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WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW OR NOT?

January 20, 2021

            The debate about writing what you know or not comes up quite often. I’ve discussed it directly or indirectly here at Fred Central in numerous ways, but now is the time to address it directly.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

            When writing your big lie, it’s always best to stick as close to the truth as possible.

            Why?

            Simple. The closer to the truth it is, the less likely you are to get real details wrong.

            This line is one used quite often in fiction, and it applies just as well in real life. When we write a fictional story, it is, after all, a big lie. It’s a made up story. If it’s not fantasy, in which the entire world is made up, it sticks to certain rules that one must know or adhere to for the story to come off as believable. If not, the reader is going to scoff at the page and likely put the book down. The reader is going to think the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

            Your big lie is busted.

            Therefore, when you construct your illusion of the truth, you need to get your facts straight. Following this philosophy, it’s much easier, and better, if you at least somewhat know what your talking about coming out of the gate.

            To save on time, effort and research, if at all possible, it’s best to start with writing something you know.

            Whether it be time, place, talent, profession, or whatever, the more you already know, the more realistic the lie is going to be. The better your story is going to be.

WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

            There’s a faction out there that’s of the philosophy that when you construct your big lie, it’s all about the research.

            Research research research.

            You should write about what you don’t know so that you challenge yourself, you force yourself to get better educated, to delve deep into the unknown, to learn new things, to adventure into new horizons.

            This way, you can craft a much better and mor exciting story because you’re picking up the energy of discovery and translating that to the page.

            Plus, you aren’t restricting your creative freedom to what little you know right now.

            A great philosophy if you have the time and money.

A PRACTICAL PERSPECTIVE

            As for right now, I personally own the luxury of having lived in a lot of places I can use for my thriller and icky bug novels. I have a wealth of ideas brimming over. I’m in no short supply. I’ve lived the places I want to write about. Therefore, my actual cost of research is minimal compared to someone more homebound and wanting to branch out.

            Would I want to write what I don’t know?

            Fat chance. I have so many ideas for places I already know, I probably won’t run out in my lifetime.

            What about you?

            For those of you with more limited travel or means, you have to follow either your inspiration or your limits.

            You can do either or both together.

            If you write what you know, all of your work can center around one location, the subject matter involving one occupation or hobby, or be from one genre.

            Or…

            If you want to write what you don’t know but are homebound or have no means of travel, you can challenge yourself and leave your inspiration open and travel through others.

            If you want to write about another location, time, occupation, or hobby, it boils down to a good internet connection, a good phone, library, and communication skills.

            For instance, do NOT get frustrated when you read the bibliography, final thoughts, or web site of some of these big-name authors who took six months to research a thriller. So and so author traveled to exotic locations, swam with the dolphins, went to remote Nepalese temples, trekked into the remote Amazon, bla bla bla just to write a few paragraphs of detail into their story.

            It’s nice if you can flaunt it.

            However…

            You don’t need to do that to get the nuances of your story.

            You can do the same thing with books, the internet, letters, phone calls, etc.

            Or, the most universal of all…

            Be vague.

SUMMARY

            Everyone has had some experience going somewhere or doing something. If you have a desire to write, whether you desire to write what you know, or challenge yourself to write what you don’t know, the means are out there for both.

If your inspiration takes you to unknown places for you, don’t be afraid to reach out. Once you get there, that mental trip may change your inspiration. Once you get the facts, you may decide that it wasn’t for you after all, especially when reality sets in. On the other hand, maybe the trip into the unknown inspires you even more.

            Then again, when you already HAVE the experience, the skill, the inspiration from something you’re familiar with, why not use it rather than let it go to waste? Don’t let someone talk you into forging a new path you don’t need to take.

            Whatever you decide, don’t let either writing what you know or don’t know become a roadblock.

            Happy writing!

USING HOLIDAYS IN YOUR WRITING

January 13, 2021

            This subject is as much for world-building as it is for color, but also for plotting.

            Do you use holidays as part of your stories?

            If so, which ones?

THE “USUALS”

            Since Christmas and New Years have just passed, probably the most common ones used in books would be those two. Maybe add Easter and Halloween to the mix.

            What about the lesser used ones like President’s Day, Three Kings Day, Kwanzaa, Groundhog Day, or so many others?

WHY USE HOLIDAYS AT ALL?

            There are basically two reasons to use holidays.

            Color:

            In world building, the setting is important. As a writer, you want to build, populate, and color your world as vibrantly as possible. You do this by building it from the ground up. That not only includes the environment such as the climate, geography, population, and customs, but also the time of year and for the added touch, local or even national holidays.

            Plot:

            Your story may center around a holiday as part of the plot. A crime thriller may be due to a robbery or a murder on Black Friday. Or, a horror story may be set on Halloween (and no, not THAT one).

IN A FANTASY SETTING

            In a fantasy setting, the same thing applies to both color and plot. The difference is that you, as a writer, have the freedom to make up your own holidays.

            Say what?

            That’s right. You’re not restricted to any norms or traditions of our real world. In your made up world, which you’ve possibly created from scratch, you have the freedom to make up holidays based on anything you want.

            The only catch is: It has to make some kind of sense, and you need to stick with your own rules!

            The above rule is a mantra I repeat often here at Fred Central when it comes to fantasy. In a made up world, while you have certain freedoms, the only real-world constraints need to be that #1 whatever it is has to make sense in some way the reader can understand, and #2, once you make this thing up, you need to stick with your own rules throughout the story or series. IF you ever bend or break those rules, you’d better have a good reason and be prepared to explain it to the readers through the narrative or dialog, once again back to #1, SO IT MAKES SENSE!

DO YOU HAVE TO USE HOLIDAYS?

            Absolutely not. In fact, many stories never refer to them, even in an oblique sense. There’s no mandatory requirement to do so. However, it’s fun to add in a holiday and they’re another color on your artistic writing palette.

            The biggest rule to remember is to use them correctly.

            That sounds rather obvious but if you think about it, even something as simple as Halloween, Easter, or Christmas can be screwed up if the author uses it improperly.

            Why?

            The writer makes an offhand and improper remark about some aspect of the holiday or gets some detail wrong.

            This is especially true if the author decides to throw a little historical or political perspective into said holiday.

            Here we go…

AVOID POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS DIATRIBES

            If you’re going to use a holiday, make sure you use it correctly and don’t spew propaganda or improper rumors or religious biases.

            There, I’ve said it.

            There’s nothing that can jerk a reader out of a story than to use a real-world holiday in a story and have the author add in a personal bias with something factually untrue. Or, a religious or political opinion that is highly polarizing, regardless of any real or perceived truth.

            I’m not talking about something like the brash commercialization of what used to be the innocence of youth or tradition for a holiday. That almost seems to be a universal truth nowadays. I’m talking about religious or political biases that teeter or veer into polarization and browbeating.

            Logic arguments about the origins of holidays border on political or religious diatribe, which can alienate the reader. This is getting into facts versus fiction.

            It’s best to use holidays at face value. Maybe a snarky remark is okay and leave it at that. Diatribes on the other hand distract from the story and show the author’s bias. They jerk the reader out of the story, even if the diatribe is in the context of the character, which can be borderline author intrusion.

            The exception could be in a fantasy world with a made up holiday, unless the holiday is a thinly veiled real-world one.

            Then again, it’s your story, so you be the judge. It all depends on how many readers you want versus how many you want to piss off. The fact is that you’re not going to convert the already converted and are only going to piss off those that don’t agree with you. Plus, maybe (probably) you’ll lose some potential new fans.

SUMMARY

            Holidays make for great color in your world, whether used as such or going full out as a plot device.

            Use them wisely.

            Happy writing!

THE IMPACT OF MUSIC AND YOUR WRITING

January 6, 2021

            A question that comes up often on the forums is “Do you listen to music when you write?”

            While I’ve addressed music to some extent here at Fred Central, I want to take this a step further as well.

            First, do you listen to music when you write?

            Second, does the music influence your writing?

            Third, do you name-drop bands if you’re writing a real-world story?

            Fourth, what would the soundtrack be if one of your stories was made into a movie?

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHEN YOU WRITE?

            I’ve talked about this before in my articles on writing environment. From the forums and personal experience talking to other writers, the answers cover a wide spectrum.

            Some, like those who write at coffee shops, are subjected to whatever soundtrack the store plays, unless they wear their own headphones.

            Speaking of which, many writers go into their own world by wearing headphones (regardless of location) and play everything from Pagan music to disco to rap to classic rock to country to heavy metal (and a few other genres I left out).

            Others who have the capability, turn on the stereo and blast out while they write, or have it on low volume in the background.

            Others prefer the TV in the background.

            Me? Silence. I don’t even have a soundtrack in my head.

            Why?

            I have enough going on in my head with the creative process that I don’t need two things going on at once. It used to be that I had jets taking off, callsigns blurting out from a radio and people talking in the background, all of which I blanked out as I wrote. Now, I’m either writing in silence early in the morning, with the occasional car going by outside, or it’s late in the day, and TVs are on in the other rooms.

            Those are my soundtracks.

            While I could be playing a CD on my computer, I choose not to for the simple fact that I don’t need a cacophony to just ignore. Plus, I cannot stand to wear headphones if I don’t have to. I had to deal with earmuffs for two decades in the Air Force, and I have to desire to relive that!

DOES THE MUSIC INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?

            This can be a mixed bag. When the subject or plot of the book is music oriented, of course. Most books are not, so the question is, does music somehow influence what you write.

            So far, in my experience, I’ve heard a bit of this and that. Song lyrics have inspired people with their story and plot lines. Bands have inspired certain stories either directly or indirectly.

            There are series out there where certain types of music play a significant role in defining the characters. To name one, Jazz is a significant coloring in the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly.

            In my Gold series, rock and metal are significant coloring.

DO YOU NAME DROP BANDS IN YOUR STORY?

            So far, I haven’t mentioned fantasy writing. It’s obvious certain types of music cannot play a role in a made-up world, unless the genre is urban fantasy. In that case, contemporary music is all in.

            With that in mind, and including all other genres of fiction, do you name-drop bands?

            I’ve seen plenty of bands name-dropped into stories, from Aimee Mann to John Coltrane to Dwight Yoakum to GWAR.

            In my Gold series, I drop the names of some of my favorite bands, plus a few not so favorite, mainly for shock value. It’s no secret that the original Alice Cooper Band and Lothar And The Hand People are a significant part of my series. Many of my readers are too young to even know who Lothar is and they only know of Alice Cooper, the solo artist. So be it.

            It’s the same with any author that name-drops bands. Not everyone is going to get it.

            Now, how about fantasy writers?

            Outside of urban fantasy which blends real world, when concerning hard fantasy like my Meleena’s Adventures, nope. Not going to happen. In her world, there are no bands, per se. There are probably groups of musicians, which could be considered bands of a sort. They’d be more like travelling troubadours. So far, I haven’t addressed music all that much in her world. I will eventually, as in the next book, but I can’t reveal much more about it yet.

            The same for science fiction, which all depends on the setting, which may or may not include real-world Earth.

WHAT WOULD THE SOUNDTRACK OF YOU BOOK BE IF MADE INTO A MOVIE?

            First off, there’s no way you’re going to likely have any influence on the soundtrack, let alone much else if your book is ever made into a movie. Time to get that right out there!

            On the other hand, one can only hope.

            Michael Connelly did it with the Bosch series. If you get big enough, anything can happen. However, for the most of us, we must dream on.

            I can see you already picking the songs.

            For me, with either the Detach or Meleena’s Adventures, I can only hope there’s some rock and roll in either one. In the Gold series, the influence slaps you in the face. As for Meleena’s world, hey, they did rock with A Knights Tale, why not Meleena’s fantasy world?

            Happy writing!

WRITING THE OPPOSITE SEX

December 30, 2020

            A question came up the other day about writing the main protagonist in the opposite sex. The gist of this question was that it was a male, and he was worried about writing a female protagonist and being too misogynistic.

            Throughout the history of writing, authors have written using protagonists of the opposite sex. It’s nothing new.

            Maybe it’s a millennial thing, but at the same time, it’s still a valid question.

            So far, I haven’t heard that question coming from female writers.

WHAT’S THERE TO WORRY ABOUT?

            A biggie is, of course, getting it wrong.

            A biggie is, of course, using stereotypes.

            A biggie is, of course, assuming.

            Wait…that’s a lot of biggies.

            There are a bunch of little ones too.

            What’s missing here?

OBSERVING

            As writers, we observe things. When we create our stories, we observe everything around us. It should be a given that it must include the people! That would naturally be people of both sexes, right? Well…unless all the action takes place in a segregated setting, it’s unlikely both sexes wouldn’t be involved somehow. That’s picking at straws.

            We, as writers, must observe, absorb, and reflect what we see in our writing.

            With that in mind, we should be comfortable writing both male and female protagonists, regardless of which sex we are.

            Right?

NOT SO FAST

            There are still things about each sex the other doesn’t always see or understand. While males see women as complex and can never understand them, women see men as simple and predictable. Now, aren’t those two predictable cliches?

            How do you write to that?

            You can read plenty of examples in books already out there and emulate them. The problem is that many of them may or may not get it right. Or, they portray the opposite sex (from you) the way they should or you want them to be for your story.

TODAY’S WORLD

            The world is a lot different than what it used to be in the “good old days.” Let’s not even go there.

            Let’s just say that men are not rocks and women are not weepy and helpless.

            On the other hand, no person, regardless of sex, is one extreme or the other. Everyone is full of strengths and faults and deserves to be portrayed as an individual, not a stereotype. It’s way past time that you, as an author, look past the typical and go for the new and extraordinary.

            Quite often, someone will say something like “a guy” or “a girl” would never do something like that.

            Oh yeah?

            Says who?

            “Guys don’t think like that.”

            “Girls don’t think like that.”

            On the basis of past norms, that may very well be true. However, is that so not only in today’s world, but in the world you’re creating?

            Maybe that man or woman, boy or girl would never do what you’re having them do in your story in the real world.

            Does that mean your main character isn’t being realistically drawn because you’re not of that sex?

            Does that even have value in today’s world?

            Maybe not anymore.

SETTING

            This is where it gets tricky. If there is any real-world historical setting to your work, and your protagonist is the opposite sex, you’re darn right you’d better do your research and know how that character should react to the setting! In this case, your whole world has changed. You no longer have the freedom to change the actions and reactions of your opposite sex.

            When those same questions I outlined above are raised, you’d better have a very valid explanation for saying why you went against the norm. While there may be a plot-driven reason, and one or the other sex may have reacted a certain way, you’re skating on thin ice.

            Men have not always acted like men and women have not always acted like women throughout history. We have well-established societal norms that are taken for granted and expected. Yet, as history shows, that’s not always what happened behind closed doors or in the shadows.

SUMMARY

            As a writer, when you portray the opposite sex, to do it realistically, you need to make sure you have your stuff together to make it believable or you’ll lose your readers. Justify it.

            Happy writing!

HOW MUCH TIME DOES IT TAKE TO WRITE WHATEVER?

December 23, 2020

            How much time does it take to write…whatever?

            This is a question that comes up a lot on the Facebook writing forums.

            When I think about it, for a beginning writer, it’s a good question. However, for those already into it, not so much.

            Before we go on, you may wonder the disparity in my two answers. I’ll get to that in a moment.

TIME

            Everything takes time, no matter what it is. Writing is no exception. It’s taking time to write this article. How much? I can tell you that the average time it takes me to write one of these articles, which average 800-1200 words is about twenty minutes.

            So what?

            That’s a big question.

            Why would anyone care?

            How about a short story of say 4,000 words?

            On average, it takes me about an hour for the initial draft.

            A novel?

            It used to take me about six months because I had plenty of extra time at my job. Now that I have to do it at home on my own, it can take up to two years.

            How many words?

            65K to 130K or thereabouts.

            Now that I’ve given you actual statistics, once again, who cares?

WHO CARES?

            When new writers are starting out, many want to know how hard it is. They also want to know how much time they must invest in something to compare with where they are.

            They also want to know if they’re spinning their wheels on something they’re working on.

            They want to know if their pace is too long or too short.

            This would seem like legitimate questions. It is, to a point.

ISSUES

            First off, to me, the speed in which you write isn’t a competition. It isn’t a measurement of your worth, or of how much better or worse you are compared to someone else. If you think that way, writing may not be a passion for you. It may be a sport or a hobby.

            If writing is a true passion…

            You’re going to be compelled to write regardless of time.

            If you’re looking at time because you’re worried you’re in a rut, or because you think you have a problem that needs to be addressed, that’s only natural.

            Time management can be a part of the learning process.

            However, when it’s being used as a competition process, or to measure up against someone else, here again, you’re turning it into an ugly sport instead of a pleasure and a passion. That’s not good.

WRITING SPEED CONTESTS

            The most infamous contest, which I’ve discussed here at Fred Central before, comes up once a year and it’s a great way to hone your chops and to see if you can do it.

            On the other hand, why do it at all? Why write a full novel in a month? Why churn out something instead of taking your time, doing it right, doing it for fun instead of under pressure?

            To me, that’s once again turning it into an ugly sport.

            If you’re competitive minded, I guess that feeds your competitiveness. I sincerely hope it also feeds your passion for writing as well.

            I’ve never had even an inkling of desire to participate in something like that.

            I have my own pace and my own passion, and no speed contest has ever even entered my radar. I personally find it destructive, but that’s just me.

            If it encourages other writers, I’m all for it, even if I find it personally demotivating.

MY STANDARD ANSWER & SUMMARY

            Even though I’ve answered the technical side of how long it usually takes me to write something, the answer I give on the forums is always the same.

            When someone asks how long it takes to write this or that, I always say:

            “As long as it takes.”

            Why?

            Simple.

            There’s no way to gauge how someone writes. Everyone’s different. You can’t standardize the capabilities of any one person. A five-hundred word essay is not going to take everyone the same number of minutes, hours, or days to write.

            It all depends on the person’s skill level, inspiration, and passion to write it.

            This is not a speed contest, like some new writers seem to think.

            This is about quality and passion.

            Why is that so hard to comprehend?

            Happy writing!

DO YOUR HOBBIES INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING?

December 9, 2020

            For once, this idea just popped into my head this morning as I sat here thinking of something to write about. Often, these ideas come from whatever is trending on the Facebook forums. Not this time.

            Throughout Fred Central, I’ve alluded to the influence of hobbies and other interests and their influence on your writing indirectly and directly, but have never summed it up in one place before. So now, here it is.

FIRST OF ALL…

            I’d first like to define the difference between a passion and a hobby.

            A hobby is something you do for fun, like tennis, or dancing, coin collecting, or macrame. It’s something you may do once in a while, a lot, or something you do in spurts. Then it may fade for years, or you may quit it and the gear or “residue” from it may sit in a closet only to be sold at a garage sale years or decades later.

            A passion is a lifetime interest. It’s not something you throw money at, only to end up, inevitably, with that closet or garage full of gear, but something that consumes your life. It’s something you live and breathe, and even if there are lulls due to unforeseen circumstances, you take it up again at the first opportunity. When you look back on it decades later, it’s a lifetime thing.

REGARDLESS

            Now that the definitions between a hobby and a passion are out of the way, for simplicity purposes, I’m going to call them both hobbies from now on. To that point, with you deep into your passion over a lifetime, or deep into a “hobby” at the moment, do you reflect that in your writing?

MAKING IT OBVIOUS?

            One would think the way characters or situations are drawn, an author makes it blatantly obvious their hobbies and interests come through in their writing.

            For example, in a murder mystery, the protagonist has a thing for tennis. Therefore, the story features scenes where the hero plays it at least once in every book (assuming a series), or mentions it often. One would assume the author is a big tennis fan. You go to the back of the book and sure enough, right in the bio the author states they play tennis every weekend.

            What have I said before here at Fred Central?

            It doesn’t hurt to write what you know.

NOT SO OBVIOUS

            The characters in the series always end up in some kind of cave for at least part of the story. One would think the author might be a spelunker, right?

            Bad buzzer.

            The author, while having a mild interest in caves, has no desire to crawl underground. When he or she was a kid, sure, they were all full of adventure and the thought of diving deep into a cave was a great idea until they actually did it. Then the flashlight went out. All the fascination went out of their great and fantastic idea of the great adventure. Decades later, while not particularly scarred for life from the experience, they’d still rather be an armchair spelunker, a mild interest in the subject, and not a real-life cave diver. You’ll never see that in their bio.

REFLECTING WHAT WE KNOW

            There’s nothing wrong with…in fact it’s great to reflect your hobbies in your writing.

            The key is that when character building, or in fact, story and plot building, those hobbies need to be relevant in some way to character, story and plot.

            In my Gold series, my interest in rock and metal plays a minor but significant role in the “coloring” of the series. Several other of my interests do as well. As for my fantasy series, Meleena’s Adventures, I confess that my mild interest in caves do as well as several other things, though that metaphor I used earlier is not my reason for not being an amateur spelunker. While that actually happened to me a few times, it was just a matter of squeezing through tight spaces, scaling drop-offs, and a general lack of enthusiasm for the overall thrill. Spelunking is a great passion or hobby for some people, but not mine. Besides, now I’m way too old to be crawling around in the dark.

            Quite often, the general subject matter of plots in stories are reflections of the interests of the authors. Given spelunking, for instance, I’ve read several thrillers where the author was a spelunker as well. I’ve seen cozy mysteries where the plot was centered around a knitting circle and the author was a big knitter. Same with quilting. I’ve seen authors who were painters and the plot had to do with painting.

            It’s great to use your personal knowledge from a hobby as part of your story. In that way you can be assured you get the details correct!

WHEN IT’S NOT

            This is where it can get tricky.

            When you use a hobby that you’re not familiar with. You come up with this brilliant idea for either a character quirk or a plot device, but you don’t have a clue about the particular hobby.

            You can read up on it, research and go for broke.

            The best way is to talk to someone who is deep into it.

            Chat them up and learn some quirks and details that the books may not tell you. Or, they can clue you into details you may not notice because you don’t even know to look for them.

            If a reader deep into that hobby notices something off, your bad. Therefore, if you can drop in a few intimate things that only an expert would know. That makes it even more realistic.

            Examples are the proper or slang names for gear. What happens to your hands when you do certain repetitive motions. Sounds, smells, reactions of passerby.

            Little things.

LESSER KNOWN HOBBIES

            Some authors use lesser known hobbies. This can be tricky because when you do, very few people can relate to them.

            I’m a deep sky visual observer and telescope maker. To the world, that’s known as an amateur astronomer. I don’t particularly like the term “amateur astronomer” because what I do isn’t astronomy, per se. Why? Because I’m allergic to math and I don’t do any science. I have a large telescope, I look through the eyepiece and I observe galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. I also record my observations for my own pleasure. I sometimes even draw them. I have no interest in taking pretty pictures of these objects. I do nothing to advance science. However, like writing, this “astronomical” thing is a lifelong passion I’ve had since 1967.

            If I used that in a book, how many people could relate to that? Maybe a handful across the entire country. How many of them would even read my books?

            Most of the country could not even tell if a telescope was set up correctly in a movie scene. That’s not slamming anyone, that’s just a fact.

            It’s a rare hobby, or in my case, a passion.

            Have I used it in my stories?

            Sure, but in small doses. I not only don’t want to overwhelm my readers with jargon they won’t understand, but I don’t want to alienate them with a hobby (or passion) they cannot relate to.

            Consider that when you have a hobby that is out of the mainstream.

SUMMARY

            It’s great for an author to write what you know, and hobbies are another way to add color to your story. That’s especially true if it’s a popular one. If not, I’d have second thoughts about letting it dominate character color, story or plot.

            Happy writing!

DESCRIBING THINGS

December 2, 2020

            I’ve discussed several aspects of description here at Fred Central, but this one pertains specifically to objects, sounds, smells, rather than people or locations.

            Quite often on the forums lately, I’ve seen questions like “How do I describe…”

            While I consider that a legitimate research question most of the time, once in a while, these queries veer into the creative realm. When it does, I don’t like answering because then it gets into writing the story for the author, which is another subject.

FAVORITE EXAMPLE

            There’s a weird sound that’s hard to describe because it’s not something one can easily compare it to anything familiar. In more than one book and magazine article from the distant past, I’ve heard the sound a UFO makes described as like cellophane being peeled off a roll.

            Have you ever actually peeled cellophane off a roll before?

            If you peeled say…plastic wrap off a roll, would it make the same sound?

            Hmmm…

            What about wax paper, or aluminum foil, or that new sticky plastic self-sealing stuff?

            In other words, does it HAVE to be cellophane?

THE VAGUARIES OF DESCRIPTION

            Smells are a good example.

            The pie smelled like rhubarb but looked like apple.

            Oh…kay.

            How many of you have ever smelled or even know what rhubarb is?

            Out of my relatively long time on this earth, while I know what rhubarb is, have seen it plenty in the grocery store, I have yet to taste or smell it (that I know of). As old as I am, I couldn’t tell you what rhubarb smells like if it slapped me in the face.

            So much for that description.

            Sounds.

            It sounded like a car horn honking.

            Okay, generally, that’s fine except in what context?

            If that sound is critical, as in a clue in a mystery story, then which car horn?

            Do all car horns sound alike?

            I think not.

            What model car?

            European car horns sound a lot different than American car horns. European car horns are usually more of a beep than a honk.

            Different model American car horns sound different.

            Color.

            The green house trim contrasted with the brown walls.

            Maybe that’s not important in itself. However, what if it is? What shades are the green and the brown? Most writers will add in the color tones.

            Now, here’s the tricky part.

            How many readers know their color tones or even care?

            Hunter green (a dark green).

            Dark brown (how dark is the brown).

            Cerulean blue (a mid-dark blue).

            Ebony black (a tautology).

RELATING DESCRIPTION TO THE FAMILIAR

            When you relate description to the familiar, you have to keep in mind that the familiar you are using is YOUR familiar. You have to consider your reader’s familiar. Generally, they’re the same, but not always. You can assume to a point. A lot of times when I have read a description, I assume an image in my mind that may not be what the author sees. It’s probably similar, but may not be at all. It’s my reality versus the authors.

            As a writer, when we come up with these descriptions, we have to assume a certain education and experience level from our readers. What we shouldn’t do is veer too far into the realm of the bizarre.

            Now, for you literary writers, I don’t even have to say this means straying into a full page or chapter description of something simple when a few words will do.

ONE MORE EXAMPLE

            Though this one is about a person, it still holds true.

            I’ve said time and again, I don’t like to describe my characters in relation to celebrities. In fact, most of my characters I don’t describe at all or very little. I’ve gone into the reasons why many times here on my site.

            I made one exception and have kept it as sort of a running joke.

            The hero (MC) from my Gold series, Detach I’ve described as looking like the infamous (and lucky for us) dead former leader of Russia, Vladimir Lenin, but with hair. Those that see him for the first time and are familiar with history say he sort of looks like either Lenin with hair, or some crazed biker with tattoos.

            Now, I got the idea for Detach from a lot of places, but the image of him came from a factory worker I once knew of where I was working when I original wrote the manuscript. The guy, which I never knew personally, always reminded me of Lenin, but with hair. At the time, I thought it was a great idea, so I incorporated that into the story. The real guy has no idea.

            Now for the clincher. Years later, when I did some research and looked up the real Lenin, I saw a short movie clip of him disguised with a wig on. I was shocked. He looked nothing like what I pictured. He looked nothing like Detach! My whole image shattered.

            What did I do?

            Nothing.

            Once in a while, I still see some guy with long hair and a goatee and moustache and tattoos, and you know what? He still reminds me of Lenin. He also still reminds me of the “image” of Detach. Yet neither of them look like what the real Lenin actually looked like with hair.

            How many other people have seen that short clip of Lenin with a wig on?

            Probably not many unless they’re history buffs or maybe watch a lot of the History Channel.

            Another thing is that I wanted my hero to be the complete opposite of what the real Lenin was like. I think I did that.

SUMMARY

            Description is in the mind of the beholder, to borrow part of a phrase.

            When you describe something, it’s always best to use the most familiar way to describe something so the most people will “get it.” Maybe not everyone will, but hey, you can’t please everyone. You have to toss it out there and hope for the best. Also keep in mind that not everyone is on the same wavelength as you are.

            Happy writing!

WRITING IN UNUSUAL FORMATS

November 24, 2020

I wasn’t originally intending on piggybacking on last weeks article, but it slapped me in the face this week.

Why?

I happen to be reading a book that did just that.

If you want to see how being a maverick can either be genius, or shoot you in the foot, read on.

WHY DO IT?

            You’re a new, or maybe even an established writer. You want to buck the rules, break out and start something new.

            Maybe you’re emulating one of your heroes from the past.

            Maybe you simply just want to do something different. In other words, throw something at the wall and see what sticks.

            You’re gambling on starting a new trend that could either take off or fall flat.

KEEP IN MIND

            No matter what “brilliant” idea you’ve ever had, it’s all been done before.

            Published books haven’t been around to the masses for a long time, historically, but long enough that everything has been tried sometime. With that in mind, some books that have become classics because of the story, not the writing. Some became classics because there was no competition at the time of publication. Some became classics because they were re-written or edited so that they became readable.

LEARNING OVER TIME

            The publication “industry” has learned a lot over time. Publishers and agents and writers have learned what the public wants, what readers are willing to put up with, tolerate, and what works best.

            That’s not to say they won’t let authors try new things. They will, obviously.

            Like in the old days of music, the old mafia guys would take a lot of weird and unusual bands and symbolically throw them against the wall to see what would stick. That’s a lot harder for some great and unusual bands to accomplish nowadays, given the rather bland state of pop music. Not as much so with books.

            The best, and most tried and true formats for books are still the ones that sell the best because…and I have to go back to my mantra…

            The writing doesn’t get in the way of the story.

CASE IN POINT

            I just finished a book by a highly qualified writer. This is his or her first novel.

            The book has no quotation marks.

            That’s right. The dialogue is blended in with the narrative.

            I could use a series of colorful metaphors but I’ll refrain.

            I could go back to the section on the why’s, but given this author’s qualifications, I can’t even venture to either guess why he or she did this, nor why this big-name publisher let the author get away with it.

            I’ve found it to be a decent story, but one that’s not only flat and emotionless, but very hard to read. It’s jarring, and also full of other faults like tautologies and no point of view whatsoever.

OTHER EXPERIMENTS

            I’ve just about seen it all.

            One that’s particularly annoying is mixing points of view. Going from third to first to second, mixing tenses, changing from fast-paced to literary narrative. All of this in one book.

            My favorite example is that book by a Spaniard from decades ago. I never read it, of course, because it was in Spanish. What made this one weird was because the entire 200+ page book was one sentence. I’ve mentioned this example before, but that’s right. One sentence. The only bit of punctuation in the entire book was a period at the very end on the last page.

            Can you imagine trying to read a 200+ page sentence?

            That’s kind of how I feel about this very annoying book I just read, though it had relatively short chapters and scenes.

SUMMARY

            Whether this book is a one-off, or your “style,” are you ready to punish your readers or alienate half your potential readers with sone weird, or off-putting style of writing? Maybe you have some high horse or artistic “integrity” you want to stick with. Fine.

            Or, do you want to reach the widest audience possible?

            While I’m no fan of first-person, that’s just a personal choice. If the story is written well, it’s still a popular option because it can be done well, and the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story.

            As many of you know, my preference is for third limited. That’s personal taste, and it’s the most widely read and appreciated.

            Also, past-tense in fiction is my preference though some are fine with present tense. I find it unreadable and irritating, but some can write it just fine and some readers are fine with it. Once again, personal preference.

            Mixing and doing weird things doesn’t bode well for broadening your audience. Punishing them or making them work for their story isn’t a great way to introduce yourself either.

            It’s up to you, of course, but if it were me, I’d leave these weird experiments for the writing classes.

            Happy writing.

PUBLISHING IN UNUSUAL FORMATS

November 18, 2020

            This reminds me of the old warning about sending out query letters to agents. “Don’t get cute.”

            By that I mean, don’t use frilly stationary, soak it in perfume, or send a tattered note with a bad typewriter key on it, coffee stained, with a cigarette burn…things like that. Agents usually don’t appreciate when the author goes into character for their query letters.

            How about the book when it gets published?

WHAT’S AN UNUSUAL FORMAT?

            This should go without saying, but not everyone is on the same wavelength. Any book that does not fit on the shelf is the simplest way to put it.

            When you go to the bookstore and you see row upon row of books, and something sticks out because it looks like it doesn’t belong on the shelf, THAT’S an unusual format.

            In the past few years, maybe more, the only games in town (brick and mortar bookstores) have narrowed so that nowadays, trade paperbacks are now mixed with mass market paperbacks as well as hardbacks. A long time ago, things didn’t used to be that way. Each format had their own shelves. With shrinking brick and mortar space, and variety, that’s no longer true. It’s all mixed together.

            Still, when you browse the shelves and see something that looks like it doesn’t belong, it’s going to stand out.

            For instance, when the shape and size of the book looks like it should be in the art department, or sewing, or maybe crafts, that’s going to stand out.

            When the binding is three-ring, or spiral-bound, we have something unusual.

            When it looks like it has foldouts or appears to be a children’s story in the adult fiction category, uh oh…

CAN THIS WORK?

            There can be significant hurdles to such an endeavor. First off is why? Does the story fit the unusual format? If so, can you get the publisher to go along with the format?

            Another big if is will the public go along with it?

            Think of this. Consider the extra expense involved in publishing something in this unusual format. Will the public be willing to spring the extra bucks for it?

            Now, consider those that collect books at home. They’re going to have to figure out where to place your “masterpiece” on the shelf.

            Have you considered whether this “experiment’s” really going to be a hot seller, or just a novelty that’s going to fall flat?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

            I just read an icky bug novel that I’ve seen on the horror shelf at Barnes & Noble a few times but have skipped for a while. The format was like an art book. It was set up as a furniture store catalog, a very familiar furniture store catalog. The difference is that the text was a highly entertaining haunted-store icky bug story. Each chapter had a heading with a piece of furniture just like out of a real catalog. I loved the story. The book was a bit pricey, but considering the format and the cost of a regular trade paperback, it was equitable. So, I broke down and bought it.

            In this case, the gimmick worked. The book would still be a bit hard to shelve, as it sticks out and doesn’t quite fit with either hardbacks or trade or mass market paperbacks. Since I now only save signed copies, after having purged a whole room full of books, it doesn’t matter.

            I’ve seen plenty of other gimmick books that I’ve turned my nose up at. Maybe I did that not because of the gimmick itself, but because of the subject matter. Makes me wonder if they were sellers or not.

ARE YOU THINKING OF THIS?

            A big caveat to this is just remember, the e-book wipes any physicality out of it. Then again, I’m not sure how the illustrations would survive. Since I don’t read e-books, I can’t vouch for illustrations to translate to that little screen.

            I only personally know of one case where it worked. I just read it and seen the proof in the many reviews this book received.

            It might be a bit difficult not only to come up with something original, but to get your publisher, or if your self-published, to spring for the extra expense of printing (and/or) manufacturing it.

            Keep in mind that breaking the mold is always a risk. Then again, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play.

            On the other hand, don’t go through hoops looking for some freaky way to publish a book juss’ ‘cuzz. I’m not. I’ll stick to convention. I have enough to deal with already. If an inspiration hits me one day for something like this, I’ll think long and hard before I ever spring this on my publisher. If I do, I’ll have a real good reason for it. For now, I’m quite happy to keep it simple.

            Happy writing!

THROWING THE DICTIONARY AT YOUR READER

November 11, 2020

            The last time I addressed this issue specifically was way back in 2012 in my article, Are You Writing A Story Or A Dictionary? I’ve addressed it since then, indirectly, in articles about the writing getting in the way of the story. I thought it worth addressing again, specifically, since it was brought up on one of the Facebook forums just last week.

ORIGINAL PREMISE

            I’d originally participated in a discussion on the Absolute Write Water Cooler in the Horror Forum. A participant asked if he should use a certain word to describe a gory scene involving a victim being stabbed in the eye. The word he picked was a medical term that I’d never heard of. He asked the forum if he should use that word or pick something simpler. There were several responses asking what the word meant. I gave him my philosophy, which I’d mentioned here in an earlier article.

            Here’s my quote from the forum: Simpler is better. It’s best to use word economy and keep it at a sixth-grade level whenever possible. Don’t try to impress your reader with big words unless you define those words. That means extra narrative that usually slows things down, unless it’s a key plot point.

            Whoa… hold the fort! The board suddenly came alive. Several responded saying that the writer shouldn’t dumb down the story for the reader. Okay, I can understand that. One responder qualified that you shouldn’t throw the dictionary at the reader, but it’s okay to throw in new words and not explain them so that the reader has to go look them up. He said he appreciated it when he had to look them up, so he figures others will too.

WHAT I’VE REALIZED SINCE HASN’T CHANGED MUCH

            Jumping forward to the present, the Facebook forum had about a fifty-fifty mix of responses this time. Many went for simpler is better, if at all possible, while some said it’s up to the writer to write what he feels, and it’s up to the reader to educate themselves up to the level of the writer (or thereabouts).

            How have I changed in that? Let’s look at this from a logical standpoint.

            How many of you would appreciate stumbling across a word where you have no idea of the meaning? Will you stop reading and go pick up a dictionary, ask someone, or go online to find out what it means? Does the term, jerk you right out of the story mean anything? It certainly does to me, and that hasn’t changed since day one.

            Look at me today, with two master’s degrees under my belt. I’m not exactly a walking dictionary but I have a fairly good grasp of English, my native language. Then again, I still don’t know a good many high-falutin’ and obscure words. Some I can imply from the context of the narrative or dialogue. Some, I don’t have a clue. So, what do I do now? If the word doesn’t jerk me out of the story, I just skip it. I don’t keep a dictionary on the table next to my chair. So, it’s not only my loss, but the author’s loss as well.

            When I was twelve, I didn’t have the greatest command of the English language. If I read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Edgar Rice Burroughs, did I go to a dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know? Not a chance. Did I ask someone? Maybe once or twice. I either guessed the meaning by how the paragraph was written (like I do now), or I just ignored it. I figure that’s what most readers today are going to do if I start throwing in a bunch of fancy words in my writing.

            I like to use the occasional fancy word. However, it’s usually a technical term key to the story. I always explain it either through the narrative or dialogue. Besides, if I do throw in something wonky, my writer’s group will be sure to call me on it!

            As a reader, even now, when I read someone like Dean Koontz (I’m a big fan when he writes third-person), who likes to throw in the occasional freaky non-technical word without explanation, I’m not about to go running to the dictionary to figure it out. If the narrative or dialogue doesn’t explain it, I just blow it off. I don’t care that much. It’s most likely a word I’ll never use in real life or in my own writing, so who cares? Using it doesn’t make me any more sophisticated or make my two Master’s Degrees any more or less valuable, so I just move on.

SUMMARY

            Sure, it would be nice to expand my vocabulary, but once I do, who am I going to use it on? There was a guy I worked with at the AGE Shop in Spain back in the 80’s. He was a walking dictionary. Half the people in the shop couldn’t understand him, and I was among them. On the other hand, I’d love to learn Cockney slang, for a hoot, but who would I use that on?

            As a writer, please consider your audience. This is especially critical to young adult, but it applies to even the older crowd. If you’re shooting for the highbrow intellectual bunch, maybe you can dazzle them with ten-dollar words, but if you’re appealing to a wider audience, KISS!

            If I have to explain that acronym…NO, it’s not the band!

            Once again, I’d like to make this as plain as possible:

            Your job is to entertain your reader, not force education on them. It’s great to provoke thought, but much better through subtle philosophy and ideas woven into the narrative and plot, not complicated words that put up a barrier to the prose. Therefore…

            DON’T LET THE WRITING GET IN THE WAY OF THE STORY!

            Happy writing!