C. Lee McKenzie on The Seven Don’ts of Storytelling

I’ve made long lists of “What Not To Do” that I use to help me when I’m writing/rewriting a manuscript. Some items are easy to track down and fix; others take some time and possibly a keen-eyed, critical reader. Here are seven DONT’S that I think are very important.

1. Don’t use twenty words when ten will do.

Poor writing is caused when writers don’t use effective sentence structures that have been proven to produce excellent prose.

V.

Not using effective sentence structures produces poor writing.

A lot of that poor sentence structure (what readers often diagnose as “awkward” prose) is the use of passive voice. That means you’ve buried the subject of the sentence at the end, put the object in the subject position, and used the BE Verb + the past participle instead of a strong active verb. Arrrg! It works in academic prose (I think to impress) or legalese (I’m sure to confuse), but not in fiction.

2. Don’t make your reader guess who this story is going to be about and why s/he should care about them. Make those characters want or need something as soon as possible.

Make it clear that Hildegarde Pink is the MC and she wants to climb that mountain. Or that Dirk Brainwave is the hero and he’s on the way to rescue his true love.

Then drop the bomb. Hildegarde is crippled and can’t walk. Dirk’s in jail and there’s no way he’ll get out in time to save that girl.

3. Don’t focus on minor characters just get the backstory in, especially at the beginning of your book. The start should always be about forward movement.

4. Don’t write dialogue that doesn’t have a purpose. Dialogue should

• reveal something about the character(s)

• move the story forward

• create tension

5. Don’t start your story in humdrum places with humdrum situations. These I’ve listed have been so overused that unless you’re doing a parody of bad starts, avoid them:

• in front of a mirror

• waking from a dream

• dressing for a night out, school whatever

6. Don’t let your middle sag.

This is not personal. This is about writing, and this is a difficult part. Even if your characters are amazing and your plot stunning, you’ve got to keep the pacing up. If you’ve got a ticking clock, shorten the time, delay the hero. If you’ve got your quest underway and all is going smoothly, send in the super villain and mess things up.

7. Don’t fall into the “and then” trap.

“I glanced at the clock and my teacher scowled. Then I pretended to be doing the assignment. After that I turned in my paper and left.” We need to know what people do in the story, but not in this flat, linear, uncreative way. Besides, what did all of that glancing, scowling, turning in, and leaving do to reveal more about the character or create interest in the story?

I’m sure you all have your own checklist. What do you think is important to keep track of when you’re trying to decide what’s wrong with a story?”

C. Lee McKenzie is a native Californian who grew up in a lot of different places; then landed in the Santa Cruz Mountains where she lives with her family and miscellaneous pets. She writes most of the time, gardens and hikes and does yoga a lot, and then travels whenever she can. 

She takes on modern issues that today’s teens face in their daily lives. Her first young adult novel, Sliding on the Edge, which dealt with cutting and suicide was published in 2009. Her second, titled The Princess of Las Pulgas, dealing with a family who loses everything and must rebuild their lives came out in 2010. Her short story,Premeditated Cat, appears in the anthology, The First Time, and her Into the Sea of Dew is part of a collection, Twoand Twenty Dark Tales. In 2012, her first middle grade novel, Alligators Overhead, came out. Double Negative is her third young adult novel.
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Sean McLachlan on Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Hey all! Today I welcome Sean to my blog as part of his book tour. If you’re looking for my IWSG post, it’s here.

Post-Apocalyptic fiction: what it is and what it isn’t.

There’s one thing a writer learns very quickly—the setting is not the story.

This is why I’ve written everything from westerns to post-apocalyptic tales, and as a reader I roam even further afield. I’m after the story. Sure, I have my favorite genres, and some plots seem to lend themselves better to some settings than others, but if a story is good I don’t care what genre it’s in.
(Except for romance because, well, I’m a guy and romance novels are written from the woman’s point of view. If a bodice is going to be ripped, I want to be the one doing the ripping.)

The current craze over post-apocalyptic fiction has been explained in many ways—fears over our deteriorating environment, the current economic crisis, international terrorism, etc. Whatever the reason, a grim future offers plenty of scope for storytelling. In the face of adversity, people have to pull together to survive, or become selfish and live off others. Civilization may have fallen but people still fall in love, have deep-seated jealousies, have grand dreams and petty insecurities. People, no matter what situation you put them in, are still people.

I saw a pie chart on Facebook a little while back called “What the Walking Dead is About.” It had various categories such as Loyalty, Friendship, Love, Parenting, etc. The smallest category, a tiny sliver on the pie chart, was titled “Zombies.”

The secret to the show is that the characters are compelling. We really love these people, or love to hate them. The zombies are there to get them into the situations that bring out the best and worst about them. They could just as easily been living on a space station invaded by aliens, or occupied France fighting the Nazis, or a Wild West town menaced by outlaws. In a different decade or a different country, the writers would have chosen one of those settings.

Back in 1901, M.P. Shiel wrote The Purple Cloud, one of the original “last man on Earth” scenarios. But, like Walking Dead a century later, it was about more than the fall of civilization. It was about humanity’s hubris.  People have been projecting their feelings onto apocalyptic novels for a long time now.
So if it’s all about the story, why do so many readers have a favorite genre? I suspect there are as many answers to that as there are readers. Some of it may be dictated by the zeitgeist or childhood memories, or a person may have been blown away by a particular book and that led to a permanent craving for more in that line.

What’s your favorite genre and why? Tell us what you think in the comments section. I’ll be hanging around here a while.


Sean McLachlan is an archaeologist turned writer who is the author of several books of fiction and history. Check him out on his blog Midlist Writer.


In a world shattered by war, pollution and disease. . . 
A gunslinging mother longs to find a safe refuge for her son. 
A frustrated revolutionary delivers water to villagers living on a toxic waste dump. 
The assistant mayor of humanity’s last city hopes he will never have to take command. 
One thing gives them the promise of a better future–Radio Hope, a mysterious station that broadcasts vital information about surviving in a blighted world. But when a mad prophet and his army of fanatics march out of the wildlands on a crusade to purify the land with blood and fire, all three will find their lives intertwining, and changing forever.

Buy it at Amazon

My new realization on "Show vs Tell"

Man, I thought I’d have time to post yesterday, but a friend got married and me, my gran and my mom did the flowers for her.

Being a total novice at flower arranging, I thought it’d be easy. It wasn’t. We spent most of the past two days standing, and believe it or not, those arrangements are HEAVY. Add to that the fact that it was a garden wedding with no shade and at the hottest part of a summer’s day, and it all adds up to exhaustion.

But today I’m a bit more relaxed, putting up my feet and reading my new crit partners’ WiPs and suggestions for  mine.

One WiP I’m critting got me thinking about something interesting. We all know about the “rule” show don’t tell. And if you’ve been writing and reading about writing long enough, you’ll know why this “rule” exists.

It draws the reader in more, letting him/her experience the story as close to the same way as the character as possible. Doing that, the reader gets sucked in, which is something any fiction writer worth his/her salt should want.

There’s something else I realized just now, that I thought I should share. Showing events rather than telling gives us as writers more scope in a story. It gives us more depth.

Let’s say, for example, that the main character’s mother died at a young age. You as writer could mention it briefly and let the story progress (telling) OR you could show the effect the mother’s death has on the character. So how does this open up the story more?

By exploring something you would have just mentioned, you might find the internal conflict you didn’t know you needed. You might even find a subplot that makes the main one stronger. You might even find a solution to a plot hole in a surprising place.

So showing strengthens a story in more ways than the conventional wisdom states. Don’t miss a chance to expand your book’s horizons, just because a scene doesn’t seem to fit the plan. It might just be the difference between a good read and a great one, and leaving emotions un-shown is just one huge missed opportunity.

Have you found an unexpected but perfect story element by delving deeper into something a character just mentioned in the rough draft?

Paul Anthony Shortt on Consequences

Hey all! Today I want to welcome Paul Anthony Shortt to my blog! Before we go into that, though, I just want to let you know where I am and what I’m doing. 🙂

First, I’m doing an excerpt swap with Quanie Miller, author of the up coming book It Ain’t Easy Being Jazzy. My excerpt is here. Hers is here. By the way, if you haven’t met Quanie yet, I suggest you check out the writings she’s posted so far. The lady has some kick-ass talent and I’m looking forward to read Jazzy. 

Second, I’m visiting Rebecca to talk about writing a series.

Hope to see you there!

Okay, take it away Paul. Adore the cover, by the way.

Consequences

Today’s guest post is pretty self-explanatory. A good story needs consequences. A character can’t run around, messing with the plans of powerful beings, throwing their own lives into disarray, and expect to get off scott-free.

At the end of Locked Within, Nathan Shepherd has suffered for his actions against the Council of Chains, and his obsession with unexplained murders. One friend of mine describes it as Nathan having “the worst week of his life.” And that’s true.

Or it was, anyway.

In Silent Oath, Nathan has to contend with the demands of his new role. The more he fights to keep people save, the harder he has to work. It’s as if his reward for each heroic act is to be presented with ever more dangerous challenges. He has to learn that it’s not enough to kill a few vampires. He must build something that allows the people of New York to protect themselves. He needs a conclave, a united group of people in the know to stand united against the Council of Chains.

But even that noble goal will have unexpected consequences. Outside conclaves look to Nathan for support. As his reputation grows, amid rumours that he is not just any reborn, but in fact the reincarnation of a legendary hero, he finds that more enemies want to challenge him, which those under his care look to him more and more for guidance.

Nathan must rise to this, and take charge if he is to do any real good.

However, reincarnation is tricky, and Nathan’s memories haven’t finished coming. He has other things to remember; events in past lives that will leave him shaken to his core. His actions, past and present, are leading him, inexorably, to war. For all his determination and strength, Nathan could stand to lose everything he’s built, and he doesn’t yet even remember why.

This is why consequences are so important in a story. As I wrote Silent Oath I thought more about Nathan’s past lives and how centuries of death and rebirth might affect him. What lengths would he go to in order to keep people safe? What if he wanted to have a quiet, peaceful life for a change? Fate has a funny way of dragging heroes back into action, no matter what they may do. This, too, is a consequence. The events that unfold throughout Silent Oath all stem from action or inaction on Nathan’s part. The challenge is for him to not only defeat his new enemies, but come to terms with the way he has changed things in New York, for better and for worse.


Bio: 
A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren’t enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing all his life. Growing up surrounded by music, film and theatre gave him a deep love of all forms of storytelling, each teaching him something new he could use. When not playing with the people in his head, he enjoys cooking and regular meet-ups with his gaming group.

Paul lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11th, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends. The following year, Jen gave birth to twins, Amy and Erica, and is now expecting their fourth child.
Paul’s first novel, Locked Within, was released on November 6th, 2012, by WiDo Publishing. Silent Oath is the second book in this urban fantasy trilogy.

Blurb:
Hope has returned to New York City. Nathan Shepherd leads a small band of dedicated fighters against the Council of Chains and the city’s supernatural masters. But it’s not enough. Because from the shadows of Nathan’s former lives comes an old enemy, one who knows terrible secrets that Nathan has not yet remembered, secrets that could undo everything he has fought for.

Nathan’s only chance to uncover the memories of his previous existence, and to conquer these new forces of evil, lies in Elena DeSantis. A woman he has fought beside in past lifetimes. A woman he has loved.
Together, Nathan and Elena are the only future the city has.

Links:
Twitter: @PAShortt

The Novel Films Blogfest II #1 and #2

I goofed! Somehow, I got my dates confused for the blogfest, so  I’m doing day one and two together. Sorry everyone! 
#1
I’m supposed to write about movies I loved, but where the original novel left me cold. Or the movie that prompted me to read the book. 
Usually, those are one and the same. 
I know it sounds odd, but I have this interesting (and often useful) issue. I don’t forget something I’ve read or seen.  Ever. 
Yes, details might grow squiffy, but I only need to see an image associated with the story or read a bit of it, and I recognize it instantly. 
The blessing in this is that I have this living encyclopedia of plots in my head. 
The curse is that if I read a book first, the movie will be ruined, because it jars with the story I have in my head already (and hopefully liked). The same is true for the reverse. 
So, to think of a recent example, The Lucky One, by Nicholas Sparks. The changes to the movie weren’t all that big, but big enough to spend most of the book going “hey wait” and comparing it with the movie I’d enjoyed. 
And anything that jars me out of the story gets to me. 
In a sense, I’m more forgiving if I read the book first. I guess it’s because I can see film adaptions as items to themselves, while the book always feels connected to the movie for me. So that’s what I do these days. I either read the book first, or I avoid reading it at all. 
Anyone else share my unique brand of insanity? 
#2
The adaption I’d most like to see (yep, as far as I can think, there is only one…):
A modern remake of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. 

Braiding story-lines

As I mentioned yesterday, I received my editor’s suggestions on the same day I traveled home from Europe.

And… it didn’t hurt. *Happy dance.*

There’s something really wonderful about having an editor who understands what I wrote. She immediately caught on with what I want to do with the story, so her suggestions are amazing.

Well… By amazing, I mean my reaction is something like this: *head desk* Why didn’t I think of that?

So… yeah.

There’s one thing I picked out of her editor’s letter that I thought I’d share. It’s relevant to anyone who writes something epic and complex.

When we write stories like that, we have to deal with multiple story-lines.

That’s great, because more than one story-line keeps things interesting. On the other hand, more than one story-line can dilute the tension. Especially when you’re going to leave them open-ended for the purposes of a sequel.

How does one combat this?

Pretty much by making the plot-lines just long enough. In other words. The big problem with multiple plot-lines are that we don’t give enough attention to enough of them. Which means that the reader doesn’t get a chance to connect to that particular line enough to care.

What happens if something goes wrong in the sub-story? Does it matter at all? Why? The reader needs to know. Same as with the main story.

I’m not saying you need to take every line through the three-act-structure. All you need to do is pick more important ones, i.e. ones that will be important in the immediate sequel, then extend them a bit. Just enough so that the reader gets a feel for the goal, conflict and stakes.

Because that’s what they’ll care about when then they want to read the next book.

And then make sure you have some awesome main story-lines.

How do you approach stories with more than one plot?

P.S. In case you’re wondering what happened to News Day, I moved it to tomorrow so I could get some news in. If you have something you think I should share, please e-mail me at mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

Motivation

During my forced time off from my rewrite, something occurred to me about a moment in my WiP2 that’s going to be a bit problematic. It’s one of those watershed moments where a character makes a choice that will determine the course his life will take. So it makes for excellent story.

Only… the motivation was off. Or more accurately, the perception of the motivation was off.

To my mind, characterization is the reason why a character is who he is. Motivation is the reason why a character does what he does.

Actually, it’s more the reason behind the reason. For example, commitment phobia might be a reason why a guy won’t marry, but the reaction that caused the phobia as a result of something in the past is the motivation. In the case above, distrust as a result of his wife cheating on him with his best man would be his motivation.

Characters can have more than one motivation, but most importantly, each motivation will have a significant effect on how the character reacts to others or on how he lives and sees life. For example, Mr. Commitment-Phobe might start distrusting women in general, and then struggle with the idea of marriage as he falls in love. But then, since he was betrayed, he’ll also very likely struggle to trust his love-interest around his friends or vice versa. 

It’s vitally important that the motivation is carried through the character as far as it can conceivably go, because if it doesn’t go all the way, the motivation will be seen as weak and it will impact on the story. If I stumbled over the above example in the story, I would think that his phobia was on over-reaction if he didn’t show at least some indication of it when his love interest is talking with his best friend. If this didn’t happen, it cheapens the situation and takes the depth out of the story.

Another important factor to consider: perception vs reality. What I mean with this is the reader’s perception based on the character’s actions vs. the actual reason behind the action as known to the author. It’s not that common that a character’s motivation is kept from the reader until the end of the story, since the conflict that comes as a result of character motivations can make for some wonderful story, because the journey of discovery of the character’s motivation makes for good reading. But not if the reader leaps to the wrong conclusion as to what motivates a character.

If the reader decides that a reader won’t marry because he’s selfish in some way, there’s a problem. Because whether or not this conclusion was wrong, it will affect how the reader will perceive the story’s events, as well as whether he/she will be able to stick through the story all the way to the big reveal.

The reader can be kept on the right track, though, through leaving clues to the motivation or by showing that the opposite of the wrong conclusion is true. For example, if there’s a chance of a reader thinking that Mr. Commitment-Phobe is nothing but a selfish bastard, show him at his most generous. Maybe let him take a kid under his wing. Something like that. Something that shows that not only is the guy generous, he’s only worried about committing to a woman. 

What about you? How do you handle motivation – especially for difficult characters?