keep writing. If you want to be succesful as a writer you have to keep writing. Not only is it the best way to hone your skills, but the more you write, the more chance you have of being succesful.
Chris DiBella: I don’t have any rules for writing “success” because the term success will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for other writers, and vice versa. There are a million blogs posting the same 5 to 10 rules for how to be a writer, but none of them seem to be putting out any books themselves, so why take advice from someone who isn’t successful doing what they are trying to tell you to do? There’s no secret magic formula, but you can’t be successful if you don’t write…..so just go write.
1. There ARE no rules.
2. Everyone writes lousy first drafts; get the words down on the page and learn to revise.
3. Always have other people check your work for inconsistencies, grammar, punctuation, etc.
4. If you truly love to write, never give up!
5. Not everyone will love your book; it’s subjective and there’s no way your writing will speak to every single person.
1. Write. Don´t stop.
2. Don´t copy anyone else. Find your own voice.
3. Craft your stories.
4. Be humble. Be proud.
5. Keep it up.
P.S. Just write if you have something to tell, and then forget about it all. I don´t believe so much that we can predict success though we need to do our best for it. I see authors who might be famous, and they might not be the best ones, or even the most influential ones, or the ones that are still going to be recalled a century from now. I would rather quote Jorge Amado and say that writing is like living:
“The world is like that – incomprehensible and full of surprises.” Jorge Amado – Brazilian Author.
- Never give up on your dreams.
- Write what you know. Write a book that you would want to read.
- Don’t write a shocking scene just for the shock value.
- Don’t write in a genre just because its selling; write in that genre because you’re passionate about it.
The second segment was on Character Development. Many of our author panel develop characters from real people and composites of people they know, or at least give them realistic qualities and flaws to make them feel more human, easier to identify with, and most admit to having a little of themselves in their characters. Chris DiBella, Jordan Elizabeth, Janet Garber and Art Rosch even offer up real life examples. None of them openly admited to creating characters from archetypes, but I maintain that all characters fit into archetypes, whether the author does it consciously or not. Chris Barili offers his method of character development using a character triangle to determine what the character’s motivation is, what the character’s fear or flaw is, and what it is the character truly needs. It is clear that for all of our panel members and myself, our characters often come alive and take over what happens on the page, surprising even their creators at times. While Art Rosch and DeAnna Knippling like to take a more psychological approach to character development, authors like Tim Baker use life observation to ‘keep it real’. And I don’t think any of the panel members would disagree with Carol Riggs when she stated, “The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.” After all, that is what we’re striving for – characters that readers can relate and identify with.
The follow-up question for this segment: How do you evoke emotion in your readers?
Cynthia Vespia: This is one of the most important parts of storytelling, and one of my favorite parts as well. Developing characters that readers resonate with is what stirs emotion. If they can see part of themselves in the character they will gravitate towards them more and that makes them care what happens to them in the end.
Chris Barili: You do that by creating a character they empathize with, then killing him or her, usually. No, wait. That’s the George Martin approach. Seriously–build a character about whom readers care, then put them in situations where they are threatened.
Janet Garber: This is admittedly not always easy. I concentrate on creating relatable and sympathetic characters.
Art Rosch: If you write with feeling your audience will respond with feeling. Fiction is mostly about overcoming obstacles. You cause your heroes to act bravely and unselfishly and your villains to act with malice and manipulation. If you create a lovable hero, (that is, someone with flaws who intends to do a positive thing) your readers will respond. I don’t know if emotion can be taught. Writing is a very psychological pursuit, and our emotions are unpredictable and all but uncontrollable. So…be a psychologist.
Tim Baker: By giving my characters real emotion and letting the reader see it. Whatever emotion the characters are feeling in a particuklar scene I try to have them think and react the way any of us would (as much as allowable for the story anyway).
Chris DiBella: I just try to make my characters as real as possible and hopefully my readers like them enough to care about what happens to them.
Carol Riggs: I write in first person for (what I think is) the most close, personal experience. I also try to include a lot of sensory images—smell, taste, sounds, and sights to make things more real. With crying and sobbing and sad emotions, often less is more; otherwise it starts feeling melodramatic. And if the character is going through general experiences the reader can relate to (betrayal, loss, anger at a friend or parent) that helps make an emotional connection.
Jordan Elizabeth: I rely on my own experiences when writing. Many of the emotions I write about are ones that I have experienced, so I’m able to write from the heart. If its a funny scene, then I’m laughing out loud. If its a sad scene, I have tears drenching my cheeks.
DeAnna Knippling: One of my pet peeves is when an author is obviously playing for my emotions rather than letting the combination of plot, character, etc., do the work in a more logically consistent fashion. You’ve seen it every time a beloved character gets wiped out and it really doesn’t affect the narrative, other than to “inspire” the rest of the characters to carry on or set the grounds for “anything could happen!!!!!!!”
If I want a reader to cry, I better have already wept bitter tears over the manuscript as I was writing it.
Our third segment was on Action and Dialog. While all authors want dialog that flows smooth and sounds realistic, different authors take different approaches to the task. While most of our panel members agree that listening to people and being able to hear the dialog spoken in your head are great ways to approach this, Carol Riggs offers the really great advice to read your work aloud, and Art Rosch offers the advice that dialog should always serve a purpose, rather than being just a space filler. In true life, we tend to talk just to hear ourselves sometimes. In writing, that sort of thing just takes up space on the page and the only purpose it may serve is to bore the reader, and of course, we don’t want that. Achieving a balance between action and dialog seems to come natural for many of our panel members claim the only trick or secret is to keep the story moving and not let it get too bogged down with details. Tell readers what they need to know, but keep things moving. If you missed this segment, be sure to drop in and check it out, because it features excerpts of dialog scenes from authors Chris Barili, Janet Garber, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Art Rosch and Margareth Stewart.
The following is a reader comment left regarding Dialog. While a couple of our panel members replied directly in the comments, DeAnna Knippling’s reply seemed spot on to me and I wanted to include it here.
Reader Ken Hughs said:
Lots of excellent advice there.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to analyze dialogue a bit deeper than that. For instance:
Who talks more? Does she say a lot on her favorite subject (an expert, or just concerned about it) and less on other things, or is she nervous or social enough to chime in a little after everything– or so full of herself she does both?
How organized are his sentences? A longer sentence can mean he has a more complex complete thought, unless it’s a run-on; several short sentences could each mean new thoughts still coming in behind the last ones. Or the most eloquent person might be the one with the simple line that says it all.
Adjectives and adverbs? Someone passionate, or more in tune with their senses, is more likely to pile on the modifiers, while others are plainer-spoken. Similes and metaphors take this even further– if you can keep someone from becoming cliche about using their job or background to compare things too.
DeAnna Knipling: It sounds like the commenter, Ken Hughes, is doing some good things with pacing. Huzzah! Once you get past the point of being able to make dialogue that sounds natural and gets the point across in a scene, the next step is to start working on the pacing of the dialogue–and all the issues Mr. Hughes mentioned are relevant there.
To back up a bit for writers who aren’t quite down in the weeds of studying pacing yet:
- Pacing is the art of connecting content (what you’re writing about) to form (the layout of the little black marks on the page, for writers). When the word lengths and patterns, sentence lengths and patterns, scene lengths and patterns all line up with the meaning of the story somehow, the story is “paced well.” Pacing is about building your story like a woodworker, choosing your material and construction techniques to fit the final purpose of the project. Any element of a story can have pacing.
- Each character’s dialogue will also have its own pacing, just as Mr. Hughes says, and it should depend on the nature of the character.
- The examples that Mr. Hughes gives are excellent examples of what to consider with pacing dialogue.
- I’d like to add that anything that you add between pieces of dialogue also reflects the pacing of the dialogue, so if you have chunks of description between bits of dialogue, the reader will take them as pauses in the conversation, or as the POV character’s mind wandering during the conversation.
Mr. Hughes and DeAnna bring up another issue here, which we haven’t really touched on.
Naturally my follow-up question is:What methods do you find effective in controlling your pacing?
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t. I just write what comes to me.
Chris Barili: I don’t know. I just go with what the characters are feeling, I guess. Their tension tells me how to pace a scene.
Janet Garber: Ah. You must make every scene count. Have it lead readers somewhere, to the destination you intend.
Art Rosch: I’ve watched a thousand Samurai movies. They’re great for offering templates for action sequences. Samurai didn’t waste effort in useless display and they were completely focused on surviving the next duel or battle. Unless you’re writing about super-heroes your characters need to operate within reasonable physical parameters. I act out movements and gestures at my chair in front of my computer. Does this look reasonable? Can my characters do this-and-that?
In my novel Confessions Of An Honest Man, I have a 70 page battle sequence that takes place in Afghanistan. It’s a much admired passage with editors and readers. It has an arc, or several arcs. There’s the build-up to an initial confrontation. A mini-climax occurs early in the scene. But it doesn’t end there. A greater threat appears unexpectedly and my hero must cope with expanded dangers. Each time a resolution seems to occur another and greater threat appears. The point of this sequence is that my hero learns things about himself, learns that he has more courage than he thought. There’s outer action but there’s also my hero’s thoughts and emotions as the scene(s) unfold. This pendulum between action and a character’s inner dialogue offers a means of pacing.
Tim Baker: When writing action I try to write only the action. By this I mean if I’m writing an action packed scene I don’t stray away from the action with anything that will slow the reader down. I want the reader to be able to be in the action.
Chris DiBella: I’ve never thought about trying to control my pacing. When I get to action scenes, I just try to write them in a way where I’m describing enough that it paints a picture for my readers. I don’t have a formula for how many pages an action scene should be. I just write them until I feel it’s time to move on with the story.
Carol Riggs: I try to keep some sort of tension, question, or compelling forward movement on every page, whether internal for the characters or external to them. I use cliffhanger-type chapter endings to keep the reader turning pages. It’s also important not to rush the “big moments”—sometimes the pace needs to be drawn out on powerful scenes to heighten the impact or emotions. In an action scene, short punchy sentences help move the pacing along.
Margareth Stewart: Word count and daily targets; otherwise, it does not flow. Sometimes, I feel like I am a General to myself: “for instance, no chocolate if I don´t finish 2.500 word count today”, and there it goes. Other times, I need to be a little more flexible because things do happen in between word counting, not with the plot or story itself, but in terms of living – ordinary living – bills to pay, a tire to fix, and so on. Another good and productive management is during November Writing. Besides that, I use the same method for editing – this week I have to review 50 pages and by the way I am late, so I will have to do extra work at the weekend. Therefore, I have told my kids, we can only go to the cinema if I can complete the goal before Sunday. By the way, that´s another point about being a writer, we feel quite weird and funny.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to just write, write, write. I don’t plan my stories ahead; I just go off a basic plot idea in my mind. Pacing falls naturally into place.
In our third segment, our author panel members discussed Setting, where author Carol Riggs suggests basing fictional worlds on real life places as a good method of world building, and travel for authors is recommended in order to expand on their true life experiences that shine through in their writing, although most of our panel members have written about places they have never been or don’t really exist, like Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA fantasy. DeAnna Knippling loves to write about Victorian England, and all agree that sensory details should be added to make the setting feel more real. This segment also features setting excerpts from Cynthia Vespia, Art Rosch, Chris Barili, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber. (Strangely enough, I just realized I gave no follow-up question for this segment, although we could do a whole series on world building and setting. Wow!)
Our fourth segment covered the topic of Publishing, which many authors opt to do themselves these days. Our panel members were a nice blend of traditional, small press and self-published authors, with three strictly self-published authors: Art Rosch, Chris DiBella, and DeAnna Knippling; one author who is strictly small press: Jordan Elizabeth; and five who have done a hybrid combination of small press and self-publishing in one form or another: Cynthia Vespia, Margareth Stewart, Tim Baker, and three authors who have done a combination of traditional and self-publishing: Janet Garber, Chris Barili, and Carol Riggs. Together, they bring their own experiences to the table to talk about the pros and cons of each publishing venue.
I have two follow-up questions for this segment:
Are your books available in print or digital format, or both? Why?
Cynthia Vespia: Both. Because I like to have my work available in as many formats as possible to appeal to different readers. Next I’ll do audio books.
Chris Barili: Both. And why wouldn’t you do it that way? You’re robbing yourself of readers if you ignore one medium.
Janet Garber: My books are in print and in digital form and the first traditionally purchased book is on audiotape as well.
Art Rosch: I need to emphasize a huge fact with regard to the whole publishing venture. It takes money to market books. I don’t have money, I’m living on a fixed income. I started my enterprise by going to Smashwords.com and e-publishing three of my books. I did the same at Amazon. An author can publish digitally for free. I designed my own book covers, using my stock of personal photography and my skills in Photoshop. Such as they are.
I am now about to turn my novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man into a paperback on Amazon. I have no illusions about getting sales. I just want to have a physical object, MY BOOK, in my hands and have it be available to people in my environment.
Tim Baker: My books are available in print, digital and audio (not all of them are currently available in audio, but the ones that aren’t are in production.) The reason why is simple…give more options to people and increase your chances of being read.
Chris DiBella: Both. There are still people out there (somewhere) who like to read physical copies of books.
Carol Riggs: All my books are available in both print and digital formats. This is important, because some readers prefer print and some prefer digital.
Jordan Elizabeth: Both (except for Kistishi Island. I have to sell 500 ebooks before it will be in print). I like having a combination of formats. Some people prefer print and some prefer ebook. I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they have to use ebooks because of eyesight problems. Print books are great for book signings.
DeAnna Knippling: Yes and yes. See writing rule #5. I really ought to be working on audio as well. Readers should be able to read conveniently.
Which publishing platforms do you use? Which do you recommend? Why?
Cynthia Vespia: I’m focused on Amazon at the moment because that’s where the majority of buyers/readers go. I’ve also used Smashwords and Barnes and Noble for digital.
Chris Barili: Amazon and Smashwords for my self-published stuff. I prefer Smashwords because they distribute to a bunch of other retailers, saving me time.
Janet Garber: I used Lulu.com and was satisfied with their speed and the look of the final product.
Art Rosch: I think Smashwords is great. There’s all the support and information you need. Amazon is, of course, the giant, but as with everything in digital publishing, it’s all automated.
Tim Baker: I use CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and ACX (for audio). Since those are the ones I use – those would be the ones I recommend.
Chris DiBella: I use Amazon and CreateSpace. It’s easy to set up and get my books out to potential readers from those sites.
Carol Riggs: Three of my books are traditionally published, and the publishers distribute in various ways (Entangled Teen uses Macmillan, for instance). For self-publishing, I use CreateSpace and Amazon KDP; it’s relatively easy to release a book on these platforms.
Jordan Eizabeth: My publishers use Ingram and CreateSpace. I can’t speak to the ease of use.
DeAnna Knippling: It’s not so much which ones, as how you decide which ones to use. I’m starting to look at these things as, “How does this company treat its readers? Are the readers happy with the experience?” Another good set of questions is, “How does this company treat its writers? Does it pay them promptly? Does it have good reporting? Do they have good avenues for books that aren’t bestsellers to reach readers? Is the damn site hard to use?”
Our fifth segment of Ask the Authors covered the topic of Genre Differences. Again, we had a nice mix for this topic. Among our author panel members we had: Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA Fantasy and Steampunk; Carol Riggs, who writes both Fantasy and Science Fiction; Tim Baker, who writes crime action adventure novels; Cynthia Vespia, who writes speculative fiction for adults and teens; and those who dabble a little in all of them: Janet Garber, Chris Barili and DeAnna Knippling. They discuss the use of tropes when writing in the different genres, and also the differences in the creative process, the different types of research required, and the differences in audience and marketing. No follow-up questinos for this segment.
In the sixth segment, our author panel discusses The Business of Writing. According to Jordan Elizabeth and Carol Riggs, marketing can make or break you in the world of writing, and in today’s digital world, much or all of those duties fall upon the author, requiring us to treat writing not only as a job or a passion, but as a business. Today’s author may be responsible for everything about their book, from writing the book, to editing and cover art, to publishing, to marketing and promotion, and everything in between. While many of these tasks can be hired out, not all authors can afford to do so. I didn’t have any follow-up for this segment, mainly because the next two segments were follow-up to this.
For the seventh segment of Ask the Authors, our author panel discusses the many ways there are to Building an Reader Platform. Most of our panel members prefer face-to-face events, over online activities, but it seems they continue to use the Internet and social media to promote their books, feeling that both are needed. Some panel members come up with some very creative ideas, like Tim Baker, who had a tire cover made for the spare on his Jeep with his logo on it, or Chris DiBella, who had customized tee-shirts made telling the world that he is their next favorite author. Who knows? It might work.
The follow-up question for this segment is: What methods have you found successful for obtaining reviews?
Cynthia Vespia: Asking. I ask other writers, or I seek out bloggers who do reviews.
Janet Garber: Approaching authors who write in a similar humorous fashion; writing reviews myself as a pay-it-forward tactic; bugging people who enjoyed the book.
Art Rosch: I completely suck at this and it’s my own fault. I must have social media halitosis. There are billions of people who don’t know about me. I’ve been hammering at this for many years and haven’t cracked the code yet. I do recommend one author-marketing guru (among the many who haunt my email inbox). That’s Mark Dawson. He refunded my money long after the expiration date for one of his courses and he didn’t have to. He teaches at a good pace and he has much to offer to authors who want to market independently.
Tim Baker: I haven’t found a successful way to get reviews. People generally don’t like to write them. I’ve done everything from blog posts, social media requests and even offered to include people in a book if they wrote enough reviews. It’s the thing I find most discouraging about writing.
Chris DiBella: I don’t like to hound people for reviews. There are some authors who post constantly about it, and I find it annoying. We all want reviews, but it seems some authors will only ask for reviews from people they know will give them a favorable review. I simply do not like that approach. The way I look at it is the reviews will come in time – or maybe not. They’re nice to get, but I don’t stress about it. I also have my own little rule of thumb of not to trust any book with less than 15 reviews of all 5-stars (unless there’s some bad reviews in there too). Anyone can get 15 friends or family members to write a good review. It’s that first bad review I usually trust the most. Same goes for my books. My first bad review was actually pretty spot-on with the critique. She liked the story, but drilled me on editing. No friends or family members would have left a review like that. I pulled the book and re-edited it. Of course it sucks to get bad reviews, but they can be turned into a positive. And for the love of everything you consider holy, please stop arguing with readers who give you a bad review. Let your fans battle it out for you.
Carol Riggs: My publishers used NetGalley for obtaining reviewers from bloggers. A newsletter also works decently for requesting reviews. I try not to ask for reviews too much, however, because it’s off-putting. Either a reader will leave you a review or he/she won’t. No one should be obligated; an author doesn’t get honest reviews that way anyway.
Jordan Elizabeth: Author friends have told me they have good luck when posting free books on Facebook in exchange for reviews. I haven’t had luck that way. I usually reach out to bloggers. Most of the time, they are willing to review.
Just a note: I also see the other side of this issue, as I do honest reviews in exchange for ARCs right here on Writing to be Read. The problem I’ve run into is that since I’m supplied with a free copy, at times Amazon will not aknowledge my reviews because they can’t verify the sale. I imagine those exchanging reviews on Facebook might run into the same type of issues. So, even if you can give away some e-copies in exchange for a review, there is no gaurantee that Amazon will acknowledge it.
DeAnna Knippling: Asking nicely. I was using Instafreebie for a while, but I think that exhausted its readers fairly quickly, because it was mostly a platform for trading newsletter subscribers, not a sustainable model. What new readers was Instafreebie bringing to the table? Not as many as the authors themselves had brought. I did well by it, but I think that was a matter of getting in at the right moment and not “what a great site for reviews!”
I think your best bet is to treat reviews like a pyramid. At the base, write good books and make it easy for readers to read more. Next level, make it easy for your newsletter subscribers to get review copies. I have an ARC list. Up from that, whatever social media sites you’re on, keep an eye out for ways to attract reviews OR newsletter subscribers. At the top of the pile is a review that will be seen widely, a review on a radio show or in a newspaper, things like that. Go for it when you see it. But be more loyal to your base of writing good books and making them easy for readers to read them.
In the last segment, our author panel members discussed many of the issues involved in Book Marketing and Promotion. This is a big topic for many authors, including me, because unlike writing, it does not come natural to us. It is such a big issue that a couple of our panel members, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber, bowed out of this segment, rather than express the frustration of not having the answers. But those panel members who did participate had some insightful things to share. They talk about their favorite social media sites for promotion, marketing and giveaway sites, marketing platforms, the effectiveness of author websites and blogs, newletters, press releases and interviews. Be sure and catch this segment, or you’ll never know why Chris DiBella’s mother is his greatest marketing tool.
The follow-up question for this segment is: Many of you said in last week’s segment that you preferred face to face events over Internet and social media marketing and that you found face to face marketing to be more effective. What type of face to face events have you found to be effective?
Cynthia Vespia: The reason conferences don’t work is because there are waaaayyyy too many writers all vying for attention at these things. Also, the majority of the writer conferences only alot 1-2 days for signings and sales that are usually only a few hours long. That is not enough time to make a dent in sales or really do any type of networking with your readers, especially when there are so many other authors there doing the same thing. Some of the more popular ones get all the attention. So imagine you’re a little fish in a sea of whales…how do you get noticed? I’ve run into some very bad etiquette at some of these things before, as well. The guy next to me would skate every sale I tried to make by talking over me and offering a free book. How do you compete with free? You don’t.
So the face-to-face events I prefer are my own individual signings, smaller book fairs, or (and I hate to mention this because it was a well guarded secret before) but I do the comic conventions and they work the best. Plus, they’re alot more fun.
Chris Barili: I’ve found genre cons to be MUCH more effective at selling books and gaining followers than writing conferences, and if you think about it, it makes sense. A genre con is full of fans of whatever genre you like. They’re LOOKING for genre stories. At a writers conference, writers are there looking to SELL stories.
Janet Garber: I find book fairs and readings most enjoyable as I get a chance to speak with the potential readers. Being a guest at a book club meeting is great too because you hear your characters discussed as if they were real people and you learn what readers liked and didn’t like.
Carol Riggs: I personally like/prefer book fairs or festivals over bookstore signings, because they’re more informal. I feel less “on the spot,” and I don’t have to make a microphone presentation. Instead, I can conversationally chat with people who come up to my book table. It feels more like a relationship that way, instead of a “buy my book” spiel. For instance, last summer (as well as this coming summer) I will be participating in the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon, with a book table. Last fall I was also part of the Literacy for Libraries author event in Eugene, and I enjoyed schmoozing with fellow authors and with the crowd who wandered through the building. Sometimes authors can band together and create their own events at libraries and bookstores; it’s less intimidating than going it solo. The purpose of these events aren’t to sell as many books as you can, but rather get to know your readers and get your name out there—that’s an important marketing tip that a seasoned author shared with me.
Jordan Elizabeth: I prefer craft shows and library events. The crowds are manageable, and as I write young adult, many teenagers and children come with their parents. Parents and grandparents are also eager to buy gifts. Because these events are smaller than most conferences, you’re able to have a one-on-one conversation. You get to really understand what types of books these people read and you can gear them toward the book like might like the best.
DeAnna Knippling: Some people are great salespeople. I am not. That’s not some kind of subtle insult or anything. I’m learning. But I’ve always found networking more valuable to me than selling per se. If a sale comes out of it, great. And I’m not like, “Here’s my business card, call me!” To me, a face to face event means that people are far more likely to put their hair down and tell me things. Interesting things. Gossip. Rumors. Scandalous lies! And I love connecting other people and providing a safe place to talk. I have a SF/F/H writer group, the Colorado Tesla Writers, that is basically just a Facebook page and a monthly meal for people to hang out and feel like Real Writers(tm) and let our hair down. That’s it. I’m not sure what it’s effective at, but people tell me that it is, so I keep doing it.
To wrap up this last segment, I want to thank our panel members for the great writing rules. If you create characters who are not only realistic, but who the readers can identify and empathize with, and if you write with emotion which comes from your soul, you can evoke in your readers and make them care about your characters and your story. And while pacing is important and can be controlled with tension, conflict, action and dialog, most of our author panel don’t consciously write with pacing in mind, but rather it seems to come naturally. Also, we may need to pace ourselves to get the story out, as well as controlling the pacing of the story itself.
It does make sense to offer your books in as many formats as possible, because readers aren’t all the same. Amazon and Smashwords appear to be the favorite for digital publishing and CreateSpace was preferred for print publishing, although I believe they have made some changes and now Amazon is also providing print books as an option, so that may change.
Reviews are an author’s calling card these days, and it seems the best way to get them is to ask, whether in a newsletter, in person, or in the book itself, but it’s best not to be pushy. Genre conventions, book fairs and festivals, book signings, and library events are the preferred face to face events to make connections with readers.
Well, it’s time to bring our time with our Ask the Authors panel members to a close. I do hope we’ve provided some helpful information and advice for all you authors out there, and maybe even made you smile once or twice. Thank you all for joining us. Be sure to watch for round two, this fall, where we will have several of these panel members back, as well as inviting other authors to join our panel. The best way to be sure not to miss out on this and all the other great content here on Writing to be Read is to sign up for email notification of follow me on WordPress. I hope you all will drop in frequently.
Next Monday, on Writing to be Read, I’ll be interviewing author Mark Shaw, who has optioned his book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, for film. Something all authors dream of and some actually get the opportunity to do. How exciting. We’ll also be talking about his new book, Courage in the Face of Evil, which is to be release in June. Don’t miss it!
I want to extend a big thank you to our panel members, Carol Riggs, Tim Baker, Jordan Elizabeth, DeAnna Knippling, Chris DiBella, Art Rosch, Janet Garber, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili, and Cynthia Vespia. You guys and gals were a great panel and together we created a great Ask the Authors series. I feel it was very successful and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope all of you did, too. Until next time.
My first semester in the M.F.A. program at Western, we were assigned to write an excerpt in a genre outside of that in which we normally write. I was assigned the western genre, and while I’d never really written much in the western genre, I learned from that exercise that I was pretty good at writing westerns, and that excerpt became part of my first published novel, Delilah. Now I’m working on the sequel, and even though the western genre is not as popular as it once was, I enjoy writing westerns, and for me, that may be more important than how many I sell. (But, how many I sell is important, don’t get me wrong. I want ton be a best seller as much as the next author.) I could never be a literary writer. Hell, I can’t even read all the way through some literary novels. While I have a knack for the western genre, I also have available Last Call, which is a sci-fi short and my paranormal mystery, Hidden Secrets. I guess that makes me a multi-genre author.
Today Ask the Authors is going to talk about some of the genres and what makes them different. We’ll also look at what kind of things we do differently when writing in more than one genre, regarding the writing process, research and marketing. Without further ado, let’s see what our panel members have to say.
Which genres do you write?
Tim Baker: I really don’t know what my genre is – or if I actually can be placed into only one. Generally speaking I write fast-paced, tongue in cheek, semi- humorous crime novels. I have also taken that description and coupled it with supernatural themes. My latest novel is pretty much a suspense-thriller, but it is still fast-paced with very small doses of humor.
For the purposes of this segment – let’s just say I write crime novels.
Cynthia Vespia: I write speculative fiction for adults and teens. For those who don’t know what speculative fiction is, it is a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements. Often described as the ‘What if?’ genre, speculative fiction is distinguished by being based on unusual ideas and elevated imagination.
I write a combination of urban fantasy, dark fantasy, magical realism, supernatural, paranormal, superhero, and dystopian. Which is why I started to go under the umbrella of speculative fiction because it encompasses all of that. I’ve dabbled in horror, and I’m trying my hand at space-opera, but those aren’t my main genres.
Janet Garber: I’ve written and published in multiple genres: journalism, non-fiction book, book and movie reviews, essays, short stories, novels, poetry, sci-fi/spec, humor. About the only thing I haven’t tried yet is screenwriting. I’ve also got a number of children’s stories and I would love to put them together in a book someday.
Chris Barili: I write in every genre. I think the story and the characters dictate the genre, so rather than starting out to write a fantasy novel or a western short story, I set out with a character and a problem and let things go from there. With the acceptance of a story of mine to a new crime fiction magazine, I have now sold fiction in all the major genres: Fantasy, SF, Horror, western, romance, and crime. I write most of my stuff in the speculative fiction genres of fantasy and horror. In the end, a story’s a story, no matter the label we stick on it.
I think clumping everything under just “YA” is pretty limiting and doesn’t tell the reader much info. Technically, as many editors and agents point out, YA is simply an age category, for readers 12-18 (and up) and involves main characters who are usually between the ages of 14 to 18. The actual GENRE is a dividing into things like steampunk, fantasy, sci-fi, historical, graphic novel, etc. But it’s very handy to have labels like “YA steampunk” because then you get the age category listed as well as the genre.
Each genre has certain elements which readers pick up a book expecting to find within the story. Romance tropes are probably some of the most familiar: there are two characters, they often start out disliking one another, to spite all odds they fall in love, but there are obstacles to overcome for them to be together, and of course, there must be a Happy Ever After. These are the elements of romance, and without them we don’t have much of a story. This is what romance readers expect to get when they pick up a romance novel. Its what they want, and if you don’t deliver, your reader following is liable go find another author who does.
I’m sure you’ll all recognize the tropes for the western genre as well: you have a lone character who stands up for what’s right against high odds, and must battle against the environment to complete their journey. There is a certain time period in history in which the western must occur, after (1700s?). I optioned to go against a trope of the genre when I made my protagonist female, but by giving her a romantic interest, I crossed over into the romance genre, therefore widening my audience scope. Let’s see how our panelist handle the tropes of their genres.
If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.
Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.
There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun.
What methods do you use to develop your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character. I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.” My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.” Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.” Like I said, still working on that.
Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one. I write the first draft as the characters guide me. Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.
Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.
Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character. That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.
Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.
Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.
Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer. Psychology is fundamental to writing. Where to start? With yourself, of course. You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature. Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going. We are more the same than we are different. I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books. I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman. Jung gives us the archetypes. We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.
It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.
Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.
Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.
Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?
Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.
Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…
Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)
Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!
Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time. Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment. I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro. Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary. My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams. They say things like “Go left”. Or, “That spoon is funky”. You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams. And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you. It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”
I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin. He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S. He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict. I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction. I had to go through fifteen years of therapy. Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack. The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing. I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy. I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.
In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm. I’m pleased with the first book. The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live. I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race. This is a project that involved huge amounts of research. I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history. In school I studied Russian for four years. That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor. World building is a great pleasure for me. Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition. I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore. I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest. If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now! He passed recently, at the age of 96. He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books. I read them and re-read them every few years. Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick. The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance. Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.
If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.
I can remember as I little girl going to the mall with my mother and my grandmother to do our Christmas shopping and sit on Santa’s lap. All the stores played Christmas music, the buildings were all lit up with beautifully colored Christmas lights and there were Salvation Army Santas on every other corner shaking their bells. It was a happy time, but not any more.
These days it seems like everybody is in a hurry, and Christmas spirit is often hard to find. People in the stores will run you over, or snatch an item right out of your hand. A minor bump in the aisle is likely to result in violence. Christmas shopping is no longer a pleasant experience, if you’re not too timid to venture out at all. Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace on Earth and good will toward men, but folks won’t hesitate to deck the aisles with anyone who gets in their way.
The other day I was in the store, and I saw an older man bending down to get a case of soda from the bottom shelf. A kid came barreling around the corner with a shopping cart and plowed right into the man, knocking him to his knees, pops splaying out of the case and scattering across the aisle. The man reacted, turning to say, “Hey, watch it!” Then, the boys mother came around the corner and told the man he was rude. Store employees appeared, offering to help the man up and cleaning up the mess in the aisle, and the lady and her son disappeared into the crowd.
The boy’s actions were disrespectful, not even offering an apology, but the mother’s response, to my view is incomprehensable. If I had done something like that as a child, or for that matter, if my children had done something like that, there would have been apologies, not only from the parent, but the parent would have made sure the child apologized as well and there would have been a couple of reddened butt cheeks when we got home. The woman didn’t see anything wrong with what her son had done, she felt no regret or guilt seeing the man on his knees in the aisle. She didn’t even take the time to see if he was alright. That’s not Christmas spirit. I’m not sure that’s even human.
Later, same store, same shopping trip. I watched a disabled woman with a pronounced limp move down the aisle leaning heavily on her basket. As she passed behind another lady, who was standing in the aisle examining the products on the shelf in front of her, the disabled woman jerked, causing her to bump the other woman lightly. She passed on by, apparently not realizing she had bumped the other woman, but the other woman jumped at the contact and glared after her. But it didn’t stop there. The woman turned and headed toward the disabled woman, coming up behind her. I don’t know what she planned to do, but it appeared that she might even mean the disabled woman harm. The disabled woman had no idea the irate woman was behind her or how close she had come to finding out the hard way. Fortunately, she looked up and saw me watching, and turned, heading back down the aisle the other way. Yep, Christmas spirit just oozing there.
These days everyone is angry and distrustful. We don’t trust our fellow man. How can we when road rage is common place, as are mass shootings and bombings of public events? You have to take care when opening emails or answering robocalls, because scammers are everywhere, trying to get your personal information to take your money or steal your identity. And mothers are afraid to let their kids sit on Santa’s lap for fear there might be a child molester hiding under that beard. This is the social climate that we live in today and it’s very different from the simple world that I grew up in. And it just doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.
Through all the changes, it seems that many of us have lost sight of what the true message of Christmas is. Christmas is about giving; not about getting the best deal, or buying the most popular toy. Jesus was God’s gift to mankind because he loves us. That’s why the first word in Christmas is Christ. It’s sad to think the term isn’t deemed politically correct these days, because that term is meant to remind us of why we celebrate Christmas and what it’s all about. It’s about Love, plain and simple.
I have to smile when I see stories on the news of Secret Santa, the man who goes around giving money to complete strangers each year, or the man who drives around with a trunk full of basketballs, which he gives to needy kids, not just at Christmas time, but year round. Not all of us have forgotten what Christmas is about. There are those out there who still know about the spirit of giving and love for your fellow man. I think those folks were more abundant when I was growing up, but they can still be found if you look.
So this holiday season, I challenge all of you to renew your Christmas spirit: go out and do one nice thing for someone you don’t know, say ‘thank you’ when someone shows you a courtesy, or just give a smile to someone who looks like they’ve had a hard day. Call up a friend or releative you haven’t seen or heard from in a while and wish them a Merry Christmas. It doesn’t have to be much. Just enough to make you aware that you’re still a part of the human race and let you feel the love.
Video Games and the Lost Art of Storytelling
by Jeff Bowles
I’m an avid gamer. I’ve played everything from Pac-Man and Halo to Zelda and God of War. As a child, I spent countless hours on the first home console my family ever bought, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and I’ve owned just about every major gaming platform released since.
I’m also a storyteller, which means I take keen interest in certain gaming industry trends. I’ve heard it suggested video games represent a great opportunity for writers today. Even in an industry dominated by online arena action shooters that feature little plot and the use of impersonal avatars instead of fully developed characters, writers are said to be very much in demand.
Independent job and project posting sites such as Upwork feature by-contract work for games from time to time, and small indy video game developers, which have flourished in recent years, are often much more receptive to unknown or burgeoning writers. If you’ve been stuck hawking short stories and one failed novel after another, it can be a great place to ply your talents.
Landing that kind of gig may be harder than it seems, however. The big developers like Bethesda Softworks, EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo tend to retain and reuse writers, so unless you’re a well-established author looking to diversify, you may be out of luck. It’s kind of a niche profession anyway, writing for video games, especially since more and more developers have eschewed classic storytelling techniques in favor of more style, more flash, and way more explosions.
Should this surprise us? Like Hollywood, the gaming industry seems to have recognized the public’s slackening attention span. Many of the most popular games released in 2016 featured incredibly robust multiplayer and not much else.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1, the top sellers of the year, both have single player campaigns that are more or less afterthoughts. Another top seller, Blizzard Entertainment’s highly popular Overwatch, exists entirely online, so if you’ve got a poor internet connection or you just don’t want to play against other people, the message seems to be man up or look elsewhere. Overwatch, by the way, is a hell of a lot of fun. Too bad I didn’t care about any of its characters or situations.
Not so long ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. Before high speed internet made online gaming feasible for the broader market, game developers rarely ever shipped titles designed just for multiplayer. Home consoles had at most four controller ports back then, which meant you either played a deep, engrossing single-player campaign or you challenged a few of your friends to combat right there on the couch. Gaming was a much more personal, sociable experience then. Lord, how I pine for the good old days of just ten years ago!
As the gaming industry advanced into the current generation of home consoles (the Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch, respectively), an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among consumers became evident. Players were demanding new experiences, expanded horizons, creative and interesting mechanics they’d never seen before. The result, I take it, is that the major developers decided en masse the premium they’d placed on storytelling would no longer serve them going forward.
I found some of the biggest games of the last five years nearly unplayable, simply because competition, blood and guts, and fierce rivalries tend to turn me off. Let’s be honest, in the new millennium fewer and fewer people appreciate good stories. The point for most gamers is not the dialogue or plot so much as the bullets and blood.
I think that’s unfortunate. Good developers recognize their medium is unique. The games that work best allow players to inhabit strange worlds and the skins of other people. Long-standing series such as the Deus Ex franchise, for instance, let players explore innumerable options and solutions to any given scenario or character interaction, thereby assuring a unique experience for everyone. As a point of reference, the latest Deus Ex game was a commercial failure, as were other similar titles. A lot of players feel they don’t have time to invest in long, drawn-out narratives anymore. They just want to drop in, shoot their friends a few times, and drop out.
Classic American gaming, by the way, has not gotten any less violent or offensive in light of this new direction. In fact, divorced from good storytelling, many modern games feel like slaughterhouses, inducing the kind of fight-or-flight panic usually reserved for life and death emergencies. Recently, after playing a frenzied bout of For Honor, a game that simulates medieval sword-based combat in full gory detail, I told my wife I didn’t know if I could take it anymore. A round of that game is like squeezing your heart through a meat grinder fifteen minutes at a time. The experience is intense, but is it particularly fun?
Congress of course has railed against the gaming industry for decades. Too violent, too distracting, and far too addictive. I admit it, I’m hooked. I’m a grown man who hasn’t gone a week without video games since I was five years old, and for the amount of money I’ve spent on all those discs, cartridges, and controllers, you’d think they’d chip in for a limited-edition headset for me or something. When it comes to it, I suppose good storytelling never did anything to offset the more depraved aspects of the medium. They did, however, induce in us the feeling we were part of something exciting and creative.
Now every time I pop a new game into my PlayStation, I have to consider the odds of actually enjoying it. Will I spend the whole time hunting other human beings? Will it contain anything resembling a story? Perhaps the indy movement has opened new doors for the creative potential of the industry—doors which may have otherwise remained closed, especially to writers—but the dominant trends today have adhered very closely to a pretty simple principle.
Like all forms of entertainment intended for mass consumption, the real test of a game is in how it makes us feel. A well-told story feels like nothing else on earth. Unfortunately, so does an hour of mayhem, death, and bare-knuckled survival. Hey gaming industry, bring back the good old days! I guess I don’t mind killing my friends needlessly, but do I have to kill my sense of story, too?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
Nonfiction as Catharsis
So I’ve been trying to decide what my next major writing project will be, and my mind keeps circling back to the last couple years of my life. I’ve had a crazy run of things recently, and like any writer worth his salt, I’d like to capture these events.
Primarily I’m a fiction writer. I could probably disguise all this stuff and get a halfway decent novel out of it, but something’s telling me the true circumstances need the kind of veracity one can only achieve through nonfiction.
It seems to me many short story writers and novelists shy away from nonfiction. Perhaps the truth hits them too close to home, or more likely, it’s out of their purview. Which is fine of course. Nonfiction sells to a completely different segment of readers, different publishers, different literary agents. It may not make sense for an author to skew into a different genre altogether. In fact, some might see it as a waste of time.
But there is one thing nonfiction has on your average novel or short story, an element of the art form that has nothing to do with craft or overall viability. Not everyone deals with incredible, tragic, surprising, or uplifting events in their lives. Some people are born to breeze through this existence, though perhaps these people are fewer and farther between than we might otherwise surmise.
For the rest of us—for those with the linguistic and artistic capability to do something about it anyway—telling our personal stories can be extraordinarily cathartic. After all, psychologists have long advocated journaling as a means of self-healing. Writing about the key events which have shaped us can be both uplifting and enlightening, and it can help us make sense of an otherwise threatening or chaotic world.
Some might argue that the leap from journaling to penning an entire memoir leaves quite a bit to be desired. Only authors think this way, I suppose: “Well something terrible happened to me today. Guess I better write it down and try to sell it.”
The truth of course is that one needn’t publish such material in order for it to be of benefit. Good stories exist everywhere, and the will to look at yourself and your life unflinchingly is a skill more people should cultivate. I can only speak for myself and my recent history, but if I never told my own story, if it just receded into the background of my mind, only to resurrect itself in moments of repose and contemplation years later, I know I’d be doing myself a disservice.
The world of creative nonfiction is wide. Write about societal injustice, pop culture, the plights of your friends and neighbors. Tell stories that reduce the global perspective to something more personal, and in so doing, help us understand ourselves better.
Or, conversely, write about things only you know. Consider it an act of good will if nothing else. You’re doing this for yourself, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Recognize, however, that you may uncover things you’d have otherwise preferred hidden. Know Thyself; is there anything scarier? Is it perhaps more dangerous to remain ignorant? If you’re so inclined, only time will tell.
Contained in every human life is the seed of expansion. We are not static beings, but nor are we entirely free to pursue our futures unhindered. Rather, many of us (if not most of us) find ourselves chained to our pasts. If I were to actually sit and pay attention to my thought processes throughout a single day, I’d likely discover I think about my past way too much. I’d likely also discover I tend to dwell on all the negatives, all my mistakes. Truly, we can never go home again, so why is it my mind is hell bent on constantly reminding me off all the crap I’ve done?
The truth is most of us don’t want to forget. We feel this unconscious pull to relive and recycle, even when it means the here and now is distant and vague by comparison. Perhaps we do so because we worship our identities, the classic psychological concept of the “ego.” These otherwise random events, if they were fully revealed to us, they’d make a mess of our flawed and often one-sided self-conceptualization. Recollecting rather than looking forward is commonly a hindrance, especially when all you’re really doing is reopening old wounds. I think this is me more often than not, though I have no way of knowing if it is also you. Imagine getting your story out, putting it down on paper, reading it, understanding that past is past and that there are certain things you don’t need to hold onto anymore.
Now extend your imagination a bit further. What would happen if you recognized your story could help others, too? Maybe you’ve learned from your experiences. Perhaps you could help prevent others from falling into the same pitfalls as you.
All of this is not to suggest everyone needs to write a memoir and sell it. You might say, “But, Jeff, my story just isn’t interesting enough. And anyway, it’s nobody’s business but mine.”
Which is fair enough. Some might also suggest attempting to profit from personal struggle is the opposite of altruism, and in fact, borders on exhibitionism. This attitude, it seems to me, comports with a general unease and discomfort with getting too close to the truth, which is another way of saying digging down deep on a personal level makes some people squeamish.
My writing mantra has always been if it’s worth writing, it’s worth reading. Write your story under a pseudonym, or in a pinch, write the damn thing and then bury it in your sock drawer. But as you’re doing so, do me a favor and look inward. Notice how you feel different, perhaps a bit freer. Recognize that in telling your story, you’ve performed a neat bit of alchemy. Maybe we can’t turn lead into gold, but through nonfiction, we can transmute pain and tragedy and allow them to release us.
If all else fails, write because your story is both unique and universal. I mean this. If in a hundred years all that could be said of us is that we strove to understand ourselves, that in itself would be a minor miracle. Don’t be afraid to quest. Maybe the answers you’re looking for can help your readers, too. Anything and everything is possible, right?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F