Bubble Bursting

When readers settle down to enter your story world and meet your characters and become caught up in your plot, those readers are making an effort to suspend disbelief in the whole thing. They are trying to believe in what you’ve written. They want to make believe with you. They have come willingly to play with you.

It’s a writer’s job then to help readers continue to suspend that disbelief from start to finish.

Various things, however, can bump that fragile suspension. Writer errors, inconsistent characterization, implausible plot events, jarring dialogue, slow pacing due to too much description and explanation, weak scenes, and shoddy viewpoint management are all factors that can jar readers right back to the real world. Jar them too often, and they may give up on the story with impatience, frustration, or a sigh.

After all, they’ve paid good money for the entertainment your book or short story promised them. And that money will be seen as wasted.

So let’s consider these problems one at a time and see how they can be avoided or remedied.

Writer Errors

Sometimes known in the business as “gotchas,” these are factual errors or anachronisms that readers catch. Although writers make valiant efforts to research settings, procedures, history, skills, situations, clothing or gear, etc., mistakes can and do happen.

Years ago, I was listening to best-selling thriller novelist Ridley Pearson talk at a writers conference about how he had researched the city of Seattle as a setting for some of his crime novels. He pored over maps. He consulted with Seattle law enforcement. He tracked down every detail he could think of, and then discovered–after his book was published–that he’d gotten the tides wrong and the victim’s body wouldn’t have washed ashore in the way he described. How did he discover it? Readers–maybe even readers from the Seattle sheriff’s department–let him know.

Ouch! Years after his book’s publication, Ridley was still wincing. Because he cared.

Some gotchas are fatal to a book. Others are not.

The fatal ones occur when the storyline is implausible because it’s heavily based on serious writer ignorance. For example, a writer wipes out a plane’s pilot mid-flight and then has a passenger flying the plane to a successful landing … incorrectly. So incorrectly that the plane would crack up if someone actually did what the character executes. Such extreme error occurs when writers fail to research at all, hoping lazily that no one will catch it.

Another form of fatality is to write a string of implausible character actions that leave even lay readers saying, What? Why doesn’t she just …  Wouldn’t they do …  Shouldn’t it be different than this?

A nonfatal gotcha can often appear as a goof in the setting detail, such as a character threading his car through afternoon rush hour traffic, with the author unaware that the street in that city at that time of day is one-way only. Locals would know it, but the majority of readers probably would not catch it.

A few months ago, I introduced a student to Jim Butcher’s first novel, Storm Front. She really enjoyed the story events, but his minor errors with the Chicago setting bugged her terribly, as she claimed to be very familiar with the locale. So she read the story because I assigned it, but itching and twitching all the way.

Naturally, some gotchas are dependent on the level of reader tolerance. Some readers will find mistakes but shrug them off. Others are bothered, or distracted, or annoyed, or offended. And some readers are themselves wrongly informed about your topic or setting and are too stubborn to believe you’re right.

Recently I read a historical romance set in the French Revolution. The plot was quick and engaging. The characters were likable. The historical period is a favorite of mine. It was evident that the author had done a considerable amount of research on her setting and period details. Since I used to write books in this time frame and have researched it, I was glad to be able to enjoy the book without gotchas.

Until the hero came into his room at a roadside tavern in 1792 France and “set a mug of coffee on the dresser.” It was so anachronistic, so wrong for the period and time, that it jolted me out of the story. I liked the plot and characters enough that I kept reading. But every time they drank coffee on the road or in a house or wherever, I remembered that phrase. Worst of all, I found it progressively harder to suspend disbelief.

You might be thinking, over a tiny detail like coffee? Lighten up!

Yeah, I do try. But you see, in the 1790s, coffee was expensive and hard to come by. It wasn’t available at modest roadside inns and most people couldn’t afford it. And people didn’t have dressers either. They used other types of furniture, but not dressers which came along in the 19th century. Worst of all, the phrase was just too modern. It was perfect for a story set in the 21st century, but not for a story set in the late 18th.

A lot of readers wouldn’t catch this and most might not care. But for me–for this reader–it was a distraction. I read books set in historical times for the flavor of the setting. A modern phrase destroys that ambiance, and it disappoints me. It also made me doubt other details the author was using. It made me doubt the story. I became wary, and my antenna went on alert for more errors that might be lurking in those pages.

Too much doubt, and readers will dump the book. I didn’t stop reading the historical because its author was pretty sound on everything else. But had I caught another glaring anachronism or error, I would have tossed the book aside.

Are you thinking, why didn’t the editor catch it?

Because editors these days are overworked and rely on writers to get things right. This particular author is successful and popular with her readers, so evidently the majority of them aren’t bothered by mugs of coffee on dressers in an era when people drank coffee rarely, went to coffee houses to partake of the beverage, didn’t use mugs unless they were peasants–and even then they were called tankards instead of mugs–and didn’t have dressers because they used wash stands, dressing tables that we would call vanities today, chests of drawers, and wardrobes instead.

Nitpicking? You bet! In all fairness to the author, she was just having the guy bring his lady love some breakfast. But I would have been happier had he whisked a tray from the hands of the chambermaid and put it on the bed so his lady could partake of a dish of tea and a morsel of ham. The lady was English and I don’t think she swallowed tea in the entire novel. And while I’m no tea drinker myself, I do know that it was the beverage of choice in that time period. If the character disliked tea, then the author should have said so and I would have loved her for it.

As a writer, you can’t be 100% perfect, but you should always strive to be as accurate as you possibly can, because you never know who’s reading your fiction or how it’s being interpreted. When you do get things right, readers notice and they are incredibly appreciative that you cared enough about their area of expertise or knowledge to check and double-check.

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Updates and Announcements

THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA is still in production and almost ready for the next phase of wending its way to publication. I will be receiving page proofs mid-July, which means yet more proofreading. Ack! This seems to be the year of proofing, with thirteen of my backlist titles published digitally in February and number 14 just up on Kindle. FFF will be the 15th book I’m combing through for mistakes since January. Who knew the new eyes were going to get such a thorough workout?

As for my declaration of reading 100 novels during the summer, I have to admit I’ve spent more time at my computer trying to write a novel than planted in my armchair reading them. Still, I make no excuses. I can report only seventeen read thus far. I find this disappointing; however, the summer isn’t over yet so I will not yet surrender my goal.

(Am I allowed to count the ones I’m proofing? Nope! Am I allowed to count magazines? Nope! Am I allowed to count owners’ manuals for techie toys? Nope!)

Currently I’m reading an autobiographical account of an American woman who was a Japanese prisoner of war in Borneo during World War II. Entitled THREE CAME HOME, technically it’s not a novel, but I will count it anyway. A movie was made from it, starring Claudette Colbert. This is not a quick read, but who cares? The point is to fill the well.

Harlan Coben is up next.

What are each of you reading this summer?

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Another Backlist Title Published

Just announcing that another SPACEHAWKS series title is set to be published on Amazon Kindle by tomorrow.

THE ROSTMA LURE (under my Sean Dalton pseudonym) is number four in the sf military adventure series. Originally published by Ace Books in 1991, it is now spiffed up, lightly revised, and decked out with new cover art. I have been combing through the scanned draft for OCR errors, so if any are found it’s due to my missing it.

I’m trying to decide between writing a new spin-off series of Spacehawks adventures or more in my Nether/Mandria fantasy series. Does anyone have an opinion or vote?

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Happy 4th!

On this festive day, let’s remember what freedom is, what it means to each of us, and the price American men, women, and children have paid for it. As writers, we possess the liberty to express ourselves without government censorship, coercion, or reprisal. But each of us is responsible for understanding what freedom means and our individual responsibility in maintaining it. Beware of social censorship, social coercion to conform to the agenda of the moment, and social reprisals when or if you write against fashionable trends. Whether you are conservative, moderate, or liberal, you have the right to your opinions, your feelings, and your words. And if we disagree, let us strive to be civil to each other. Let us be united in our love of our country and our pride in what she stands for.

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A heartfelt THANK YOU! to our veterans.

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A GOD BLESS AND PROTECT YOU to our military forces serving now.

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Happy Birthday, America!

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Plot It Simple

From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over:  Keep it simple.

But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.

Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:

Make your characters complex.

Keep your plot simple.

Let’s consider these one at a time.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS

Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.

A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.

Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.

Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.

Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.

Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.

SIMPLE PLOT

A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.

This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.

This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.

In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.

Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.

The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.

In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.

The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.

A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.

Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.

Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:

Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.

Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.

Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.

Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.

Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.

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Plot Shopping

The other day I happened to be in a large hardware store. I was tagging after a friend, with no errand or list of my own. As I wandered down the aisles, I saw a wide variety of products, all of them useful, and each of them reminding me of chores I needed to tackle or projects I didn’t know until that very moment that I wanted to do.

The longer I lingered, the more items I wanted. Granite cleaner, sponges, epoxy glues, bird feeders, lovely rows of canned spray paint in hues I didn’t know spray paint came in, grilling accessories, Yeti ice chests that evoked a strong desire to go camping in Yellowstone Park, and an entire plethora of garden hoses and devices to organize my closets.

Had I not been possessed of an iron will and a dwindling amount of cash, I might have succumbed that day to the myriad temptations spread before me.

The point is that, just like me on the loose without a list in a hardware store, if you don’t have a plan when you’re pulling together your plot elements for a story, you’re going to be enticed by too many choices, alternatives, and possibilities.

When plotting fiction, the best approach is to follow my instructor Jack Bickham’s advice: “Keep it simple.”

I might add my own advice to that:  “Keep it on track.”

In other words, don’t thoughtlessly and heedlessly grab potential plot events, using anything that pops into your head, in an effort to make your story idea more exciting.

Just as you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you’re more likely to over-buy, it’s easy to over-plot when you lack a clear direction for what your characters will be doing.

For example:  let’s say I want to write a fantasy where a group of five friends embark on a quest to find a mountain oracle that tells the future.

Seems clear enough. But is it?

This scenario has a goal, which implies direction, but it’s much too vague to enable me to plot clearly, simply, cleanly, and effectively.

Why?

Well, what’s going to happen first after they set out on their journey?

Maybe I intend them to meet up with a caravan of travelers. They’ll get acquainted, walk together until they reach a fork in the road, and then they’ll part company.

Snore.

What’s next?

Well, aware that perhaps the traveler episode wasn’t all that lively, let’s say that I want my band to cross a river, encountering a swifter current than expected. They’ll lose their supplies, and maybe one of the group will be swept away. They won’t know if their friend is alive or drowned. This will cause much angst and drama. It will be exciting.

Check. And then what? Gotta top drowning, squelchy shoes, and shivering on the riverbank.

Maybe I have another event in mind, like — hmm — a forest fire or earthquake or an encounter with a stampeding herd of magical moose. Or maybe I’m starting to approach that fuzzy nebulous part of my premise. To fill the void, should I toss in any and every incident that comes to mind? Do I feel a touch of desperation, that niggling little worry that none of this stuff is good enough or exciting enough? Am I going to be reaching for clichés, random events, and over-complication?

Why not step back, pause, and think through a storyline first? In other words, do you have a shopping list – aka story plan – to follow instead of sheer impulse? A plot plan that will get your characters where they need to go and help them accomplish what they need to do from beginning through middle to end?

To return to my quest example:  the friends want to seek the mountain oracle. But who or what is actively trying to prevent this? Is it an outside source, or a member within the group? The latter option would allow for events of sabotage, growing suspicion, and friction among the friends. Each action would have a consequence, which would lead to the next decision and next action. Thus, the events become progressive and logical instead of random. I could have arguments and conflict instead of moose stampedes. (And, yeah, maybe I could still drown a character, particularly if that drowning is due to betrayal from the evil member of the group.)

When you develop plot events sequentially, with one leading to the next, you can explore their ramifications instead of jumping impulsively from one disconnected activity to another. Your plot stops being frenetic and becomes engaging instead. And you the writer will be less easily distracted or lured away from the story you originally envisioned.

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Idea Files

Writers and their ideas. Whether they’re teeming in our heads, overflowing our imaginations, or being chiseled from what seems like bedrock, the question isn’t so much where do they come from as it is how do we preserve them until we’re ready for them?

In my amateur days I used to suffer sudden sweats of panic about losing the idea that would make me famous. Then, as I established my career, I figured that good ideas were like stray dogs you don’t want to adopt:  no matter how hard you ignore them, they stick around.

Even so, good ideas shouldn’t be wasted. They shouldn’t be lost. So how do we manage them? In other words, are you tidy, meticulous, and organized with all your ideas filed in the Cloud or some other nebulous, high-tech place? Or do you jot your ideas on your phone or tablet? Or do you dump them all into a Word document file? Or do you scribble them on fast-food napkins, the backs of envelopes, sticky notes, and any other scrap of paper that’s handy?

Several years ago, I worked in the rare books department of a university library. At the time, this library was not yet computerized, so a card catalog was still in use — you know, that tall wooden cabinet with every book in the collection filed alphabetically on a separate card in the catalog’s narrow drawers. One of the advantages of my lowly job was the availability of blank cards. If I needed to jot down a line of dialogue for a character, I had a stack of cards at hand. I would go home with all sorts of cryptic notes, bits of description, etc. scribbled on several cards. This haphazard approach worked fine for manuscripts in progress then, and still does.

But the focus of this post is on the ideas that come when you can’t drop everything and work on them immediately. The ideas that are going to be filed away for use later. How do you record them? What, exactly, do you record? What goes into those files? And how useful are they later when you get around to them?

I admit that I’m more of a piler than a filer. When I’m working on a manuscript, I don’t want to throw anything away, and I don’t want the piles of paper, notes, references, etc. on my desk disturbed until the manuscript is finished, edited, submitted, copy-edited, and safely in production. Only then do I clear the desk in preparation for the next project. Needless to say, this leads to some pretty horrendous stacks of all sorts of things. I’ll never forget the day that I was cleaning out my office, and came across one of those bits of paper that was so obviously a notation of an idea.

I knew it was important because a) I’d written it down and b) I’d kept it on my desk close at hand. At least, I could only presume that it had once been important. Because it only contained a single cryptic word that made no sense whatsoever. I think it might have been a character name, but who was he? I was writing three science fiction books a year at the time, and all sorts of names and terms were being invented daily.

So there I stood, holding a potentially vital clue in my hand … and I couldn’t use it.

I never did recall what it meant, what it was for, why I’d written it, or what I intended to do with it. Nothing sparked to life. Whatever the idea was, it was clearly without sufficient vitality to stick around. However, it taught me that when I took the trouble to record an idea, then I needed to write down more than a single mysterious word or phrase.

Here, then, are my suggestions for idea notations:

1) Determine whether you have a character, setting, or plot idea.

2) If a character, then write at least a paragraph of description or background. If a name comes to you or a handful of possible names, record those. Do you have any inkling of this character’s personality, or any quirks? Can you envision as yet how this character might dress or express herself? What does she want from life? What is troubling her? What about her intrigues you or appeals to you? How might you make her more vivid?

3) If you’ve got a setting in mind, whether it’s a world or a room, describe it as vividly and as specifically as you can. List all the details that occur to you. Don’t worry about gaps and missing information. Don’t even bother with putting the details into sentences. Just list what comes to mind. Afterwards, try to form a dominant impression of this setting. Can you sum up what you have so far into a short phrase? For example, you might use “blinding light” as a dominant impression for a desert setting featuring white, purely reflective sand beneath an intense sun.

4) If it’s a plot that’s unfurling in your mind, then go ahead and try to really capture it. At least try to sketch out the bare bones of the situation, a catalytic event of change, a potential protagonist, a possible antagonist, their individual goals, and the disaster they’re possibly headed toward.

In other words, instead of filing the notation “sinking ship” in your plot file, write up a plot sketch in which you determine who’s aboard her, what’s causing her to go down, are there sufficient lifeboats, are the officers able to control the panic, who among the crew and passengers has the most to lose, which individual with a lot at stake stands out or interests you most, and what does this individual want to accomplish. The more you can record, the more likely your plot will continue to bubble in the back of your mind, alive and possibly growing.

You will have gaps, of course. These are, after all, ideas rather than fully developed premises. You needn’t push yourself for answers or expect to have them all at once. Just make sure you ask the questions. And then, secure those ideas so they don’t become lost!

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