Be Earnest, They Are

It’s no secret in my family that I write.  So whenever someone has a grammar question, a ‘Rules-of-Storytelling’ question or just basic, can you proofread this, I’m the go-to-guy.  Some time ago, my little sister (the 7-year-old) shows me a piece of paper and asks me ‘Does this story sound like it’s going good?’

It’s literally 2 or 3 lines of 7-year-old writing, which is it’s own category all together.  All I can gather is it’s about a cat that steals stuff, sneaks around to steal stuff and tricks people to steal stuff.  (She watches us play Skyrim, so think cat-person).  Now, she’s 7 so I’m not going to tell her that there’s no real concept of a plot yet, her grammar & spelling is in the pits and I have no attachment to this character what-so-ever.  Instead, I told that it sounded good so far, but there wasn’t much for me to go on yet.

As she’s skipping away I wondered how often the rest of us fall into that trap.  We get an idea, we’re eager, we write a couple of chapters (or maybe even finish the piece) and then run off to show it to a few betas and expect substantial feedback.  To some degree, I can see why.  We want confirmation that our awesome idea is, in fact, awesome.  That first ‘Yay!’ or ‘I can’t wait to read more.’ is critical, it’s an esteem booster.  But what happens when that ‘Yay’ becomes a ‘Nay’?  Then what?  Do we rework those first few chapters so that they’re more awesome?  And if so, what standard are we trying to meet?  Our own or that of those first betas?

This is particularly detrimental if we haven’t even finished the entire work yet.  If you have an entire MS and Beta-Gal doesn’t understand what’s being hinted at in chapter 3, then you’ll pull out the ‘Oh but wait until chapter 56!’ (Which is a whole ‘nother topic.)  If you don’t have your MS finished, then you can’t pull out that ol’ standby because you don’t know what’s going to happen then.  Yeah, you have an inclining, but it hasn’t been written yet.  And let’s face it, things change.  Plots change, characters change, characters die, fat unicorns give out candy–anything can happen! Personally, I don’t believe it’s wise to extensively edit your beginnings when you have no idea what’s going to happen in the end or even the middle.  (*Note I say extensively, some editing as you write isn’t bad at all.)

With my own WIP, there have been parts in earlier chapters that betas told me they didn’t get or it seemed confusing.  My CP even told me an entire scene was good but hard to believe, I was asking the reader to suspend their belief a little too far, a little too close to breaking.  Which sucked because I had no other idea how to tackle that scene.  I NEEDED the characters to go in that direction, but if it wasn’t believable no reader would go past that chapter.  It pained me, but rather than stress that scene, I kept writing.  I’ll admit, part of me was being stubborn.  Part of me wanted to believe that just ’cause it was hard to believe didn’t mean it was impossible and that I could leave it as is.  Well, I kept writing and as I got further in the story something changed.  CharacterB decided to go a different route.  In order for me to make that route work I had to go back to the beginning and add in certain scenes, leave certain hints and guess which scene got caught up in that wave of change?  I wound up re-writing it and I think it works much, much better.  (No word yet from my CP though 😉 )  If I had stressed over that scene earlier and made changes, it would have been for nothing because eventually I would reach the point where CharacterB goes that different route.

Schrodinger’s cat argues that it’s possible I may never have gotten the inspiration that made CharacterB go a different way which changed everything else.  My response?  Exactly.  Anything is possible, until you write ‘The End’ anything is possible.  Just as I couldn’t jump for joy over my sister’s cat-person-thief, you can’t ask a beta to give you appropriate feedback on an incomplete piece, it’s not fair to them or you.  Finish your work, put your all into it, let your CPs read and re-read those various versions, they’re built for it, but give your betas a piece that is as close to finished as you can get it.  Be Earnest, They Are.

What do you think?  Is it better to make extensive changes as you go based on other’s feedback, or to finish the piece, making changes as you go when you feel the need to, and then seek feedback?  Would you rather be eating an ice cream than thinking about editing?  Yeah, me too.

Is Your Salty Sam Good Enough?

A great villain is an integral part of a great story.  The fella, or gal, you love to hate.

However, the villain has to be great, and believable, and must have motives to do what he is doing.  I have an old Ray Stevens song that a high school art department illustrated.  Along Came Jones, But in this case I wanted to show the villain, Salty Sam.  Also I just want to have a little bit of fun with this post as well.

Salty Sam, an early villain from the first grainy black and white silent films.  Complete with the moustache, and evil laugh.  Salty Sam worked for the quick short, but for a novel, or series Salty Sam doesn’t work.

My fellow AQC Speculative Fiction friends were chatting and we were kicking around villains.  Okay, kicking around the topic of villains, not the villains themselves.   Evil just to be evil, aka Salty Sam, doesn’t work.

My own experience with this was in our writing marathon last summer.  I had the chapter where my villain was introduced.  Everyone who gave me feedback told me he was just flat out too evil.  In other words, I had written a Salty Sam.  So I had, and still have, a lot of rewriting and work to do to give the bad guy redeeming traits.

The antagonist of the story needs to have motive, reasons for doing what they are doing.  Why did Salty Sam want the dead to the ranch?  Was he planning to build an orphanage?

Spec Fic is vast.  Aliens want earth and kill everyone.  Why?  What motivates the Aliens?  What motivates the monsters?  Why does the Dark Lord want to enslave all the elves?  Power?  Dominion?  Resources?  To live?  Will the bad guys change and turn good?  Is the Good Guy really the Bad Guy?  Conflict, the center of any great story.

Without giving any spoilers I am thinking about the new Spider Man movie. The villain was really a good guy, with great motives.  Make the villain very interesting.  A good villain makes for a great hero.

Keep the Reader Reading

Several years ago, I joined a car pool.  Work was a 50 min drive away so paying to ride vs drive everyday was well worth it for me.  My favorite part of riding in a car pool is being able to read.  I would read to and from work, well in the summer I could read on the way to work.  I bring this up because some of my fellow passengers never read.

One day I was reading a western, the hero was in trouble (of course).  He was in a creek, and when he came up out of the creek, he pulled his gun and fired.  I am riding in a car with hunters/outdoors-men.  I didn’t know if a wet gun could fire or not.  So I asked.

“What does it matter, the book is fiction, you can do what you want,” was the answer the driver shot back at me.

It mattered to me, if a wet gun does not fire, then the author lost credibility.

Credibility matters, a lot.  True the story is fiction, but it must be believable fiction.  I’ve noticed with the latest comic book movies that, even though they are comics and very unreal, the moviemakers go to great lengths to make them believable.

Speculative Fiction opens up all sorts of unrealistic and imaginative worlds.  However, each story, each world has a set of rules.  Once you’ve set up the rules DO NOT break those rules.  I read a time travel story, however the author set up the fact that the time machine was going back to a parallel time, not the past, but a parallel past.  Then when they went back in time, what they did, did in fact, affect the future time line.  So the past wasn’t parallel after all.  It didn’t work for me.  A great read turned into a turn off.  That author lost credibility with me.

So if you are creating, research to make it believable.  No matter how fantastic and out there the story is, it has internal rules that make it run.  Keep things inside those rules and you keep your credibility.

While riding in that car reading, I would have rather stayed in the story.  Coming out of it to ask fellow passengers if the writer wrote true broke the suspense.  It is so much more fun to stay immersed in the story.  Keep your readers reading, not scratching their heads.

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Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Writers are exhorted to show, not tell. Don’t describe what’s happening, put the reader INTO it. Naturally, there are exceptions to that “rule.” One being that there ARE NO rules. Sometimes, however, it’s what you DON’T show that keeps dear reader turning pages and makes those short hairs stand on end.

This can apply in many cases. Often what leads up to a torrid scene, the foreplay if you will, is by far more titillating than going with the characters into the details of the consummating act. Too often, the overused euphemisms for body parts and what’s done with/to them take away from the scene. Why?

The reader’s imagination is often far more vivid, given room to draw its own picture, than any you could draw for them.

Trust your readers.

Yes, you want to give them plenty of details, carefully chosen, to lead them where you want them. Perhaps you show what Mr. Bad Guy is capable of doing. Maybe we see him do it to a minor character. Maybe someone finds what he’s left behind. A madman is on the loose.

But say Cyndi knows something is wrong when she gets home (or to Grandma’s house.) The dog isn’t barking. It always barks. She feels it. She tries the door and it’s unlocked. She calls out. No answer. She pushes open the kitchen door and a scream freezes in her throat…

Cut to another scene.

Would the reader keep reading? You betcha. They hope to find out what Cyndi saw. Maybe it’s the madman gnawing on Grandma’s (fill in the body part.) Maybe it’s the dog, or what’s left of him. You can bet they’re going to want to know, and meanwhile, they will have filled in the blank with the worst they can imagine, based on what you’ve foreshadowed, teased with.

Or, say…

There are rumors of an alien presence. Most don’t believe it, of course. But it’s night (or maybe a sunny, spring afternoon), and Kyle is walking down the street (or across the meadow) when he hears a strange, high-pitched whine. He turns. He doesn’t see anything. He walks more quickly, though, and the air around him becomes electric, and he turns again, and before he can scream at what he sees…

What did he see? What happened to him?

Okay, those are cliff-hangers, staple of suspense from the beginning of fiction. But here we’re dealing with speculative fiction, and this writer finds the best element, across all the sub-genres within that broad family, is the one the genre is named for.

Speculative.

Let ’em wonder. Let the reader fill in the picture. Lead her to the well, but let her drink whatever is in there. Wait. Are you sure you want to draw up that bucket? To look down there?

When the story begins to show too much, it becomes like a movie that gets too graphic or too overloaded with special effects.

In my novel, a friendly, benign ally diverts a minor player while others carry out a plan that she, the minor player, musn’t see. But unseen to the others, a dark force takes him over. We cut to the others, and later, we come back to the discovery of a pair of legs akimbo in the supply closet. We don’t see what the discoverers see, but we know it’s horrifying. And the next time we see the “friend,” he has scratches on his face. What happened in that closet? What did they see? From earlier scenes, we have an idea, and it isn’t pretty. The reader can paint the picture as we move on, knowing what the nice guy’s friends don’t.

And what else can that invisible power do? Where is it from? How did it “turn” a nice guy?

The details we choose must give enough specific information to allow readers to fill in the details we choose to leave to them to imagine. And isn’t sparking the imagination the essence of Speculative Fiction? Different worlds, invisible forces. Things shown and things not seen.

Except in the mind of the reader.

Our job is to lead the reader to that well. To that room.

Do you trust your readers to use the colors you’ve given them to paint the picture, to make up their own minds about a question you’ve left for them?

It’s not enough that we speculate. That’s the nature of our fiction. But don’t we want to make the reader speculate as well?

I’ll leave you to think about that.