Reviews: Do they really matter?

Book Reviews

Normally Fridays bring you book reviews on Writing to be Read, but as often happens, life got in the way last week and I don’t have a review ready today. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of reviews for today’s authors. You see a lot of hubbub on social media these days asking for reviews, and it’s one of the top goals for authors, in part because acquiring reviews has become one of the biggest difficulties today’s author faces. First, let’s look at how reviews can help authors, and then we’ll look at why they are so darn hard to get.

So, what’s all the fuss about? Why do author’s even need reviews? What good are they?

In the world of digital publishing, it’s not sales numbers that puts your book at the top of the best seller lists, but the buzz which surrounds it. Reviews drive books to the top, or not. But, even poor reviews are helpful to authors. I know that doesn’t sound right, but it’s true. Author and freelance writer DeAnna Knippling explains it well:

“Amazon’s algorithms are not human, do not have feelings, and don’t actually understand that you’ve just been torn in two by a critical review. What those algorithms see, as far as anyone can tell… is that someone read your book.

“In my opinion, indie writers should treat all stars as good stars. Total stars = success #1.

“Second, indie writers should worry about their average star rating. Higher average = success #2.

“Third, indie writers should worry about their average rating being too universally positive, an indication that reviews were either begged, borrowed or stolen. Variety of star ratings, (obviously heavier on the 4\5 ratings) = success #3.

“Forth, although maybe this should be higher, indie writers should be worried about reviewers going on to buy similar books to yours. If your book is bought and possibly liked by people who normally buy that kind of book, it will be shown more often to people who buy that kind of book. Also bought = success #4. ”

So, reviews not only boost your book up on the best seller lists, but they also direct the audience who views it, which theoretically, can boost your sales. That’s why I post my reviews, or at least a portion of them, on both Amazon and Goodreads. Amazon doesn’t always allow my reviews to stand because I’m not a verified sale. (I do my reviews in exchange for ARC copies.) However, Goodreads even allows me to include a link back to the original review here on Writing to be Read. If an author requests it, I will also post their review on Smashwords, B&N, or any other site that carries their book, if I’m able. After all, the reason I do what I do is to help out my fellow authors. The rules placed by the different sites on  who can post a review and what can be posted can be daunting, but they can be worked around.

Something else I have run into is getting people to download my book, even when it’s free. I offer a free ebook of my paranormal mystery, Hidden Secrets, when you sign up for my monthly newsletter. I’m getting people to sign up, but for reasons I don’t understand, not many are claiming their freebie. I’m not sure why this is, but I know other authors who have experienced the same thing. If you can’t get people to read your book for free, how do you expect to get them to pay for it? And then, if you do get them to read the book, how do you get them to take the time to go back and leave a review?

Hugs for Authors

To find out what problems other authors have in acquiring reviews for their books and learning what works, I did an informal poll of authors that I know, and here is what I found out:

Jordan Elizabeth: Getting reviews is hard. I don’t think I’ve only had 1 or 2 people ever leave a review after purchasing. I’ve tried blog tours, but haven’t had good luck. The best way for me is to seek out blogs and send a personal email.

Tom Johnson: It’s hard to get reviews. I sell a lot of books, but few receive reviews. Readers just don’t want to write them. The easiest way is to sign up for a Blog Tour (there are many tours available, but they charge). However, you will get reviews on the Tour. I review books, and would be interested in reading the first Oracle novel.

Amy Cecil: I have my own personal ARC TEAM, that starts the reviews when a book releases, then I have bloggers and the rest trickle in.

Margareth Stewart: 

1) ask friends and people you have been in contact with lately and kindly ask them if they would read and review your novel.
2) engage with possible audience in social media and ask them for reviews in exchange for free giveaways.
3) contact students and people who are new in the area and ask if they would be willing to do it.
4) I have been advised and therefore passing it on “never buy reviews” – readers do know it’s fake news lol.
5) last but not least, patiently wait for surprises and if they do not come, keep no worries Shakespeare had no reviews as all the other masters (lol).

There doesn’t seem to be any clear cut answers. I can remember when the only people who wrote reviews were columnist, who wrote for the newspapers and magazines, and that’s the only place that you found them. But the industry is changing and now days customers want to hear from customers who bought before them before they buy, so that’s who writes, or doesn’t write reviews, and they appear on every book distribution site where they are available.

Although it sounds as if Amy Cecil might have something going with her ARC TEAM, many authors struggle as much to get reviews as they do to make sales. I don’t see anything wrong with simply requesting folks to read your book and write a review, but it appears this methods lends only minimal results. There are reviewers such as myself out there, but finding them isn’t always easy,

Something I’ve seen in recent ebooks I’ve read is an appeal to the reader at the end of the book, asking them to write a quick review before putting the book down for another. It seems to me that this reminder is strategically placed to catch the reader’s eye just as they finish the story, requesting the review while the tale is still fresh in their minds. It might just work.

As authors, we should be reading as a part of our pre-writing preparations, saturating our brains with whatever genre we plan to write in, as well as factual research for nonfiction or historical works. As authors, we also know that reviews truly are important, so take the time to write a review for every book you read. It may take me a while to get my reviews posted on sites in addition to my blog, but I do eventually get them there. Reviews don’t have to take long to write. A couple of sentences and a star rating will do. But write the review.

 

Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.

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Ask the Authors: Final Answers

Books and Coffee

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?

Cynthia Vespia: 

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

Chris Barili

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.

Janet Garber: 

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!

 

Art Rosch: 

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.

Carol Riggs: 

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.

Margareth Stewart: 

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. 

Jordan Elizabeth:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. Write what you know.  Write a book that you would want to read.
  3. Don’t write a shocking scene just for the shock value.
  4. Don’t write in a genre just because its selling; write in that genre because you’re passionate about it.

DeAnna Knippling:

1. Read.
2. Study what you read.
3. Practice what you study.
4. Get what you practice published.
5. Honor the people who read what you published.

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.

Emotions

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.
If you can handle the things Mr. Hughes brings up, you’ll be doing well indeed 🙂

Mr. Hughes and DeAnna bring up another issue here, which we haven’t really touched on.

Action

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 RoschChris 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 VespiaMargareth Stewart, Tim Baker, and three authors who have done a combination of traditional and self-publishing: Janet GarberChris 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?”

I’ve dropped a number of publishing platforms that don’t adhere to these things, or at least stopped using them directly, but approach them through other distributors.  [Cough] Barnes & Noble [Cough]

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.

Book Reviews

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.

Don’t put all your eggs in a basket that’s essentially just moving piles of email addresses around, or reviews that you have to pay for (and that Amazon will delete as soon as they get a chance), begging for reviews from your writer-friends (which screws up your also boughts something fierce), or whatever short-term solution everyone is chasing at the moment.  Play the long game, take advantage of what you can when you can, then drop back into your long game.
Believe me, I know how freaking slow this all goes.

 

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.

Book Sale

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.

 

 


Ask the Authors: Action/Dialog

Writer Frustration

When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as  real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.

Is it difficult to produce dialog that is natural and realistic?
DeAnna Knippling: If you think really, really hard about it and remove every possible flaw…you’ll end up with craptastic dialogue.  I maintain that good dialogue is about listening to how other people talk.
Jordan Elizabeth:  I’ve always been told that my dialogue sounds realistic.  I don’t try; I just write what I hear in my head.  Sorry if that sounds conceited!
Carol Riggs: Sometimes. I find I have to pare down my vocabulary so I don’t sound like my characters are reading from a dictionary. Again, reading the lines aloud help me catch those things and make the interchange flow better.

Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…

“What can I get you?”

“Heineken. Thanks.”

As opposed to…

“What would you like to drink?”

“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”

What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?

DeAnna Knippling: A playwriting teacher made me go out to a coffee shop and write down every word of dialog that I heard for at least half an hour.  I haven’t been the same since.  I “hear” a voice saying things as I type, and I can “see” text as people talk.  “How would I tape out that grunt?”  “How would I punctuate that pause?”
 
Jordan Elizabeth:  I see the scene playing out in my mind and I hear what the characters are saying.  I also have a certain critique partner who is awesome at pointing out stilted sentences.
Carol Riggs: Reading it aloud! I also paste chapters into Natural Reader and let it read to me. Awkward stuff pops out pretty easily that way, if it doesn’t sound natural.
Chris Barili: Listen to real people talk, then apply the filter of your character’s personality, and you should have realistic dialogue. Unless you’re writing speculative fiction set in another time/place, of course.
Cynthia Vespia: Listen to the way people talk in real life. There are subtle nuances to every person, whether they have an accent or not. But when you write the dialogue, don’t try to be fancy.
Margareth Stewart: Very much – so very much. I have enrolled myself into screenwriting courses and also plays, so I can really master them. Besides that, I´ve also got some second-hand books with some masters of playwriting, you know from Shakespeare to Molière. So I guess by now, I´m on the way to crafting really good talking (lol). Let´s see!
Art Rosch: Once I had a dream in which a voice said, “Max wouldn’t say that.  It’s not in his nature.” So, I was getting dialogue guidance from the Dream Coach.  Dialogue must emerge from a variety of factors, and by the time I’ve got characters speaking their lines, what they say is almost pre-ordained.  I believe that words are objects, that they contain illimitable power and energy.  What people speak influences the world around them.  The dialogue between and amongst my fictional characters always serves a purpose.  Does it further the plot?  If it doesn’t it’s useless.  Is it stimulating, original, powerful?  If my characters are stimulating, their words ought to be. Dialogue emerges naturally from circumstances.  It’s organic.  The conversations that people have in fiction can be more interesting than what passes ordinarily in daily life.  They only sound forced if they don’t hew to the character’s true nature and the needs of the situation.
Dialog tags. Some authors, especially those in academia, will tell you that good writing only uses said, and maybe asked, or replied, while other authors prefer a more varied reportoir. Some say use them, others say use them as little as possible. Is there a right way when it comes to dialog tags? Let’s see what our panel members think.
Do you use dialog tags? Do you stick with the basics, or use varied tags?
DeAnna Knipling: By dialogue tags, you mean he said, right?  Of course I use them.  Why would I want my reader to be confused?  I only mix them up if it’s something satirical,” she pontificated.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to use varied tags, but I’m trying hard to use “said” more.  Most of the time I just use action tags.
Carol Riggs: Yes, I use tags, but usually the basics (she said, she asked). I do throw in a few mutters, whispers, and shouts; but I TRY not to overdo those. I’ve heard it said the best tags should pretty much be invisible, so the reader doesn’t even notice them anymore after awhile. I omit tags if it’s clear who’s talking, however. Not everything needs to be tagged!

Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”

I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.

Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.

For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”

But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”

Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.

“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”

“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”

Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”

Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.

“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”

Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.

“We have a history, you and me.”

So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.

“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”

The judges conferred, hissing.

“Agreed,” they said as one.

Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”

Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.

An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.

“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”

———-

Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.

Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful.  I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”.  But I like a little variation.  “What did she want?” quavered Tina.”  Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me.  “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.

 

BenjaminFranklinQuote

This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley http://pjbraley.com/writers-words/writers-writing/january/

 

 

Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.

What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?

 DeAnna Knippling: My understanding of how subtext works is that it’s the gap between what is done and what is said.  In a play or movie script, subtext is developed by the actors, who literally act out physical cues in order to clue the audience in on what’s going on with longing glances, angry tones of voice, etc.  In fiction, you do the same thing, only through the descriptions of the characters and their actions.  As a reader or audience, you don’t always need to know exactly what the subtext of a scene is, but you do need a clue that all is not what it seems.  A lot of classic mysteries that use the noir tradition–for example, The Maltese Falcon–use subtext to tell the reader to pay attention to something in a scene, but not exactly what.  Solving the mystery of the subtext is part of the fun.
Art Rosch: It’s usually a character’s body language.  Is anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Ekman?  He invented the concept of micro-expressions.  Subtle facial tells that reveal how truthful a person is being.  If you can work with a character’s body language and facial tells, a lot of subtext will emerge.
Any pet peeves with dialog?

DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.”  In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis?  No!  Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!

Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.

Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.

Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.

Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion.  That will sound both forced and boring.

 

03-21_Margaret_Mahy Quote

This quote from “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley http://pjbraley.com/writers-words/writers-writing/march-writers/

 

Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.

What is your secret to finding the right balance between action and dialog?
DeAnna Knippling: There isn’t one.  What, you’re going to regulate it as 50/50?  What if no one’s talking?!?  The “right balance between action and dialogue” is really a question of beat and scene structure, and there are 1001 ways to handle it.  Beyond the scope of this answer 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth: As I watch the scene play out in my head, I write down what I’m seeing and hearing.  It tends to form a smooth scene.
Carol Riggs: I sort of have an internal “feel” for it. If I start getting bored and antsy with one or the other, I know I need to change it up! The reader would be sensing the same thing, I’m thinking. I like a good balance of both, back and forth in a natural flow.
Tim Baker: In my opinion, dialogue is action – just not “car chase” type action. Whenever characters are speaking, the scene is moving much faster than if the author decides to use prose to describe the scene. So I try to use dialogue as much as possible to set scenes and let the reader know what’s happening.
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t try too hard to make a balance. Just let the story flow naturally, without forcing it, and it will find its own way. Having action in between dialog is helpful to build the scene so it isn’t just floating heads talking. Give a sense of movement and use it to build emotion.
Art Rosch: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t have a secret.  If I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
What is your secret for making action scenes move smooth?
DeAnna Knippling:
Hit.
The.
Damn.
Return.
Key.
Jordan Elizabeth: I watch the scene playing out and describe what I see in my mind. Critique partners also help to make sure my writing is coherent.
Carol Riggs: Short, punchy sentences. Active verbs. Fewer adjectives so readers don’t get bogged down. The character also tends to act more and think less.
Tim Baker: When I write a scene with lots of fast-moving action the key thing I try to do is keep the reader moving with it. By this I mean I don’t force them to read unrelated text (overly descriptive narrative). If a car is about to be hit by a train there is no need to go into detail about the car or the train. That should be handled (if necessary) before the action sequence is written.
Chris Barili: To me, an “action” scene is something like a fight or a car chase, etc. And for me, choreography is key. I have to know my setting, know my characters, and know what the end result can be. One technique I’ve heard of is writing the action scene backward from where you want it to end, which I may try sometime, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the creative flow taking over.
Cynthia Vespia: Action scenes need a certain energy to them that allows the reader to feel the pace of it. If it calls for a fight I act them out either with my own body movements, or using action figures. It is similar to the way choreographers block out action scenes in movies. You want the action to flow naturally. Knowing how the anatomy works, using the environment, and setting the proper pacing are all important elements.

Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time.  They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes.  If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters.  I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune.  Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke.  The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard.  In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground.  Zip!Sweesh!  Done.  Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction.  It’s too quick.  There needs to be stroke and counterstroke.  Tactical gains and losses.  In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory.  That’s film.  Writing a car chase?  Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene.  Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen.  Then there’s gun fights.  Why do the bad guys always miss?  Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?

I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.

 

03-12_CarlHiaasen Quote

This quote from It’s All About Words, by P.J. Braley http://pjbraley.com/writers-words/writers-writing/march-writers/

Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?

 

DeAnna Knippling: I have no idea what my “best” dialogue scenes are.  This one’s from a forthcoming book, Thousandeyes.  A detective, the mentor of the main character, is questioning a person of interest in a murder case that may or may not be tied to a local serial killer.  I enjoyed writing this bit because I finally felt like I was enough in control of the dialogue to layer in a number of lies and clues, even in just this short little bit:

“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy?  Before the deceased arrived?”

“Paint.”

“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment.  Why do you say that you smelled paint?”

The woman had closed her eyes.

“It was on the dropcloths.  He had left them in a stack in the living room.”

“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”

“No, I was fussing around with a few last things.  I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”

“Were you afraid that he would do so?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“What has this got to do with the murder?”

“Just answer the question.”

 

 

Janet Garber: From Dream Job:

 

At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.

“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.

“I can do that?”

“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”

Will this day never end?

“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”

I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.

“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.

“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”

Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”

“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”

“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”

“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”

“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”

 

Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…

 

“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”

Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.

“What? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”

Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.

“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”

“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”

Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”

“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”

“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”

Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.

“Non-refundable?”

Steve nodded.

“You’re kidding. Right?”

“I don’t kid about money.”

“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”

“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”

“Well, then…”

She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”

Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”

Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.” 

 

Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1

 

“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”

Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.

“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”

 

Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.

Excerpt from CONFESSSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN

 

          Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office.  Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances. 

          “It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

          Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees.  Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts.  She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level. 

          Finally, the inner office door opens.  Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.

          “Sarah?”

          “Yes,” she raises her eyes.  At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman. 

          She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman.  It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort.  The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling.  Rather, she is rounded and soft.  She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.

          Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman.   She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization.  She sees an easy and compassionate smile.  She sees security. 

          “Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.

          As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door.  She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”. 

          There is no desk in the office.  There is a couch, to the right of the door.  Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs.  The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern. 

          “I can see you’re having a really hard time.  Can you tell me about it?”

          As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.

          “I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs.  “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”

          She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.

          “All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages.  Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist.  She sees an emotion that startles her.  She sees sadness.  She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality.  Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace. 

          I can do that, too, Sarah thinks. 

          Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.

          “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”

          The therapist laughs, throwing her head back.  It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail. 

          “My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming.  “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”

          Sarah puts up her hands.  “No no no no, just the opposite.  I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”

          “Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we?  See what I mean about my secret weapon?”

          “Fat,” Sarah reiterates.  “Fat fat fat.  Fat fat.”  She smiles, for the first time in weeks.  “Fat fat fat.”

          Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”

and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”

          The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.

          The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.

          Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago. 

Find Me.  Read Me. Heal Me at artrosch.com

 

Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at web-e-books.com 

He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.

An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.

“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”

***

It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.

“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”

The man studied him. “Hum.”

“I´ve worked before.”

“I see.”

“I´m good with books.”

“What makes you think so?”

Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.

“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”

He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.

“Because I like books.”

He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.

“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”

“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”

“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.

Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.

“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.

“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”

 

I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.

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.

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Looking Back on 2017

Looking Back

Every year at this time I look back and so a review of what was published on Writing to be Read and my writing life. 2017 has been pretty eventful for both me and Writing to be Read, so this year I’m particularly excited about this look back. But, I’m also excited to get out my crystal ball and warm up my psychic abilities as we take a look forward that comes as we start the new year, because I think there may be some exciting things in store.

There were so many things that happened for me in 2017. In April, my western novel, Delilah was published by Dusty Saddle Publishing, which of course, is exciting. Delilah hasn’t done too bad on sales, but it didn’t make the best seller list. It has received some really excellent reviews, and is rated with four stars on Amazon. Although it may not be a huge success, for me it was a hard earned accomplishment, but the reward came the day I received my first royalty check. Yep, I’ve got royalties. Isn’t that the final proof that I’m a writer, at last?

Delilah and Horse Web Cover

I do have folks inquiring about a second novel, and for those who are wondering, Book 2 is in the working. My crystal ball tells me that it will be published sometime in the coming year, only this book, I may publish myself and skip the publisher as middle man. I’m having a time getting the sales data, and what I do have makes it appears as if what sales I do have, have been the results of my own marketing efforts, so I’m not seeing the benefit of sharing my royalties with a publisher, when I can do about everything they have done for me.  In addition, mid-year the rather generic cover the publisher provided for the book was replaced by a cover that fits the story better, done for me by Sonoran Dawn Studios, which I am much happier with.

The Collapsar DirectiveIn addition I had two short stories published in 2017 by Zombie Pirates Publishing. The first, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” came out on August 1, in their science fiction anthology The Collapsar Directive. The story is a futuristic dystopian tale with just a touch of humor, in a world where productivity is high, but you’re only allowed to be happy on the weekend. Relationship Add Vice

The second story, “The Devil Made Her Do It”, just came out the 15th of this month in their Crime Romance anthology, Relationship Add Vice. It’s a tale about the crazy things we do for love and a girl, Betty Lou Dutton, who leaves hereself open to be taken advantage of and ends up taking the rap. My fortune telling abilities see Zombie Pirates in my future for the coming year, as well. I submitted a little flash fiction story for consideration in their Full Metal Horror anthology. Wish me luck.

The really big thing that happened for me in 2017, or at least I think it’s big, is a landed an adjunct position teaching ENG102:Academic Writing at Western State Colorado University, my Alma Mater. Let me tell you, it has been a crazy ride. I got the position due to a last minute opening, when a scheduled lecturer was unable to teach for health reasons, which was unfortunate for the scheduled lecturer, but very fortunate for me. We got it all figured out and I was hired five days before classes started, so that’s how long I had to restructure both classes to be hybrid classes and figure out how to teach a method of writing I knew nothing about. It was a rocky start, and to be honest, I think I confused many of my students at first, because I was unsure myself, but as the semester moved forward, I gained more solid footing in the classroom, and the students began to figure it out, too. I have now successfully made it through a whole semester, teaching two hybrid courses and it feels great. I know I can do it and I have some experience teaching in a University setting, so I know there will be more teaching jobs in the coming year. My crystal ball is a little blurry in this area, but I know last minute stuff happens all the time, so who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back at Western.

teacher-owl clip-art

As for Writing to be Read, I’ve had an exciting year there, too. At the beginning of the year, I my friend Robin Conley helped me do a total overhaul of the site, and in August my friend DL Mullan of Sonoran Dawn Studios helped to redesign it. The results are what you see here now, but they were a long time in coming. I’ve added my website right here on the blog and you can reach the different sections by clicking on the tabs across the top to learn about my published poetry and fiction, my westerns, my Playground for the Gods series, or Write it Right Editing. Writing to be Read also gained some great talent in 2017, Robin Conley with her Weekly and Monthly Writing Memos, and Jeff Bowles with his Pep Talks and his God Complex posts, and I am thankful for benefit of their content for the short time they were with me. Unfortunately, life carries folks in different directions and both of these fine writers are no longer able to share their expertise and wisdom with us and I don’t foresee them rejoining us in 2017.

red-quill

What my crystal ball does show me, is that Writing to be Read has grown in readership over the past year, and I feel it is due to the great and consistant content posted not only by myself, but by Robin and Jeff, as well. Most recently, the content has been almost non-existant, because I’ve had to focus on the classroom and I’ve discovered grading essays takes a lot of time. I don’t think the drop in content from losing my team members or from my not having the time to devote that I should have hurt my numbers yet, but I do foresee such a possibility if the lack of content continues.

In this realm, my crystal ball shows me something very interesting. I see new members of the Writing to be Read team and really great content in the coming year. In fact, a call for action is going out with this post, right now. If you are a writer who feels you might have something to contribute and you’d like to be on the Writing to be Read team, I want to hear from you. Shoot me an email at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com telling me what type of contribution you would like to make and how often you’d like to make it. I’m pretty flexible, so let’s talk.

In years past, I have given a rundown of all the posts throughout the year and which were viewed the most or which got the highest numbers of comments or likes, however that makes for a very lengthy, boring post, so this year I’m only giving you the most interesting facts. For instance, over the past year Writing to be Read has had viewers from the across the globe. The highest number of views coming from U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, India and Mexico. It’s top referrer is Facebook, which doesn’t really make me happy, since I’m kind of peeved at Facebook at the moment, but I’ll take my viewers wherever I can get them.

The month to receive the most views was July, with my interview with writer, poet and cover designer Dawn Leslie Mullan being the hightest viewed post. Next up was a “Pep Talk” from Jeff Bowles, “I Think We Need a Break”, and third highest was my post, “An Adventure in Social Media Marketing“. The post that received the most viewed over the whole year was my post titled, “How Do You Measure Success?” which I wrote after signing the contract for Delilah. The second highest views overall were received by “Ah! Sweet Rejection“, which I wrote, oddly enough, after recieving a rejection for Delilah. The third highest was Robin Conley’s “Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is Everything“.

Looking ahead to 2018, my crystal ball says it’s going to be a good year. I hope it’s right. I guess only time will tell. So until then…

Happy New Year

 

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Monthly Memo: The Flashback vs. The Flash Forward

 

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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.

 (Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)

Flashbacks:

A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.

Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:

This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.

 

Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:

This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.

 

Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:

Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.

 

Flash Forwards:

Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.

This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.

Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)

When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.

 

Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:

When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2

When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:

This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.

The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.

 

Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)

This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.

 

Distinguishing Between the Two:

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening?  To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.

If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.

Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.

One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.

 

Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:

There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.

A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.

The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.

 

Final notes

Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.

Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.


The Pep Talk – I Think We Need a Break

face

Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a first-rate storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.

So let’s assume you’re a dedicated writer. Or at least you want to be, which is why you’ve decided to come back to your craft after months or even years of not writing a single word. Perhaps life got in the way. Maybe you got married, had kids, made the choice to focus on your family and career first. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? We all have the ability to pursue our dreams whole-heartedly or to lay them aside when more important things come along.

The truth is you’re not alone. Almost by definition, writing is a solitary and thankless job. Becoming motivated and staying that way can be tough, and if you’ve got other responsibilities and obligations in your life—and all of us have—setting aside time for yourself and your work can be a huge chore.

Several years ago, I was feeling the crunch in just this way. I’d gotten married, had bought a new home, and I was working a job that was financially stable but not personally gratifying in any way, shape or form. Many days I’d pick at one of my short stories over my cafeteria lunch, praying for the day I could dedicate myself to my writing and leave the confines of corporate America for good.

It’s often been noted that many great authors throughout history have had to suffer dead-end jobs on their way to literary nirvana. Writing is a for-passion proposition for the vast majority of us. We do it because we are compelled.

But what happens when you aren’t feeling compelled? What happens when all your desire dries up and the thought of putting words on the page fills you with dread? Further, what happens after you’ve already taken a long break? Is it possible to pick up where you left off?

Of course it is. Momentum is momentum, and when people pursue their dreams with everything they’ve got, the universe conspires to bring their stars into alignment. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re tired. Most writers I know have come to that place at least once or twice in their careers. When I was just starting to learn the craft, it seemed to happen to me at least once a week.

“I’m never writing another word! These people don’t appreciate my talent, and anyway, I’d much rather pursue things that aren’t so damn frustrating!”

So maybe you grumble and walk away from your computer and promise yourself you’ll never tell another story as long as you live. Your intentions here don’t actually matter that much, because like smoking or eating premium New York-style pizza, writing has a way of getting under your skin.

In truth, when we come to the point of extreme frustration, of no forward momentum, often the best thing we can do for ourselves is offer a little humility and compassion and allow the work to falter. This might not be a popular perspective, but from a holistic standpoint, it’s the correct one. Frustration in a creative field signals burnout, which is most often caused by internal factors like unrealistic expectations and uncontrolled anxiety. When you add publishing contracts and money into the mix—as all of us one day desire to do—it can make matters worse.

The good news is that the human animal is ever changing. No really, that’s the good news. We are not static beings. You never know who you’re going to be from one day to the next, let alone one month, year, or decade to the next. Imagine your surprise when after a long hiatus you discover you still like writing. What’s more, you’re not the same person now, and your work seems to reflect this new maturity. Hell, sometimes we just run out of ideas and need some distance in order recharge the batteries, right?

Some will tell you stopping is the worst thing you can do. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I might have done so myself a few years ago when I was stuck at that crappy job. I’d have been wrong, though. The intellect and creative mind are not eternal well-springs. They do not flow on command at all times, and they can run dry when pushed too hard.

Here’s a little test for you. Tell me the last piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry you wrote to completion. Was it difficult to finish? I mean, more so than usual (let’s be honest, writing is seldom easy—if it were, everyone would do it). Did you find thoughts and ideas hard to come by? Did the notion of hauling yourself to the computer one more damn time make a compelling case for alcoholism?

See, we come to these brick walls precisely because the act of creating meaning and order from abstract symbols (or writing, in the common tongue) is not a natural fit for our freeform, emotional minds. Given the choice, we’d spend our lives daydreaming—many of us do anyway. We come to this craft with the highest of hopes, our expectations completely untempered, like a piece of nascent steel. Time separates the tourists from the devout. Disappointment is the rule rather than the exception. Is it any wonder we need to hit the brakes sometimes?

Here’s what I’d like you to do the rest of the day. Don’t write, even if you were expecting to. Rather, choose an activity that’s bound to depress you. Count up all your rejection letters, read something you wrote five years ago, look up your publishing stats, and yes my friends, read them and weep. Stop telling yourself you’ve almost made it, just one more story, just one lucky break. This is a trust experiment, gut-check time. Have you chosen this craft because it will make you famous? Are you more interested in seeing your name in print than in revising a single piece of fiction until your fingers bleed?

You are more interested in that? Well you’re the strange one, aren’t you? Everybody knows writing is never thankless, is always a laugh riot, and makes you feel good every single day of your otherwise bleak life.

Writing sucks sometimes, people! It just does. We all know it, and if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to make peace with it sooner or later. You need to realize this is a long game. I mean a looooooong game. You will get burned out, probably more than once. You will feel the need to quit, and you might even hate yourself because you gave up better opportunities along the way.

Be kind to yourself, please. You aren’t alone. You’re a writer because you can’t quit. It isn’t in your DNA. You should be more trusting; have some damn faith. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, admitting you’re helpless in the face of your need to tell stories. Taking a break is not giving up, it’s just taking a break. You may notice when at last you return that your skills have atrophied somewhat, that you’re a bit rustier than you’d like. That’s okay. You had to start somewhere way back when, and really, nobody forgets how to write.

Jump start that mind, warm up with some finger exercises, write a piece of flash fiction to get the ball rolling, but know that your choice to rest up was made in service to yourself. Let’s just call it an act of love. After all, you know yourself best. You’re not a machine, as much as you’d like to be.

It’s a mind game sometimes. It’s a battle of will. But one does not cease to be a writer just because one ceases writing. We are who we are, enjoy what we enjoy, are passionate about that which nourishes our souls and allows us to feel free.

Far from feeling free, do you feel like your writing has become a prison? Then take some time off, dudes and dudettes! That’s an order! Sheesh!

Until next time, folks.


Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruceshttps://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F

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Monthly Memo: 3 Uses for Flashbacks

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Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”

In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.

So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?

Openings

If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.

  1. You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense.  A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
  2. A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
  3. A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.

 

Memory

Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:

  1. The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
  2. A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
  3. Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.

 

Mystery

One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:

  1. Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
  2. The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
  3. The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.

Final Notes:

The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.

Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.