Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sargas Chronicles: Part 2

 Villain Character Arc

First, a quick refresher of the three main definitions I'm working with.

Protag/Hero:  The one with the most to lose -- the main character (Frodo, Will Turner)
Antag.:          Oppose the Hero -- supporting characters to the villain (Gollum, Norrington)
Villain:           The one with the most to gain -- the main "bad guy" (Sauron, Davy Jones)

A little sidenote: one way to clarify between villain and antagonist. An antagonist can, and often will, switch sides. Norrington was an antagonist, then became a good guy. Gollum briefly changes to Frodo's side. 

Villains never switch truly. (Sauron, Davy Jones, Palpatine)

Hopefully, by now you have already or are planning to read at least a few writing books on the craft. If not, I won't shun you, but it's a very good idea to do so. Especially written by the same authors that you like to read--since you likely share some of their preferences and stylings.

If you have read, then this is a good refresher. Or you can just hop on down to near the bottom.

Character arcs are simply, the pathway of change.

That is, your Hero absolutely must start at point A in his personality/knowledge/etc. and slowly be changed by the progress of your story and events around him, so that when he reaches point B (or C, or D) he is no longer the same Hero.

sidenote:  If there is no character change...there is no story. 'Nuff said.

The most common format is a three-part arc, though you can have as many parts as you like. Most of humanity seems hard-wired to find a sort of symmetry in three pieces though. (Three Little Pigs, Three Bears, Three Wishes....Four Pigs just doesn't have the same ring, does it?)

In your Hero's character arc, he should begin at the point of change, when some external or internal event (though typically the former) prompts him to change his locale, his mood, his action, his emotion, etc. This is the baseline of your arc.

Examples:  When Frodo receives the ring, when Elizabeth is kidnapped, when Luke cleans C-3PO...

A arc then as rising or mounting action, where the change prompts another change, and another. In the process there should always be at least one, if not multiple, problems. (3 is usually a good number...) And each problem is harder to defeat than the next.

Examples:  Crossing the Dead Marshes/Black Gate is Closed, Jack Sparrow's trickery, Imperial troops...

The final problem is the climax. Directly before this final problem (which your Hero should find a way to defeat) should fall your lowest portion of your arc, when all seems lost. Everything should come crashing down around your Hero.

Examples: Frodo stung by Shelob/collapsed on Mt. Doom, Will captured by Bubossa in the cavern, trapped with Palpatine and Vader...

The Hero should then rise above it (finale/climax/resolution)  and in so doing produce the final change. From there, either the story ends or there's a gradual tapering off that wraps things up.

 Examples:  Finale--ring tossed into lava, tapering into the return to the Shire/Grey Havens, Finale--freeing Bubossa from the curse, tapering into Will and Elizabeth running off together,
Finale--blowing up Death Star, tapering into the "medal ceremony" for Hans and Chewbacca.

But how does this apply to villains, you ask.

Just as the Hero has a character arc, a path of change. Did you know that villains (and to a lesser extent) antagonists alike have one? I don't mean the wishy-washy bad guy transforms into good arc either.  Sauron has a character arc, and Bubossa, and Darth Vader and Palpatine.

There is one important thing to remember, however. Opposites.

Your Hero and Villain character arcs should interact and influence one another, but in utterly opposite ways. Every time your Hero succeeds, your Villain fails. Every time Hero fails, Villain succeeds.

I'm a visual sort of person, so, for your viewing pleasure:  This is a simplistic graphic of two character arcs--the Hero and the Villain. There's blue for Hero and red for Villain, and when those mix, you get purple.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Sargas Chronicles: Part 1

 Define "Villain"

As some of you may be aware of already, I am currently working on a second major rewrite of the science-fiction novel, Phoenix Rising. I'm not far off from my goal: finishing it by the New Year.

My focus, at the moment, is tightly on this novel. And, in the process, on the final chapters that deal with one of my favorite characters--Sargas. I've received from most of my beta readers a response that suggests I did something right with him. And, my hope is that talking about creating him will in turn help you craft better villains and antagonists. (Don't gasp. I know the v-word is a nasty thing to most writers anymore. And yes, I consider those two types to be separate classifications, rather than lumping them together. More on that in a moment)

This is more the introductory blog post, with some basic groundwork. The nitty gritty of character creation will come later. 

First off,  buy this book.  The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. It's relatively cheap. (ranges from about $5-$20 depending on if you want brand-new or slightly used)

Now, those of you that follow my blog know, I don't recommend a book lightly. And certainly do not state things so emphatically. But I'm very serious. If you write a story that has a bad guy...which pretty much means any writer...you need this book.

Even if your villain/antagonist is not a bona fide mental patient, he is likely going to have some of these qualities that Stout discusses. Don't believe me? Did you know that  4% of the human population has some form of sociopathy? That means out of every twenty-five people, one of them is likely at least mildly sociopathic. Name me any bad guy in a book, and I'll bet I can find a sociopathic quality in most of them. So seriously, this book is well worth the money. Every time I start a new novel now, I re-read it and use portions to create my bad guys.

Enough of that plug. On to classifications.

Most of you, I suspect, have read some of these "how-to-write" books, or subscribe to a writing magazine, or lurk in online writer's groups and forums. (which is good, by the way.)  So you're inner writer is probably screaming right now at the word Villain. Am I right?

But, there is no such thing as a villain anymore. Someone who is inherently, undeniably evil...that's old school.

That's what you're thinking, isn't it? Well, in a sense this is true. And in a sense it isn't. Yes, you should never, ever have a guy who is evil simply for the sake of being evil, that is so nasty that there is no sympathy or way to like him.

Unfortunately, however, in our fear to drift into the "evil overlord" realm, the bad guys in most stories have grown weak and not really a challenge for our hero. And do we like to lack that challenge in a book? Ask the pile of books on my floor after being hurled at the wall. They'll give you a resounding no.

So, here's my take. There are three important types of characters in any story, four if you want to count the supporting character roles.  You have your protagonist--or main character. (and supporting characters)  You have your antagonist (which functions as a supporting character for...) Your villain.

Let me clarify now with some definitions, which are all personal opinion.  First off, let's start with antagonists. In my mind, an antagonist is something or someone that in some way opposes or prevents your main character from fulfilling his goals. This can be something inanimate--the gulf of an ocean, the swath of desert, a mountain ridge--or another character--Gollum in LOtR, Commodore James Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean,  Vizzini in Princess Bride, etc.

These typically are minor setbacks/problem-makers. That is, for example, though Gollum causes problems and slows or even endangers Frodo and Sam and all the Fellowship, Gollum is not truly capable of causing utter defeat for any of them.

A protagonist and a villain have linked definitions. The protagonist is typically your main character, and the villain is typically the main problem. And their definitions are best revealed as follows:

The protagonist is always the one who has the most to lose.
The villain is always the one who has the most to gain.

This is why I separate the villain from the antagonist. To stick with my previous example: Gollum is a nasty guy, who does cause problems, but does he really have the most to lose? Oh yes, he needs that ring...but Sauron needs it more. Gollum would be miserable without it; Sauron would die.

The antagonist disrupts; the villain destroys. Now, this doesn't mean that your villain should be inherently evil. He still needs to have flaws and problems and a motive for doing what he does. But he needs to always be the most evil, the most powerful, the most dangerous, and the most driven, of all your bad guys.

The shadow of his influence should hang over your protagonist as an insurmountable problem. Where would Lord of the Rings be without Sauron?  Where would Sea Wolf be without Captain Larsen? Where would Jungle Book be without Shere Khan?

Think about it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Rave: FireStorm #1 of Dragon Orb Series

With the temperatures around my house hovering at 28 degrees, I've had plenty more time to work on my to-be-read pile. And of course, that means more reviews for you. Isn't that great?

Today is a special treat. I stumbled across this set of books on pure accident. While browsing writing.com, I found a snippet from UK author, Mark Robson's stories, read them, and adored them.

(writers, take note. "Social" and "writing" networking sites create an audience. I never would have purchased his book, if not for reading the little bit and chatting with him first.) 

Firestorm is a dragon story, first and foremost. I've always held a special place in my reader heart for dragon stories, so this one was perfect to settle in to read while my fireplace warmed the chill from my bones.

The story is told with deft strokes, creating characters that have believable problems, dragons with credible weaknesses, and a plot that was at once familiar and yet kept me guessing.

This YA fantasy lacks nothing that I can possibly think of. I read it through in about two days, namely because each time I set it down, I had to read just "one more chapter".  The story unfolds between riders who are discovering their dragons for the first time, especially one particular young lady, Nolita, who is swamped with a terrible phobia toward both heights and large beasts--not a good combination for any dragonrider.

Worse, when she and her friends finally do arrive at a mystic Oracle that maintains dragon and dragonrider society, Nolita discovers that she and three others must hunt out four orbs against all opposition, in order to save the Oracle. With her paralyzing terror of dragons, how can she possibly assist them in their life's quest?

The most interesting portion of the story, for me, was the classification of each dragon. I've seen them classed by color, size, temperament, and all sorts of things in many books. But instead, Robson chooses to use the idea of the time of day when the egg first hatched to determine the types. A dawn, day, dusk, and night dragon. And each dragon is the most powerful at those specific times. It made the story richer, and ensured a permanent sense of the "ticking clock" tension that I so love in stories I read.

The author, by the way, is a former pilot. This adds a huge amount of realism to the descriptions of flight, down to even the problems of thin air, freezing temperatures, and g-forces that many, many dragon stories completely ignore. 

I've already planned to purchase the other three books and add them to my collection. Not only to support a fellow author, but also to enjoy an excellent series. This easily gets four stars from me, and I have a fair idea that rating will rise as I read the others in the series.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On The Value of Valueless Contests

How is that for an oxymoron?

What I'm referring to are contests in which you don't win publication, or money, or even a signed book by Stephanie Meyers (I wonder if she uses glitter pens....)

Seriously though, I've found from the experience of my writer friends and other testimonials that these seemingly unworthy contests can help out your platform and your writing career. Take, for instance, Lydia Sharp. She has a give-away going on right now involving a free anthology, in which is published "The Blade of Tears."

That particular story actually won first place in a "site-based" contest. That is, one that involved bragging rights and a glittering icon...of a trophy. (Not Edward. Had you worried, didn't I?)

By hosting these contests with other writers, you can sometimes surprise yourself and develop a solid story that is publishable in the regular industry.

My take on it is that these type of contests often bring out the best in a writer. Because the pressure of winning, of receiving that publication, money, editor stalking rights, etc. is absent. All you have is good fun creating a story that people will love. And that, my friend, is what writing is all about.

So, enter those contests at the Writer's Digest Community, or Writer's Digest Forum, or Writing.com or wherever you may lurk when you're procrastinating today's writing goal. (Go on. Admit it. These sites are made for procrastination) 

You just might craft the next story you get published.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Check This Out!

A new anthology, called Eight Against Reality, by Panverse Publishing.

Many thanks to Lydia Sharp for revealing an anthology that works with novellas. (not a very common format in an anthology)

I am definitely intrigued by the idea, and hopefully will have my current fantasy novella edited/revised enough for future submissions possibly. We shall see.

In the meantime, I think it's awesome that Janice Hardy decided to host a contest giving away some copies of the anthology. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Comment Moderation

Unfortunately, due to a few spammers posting links to very inappropriate conduct on my blog, I've enabled the strict comment moderation. It's the only way I can see to keep such spammers away. My apologies to anyone who has to wait for me to approve a comment before it shows.

Ah, technology.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Video Games: 101


My apologies for this belated blog post. 

I had something prepared for Saturday about video games linked into starting a story. Unfortunately, I had an awful migraine most of Saturday afternoon and evening. Those of you who have them, likely understand my inability to handle the lights of a computer screen (or anything luminous for that matter) 

 End note

Video games--the bane of any self-respecting author, the time-sucker for the procrastinator. Right? Wrong. You can learn something of starting a story  simply from how some video games are set up. Don't believe me, do you?

Hidden object, puzzle, and other styles of games excluded. I'm speaking of games that have a story of their own. Such as the RPG genre, or even games like Freelancer, Crystal Key, Safe Cracker, and Dark Fall: The Journal. What do these games have in common? Their beginnings.

Even though they use different genres and stories, each one starts with a "main character" who has a "mission/task/quest" to fulfil, and--most importantly--he is thrust into a situation in which he knows little to nothing of the world/city/place.

This, amazingly enough, works very well. Since you, the player, are also unfamiliar with the world/city/place. Therefore, as the MC is "taught" by the other characters in the game--the player is also learning.

This is a nice plot device you can borrow for your stories as well. It only works in the first minutes of the game, and just so, it typically  works best the first chapter or two of a story. It can be done at other times, but sparingly. But done properly, you can introduce your characters to situations and worlds that would be unfamiliar to the reader in that way.

For example, in my own stories, I needed Gary (one MC) to learn about types of telepaths that I had invented for the novel. Therefore, I made him ignorant largely of them. Thus, the other MC had a chance to "teach" him. Teaching the reader, too.

Other writers/bloggers do the same. Off the top of my head...

BrandiG has Jade--suddenly finding out she is a Dragon Queen
Lydia Sharp has Jarus--being fitted for armor

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blog Face Lift

In case you haven't noticed, my blog has received a lovely face lift. Many thanks to the Blogger Tech Team that has made some new templates and options, thus allowing the double-sidebar and other nifty features. More room for gadgets that way.  

Just kidding there. I won't go crazy with the gadgets and things. Promise. But it certainly does make the blog look a little neater. And perhaps a bit simpler to navigate? Do go nibbling to see a few of the things I added and look for my next post on Wed. Video Games 101

Saturday, March 20, 2010

C. J. Cherryh Pacing the Floor

At the moment, I am continuing to enjoy my "author kick" as I like to call it, where I devour any and all books by a particular author that I enjoyed. For now, I'm going to focus in on two aspects of the book Hammerfall that were done very well. Pacing and Information Control.

Can anyone guess what today's topic is?

In the book, one of the larger, overhanging plots was the journey. Much like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there is a cluster of characters that travel, and on that trip things happen that change them, change how they view their world, and also drive the plot forward.

With Hammerfall, Cherryh demonstrates how to know when to summarize a day/week/month, and when to expand out and slow down by days. The best rule of thumb: measure your tension in the scene.

The greater the tension, the longer you should stretch the moment, and the shorter your sentences should be. The less your tension, the quicker the scene should whip by, and the longer, more introspective and descriptive sentences should come into play.


There is a point in the book where the main characters are trapped in a tent, with sand storm raging all about. The days that passed lasted for almost two chapters. We felt the urgency with the short sentences, the descriptions of the danger and the animals bawling and etc. And with the insistent "voice" in his head crying for him to move onward toward the east.

However, at another point, when a long caravan is traveling across the desert for a much longer time, then the events passed rapidly. We covered the days in short paragraphs that used very little detail.

And it worked. There is no need to give me many details and information during small tension scenes that are intended as almost bridges from one moment to another. Save those for when you need to stretch out a scene and give it enough time to develop and prolong that tense moment.

Last example: For those of you old enough to remember, or at least see the re-runs, there is the show "MacGyver"

In the show, as the man tries to make these outlandish things out of duct tape, crowbars, and metal hangars, there is always a timer involved. Ever noticed how the scene leaps from the timer to his work, and it always seems to take him forever to finish his contraption?

Did it increase or decrease your feeling of tension?

But, on the other hand, when he's traveling from his home to the "secret hideout" of the villain, do they show every moment of that drive? Or just a general idea that he moved from one area to another? Why? Because there's a very low threshold of tension there, and it's best to move on quickly.

Project for the Week:

Pick out four random scenes from your latest WIP (work in progress). Rate them on their intended/needed tension from 1-10. Now, read those scenes and rate them on their actual sense of tension.

Do they match?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Unofficial Blog Post : Jane Austen

 Out of the normal scheme of things, but I was browsing some blogs and found this short little quiz on Christine's blog.

Here's what I ended up with. What about you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh -- Tools of the Trade

This is part 1 of what will be a three part posting, since Cherryh does so many things right with this book, and illustrates very well some of the points I have been discussing in the last few weeks.

To start, we have our book rave. During my lovely router troubles, I had more time on my hands than I expected. I worked on my WIPs of course, and did some research, but I had a little bit more spare moments to do my casual reading--for fun and not to learn something or discover something or etc.

This book was an impulse buy at a local library sale. $1 for the hardback. I had never heard of this author before, but the back cover sounded intriguing, the first page didn't start with a load of descriptive crap on the purple sky or something,  (a common enough occurrence in my preferred genre to make me gag) and it mentioned that she had won a Hugo award. Not that those always mean anything--since I've bought several "Hugo Award" collections and been severely disappointed.  But hey-- a buck. Why not?

I was pleasantly surprised. The book Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh delivers as only a good "crossover" can. [Crossover, for me at least, is something that combines elements of science fiction and fantasy. Children of the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl, and the accompanying series Enchantress from the Stars, are good examples]

We start out in a desert world--which is intriguing because of the wild ecology that can develop-- and with a main character, Marak Trin Tain...who insane. Not something you see every day.

That is, he hears voices, sees visions, and feels drawn toward the east. From there, we meet Ila--an immortal "god" who wants to know what the mad are seeing, and sends Marak eastward with the rest of the madmen she's collected.

And from there, the plot grows more convoluted and interesting. Especially when one character mentions "nanoceles". Hmm....

As a whole, I enjoyed this greatly. I was kept continually guessing as to what exactly the Ila wanted, and what Luz (another immortal) truly wanted. Which was good. Which was bad. I love when I can't figure out who is the "villain" in a storyline. The world was enjoyable as well. Good, solid ecology and ideas and descriptions that pleased my muse greatly.

She also illustrated the art of pacing--using her sentences, her style, and many other things to either speed up time, or slow it down. To give a sense of time's passing without stating "three hours later".  She also showed skill in delivering information. Never once did I feel like an author's intrusion, or that the author was info-dumping all about this world, or the language, or the "secret" of the sci-fi elements to come.

Those two things will be the topics of future posts throughout this week. I gave this one a 4.5 star rating, because at the very end, there were a few loose ends--for me at least--I wanted tied off. Not a big deal, but I had a few questions about things at the very end. Beyond that, this is an excellent book.

Here is the link to the author's blog, in case you want to peruse. C. J. Cherryh

Sunday, February 28, 2010


My apologies to my longing audience, but my router has decided this week to harbor a whole host of gremlins. I've called for an exorcism--I think I scared it long enough to shoot off this short post--but I'm not sure if that will help.

After a dose of holy water...aka, tech support Monday morning, hopefully, the last of my demons will go away. At least with my off again, on again Internet access, I've managed to do a little bit of research for Changeling Project, and I finished the book by C.J. Cherryth. Which will be the subject of a book rave very soon.

Here's a short, future excerpt of Changeling Project, for your nibbling pleasure.

“This is not right.”

Avior sighed and slapped his credentials onto the Director’s desk. Rigel didn’t even glance at them. “How can you destroy another man like this? How can you live with yourself?”

“IDEA has need of this particular talent. Therefore, we have been authorized to request his assistance in the—“

Rigel jerked to his feet, leaning forward with his arms on his desk. “Don’t feed me that legal jargon. This is not a tool. This is another human being.”

Avior took a step back. The two IDEA field agents with him shifted uneasily, but said nothing. “I am not going to argue with you,” Avior said quietly. “We need him.”

“Needs of the few, needs of the many. Is that it?”

Avior turned away from the man and crossed to the security panel in the left corner of the room. He skimmed the names in the listing. Sliding a key card from its envelope, he faced Rigel again. “Do not try to stop us.”

“What could I do against the might of IDEA?” 

Avior kept his face impassive, gestured at one agent to remain, and stepped into the hallway.

Rigel’s voice made him pause. “If you do this, you have forsaken the Code, indirect violation or not.”

Avior took a deep breath and continued walking.

< >

Gary scowled at the game board again and resisted the urge to fling the pieces against the wall. He had lost again. The game still proceeded, but he had seen his mistake. In a few moves, he would have backed himself into a corner. Whether he played the computer or Tauri, Gary always lost.

With a muttered curse, Gary closed the game. Something that involved strategy and the concept of dimensional movement was too difficult. If he had been a fractal, as the game had been designed for, it would be easy. At least Tauri always lost at poker. Gary grinned at the memory of his friend’s astonished face after a particularly wild bluff.

The door buzzed. He whirled in surprise. His appointment with Doctor Kewan was not for several hours.

Two men stepped through the door. They were both in IDEA’s starched-white uniforms and had prominent neurals on their hip. The leader was Lacuna. His eye-shine could be seen shimmering through his green iris. He was taller than Tauri and had darker hair, but the high brow, aquiline nose, and high cheekbones could only be the mark of Lacuna genetics.

The other man was Tulkarian. Scaled and burly, he flicked an irritated glare at Gary and crossed his arms. Gary grinned. “Little far from home, aren’t you?”

“Be quiet, Terran.”

Gary rolled his eyes. He focused on the first man, the obvious leader. His uniforms bore several marks of rank.

“I am Avior,” the Lacuna said. “First Lieutenant.”

“No ship? A field agent then.”

Avior frowned. “Yes. IDEA has authorized me to request your assistance in the pursuit to locate Lieutenant Commander—“

“I’m not going anywhere.” Gary shook his head. “Do you think I checked into this place for the room service?”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Am A Bibliophile

Today, I decided to come out of the closet and confess my disorder. I am a Bibliophile.

I'll wait while my industrious readers type that into Google.



Done now? Good. It means simply that I love books. Not the e-books with their digital pages and internal light and instant downloads. Nor books on tape or CD, though those are handy if there is no light or you're on a long trip. Books are for me.

I love the smell of an old book, musty with age and history. The feel of turning crinkled pages. The quiet relaxation that is scanning your eyes across black ink printed upon clean paper. It's almost as good as a mug of coffee. And don't even get me started on the wonders of that heavenly beverage.

Today, my bibliophile tendencies are especially satisfied. The local library system in my state hosts an annual "Friends of the Library" sale, in which they get rid of old, discontinued, or mildly damaged editions of their books. They sell them at almost dirt-rate prices. ( 50 cents for paperback, $1 for hardback)

I've gone every year for...quite a while. Surprisingly, though I'm an avid speculative fiction and mystery reader, and a rabid fan of Dean Koontz--whose work defies classification. (I found his books on four different "genre tables") During this sale I am actually more apt to buy research books.

My suggestion for you, my audience, is to see about these local sales, or even half-price bookstores. One of the biggest things you can do to add realism to your work is to pick up books regarding certain topics you wish to cover.

For example, today, besides Dean Koontz, Frank Herbert, and a new author for me-- C. J. Cherryh--I picked up quite a handful of reference books. Decoding the Secret Language of the Body (detailed body language clues.) Personality Types, Panic and Other Anxiety Disorders, and Gentle Guide to the Twelve-Step Program, among others.

The first two were simply to increase my knowledge or give me ideas, but the others are going to be very handy for the prep work that should begin in about 6 months or so for the second book in my sci-fi series, The Changeling Project.

Last year, I picked up The Sociopath Next Door, which has been hugely helpful in creating any of my antagonists, but especially Sargas who, so far in what I've written, is my best "villain" yet. He scares me and I created him. Frankenstein-esque feeling there.

Don't be afraid to read up on neuro-science and other highly technical fields. Pick through until you find a book that is simple enough you can grasp it and add a little bit of basic knowledge. Just dropping a bit of jargon--used correctly--can add a speck of realism to your stories.

Now, pardon me, I'm off to read.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Themes to me...

Enter a world where Wednesday occurs on a Saturday...in the Twilight Zone.

Wait. Wrong era. Never mind.

Somehow, blogging about writing stuff jogs my creative juices in my writing. Go figure. I have a nice stockpile of material saved in draft mode now, and just burning to be discussed. Therefore, I think it's time for me to start posting a little more often, namely on Saturdays.

*drum roll*

May Special Saturdays now begin. I'm going to devote these posts to more specific pieces of the craft, especially those things that I feel that I excel the most in. Beware. Poetry suggestions might even appear at times.


Today's topic is one near and dear to my heart. If you don't mind a writer preening for a moment, I am quite aware of my many writing craft flaws, the pain and misery of writer's block, and the particular banes that plague my writing. (Pronouns! Gah!)

But one area ( believe I excel in is description. Even my beta readers so far agree with me. (Wow, something they all agree on? Does someone have the number for Fox News?) In the interview with Lydia Sharp that I participated in, I mentioned several different things I learned and use in description. These that I learned and applied as I developed my voice are what I attribute to that descriptive flair.

Themes is number one on my list. The idea of using a theme in description is rather subtle. It took me months to realize that some of my favorite authors used them, and then to incorporate them into my writing.

We humans are a conglomerate of life experiences, memories, acquired tastes, and different word/color/image associations that we amass over our lifetime. Any and all words or images that we see are usually connected in our minds to some other topic or situation, thus enabling the reader to imagine with us, or to connect to other ideals.

This is important to any piece of writing, but especially to speculative fiction and poetry. The former is usually describing or revealing something that is brand new, or markedly dissimilar from the normal world that we know. And the latter is designed to take things and look at them from a completely different perspective. Both require some framework for your reader to wrap his mind around.

When you are attempting to reveal something so new to a reader, and yet ensure they do not feel lost or confused, you apply themes.

As the writer W.D. Wilcox stated so succinctly:

I learned some time back that the best way to reach a person is to give them an example, or story, that opens the person you are trying to reach on some emotional level. Once they can relate to what you are saying emotionally, then they will be willing to understand what it is you are trying to say.

--Quoted from Writing.com website, Horror/Scary Newsletter, with permission

In the same manner, we use themes--and the connotation of them--to create an emotional response in a reader. By linking their acquired thoughts and memories and etc. into the reaction I wish to create.

Besides new ideas, the use of themes and the emotional response it brings can also make description more vivid. The more directly I can involve the reader, make them feel with me, the more interest they have in the story. It becomes rich, without being decadent.

Particular words have different meanings and senses of the meaning. The choice of words can change how one relates to a moment.

Using some quotes from The Good Guy by Dean Koontz, I'll break down some sentences as examples, and also some of W.D. Wilcox's other examples in his newsletter.

Disclaimer: Though I enjoy some of his books, Dean Kootnz's content is not always appropriate. I have been known to "edit" certain areas--simply for my own beliefs.

In one passage, Dean Koontz describes clouds passing over a moon, in the midst of a rather tense scene in the book. He could easily have said simply:

Silver clouds passed across the face of the moon.

Yes, that is picturesque. But it doesn't truly stand out. Silver is pretty and it does seem expensive, but it really doesn't cause me to feel any sort of emotional reaction.

On the other hand, Dean Koontz mixed in some much stronger sense. First, he applied the use of something that is usually met with a knee-jerk reaction. A great deal of people do not like snakes, spiders, and things with fangs and slavering jowls. (sorry, wolf-lovers) The creepy-crawly, scaled, buzzing things of nature are often a source of disgust or uneasiness.

In the sentence, he mixed in a mention of snake's skin. Again, he could have kept it simple.

Silver clouds, like iridescent snake skin, passed across the face of the moon.

Better, but not quite a reaction. Snakes, ew. But the rest of the sentence could as well have been mumbled. Instead, Koontz added some key words and verbs that followed a particular...theme.

Using the concept of snakes and reptiles, here's a possible line of thought. Snakes molt. Their skin peels. The dead skin is white or silver, gleams in the moonlight. It could come off in strips.

Combining all of those pieces of idea together, the sentence in the book reads:

As iridescent as a snake's skin, thin ravels of silvery clouds peeled off the face of a molting moon.
(pg. 83, Good Guy, paperback by Bantam Books)

Do you notice the difference? How much stronger is that choice of words, then the simpler versions of before? For me at least, I grimaced at the idea of snake's skin, increasing my creeping dread for the scene, and yet I could clearly picture the clouds and the moon.

Not every sentence can be made to shine in this manner. To do so would be like eating a piece of chocolate cake every hour of the day. The richness would be lost, and you end up with an upset stomach and a lifetime supply of Pepto-Bismol. Don't turn your reader's stomach sour.

But using themes, following a patter of thoughts and words linked together can make them much, much stronger.

In my own stories, I have a moment where I described a desolate, empty, barren landscape. In my descriptions of dead foliage and dry soil, I added this line of description.

To stand still invites the gestating fear in her heart to flower.

I could have just said. Standing still increased her fear. But it would not have the impact that using the same theme--flowers and plants--and contrasting it, as the simpler version.

Check out these other examples by W.D. Wilcox

The sky had completely shrouded itself in the gray clouds that it had been steadily knitting since morning.

She cried in broken bird sounds: feather-soft sobs like lonely pigeons in the rafters, or the misery of windblown gulls.

That is much stronger and more vivid, bringing out an old, somber mood in the first example, and a quiet loneliness and misery in the second.


Here is my challenge to you. Pick out your all-time favorite book, the one that just enthralls you every time you nibble at a chapter. (make sure perhaps it is a copy, or a paperback that you don't mind ah...defaming a little)

I highly suggest The Taking by Dean Koontz for this project, as it holds a large proportion of themed paragraphs and sentences. (Book Rave coming soon on this re-read, re-read, re-read book of mine) But any book that is worth its salt is good for this exercise.

Now, pull out a nifty pen and re-read, slowly, the first chapter. Circle or underline words in a paragraph that seem to relate to one another. Pay special attention to the verbs. (It is usually best to do this with different colored highlighters)

Do you notice any patterns? Do the paragraphs stand out differently than if you used simpler verbs and adjectives?

For an even more detailed exercise, can you write out one word, or a group of words, that are the "theme" that belongs to that paragraph?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Awards Week

My first case of business would be the spiffy new award in my sidebar. Hi, Honest Scrap Award. Many thanks to Emily who nominated me, along with a few other bloggers, for this. Apparently, the tradition is to list ten unusual or odd things about yourself, and to nominate others. I'll start with the nominations. Don't want to scare my audience up front with my lunacy, do I?


Now, 'tis time for the craziness that is Liz.

10. The best snack for my artery-clogging moods is fries dipped in chocolate ice cream. Yum.

9. I create soundtracks for each of my novels/short stories to listen to while I'm working on them, and need that music most of the time in order to get into the right "mood".

8. I have been known to have arguments with my mirror, or a few stuffed animals, to puzzle out troublesome scenes

7. I have several friends from Canada. (Come on. That counts as weird, doesn't it?)

6. My highest dream is to meet or at least phone-meet the author Dean Koontz (I'd settle for a place on the NYT bestseller list though...)

5. I've texted myself snippets of description/characters/dialogue

4. Yes, I talk to myself.

3. I think of my characters as real people at times. To the point of crying while I'm writing them into painful situations.

2. I have scenes written in my head, that will never come out onto paper

1. I argue with my characters, when they disagree with my decisions. (my motto, in fact: Never argue with your characters; they always win.)

In lesser news, I also entered a longer short story (at 10k words) called Beast into a in-site writer contest, and won second place and a nifty purple cyber-ribbon. Which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside and gives hope. My goal is to expand Beast into a novella, and then start shipping it out soon. Though there might be a snippet that makes a brief appearance here. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Newton's Law And Tension-Building

Have you had your daily dose of physics today?

No, really. I know there are some math-phobes and science-phobes out there. Take a deep breath. You can make it.

Newton's Third Law of Motion can be applied to the art of creating tension in your stories. His Third Law states that:
"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

When it comes to putting together a novel, short story, or other forms of prose, this law should be consistently applied throughout the unfolding plot. Tension is such an important factor to remember as you write. Without tension, the story of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz would just be the tale of a Kansas girl wandering aimlessly down a yellow brick road. Lord of the Rings would be a charming travel monologue.

However, too much tension can be just as detrimental. Lace every moment and every paragraph with tension, and both your characters--and your readers--will be nervous wrecks by the time you're done. Too much tension can also feel overly dramatic.

It is just as bad to start out with a large amount of tension, and then hit a sagging middle, and finally sputtering out completely by the end. It will leave a very nasty taste in a reader's mouth.

The best way to make sure your tension level is correct for the moment and scene, and to ensure that it is slowly building correctly toward a climatic end, apply Newton's Third Law.

Every action has a reaction, to summarize the law. If you introduce a particular fear in a character, ensure that the reaction to being faced with at some point is just as severe as her/his aversion to it. (And they should be faced with it, I might add. Though that's a topic for another post...)

If you have created an action that must be taken, ensure that the reaction to it matches up. Does your character detest, and even hate, the antagonist? Then the "pay-off" at the end, when one character defeats the other, should show a reaction to that hatred.

But, beware of being too dramatic. If you don't build in tension and "actions" that are wound throughout the story, your end "reaction" will fizzle.

Picture our space shuttle.

Little rockets + big shuttle = No liftoff
Big rockets + "small" shuttle = Explosive

Ensure that every action your characters take has a reaction within your narrative, that matches the original action in its intensity.

Some Examples:

Intensity by Dean Koontz [thriller/mainstream]
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg [science fiction]
Sword-Dancer series by Jennifer Roberson [fantasy]
The Taking by Dean Koontz [speculative fiction.]

(yes, I tributed him twice. The latter one is more subtle with the tension building. And the thriller is less subtle, for obvious reasons)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foreshadow: Too Light, Too Heavy

Though I personally do not care for the product advertised in the video above, it does serve as an excellent illustration to my blog post for today. There are many components to a good story. Most of these are obvious if you've read much at all. A sound plot, well-rounded characters, sprinkle some description and snappy dialogue, and it's highly likely you will at least be on your way to an interesting story.

One aspect, however, that I have found lacking in many stories that I've read on various writing sites, and even in some published books, is the proper use of foreshadow.

For one thing, it can be very easy to allow this aspect to fall to the wayside. Problems with continuity or characters are much more glaring and obvious, and thus easier to pick out--whether by your eyes or someone else.

Foreshadow is defined as: to show or indicate beforehand; prefigure:

In storytelling, this is where you slip in hints about future events, character reactions, pieces of the plot that are hidden from the reader as yet, and anything else that belongs mostly in the later parts of your story. In mystery, these are the clues that guide the reader toward the inevitable "the butler did it!" Or perhaps, the hints of a great "ring" or "heir" in fantasy that your hero (or heroine) simply must find. And so on throughout the genre.

The important thing to remember is our little video up top. Too light or too heavy. Foreshadow must never overpower the main plot. It should be a subtle, gentle niggling thought or ideal that pushes the reader and plot forward along the path you desire, but without beating them over the head with the obviousness of the path.

If you can think of a crossroads. Foreshadow should be a smudged sign, with an arrow pointing to a town without a name, and only a vague direction. When foreshadow becomes a brightly painted, light-bejeweled billboard...your readers will become bored, or even annoyed.

Too light, however, is just as bad. If your foreshadow sign is crooked, with arrows pointing in no particular direction at all, so covered with mud that not one letter can be deciphered, your readers will head nowhere fast. And likely reach a destination so unexpected, they'll be just as unhappy as the first.

Clues that are heavily hidden, prophecies couched in unfamiliar and severely vague terms, and stern fact listing of some technology that is then used in the plot several chapters later are all much too light foreshadowing. Readers will often feel cheated, lost, or simply confused. A confused reader is a lost reader. And that is never, ever good.

There are books that I have read, and reached the end furious at the surprise the author threw into the climax that seemed to have no connection or hint at all throughout the book/series. There is a problem when I must re-read the series, sometimes more than once, before I can catch the light hints and foreshadow.

Now, yes, some people may prefer it to be very light. Perhaps it is easy for them to solve plotlines, see the implied connections, and all the other sundered parts that belong to this, but I personally (and many of the readers that I've spoken to) do not.

If I reach the end, and I'm lost, it's highly likely I will not pick up any more books by that author, no matter the reviews. A tricked reader can hold a "grudge" for a long, long time. (I personally will not read anything written by particular authors simply because of the same matter)

The most important thing to remember about foreshadow is balance. Give the reader enough information that they know this particular fact, or this light hint, or suggestive facial expression/dialogue are important, but not the why. It strokes a reader's curiousity and encourages them to continue reading, if just to find out what happens next. Foreshadow can also create tension.

For an example, in one of my stories, a young lady is working as a servant, filling lords' baths in a palace. In the antagonist's POV, he is stalking this girl, and at the very end of his POV, he thinks: "Perhaps Lord Jabin should request a bath."

Did I directly state his course of action, what he'd do exactly to this girl? No. But the hint of it, the foreshadow of what should happen the next time Jabin and the girl have a scene together, spikes the tension. You may not know exactly how or what, but there's enough information to let you know that something bad is on its way, involving those two, and drives you to turn the page.

Balance, young padawan.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Rave: The Host Sparkles Better Than Twilight

Aye, I'm sure that the topic of this post will likely cause some Twihards or Twilighters to come stalking my house, with T-shirts and jewelry and keychains of Edward in all his sparkly goodness. That or send Jacob through my doggy door.

I do like to poke fun at the latest craze that this seems to be, though I admit, I have my own die-hard literary loves myself. (Don't say a word about Lord of the Rings. Or I swear, I am so sending Gollum to haunt your shower. You hear?)

Truthfully, though, I don't hate on Twilight per say. As Stephanie Meyers' "breakout" novel (in that, so far as my research goes, Twilight was her first book to be published) I can accept the errors and issues that I noticed in the series. (Yes, I've read them. Don't shoot me.)

The first novel by Jennifer Roberson-- Shape-Changer -- was in relatively rough shape, and...LOtR fanatic that I am, Return of the King appears to have been put together in a much stronger, more vibrant fashion than the Fellowship.

However, I am quickly learning that even if an author seems to have issues with that first book, sometimes they can surprise you later. Roberson is one of my favorite fantasy authors, even if I hated her first book.

Therefore, I actually enjoyed The Host, written by Stephanie Meyers. It was released on May 6, 2008, when the Twilight wildness was in full swing. Because of all the hype, I didn't dabble into the book (though its premise seemed interesting) precisely because of the nasty taste in my mouth left from Twilight. However, I finally read it not too long after.

Without spoilers, as best I can, the basic idea was a mixture of The Body-Snatchers and numerous stories of aliens trying to "better our world". The kicker is that, when the "host" becomes part of the new body, old memories and personality are supposed to go away. Which, in the case of the MC in the book, they don't.

This is very much a sci-fi romance, with a twist. With two personalities existing in one body, and risks of danger to both parties from multiple sides, the conflicts are bad enough. Add in that the host and the body are in love with two different men, however, and the love triangle plotline takes on a whole new twist.

Besides the twisting, turning control of situations and emotions, the characters were vibrant and very real to me, with the MC and her host both with strong, well-rounded personalities that I enjoyed being with. A nice, refreshing bit of air compared to the (sorry Twihards) whiny Bella.

Stephanie Meyers also proved her ability to write was certainly there when she chose a difficult style/voice to write in as well. It's hard enough to write in first person, plus dealing with two personalities in the same body, and still make dialogue and thoughts appear distinctive. But she went one step further. Taking into consideration the situation and type of lifestyle that the host had experienced, the entire book is written in first person, present tense.

That is outstanding. It made the book really....sparkle. (yeah, yeah. I couldn't resist) It kept the feelings and emotions immediate, and suggested at all times that we were mostly in an alien mindset. In my humble opinion, she carried off this difficult style extremely well. I ceased to notice the present tense after a while, and never noticed the lack of knowing exactly what the other characters were thinking or feeling. (something that usually bothers me in first person books)

The plot itself twists and turns on itself, throwing in tension where necessary, and heart-warming or tear-wrenching moments in the next. As a whole, this is one book I'd give four stars to easily. But not five.

Though the book gets points for difficulty, interesting plot, surprising end, and other good things that make the book an excellent read, there are small spots that don't quite work. One is the mention of a "secret" from the host, seemingly out of the blue after several chapters. The others are milder--reactions that didn't quite jive, a "just happens" with the Seeker near the end of the book--but as a whole, the book was good enough that I was very well pleased. Enough to buy the hardback version.

My hope is that, now that the Twilight series of books have all been written, and the movies are off to a flying start, that Stephanie Meyers turns to more books like The Host, or at least far away from the vampire area. This is one author I'll keep my eye on for a while.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year's Resolution

Admittedly, I don't often bother with New Year Resolutions. When I make goals like that as part of the "new me", I often fail or forget about the plans, or find that the goal really wasn't worth as much as it seemed in the glow of 1am on New Year's Eve, after four bowls of choco-chunk ice cream and sleep deprivation. (As those of you with...ah...interesting memories of New Year's Eve events you would like to forget can probably attest)

However, this resolution is a little more viable. My goal is to post something at least once a week on my blog, about topics that interest me. Be prepared for book rants/raves, updates regarding my works in progress (or lack thereof) and some discussion on more "writerly topics".

Look for new posts on Wednesday, sans this week of course.