Archive | May, 2012

Take Another Deep Breath…

The Fifth Man A new release of my novel The Fifth Man is finally out in e-book form, joining the new paper version that was published a couple of months ago.

This is the sequel to Oxygen, a space adventure novel with a strong female lead character. Like Oxygen, The Fifth Man has a storyline that flies, full of suspense, humor, and romance.

About The Fifth Man:

Valkerie Jansen is tough, beautiful, and being pursued by every man on the planet. Literally. The planet in question is Mars, with a total population of four.

Days before a giant dust storm is projected to strike their camp, Valkerie is attacked by an unseen assailant.

Fortunately, there are only three suspects.

Unfortunately, all three of them . . . are innocent.

This is the second edition of The Fifth Man, released in May, 2012. This “Writer’s Journey” edition of The Fifth Man contains three bonus appendices (over 60 pages!) for fiction writers and anyone interested in getting the inside scoop on how John and Randy develop their stories. Learn some of their most powerful techniques, including story drivers, high concept, and scene structure.

About the Authors:

John and Randy have been collaborating on one crazy project after another for the past fifteen years.

Not only are they novelists, Ph.D. scientists, and entrepreneurs who’ve founded four different corporations between them, but rumor has it that they prowl the night wearing steampunk battle gear to rid the streets of vampires, werewolves, and ducks that poop on your front lawn after it rains.

John and Randy deny all such tales as “vicious exaggeration.”

Extras for Novelists

For writers (and for anyone who wants to know the story behind the story), John and I added some extras that I think my Loyal Blog Readers will find immensely valuable. We created three appendices for the novel, totaling more than 16,000 words:

  • Developing the Big Idea
  • Developing a Powerful High Concept
  • Every Scene is a Story

I think you’ll find that second appendix Xtremely interesting. John has this technique he’s been using for years to take “high concept” story ideas to the next level. Editors love John’s ideas, and I could never quite figure out what he was doing to make that happen.

I suspect he’s been trying to explain his technique to me for a long time and I’ve been too dense to get it. But now I do. I always wondered why his novels sell better than mine. I think this is part of the answer.

You might also find that third appendix to be pretty cool. I’ve been teaching for years on the theory of “Scenes and Sequels” or what I prefer to call “Proactive and Reactive Scenes.”

In the third appendix, I had unlimited room for examples of those pesky Proactive and Reactive Scenes, so I packed them in. I analyzed the first 31 scenes from The Fifth Man, showing what made them work. In a few annoying cases, I showed what we could have done better if I’d known 10 years ago what I know now.

Why Only $2.99?

That price won’t last forever. In fact, we intend to increase it this coming Sunday night, June 3, 2012, at midnight California time.

Caveats: Be aware that the online retailers don’t always charge exactly the price we want them to. Amazon sometimes charges a higher price to some customers outside the US and they don’t sell in absolutely every country on the planet. Barnes & Noble sells only to the US (and I think also to Canada). We don’t have any control over where these folks sell and what exact price they charge. We have given them full world-wide distribution rights and we told them the price we want. If they don’t do exactly that, there are reasons, but they’re above our pay grade to understand.

Fortunately, Smashwords can sell to most countries in the world at pretty much the same price, and they make e-books available in the ten most common electronic formats.

Where to Get The Fifth Man

Grab your e-book copy of The Fifth Man here on Amazon for $2.99.

Grab your e-book copy of The Fifth Man here on Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Grab your e-book copy of The Fifth Man here on Smashwords for $2.99.

If you don’t have an e-reader, you can get free apps for your computer, iPad, or smart phone on Amazon to read Kindle e-books and on Barnes & Noble to read Nook e-books.

You can also get the PDF version fromSmashwords, and remember that a PDF file is readable on any computer.

If you prefer paper and you live in the US, you can order a paper copy here at Marcher Lord Press (the current price is $16.99, and I assume this is subject to change — again this is not under my control.)

The paper edition has the same content as the e-book, but it has a different cover because different publishers always have different covers for a given book.

Merging Storylines In Writing Your Novel

Can you have two independent storylines in your novel that only merge near the end? Or are you going to confuse readers if you do that?

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

I just found your blog while researching writing techniques, but I love what I’ve seen so far. Thanks for everything you do.

Now my question: I have been writing for a short time (approx. 7 mos) but have decided to undertake a huge fiction project that spans at least three novels, possibly four.

A pivitol part of the first two books is the translation of an ancient journal. This leads to the first book containing two storylines that merge into one as the story reaches its climax. The best way that I can think of to distinguish between them is to insert lumps of journal entries as alternating chapters. There wouldn’t be as many journal entry chapters as the regular story ones, but toward the end the journal entries would stop as the truth is revealed.

What is your opinion on doing it this way? Would this work successfully or Leave the reader too confused to continue? With little writting experience, I’m not sure how many assumptions we should make about the readers. Any insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

Randy sez: Mike, it sounds like you’ve taken on a pretty ambitious project here — a 3 or 4 book project for your first novel is quite an undertaking. But J.K. Rowling did OK with her 7-book first project, so it’s possible to do quite decently in a big project like this.

My rule of thumb is that readers are smart. If you give them enough information, they can deal with multiple storylines without any problem.

Tom Clancy tends to do this a lot. Several of his novels include characters (in one case a large tree) that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the story. Then, near the end of the book, the person (or tree) converges with the main storyline. I don’t recall ever being confused by this.

So Mike, I think you’re free to do what you want with these journal entries, as long as you make it clear that that’s what they are. You can do that using some sort of a dateline at the top of each journal entry. If I were doing it, I’d play it very straightforwardly, with a dateline something like this:

From the journal of Leonardo da Vinci, May 23, 1512

I assume Mike isn’t writing about Leonardo, but you get the idea.

Generally, your reader is smart and can handle radical changes in time, place, and point of view without any confusion — as long as you make it clear what each time, place, and POV actually is.

This does not mean your reader WANTS you to skip around willy-nilly. The grand illusion you are giving your reader is that she is in some particular time, at some particular place, and inside some particular person’s skin. Your reader wants to get comfortable and experience that time, place, and soul for at least a full scene. Once the scene is over, she doesn’t mind going somewhere else.

If you avoid jerking your reader around too often, she’ll be happy.

What does “too often” mean? That varies from one reader to the next. I shoot for an average scene length of about four pages. Some of my scenes go as long as ten or twelve pages. Some are as short as a paragraph (during a high-action sequence of scenes). But an average of four pages (1000 words) is what I feel comfortable with.

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.

Perfecting that Pesky Point of View

Can you write a story using both third-person and first-person point of view? Will the POV cops arrest you if you do? Will you confuse your readers?

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

Sir, I have recently written a short story christened ‘Remembered’. In this story I wrote initially in third person about a family with a missing mother, then after putting three asterisks I wrote about what actually happened to the mother in first person.

Critics say that since I was writing the fiction in third person, I should not have changed it to first person.

Is it necessary to write the whole story in either third or first person? I am now in a fix whether to change it to third person or not. Kindly help.

Also I have put the story about the mother in such a way that she, at first, tells how she left her home and why(in past tense) and then (in present tense) commits suicide. Some of the critics have commented that since she is dead she can’t be telling the story.

Kindly guide me whether and how to change the story. I would highly appreciate if you kindly spare a few minutes to read it. I will be awaiting your reply. Thanks.

Randy sez: I don’t know who your critics are, but they are wrong. There is no rule that says that all parts of a story must be written in the same POV.

Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Dragonfly in Amber mixed first person and third person POV throughout the story. The reader was never confused.

And that’s what matters — you want your reader to never be confused. If you execute your story well, you can switch between first person and third person smoothly.

The second part of the question was whether a dead person can narrate a story. Sanhita’s critics say he can’t do that.

I say he can. Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel The Lovely Bones tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered in Chapter 1. The rest of the novel is narrated by Susie from heaven. Nobody is confused by this. Not one reader ever said, “Wow, that can’t happen because, you know, Susie’s dead.”

Readers are generally pretty smart. They aren’t confused by dead narrators, omniscient narrators, or for that matter, cat narrators.

This highlights an important question that all writers should constantly keep in mind: Should you take advice from just anyone?

I’ve phrased the question in a way that makes it obvious that the answer is no.

Be careful in taking advice. Not all critiquers are created equal. And some of them, even when they are giving sound advice, don’t know how to make it clear just how certain they are of being correct.

I often hear novice novelists complain about the “rules.” These “rules” are allegedly fixed in stone and nobody can violate them.

That just isn’t true. There are very few unbreakable rules in fiction writing. There are many rules of thumb. Some of them work so well and so often that you should be wary of ignoring them.

But most of these “rules” can be broken, if you know what you’re doing. You’ll know when you can break one of the “rules” after you’ve learned them so well that you can follow them without thinking.

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.

Values, Ambitions, and Goals for Your Character

How much can your lead character change over the course of a novel? Can his values, ambitions, and goals change — or should they remain locked in place?

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

Hey Randy :) I’ve got a question I’m hoping you can help me with. I’m reading through your “Writing Fiction for Dummies” book and am having trouble understanding the whole “values – ambition – goal” thing.

I understand what each of these mean in regards to character development, and I can come up with a good set of conflicting values that branch into ambition and goals. My problem comes when I start thinking about those goals as they pertain to the inciting incident.

It seems like the character’s values, ambition, and goals can be one thing at the start of the story, and then something completely different once that first plot point comes around that changes everything for the character.

In creating a character’s values, etc., should we be thinking about what his goals are after that first plot point, at story start, or both? I’m stumped.

Randy sez: Beka is referring to Chapter 7 of my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. I should say here that my thinking on all this was heavily influenced by the book GETTING INTO CHARACTER, by my friend Brandilyn Collins.

As a side note, the May issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine had a long article on the values, ambitions, and goals of the two lead characters in THE HUNGER GAMES. If you’re unfamiliar with values, ambitions, and goals, this article is a good place to start because it’s free.

The essential question here is what changes in the character over the course of a novel? Values? Ambitions? Goals? All of the above? None of the above?

Let’s start with values. I define values to be the essential “core truths” that a character believes.

As an example, the Godfather in Mario Puzo’s novel THE GODFATHER has one core value that I would express this way: “Nothing is more important than respect.” The Godfather is a man of respect. That’s how he earns his living. If you take away his respect within his community, then you take away his life.

I believe that values are so central to a character that they are rarely going to change. They may have to defer to some other value. The character may have some radical, life-changing epiphany that causes him to reevaluate his value.

But a value is a very deeply held belief, and it’s not going to change willy-nilly as the plot of your novel unfolds.

What about ambitions? An ambition is an abstract thing that a character wants to have or to do or to be.

In the Godfather’s case, his ambition is simply to be a godfather to his community — a man of respect who provides for his people and protects them from the malicious and capricious government, which cares very little about poor Sicilian immigrants.

The Godfather’s ambition follows naturally from his value. If nothing is more important than respect, then it’s a fine thing to be a man of respect. And a man of respect takes care of those who pay him the honor of their respect. The Godfather’s relationship to members of his community is a patron-client relationship.

Once again, I think that ambitions are so central to a character that they’re rarely going to change during the course of the story. It’s possible, of course, but this is rare.

What about goals? I define a goal to be a concrete thing that represents the ambition. What does it mean for Vito Corleone to be a godfather?

It means that when a poor widow comes to him for help when she is evicted by her evil landlord, Vito intervenes at his own expense, at no charge to the widow.

It means that when a baker in his community needs proper immigration papers for his future son-in-law, Vito finds the correct Congressman to bribe and makes the needed connections.

It means that when a Sicilian trusts in the American justice system and finds himself cheated, he must come on his knees and beg forgiveness from the Godfather — and only then will he get the justice he could have had from the first, if only he had shown proper respect from the beginning.

Each of these is a minor working-out of the Godfather’s ambition. Each of these is a small goal appropriate to a single scene in the novel.

As for the large-scale goal of the novel, that can and does change as circumstances change.

Early on, the Godfather’s primary goal is to find a suitable heir for himself. His two older sons are made of the wrong stuff to be a Godfather. His youngest son, Michael, is made of the right stuff but he has morals, and the Godfather sees that it’s hopeless to try to change him. The Godfather must look elsewhere for an heir, and he needs to act soon.

But goals can change. When the Godfather is shot and nearly killed by his arch-enemy Sollozzo, his clan vows revenge. Nobody has a good idea exactly how to get it. Then that pesky moralistic third son, Michael, volunteers.

Michael offers to murder Sollozzo, and his corrupt cop ally. Michael has morals, yes, but one of Michael’s values is that blood is thicker than morality.

Michael succeeds, and now he’s on the run, because a cop-killer can’t get off with a little bribe to a congressman. Michael goes into exile in Sicily. The Godfather gets well and regains control of his business.

That now resets the Godfather’s goal for the rest of the novel. He will bring Michael home. He will get him off the hook on the cop-killing charge. He will make Michael the next Godfather. This is in line with his original ambition. It’s in line with his original values.

Goals often change over the course of a novel. But ambitions don’t change very often. And values hardly ever change.

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.