Archive | July, 2010

How To Confuse Your Reader

If you want to confuse your reader, try using as many different ways as possible to refer to the characters in your novel.

Shane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

When writing character names, which name is appropriate? First name, last name or combination?

I’m working on a thriller novel that I’ve mixed a secondary characters first and last name depending on my writing pattern on any given day. I want to standardize. Using his last name seems odd, but when in dialog, I use his first name, cuz, that’s how people talk.

In my mind and daily life, I rarely use peoples last names. I’m a first person guy, so in writing, I tend to reference their first names, a lot. Is there a standard? In Thriller/mystery’s is it different? I’ve read a lot of police procedure stuff that tends to focus on last name.

Randy sez: A lot depends on what category of fiction you’re writing and what your readers expect. In Russian novels (or novels with Russian characters), it’s common to refer to characters with their full names, including the middle name. This drives American readers crazy because those Russian names can get quite long. I can remember a few Tom Clancy novels in which the extra Russian names seemed to add another 100 pages to the book.

My rule of thumb is to use one name almost exclusively for each character. In most cases, that’s the first name of the character. In a few cases, it’s more natural to refer to certain characters by their last names.

It’s common in certain communities for everybody to go by their last names. Military units. Sports teams. Cop environments. Certain dorms I’ve lived in. If I were writing a novel set in one of these communities, then I’d be sure that the characters used each other’s last names in dialogue. However, in the action parts, I’d probably refer to most of them by their first names, unless there was a compelling reason to use the last name.

One mistake that you should avoid is trying to eliminate repetition by mixing up first names, last names, nicknames, and roles in a horrible hodge-podge. That just confuses the reader.

To illustrate how badly this can go wrong, let me write a really wretched bit of fanfic. Count how many characters you see in this snippet of a scene:

“Go away,” Harry said.

Lord Voldemort gave a high, cold laugh. “Says who?”

“Do it,” said the green-eyed boy wizard. “Now.”

The greatest dark wizard of all time pointed his wand at Potter’s chest.

“You think you’re really something, don’t you, Riddle?” sneered the son of James and Lily.

“Call me Tom.”

“One thing I’ll never call you is the Dark Lord,” said the Gryffindor seeker.

He Who Must Not Be Named hissed sharply as he twirled the wand between his long, pale fingers. “You will,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.

“And I refuse to use euphemisms like You Know Who,” said the Boy Who Lived. “I’m not afraid of you and that’s why you hate me.”

Randy sez: Gack! How many characters did you see? If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, then you counted these thirteen characters:

  1. Harry
  2. Lord Voldemort
  3. The green-eyed boy wizard
  4. The greatest dark wizard of all time
  5. Potter
  6. Riddle
  7. The son of James and Lily
  8. Tom
  9. The Dark Lord
  10. The Gryffindor seeker
  11. He Who Must Not Be Named
  12. You Know Who
  13. The Boy Who Lived

If you’re familiar with the series, then you know that there are only two characters here: Harry Potter is the green-eyed Boy Who Lived, the only son of James and Lily Potter, and he’s also the seeker on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Tom Riddle is the greatest dark wizard of all time, self-proclaimed Lord Voldemort, known to his followers as the Dark Lord and feared by his enemies as either He Who Must Not Be Named or as You Know Who.

In the series, Harry Potter is mostly referred to as “Harry,” although many characters refer to him in dialogue as “Potter.” The various other appellations for Harry are rarely used.

Lord Voldemort is generally called “You Know Who” by those who fear him. A few brave souls call him “Voldemort” when speaking about him. Professor Dumbledore calls him “Tom” and Harry calls him “Riddle” when speaking to him. Voldemort’s followers always call him “the Dark Lord”.

The key thing is consistency. Throughout the series, the context determines what Harry and Voldemort will be called, and things are never confusing.

Don’t be afraid of a bit of repetition. Clarity is good. If you have to use “Harry” and “Voldemort” fifteen times on the same page, then do so. Don’t confuse things by constantly switching appellations. If “Harry” appears in every paragraph, the name quickly becomes invisible and the story flows smoothly.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Should You Trick Your Editor?

When writing a synopsis for your novel, are you allowed to hold back information, or must you spoil the surprise for your editor by telling all? That’s the first of two questions we’ll look at today.

Alice posted two questions on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a question about writing a synopsis for a mystery novel. Should you try to leave at least a bit of a mystery unsolved in synopsis (like, who’s the bad guy) or should you reveal all the secrets? What bothers me is that mystery novel is supposed to be a mystery and if the publisher knows everything right from the start, could it be that it won’t be interesting for him/her to read that novel?

That question concerns not just mystery novels but all other novels that may have a surprise in the end. Should you reveal it in your synopsis or can you hide it?

I have also another question that got me into an argument with my friend. If your POV character doesn’t notice (for different reasons) something that is important TO THE READER (not the characters) to know, can the author peek over his shoulder and show the reader what the POV character can’t see? I think the author can do that, but my friend argues that it will ruin the mood of the scene and that the reader would be more immersed in the story if they are not shown stuff POV character fails to notice. Problem is, her POV character fails to notice quite a lot of stuff that I, as a reader, would like to see and that quite the contrary irritates me and prevents me from getting the feel of the story.

Randy sez: Editors wear two hats at all times. All editors are readers. All editors are editors. (I’m sure this is not terribly surprising.)

When wearing the reader hat, the editor likes to be surprised as much as anyone else does.

When wearing the editor hat, the editor wants to know that you can deliver a good story. That means that she wants to know how the story ends. If you know who the bad guy is, you need to tell your editor. If you’ve planned a super-cool, extraordinary, knock-their-socks-off surprise ending, you need to tell your editor.

There is a loophole here. If you look closely, you’ll see that I used the words “If you know.”

What if you don’t know the ending? Well then, you can’t tell the editor, can you?

What if you think you know the ending but when you go to write it, an even better one weasels its way into your brain? As long as it’s a better ending, your editor will forgive.

What if you tell the editor an ending that makes sense, but you’re holding in reserve an even better ending? Well then, you’d better be able to fib Xtremely well to your editor and convince her that you never had an inkling the real killer was Throckmorton until you got to the last chapter and there he was with a bloody knife in his hands and only then did you realize that it wasn’t Fredholm after all, even though his fingerprints were all over Griselda’s iPod.

Now for Alice’s second question, is it ever legitimate to tell the reader something that the POV character doesn’t know?

This question is a little like asking, “Is it ever legitimate for an elephant to be a tiger?”

Go ahead and try to answer that question. Neither “yes” nor “no” seems to be appropriate. An elephant CAN’T be a tiger, so questioning the legitimacy of an elephant being a tiger misses that essential point. Let me unpack that a bit.

You have several different choices for the point of view of any given scene. One of those is called “omniscient POV” and it allows for you, the narrator, to tell the reader things that no character knows. In “omniscient POV” you don’t actually have a POV character. You can get inside the heads of your characters, but none of them is “the POV character.”

The reason is that in order to have a POV character, you implicitly make a decision that the scene is being filtered through the senses of one character. If you show part of the scene in some other way, then you are breaking POV.

Is it legitimate to write a scene in omniscient POV? Of course. Many fine novels have been written in omniscient, but there is no POV character when you make this choice. Instead, you have a “focal character.” (Tragically, the word POV is being asked to do double-duty here, as both a noun and an adjective, and that makes things seem more ambiguous than they actually are.)

It’s also legitimate to choose first person, third person, or even second person (this is rare). In any of these, you have an actual POV character. But when you make this choice, BY DEFINITION, you have chosen not to show the reader things the POV character doesn’t know.

It’s legitimate but fairly uncommon to use the “objective third person POV,” in which there is no POV character, there is only a “focal character”. (Again, the word POV is being used as both a noun and an adjective in the above sentence, which explains the apparent paradox.) When you write a scene this way, it’s perfectly fine to show the reader things the focal character doesn’t know. In fact, it’s common to do so, because the only way you can show emotion is by showing the physical responses of the character (like they do in the movies, where you also can’t get inside the character’s head). Most of those physical responses are not visible to the focal character.

One final question is whether the “head-hopping POV” is legitimate. In this choice, you get inside the heads of multiple characters in a scene. This is quite common and accepted in the romance category, where many readers want to experience the thoughts and emotions of more than one character in the same scene. I know good writers who claim this is legitimate. I know others who consider it the very work of Satan.

Personally, I don’t like head-hopping, but I think if it’s done well, it can get the job done. When the author skips back and forth between heads, never giving the reader the chance to identify with any character, that seems to me a clear case of bad head-hopping and there’s no POV character. When the author makes smooth transitions, it seems to me that the scene is simply being written with one POV character in one part and a different POV character in another part.

It seems that Alice likes omniscient or objective third person. Her friend likes first-person or third-person POV. Those preferences are a matter of taste, not a matter of legitimacy.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Giving Yourself Permission to be Dreadful

If you’re a beginning fiction writer, you know good and well that your first novel is going to be awful. (If you don’t know this, then you have the added handicap of being delusional.) Given this fact, should you even bother to finish that first dreadful novel?

Rebecca posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m in the works of my first story but I my craft needs a whole lot of work. What ways do I work on my craft without writing an entire novel that will no doubt come out as junk in the end? I don’t want to overwhelm my brain trying to make it do something I’m not ready for. Should I try and write shorter stories or scenes for my novel? Any advice?

Randy sez: Here is a theorem which you can easily prove. You will never write your second novel unless you write your first. Even if your first novel is so awful you wouldn’t even use it to wipe up the mess the puppy made, it’s still a necessary step along the road to publication.

You learn to write a novel by writing novels. You get good by first being willing to be bad — if necessary to be dreadful.

Having said that, there are varieties of dreadfulness.

If your paragraphs are dreadful, the solution is to write more paragraphs. Lots of them. Get them critiqued. Try to improve them. And keep doing that over and over and over. Eventually, they’ll get better.

If your scenes are dreadful, the solution is the same, but here it can be helpful to also study up a bit on the theory of writing scenes, because other people have solved the problems you’re struggling with. I’d recommend my free article on this web site, “Writing the Perfect Scene” as your first place to look. That article will recommend some books you can then buy if you need more help.

If the structure of your novel is dreadful, then I don’t recommend continuing to work on it, however. I recommend that you first learn what makes a well-structured novel.

There are plenty of sources for that. My buddy James Scott Bell has a terrific book, PLOT & STRUCTURE which I have been recommending for a long time. I have long sworn by Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. My own recent book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES is my best shot at teaching the theory of story structure.

Once you understand why the story structure of your novel sucks, either fix it or move on to a different story. My first attempt at a novel had a serious defect that I didn’t recognize for two and a half years. It was a structural problem. As soon as a friend of mine (John DeSimone, my first writing buddy) pointed out the problem, I abandoned the book.

I don’t think it makes sense to keep working on a novel that you know is doomed. Work on one that you think has a chance of succeeding. If you later discover that one is also doomed by a faulty structure, then fix it or abandon it. Writing fiction is a tough business and it’s hard to maintain your enthusiasm even when you believe your story walks on water. If you know that the main story is broken, you’ll find it impossible to keep slogging on, writing ever-better scenes and paragraphs.

That’s my opinion, anyway, but I”m always willing to hear another point of view. What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Have you ever realized that your whole novel was fatally flawed? What did you do?

A postscript: After abandoning my first novel, I worked on #2 for several months until I realized that it, too, was fatally flawed. I abandoned that immediately, grateful that I was learning how to fail faster. I worked on novel #3 for a couple of years and its structure was fundamentally sound and I finished it.

I then found an agent who worked for years to sell it while I worked on Books #4 and #5, each of which also had fatal flaws which caused me to abandon them.

Book #3 circulated for years, but we never sold it, although we had some near misses. However, the comments we got from publishers prompted me to write Book #6, which was the first book I sold. I hope to someday publish #3. It had some nice points, but it was too long for the market then, so I might need to slice it into two books.

I am sorry to say that the agent who worked so hard to sell Book #3, Ron Haynes, died suddenly of a heart attack before I completed Book #6, so I sold it without an agent. Ron thought I had talent, and he was an endless source of encouragement, but his hard work never came to fruition in his lifetime. Ron, wherever you are, I thank you.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Truth, Lies, and Fiction Writing

Do you have to use all the facts you know in your fiction? When the facts contradict the story you want to write, what do you do?

Micky posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been working on this book in FanStory.com and I’ve gotten articles from the Mayor of Ketchikan I’m using for ‘kinda’ the place this young woman is going to to be a teacher. He had a few girls that did the same thing at 19. Now that rules were if the woman got married she could not teach anymore. This rule was in 1920’s and lasted until the 50’s. In my story I have the teacher getting married. Do I have to make her quit teaching or ignore a rule no one else is going to know? Isn’t there some kind of writing rule that allows you to write things the way you want? I am making this a Romance book, and she happens to be a teacher in the 1920’s Alaska!
What is your answer?

Randy sez: Fiction is not required to follow the facts 100%. You are not only allowed to make stuff up, you’re expected to do so. Fiction is not a documentary.

Having said that, it’s important to be as true to your facts as your category requires. If you’re writing a police procedural, for example, your readers expect your cops to do cop stuff the way actual cops in your particular setting do cop stuff. However, your readers also don’t mind if you make up stuff in your cops’ personal lives that may not be typical of the personal lives of most cops. It’s fiction.

If you’re writing a historical novel set in a particular place and time, your readers expect you to not violate any known historical facts about that place and time. If you do, then you are disobeying one of the cardinal rules of historical fiction. Micky, it does no good to argue that this is a rule nobody will know about. If you know about it, then somebody else knows about it too — probably somebody close to your setting who could be a strong promoter for your book if it rings true. If it rings false, you can count on that “somebody” telling anybody who’ll listen that you don’t know your stuff.

There’s a way around this, of course. If you really insist on this woman continuing to teach after she gets married, then make that part of the conflict. The rules say she has to quit. She doesn’t want to — and she fights the system. Now whatever your story is, it just got better. Conflict always improves a story.

There are some classes of historical fiction where you don’t have to stick with the known facts. Some examples:

  • Historical fantasy. Xena the Warrior Princess gets a lot of latitude from her fans, who really don’t care whether the history is anything remotely correct, so long as Xena does lots of fighting in an outlandishly skimpy costume.
  • Alternative history. Harry Turtledove is one of the masters of this category. In this class of fiction, you’re expected to diverge from the known facts. It’s an exercise in “what if?” that lets you explore those pesky historical paths not taken.

The one thing you really must do is to make your category clear to your reader and then follow its conventions. In my view, one reason Dan Brown’s book THE DA VINCI CODE was so widely panned by critics was that it claimed to be giving the “correct history of early Christianity” when in reality it was giving an interpretation favored only by a few self-proclaimed “Holy Grail theorists.” Historians across a broad spectrum of philosophical persuasions saw no merit in this interpretation.

This would have been fine if the book were presented as a typical conspiracy book, like many of Robert Ludlum’s books. But Ludlum clearly never believed that his novels represented actual truth, whereas Dan Brown obviously does believe that his does.

Micky, I hope that answers your question. In your case, it seems like you need to account for the facts you know, and my idea to just use this to add to the conflict of your story makes sense to me.

What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? If you were Micky, would you take note of this rule in the story, or would you ignore it?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Blog of the Day: In scanning my favorite blogs today, I found three that sounded downright radical on the prospects of e-books and p-books in the immediate future:

  • Seth Godin’s Blog. In a blog entry titled “But who will speak for the trees?” Seth argues that the demise of paper will “doom” newspapers, book publishers, and magazine publishers — probably within three years. (“Doom” means to change them beyond recognition.)
  • Mark Coker’s SmashWords Blog. In a blog entry titled “How Indie Ebooks will Transform the Future of Book Publishing” Mark remarks that the future is bright for authors and for publishers willing to change. But he sees a dim future for those publishers who take a bunker mentality.
  • Joe Konrath’s Blog. In a blog entry titled “Konrath on Wylie” Joe comments on the case of Andrew Wylie, an agent who has e-published some of the older books of his clients which were contracted before e-books were mentioned in contracts. Konrath warns publishers to embrace the e-future and start treating their authors better, with a better share of the e-book pie.

Things are changing even faster than I expected in my recent blog entry, “The Future of Publishing.” As writers, we need to be willing to adjust to the new realities. Bear in mind as the future comes rushing at you that we are essential to the future of publishing, no matter what form it takes. If you don’t have a writer, then you don’t have a story. Period.