Gotcha of the Day

Remember those little irksome writer errors that we all encounter from time to time while engrossed in reading a novel or short story? Those little details that jar us, or factual mistakes that we catch?

Here’s the latest gotcha to irk me:  petty-point.

Really?

I know I tend to stay too deep in my writing cave most of the time, and perhaps someone out there has modernized this term from needlework. I didn’t find this new spelling in Webster’s, but a  newfangled dictionary out there may have altered it to conform with how it’s pronounced.

Or do dictionaries even exist now when we can look up words on the Internet or have our phone spell them for us? (But I digress.)

The correct spelling is petit-point, a French term for needlepoint embroidery that is very fine and detailed. In old needlepoint (aka Berlin work), a figure’s clothing and body might be stitched in needlepoint or gros-point, while the hands and face were done in petit-point to better depict the features.

When I read “petty-point” in a recently published novel last week, it was like waking up to find a gigantic, green, hairy wart sprouting on my chin.

What kind of hash to the language will come next? Did the author not know better? Evidently not. Did the copy-editor not catch this? Who thought it acceptable? The English language is weird, complex, difficult, illogical, idiosyncratic, and filled with adopted terms such as petit-point, which, while old-fashioned, is hardly archaic.

Why does America sit complacently, content to be dumbed down again and again, oblivious to the rich variety our language puts at our disposal?

Petty and petit … same pronunciation. Same meaning — literally, small. And yet, worlds apart.

And if I’m wrong about this, if petty is indeed an acceptable variant for petit in the context of stitchery, then someone please correct me.

After all, I don’t want to foam at the mouth and rant without justification.

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THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA continued

Since I signed the contract with Manchester University Press for my book on fantasy writing, the prospect of having to write an index has been haunting me.

At first, with publication far away and the entire manuscript to write, I could shove the index to the back of my mind.

When the manuscript was completed and submitted for editorial review, a dark smudge appeared on my horizon. But I still could ignore it.

When revision instructions came back, the smudge became a cloud. Dread, uncertainty, reluctance all had to be faced.

A deadline for the index was handed down. Procrastination was not an option.

Faced with the actual task, with no way out, I took on the challenge of flexing my writing muscles in a new direction and tackling something I’d never done before.

Like so many fears in writing that we finally face, the index has proven to be no big deal thanks to the miracle of computers and a great deal of patience. Is it the most comprehensive or superb index ever written? Nope. Neither. I believe it will be adequate to the task, however, and that’s all I ask of it.

I’m not a fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I love his famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

How true that is. How often do we let doubt and uncertainty keep us from writing the story in our hearts, the story we believe we can’t do? How often do we write a manuscript and leave it locked in our computer, never sent to market or uploaded to Kindle and Nook? We have to face our fears and keep trying, always.

And now, like the person skydiving for the first time, who lands safely and feels the thrill so keenly she wants to do it again, am I ready to tackle another nonfiction book with index?

Well, not right away.

As for THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, the page proofs have been checked, and the index prepared. To my knowledge, all systems remain “Go” for January 2016 release.

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Wobbly Characters

A few weeks ago, I launched the first of an intended series of posts about breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Then a deadline happened.

With apologies for the one or two of you who might possibly have been waiting on the edge of your seats for the next installment, I am now, at last, continuing.

Although one of the most prevalent reasons readers are bumped from the story are writer errors, inconsistent characters can wreak havoc with suspension of disbelief, too.

Readers come to your story, willing to play, anxious to accept your plotline, eager to enter your story world, and ready to meet your characters.

In fact, they want desperately to like your protagonist. This character is going to become their new bestie — even if for a short duration — and it’s up to you the writer to supply them with a character that’s appealing, likable, pro-active, clever, resourceful, admirable, and capable of heroism.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

But I think writers hit trouble with characters for two primary reasons:

1) they try to create complexity the wrong way

2) they aren’t paying attention to their own story people

Let’s deal with #2 first.

How, you may be wondering, can a writer lose track of his character? Isn’t the character his creation? His baby?

But a sloppily designed character–one that’s thinly constructed with next-to-no background, few if any physical attributes, no tags other than a name chosen at random, and entirely lacking in motivation for whatever its writer intends for it to do–is quite easy to forget.

What happens when you can’t choose the right name for your character? You realize the importance of connotation in names, but you just can’t find it. Nothing seems right. Nothing really fits. So, with the pressure of a looming deadline upon you–or possibly just impatience to get started–you slap a temporary moniker on the character and proceed.

BOO! Wrong idea.

Sticking a temporary name on your elf is like trying to use one of those modern, stretchy-fabric Band-Aids that are supposed to be ouchless, but instead just fall off.

You call the elf Bob, promising yourself that you’ll find the right name later. But because Bob doesn’t work as the character’s name, you will probably forget it in the heat of writing your battle scene between the elves and the swamp lizards. So somewhere amidst the flying arrows and slashing swords, Bob becomes George. Or Jerry. Or Bill. Or XX.

Yeah, you know. You intend to fix it. But once the battle scene is over, you may be struggling with its problems that distract you away from your nameless elf, who isn’t really working as a character anyway.

If you can’t find the right name, you haven’t met your character properly. You don’t know him. And until you do, you can’t possibly write his dialogue or story actions with any degree of plausibility.

Not knowing your character means you will be hesitant when it comes to what he says and does. This tentative effect weakens the character. It’s easy to forget how he reacted in Scene 1 so that in Scene 7–when Nameless Elf needs to respond in a similar manner to whatever’s happening–you can’t remember what he did before, or you can’t remember his position, stance, or opinion–so you write his reaction differently.

Result? An inconsistent character that no reader will believe in.

Take your character and determine exactly what he looks like. Write a description that’s specific, not vague. Overflowing the sleek Porsche’s back seat, a drooling St. Bernard gusted hot breath on the nape of Joan’s neck is much more vivid than The big brown dog sat panting in the car behind Joan.

When you know what your character looks like–how tall is your elf? Are his pointed ears delicate and small, or huge like Dobby’s in the Harry Potter books? Are his eyes large and protruding? Does he have warts? Is his skin green or as pale as milk?–then you can think about what makes him tick.

If he lived with you, for example, in the here and now, who would he favor in the next presidential election? What’s his favorite food–snail eggs or chocolate chip cookies?

What’s his personality? Is he meek and mild-tempered? Is he rash and impetuous? Does he blurt out comments before he thinks? Is he incapable of lying? Or is he incapable of honesty? What are his best traits? What are his flaws?

Why is he in your story? Maybe you only intend him to appear in two scenes, complaining about your housecat’s forays into his garden, but however minor his role he should be vividly portrayed and matter to the story.

What is his goal? Why does he want that goal? If he fails to achieve his desire, what effect will that failure have on him?

By the time you answer all these questions, you will know that his name is Delfwin, for example. He has come alive to you. You now know him well.

And whether he’s important or minor to the story, your elf will be consistent and plausible each time he appears on the page.

As for reason #1 why story people fail to work, this occurs through a writer’s efforts to deepen character.

Perhaps a writing coach has told you that your character is too one-dimensional and needs to have more depth and complexity.

So you think, aha! I’ll come up with a more elaborate backstory for my shy, orphaned girl that’s backward for her age.

Accordingly, you weave a larger and more convoluted past for the character, making her an orphan raised by wolves from the age of one until she was five, at which time a forest ranger found her and brought her home for his wife to housebreak. Since learning to speak and eat cooked foods, Sheila Wolfbane has grown up wary of people, inclined to snap and lose her temper. But because her biological parents were concert musicians who died tragically in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, Sheila has considerable talent and plays the piano, violin, clarinet, and harmonica adeptly. She plans to attend Harvard and study environmental law.

Wow! Isn’t she now an amazing character? In draft one, Sheila was just an ordinary backwoods girl, but now … look at her!

I’d rather not, thanks.

Sheila isn’t any more complex in version two than she was in version one. The writer has invented a plethora of extra details about her, but that’s just more sequins glued to her shirt.

She won’t become complex until she has inner conflict. Let’s say that she acts meek and demure, avoiding eye contact and pretending to be shy, when in fact she hates Ranger Rick and Mrs. Rick for taking her away from her true family, her pack, and she’s planning to murder the Ricks so she can run back to the woods where she belongs.

Now when she snarls and snaps, she immediately shuts down her temper and apologizes, but inside she isn’t sorry. She wishes she could bite them and tear out their soft throats.

She’s psychotic, but she’s also more complex than before.

Too far out for your taste? Then perhaps Sheila survived the plane crash in the woods and lived on her own for several weeks until she was found. Trauma has rendered her mute. As she grows to young womanhood, she yearns to speak, wonders what the world is like beyond the forest, but is afraid to leave her home with the Ricks despite the fact that Ranger Rick is getting old and must retire soon. Sheila is terrified of change, yet curious of what she might see and learn. The young, handsome ranger taking Rick’s position is attracted to her. Sheila could live with him, and remain in the woods that are her refuge, yet a part of her wonders if she really loves this man or is just using him as a way to avoid facing her fears.

If a writer doesn’t understand how complexity is achieved, the piling on of more and more detail will at some point become implausible, even silly, and readers can no longer comfortably remain with the story.

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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.

liberty urn

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

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Happy Birthday, America!

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