Okay, this is directly inspired by a thread I saw on the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum the other day. I have several threads in there that I like to browse, besides the new stuff section (which includes everything), much of which I have no interest in. When something catches my eye, I might go to it and make a comment and never see it again, because I have no idea what thread it was in, even though the title of the forum it’s in is right there in the title of the thread along with the subject (hey, I don’t catch everything). I often never see any of the responses to mine because they get buried with other stuff by the time I visit the site again. Oh well…
Then again, there are my usual haunts which include Horror, Fantasy/Science Fiction and Thriller (whatever). I visit each pretty regular just to keep up with what’s going on in the genres for which I write. Anyone remember me talking about keeping up with your genres and doing your research?
Wayell…the thing is that I rarely read fantasy or science fiction because frankly, I don’t really like what’s out there. On the other hand, I love to read horror but rarely see it in the bookstore. Hence, I have to result to Absolute Write often to keep up on what’s going on in the genres. At least with horror (icky bug), I do get to read one on occasion. On the other hand, I have a plethora of fantasy and science fiction novels at my fingertips but my eyes glaze over when I’m in the bookstore. I often check the rather hefty section and look at all the titles. However, after checking the covers, book blurbs and leafing through the pages, I just don’t get that spark, that kick that compels me to try them out, at least I haven’t in a long time.
So, back to the gist of this conversation drawn from the ether. Tropes.
WHAT’S A TROPE?
A trope is a well-worn premise that’s often considered over-used in a story. For instance, a pauper that’s really a prince. You know, the old poor handsome (or beautiful), dirty street guy or gal that through trials and tribblations discovers he or she’s actually the prince or princess of the kingdom.
Elves, dwarves and orcs in fantasy. What makes these characters really tropes is when they all appear and act exactly stereotypical.
In romance, the “brother and sister” that are extremely attracted to each other, but know it can never be until they find out they’re not related.
In a murder mystery, the butler did it.
As Jimmy Durante probably never actually said, but gets credit for anyway, “I got a million of ‘em!”
WHY ARE TROPES BAD?
First off, tropes are bad because of the boredom factor. In this thirty-second attention span society (and I’m only generalizing here), people want something different.
Even if you run across someone who by a freak accident, has never read this particular trope before in literature, they’ve probably seen it on television or in the movies.
Like with anything, if done badly or just mediocre, it might as well not be done at all.
HOW CAN YOU MAKE TROPES GOOD?
It’s all in the telling or (gag) showing. It’s like every plot has been done a million times before. The difference is in the telling, in the voice, in the way you show it that makes it unique. When you put your own twists on it, you make it a unique story. This is when you take that well-worn trope and make it your own.
Okay, let’s take the pauper that’s really a prince trope in fantasy. Let’s say that in the end, though the character finds out the truth, they turn it down because they want to marry the peasant. They give it all away for love.
Hey, wait a moment. That’s been done like a thousand times as well!
How about this.
They give it all up for love, but by a twist, they don’t have to because the rules changed. They can be the prince or princess after all!
Hey…sorry been done as well!
How about this.
They give it all up because they don’t want the hassle, tell the lover to take a hike and go away with their good buddy to party away in the night!
The thing is, you can still use any of the above scenarios, the well-worn or the unique one. It’s all in the telling.
VOICE IS THE KEY
When you get down to it, since just about everything has been done at one time or the other, there’s very little ground that hasn’t been covered. Therefore, if you look at it that way, everything is a trope to someone. With that in mind, the key is your voice.
If all of this is overwhelming, it all boils down to following your muse.
Follow your muse and see what comes out in the wash. The key element is that when you’re writing, do not try to copy anyone else!
If you follow that simple rule, it’s almost a guarantee it’ll come out in your voice. If not, well, that’s where the editing and rewrites come into play. The thing is, if you’re a writer, you should know all about that by now…or you’ll learn it soon enough.
A trope is not necessarily a bad thing. Using one or many like everyone else can be. What you need to do is put your own voice, your own twist into them. Make them your own and you should be okay.
Prologues have come up time and time again in discussions, not only in my writer’s group, but in the various forums that I check out. Time to discuss it once again.
The big no-no for a long time at the writer’s conferences amongst agents and publishers were prologues. Some agents said absolutely not, while others kind of shrugged their heads and gave wishy-washy answers, leaving their take more ambivalent. Over the years, things have backed off a bit. While some agents, to this day, absolutely despise prologues, more and more are willing to consider them under certain circumstances.
THE FIRST PAGE READ
To understand why agents and publishers don’t like prologues, let’s take a look at the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference’s very popular special event, which we now have as a regular happening, the First Page Read.
This “contest” that isn’t really a contest is where for a $5 donation (that goes to the student sponsorship program), attendees can submit the first page of their novel, short story or whatever. They can submit as many first pages as they want for $5 apiece. The pages are randomly selected and read at lunch on Friday and at dinner time until time runs out, usually an hour. If you’re “lucky” enough to be selected, a panel of agents and/or publishers will listen while it’s read and shown on a large screen. They’ll raise their hand the moment they’d stop reading.
After either everyone raises their hand, or the narrator gets to the end of the page, whichever comes first, the panel each gets a chance to say why they did or didn’t raise their hand.
There can be many reasons why they raise their hand, but the biggest reason is the author starts with backstory and nothing happens on that first page.
I repeat: Backstory and nothing happens on the first page.
A BIG REASON WHY AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS HATE PROLOGUES
When these people sift through hundreds if not thousands of manuscripts and writing samples a month, they usually get the start of each story. Right?
When an author sends the prologue and the first few chapters, which is of course, the start of the book, what often happens with the prologue?
The prologue starts with backstory! Nothing happens! The prologue is a setup that doesn’t need to be there. There’s no action, nothing that can’t be told later by other characters.
Now, think back on the first page read. What do you think these agents and publishers do when they see Prologue plastered across the top of the page and then nothing happens?
Sure, it’s bad enough when it says Chapter 1, or just as bad, it just starts with no heading at all and nothing happens. However, they just as often see Prologue or did for a long time. It’s hard not to develop a bias.
PROLOGUES ARE NOT ALL BAD
As many of you know, I read mostly thrillers and icky bug. They very often have prologues. In my own writing, I use prologues in both my adventure/thrillers and icky bug but don’t in my fantasy. It just doesn’t feel right in fantasy to me. It’s a matter of personal taste.
The prologue needs to be relevant. It needs to be something that cannot take place within the story without throwing the timeline or rhythm of the story out. It also needs for something to happen. It should be an action scene that takes place sometime in the past that explains or sets up something taking place in the timeframe of the present story. Or, it can be something that takes place right as the story begins to set it up. Pro-logue, something that previously happened, versus epi-logue, something that happens afterward.
Back to what I just said, the prologue needs to be relevant and should only be there if it’s the easiest or best way to tell that part of the story. It’s a tool just like plot devices. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s all in the execution.
One more thing, the prologue should be short and to the point. A bad one, in which I won’t name the author, was seventy pages long. That’s a bit excessive! It’s like, come on! Is the story from the back cover ever going to take place or what?
Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t use a prologue. Just make sure you do it with a bang.
As many of you know, I’m no big fan of the omniscient point of view (POV). That being said, there are a few authors who’ve managed to hold said POV together and do it well enough that I’ve enjoyed the story well enough to finish their books, relatively stress-free. Others, not so much. Certain members of my writer’s group love omniscient. Lucky for me, and for our friendships(!), I’ve read some of their stories and I was quite pleased. Even though I may not have found them the easiest reads for me personally, the authors handled things and told their stories in such a way that I was still able to close the books with a smile on my face.
In the “Others, not so much” category, I’ll name a few names.
In a way, I grew up with omniscient, or what is really pseudo-omniscient. By that I mean, the author writes mostly third-person subjective, but head-hops and throws in occasional true omniscient sections without separating those areas with either scene or chapter breaks. It’s a true POV mishmash, but all in third-person.
NAMING NAMES – WHEN IT WORKS
To go way back, the most classic example is Lord Of The Rings. To tell the truth, as I sat on that stool in the maintenance shed at night, between watering runs at the Desert Aire Golf Course in Palmdale in the summer of 1969, just after I graduated, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d go out and set a line of sprinklers on the fairway, then run in and sit on that stool with one of those thick books, keeping my feet off the ground while the scorpions ran around on the floor. I had to suffer through those tomes, and at the time, I couldn’t figure out why they read so difficult. It wasn’t until forty-odd years later, after I gained my writing and editing chops that I went back and leafed through the omniscient prose and figured it out. Turns out, I loved the movies much more than reading the books, and I’m not alone in that.
When I first started writing, one of the authors that inspired me was Clive Cussler. I still read him every chance I get. The problem with him is that he’s a big head-hopper. Back in the days of Raise The Titanic, his skill with mixing omniscient and third-person subjective worked and his fast-paced prose influenced me a lot. It hasn’t been until the last decade that I’ve noticed how much he does this mix, but with a skill that usually, but not always works. Many authors can’t pull it off.
NAMING NAMES – WHEN IT DOESN’T WORK
I don’t usually slam other authors and…you know what? I’m not going to here, despite what I said about Tolkein. I save that for my reviews on Amazon. I’ll just call this guy author X.
There’s a certain thriller writer that I have mentioned by name on this site once. I love his stories and have read every one of his books. I just bought his latest hardback and I did a three-star review. To tell the truth, the story was worth five stars, the writing one star.
This is an author that writes pseudo-omniscient, but has no clue how to do it. He has no finesse whatsoever. The POV shifts from character to character within the same scene, paragraph, and sometimes even within the same sentence! It was a rare thing when he’d stay in one character’s head for an entire page. In fact, at the end of the novel, I was just rooting for the story and none of the characters. There were so many characters, I had no idea who the main protagonist was, despite what the back cover said. In the end, it didn’t matter because I had no emotional investment in any of them. I just wanted to see how the story ended.
To add more fuel to the fire, the author’s notorious bad grammar, syntax and you name it were there as well. The editors did little more than spell check.
In the end, instead of closing the book with a smile on my face, I closed it with a sigh of relief. I wanted to finish it to find out what happened, but I had to suffer to get there.
Then I picked up a book by F. Paul Wilson (I am naming names here!), and it was such a breath of fresh air, it was like I slipped into another world and breezed through his story in no time at all.
Wilson’s book was solid third-person subjective with no head-hopping. When he shifted POV, he either changed scenes or chapters. I always knew who was doing and thinking what. The prose was clear and distinct and the grammar, syntax and prose were very professional. This author knows how to leave a legacy!
Okay, I don’t like omniscient, but I accept that some people find their voice in that style. Fine. However, if you’re going to write that way, at least try to do it right.
I cannot understand why author X insists on writing with such a crappy style, book after book, with almost no editing, and thinks chaos is the way to reach people. Sure, he has his fans and sells enough books to get a publisher to go the hardback route with him. My question is how much further he could go if he’d get off his butt and learn to write coherently.
I can’t be the only one that finds that type of writing frustrating and almost unreadable. In fact, I don’t, based on the Amazon reviews. However, that makes no difference at all.
If you want to write omniscient, at least make an effort to do it right.
This will be the third time I’ve re-visited this article. Why? Because inspiration is critical to every writer. It’s key to what we do. Without inspiration, we’d have nothing to do! It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction, something has to inspire us to pick up pen or keyboard and start the process. Something has to drive us to create a word picture for someone else to read, or even for ourselves to re-read once we’ve finished it.
If you’re of the reality-based bent, you’ll want to go for non-fiction. Maybe you have an interest in something scientific. Maybe you want to write about some famous or infamous person. Maybe you want to write about a subject near and dear to your heart, some passion that you think the world needs to know about. Something has inspired you to do that, something gave you that drive to put the word out!
If you’re a fiction writer, you want to make stuff up. It doesn’t matter the subject, whether literary or genre, you have something to say. Something inspired you…something compelled you to put it down in words.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
In my case, I’ve told it twice already on this web site. For a brief review, here is the gist of it:
I’ve always had a great imagination. That was evident early on when one day, I was walking home from kindergarten. Yes, back in the 50’s, it was normal for kids to be able to do that, even in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood where we lived for a short time. I drew something in class I had yet to name. Some of the mothers saw me proudly flashing my fine work of art. They stopped me at the end of the cul-de-sac as I cut between houses. They gathered around and admired my crayon scribbles.
“What is that, Freddie?”
I thought a moment and then it hit me. “It’s a polka-dot sewer!”
My mom, who was waiting for me by the front door, heard the peals of laughter. She walked down from the house to investigate.
I don’t remember anything else about that day. It was, however, the start of my illustrious career of telling tall stories. Not long after that, during show and tell, I told the class how my sister went down the drain after bath time. Somewhere, I have a note about that on one of my report cards.
Now, take comedians. A well-used and very true-ism from stand-up is that all a comedian has to do is watch the news. Their material writes itself. True?
Take the presidential campaign. From both sides, the parties are making enough gaffs to keep comedians happy until the elections. Then, whoever gets in office will be the next target.
What about writers?
Taken from what I read, thrillers for instance, with all the terrorist attacks around the world and within our own borders, writers have a gold mine of inspiration.
How about romance writers (which are a big thumbs down for me, but go figure). Maybe soap operas, or celebrity romances, or just life in general.
Westerns? How about the old movie channels on cable that show westerns all day and night. I’m sure there’s plenty of inspiration from that!
THE ODDEST LITTLE THINGS
The big ideas are one thing, but say you’re already in the middle of your big idea. Or, you may still be thinking on that, maybe with several possibilities, but are pondering ideas you can incorporate into your story.
As a true writer, the world is an open book. Keep in mind, I’m talking mainly about fiction writers for this.
Everyday life can provide infinite inspiration to color your world. Just walking down the street and observing people can provide you with a wealth of ideas. My infamous example from a while back, a trip through the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland sparked my imagination. Chatting with friends and family. You name it. The oddest little things can inspire ways to color and enhance your world.
Another thought derives from what we used to love to do in Spain, especially in downtown Madrid back in the 70’s and 80’s. We loved nothing better than to sit in an outside tasca (that’s a Spanish bar) on a busy street and watch people go by. You’d see some of the most fascinating things.
When it comes to non-fiction, that’s a tougher call. Then again, your inspiration is facts. The more facts you get, the more ways you can enhance your world…your subject. All I can say is that the more colorful or less dull you make your non-fiction work, the more likely people will get your message…your point. If you just want to get the word out and don’t care who you appeal to, go for it. However, if you want to appeal to a wider audience, even a little bit, how about adding a bit of color or pizazz without being so dull about the subject? A little inspiration in stating the hard cold facts would be nice. That’s where inspiration can really help.
The oddest little things can make all the difference.
There’s nothing that beats the good old American entrepreneurial spirit and self-publishing fits well into that category. After all, to self-publish is to take on a small business. In reality, to publish any book other than a New York Times best seller is to take on a small business, when you get down to it. The difference is that with self-publishing, you pay for everything. You have no backing whatsoever. The entire onus is on you, from writing the book to the editing, marketing, distributing, and every other little nuance. With a small publisher, a good bit of that is on you as well, but not everything.
Self-publishing came to mind the other day when my friend, a self-published and quite successful author, Deborah Dorchak posted an article about Barnes & Noble. The article headlined the fact that B&N will start selling and featuring self-published books from those authors. Woohoo! Big news! Oh, but wait a minute…
For those of you that saw that headline, maybe on another forum, or on a news site somewhere, how many of you actually read the article?
You may have noticed that my title says “rears its head” instead of “rears its ugly head” because I don’t find self-publishing ugly. I just find that this avenue is not for me. I have neither the time, money nor the principle to follow that path. However, some do and I have nothing against that. The thing I need to bring up here is that though the article headline sounds like a big deal, for those of you that didn’t read it all the way through, there are some details you might have missed.
B&N is ramping up to put a dent in Amazon with the self-publishing crowd. However, the devil seems to be in the details right now. The one that stood out to me, and seems to be an issue and might be for new authors is that to get your book in their stores, you have to meet certain sales goals first. Uh oh…I saw numbers of 1,000 and 500 before they’ll talk to you. If you’re starting out, you have to find some way to prove to them you have these numbers. In other words, you can’t just put out your book and go right to your local store and expect them to display your book! Last night at the writer’s group, one of the members who read a version of the article said the sales figures specify you have to have sales of 500 in Nook, which is the Barnes & Noble version of the e-reader. In that regard, they would have a way to track your sales figures even if you can’t (at least I’ve never been able to figure them out yet).
Another issue someone mentioned in the comments section of the version I read, and to which I can attest to as fact. B&N already represents self-published books in their stores! Our very own Deborah Dorchak & Wendi Kelly’s shape changer series is on the shelves. In fact, that’s where I bought their first book. I did not buy it from Deborah directly at one of our writer’s group meetings. I bought it in the store. Folks, they’ve been quietly selling self-published books all along, at least to some degree, especially from local authors.
A VIABLE OPTION FOR SOME
I, personally, will never self-publish. Okay, I take that back. I’ve been self-publishing all along on the Let’s Talk Nevada web site. That’s where you’ll find my autobiography, or to be more sophisticated or if you want…or snooty, my memoir! Yup, I’ve been self-publishing it there since 2014. No overhead, nobody telling me what to do, of course, no money coming in and no sales figures. I’m doing it for free. I can say one thing, I have no money in my pocket, but I also don’t have a garage full of books, haven’t spent anything but a bit of time writing those articles, and had a great time doing so. In that regard, I’ve been self-publishing for several years and have a legacy on line. I’ve never spent a dime on it.
Using the example of a success story, Deborah Dorchak and her partner, Wendi Kelly succeeded because they’re relentless marketers. On the other hand, I know so many self-published authors that have ended up with a garage full of books because they have no clue how to market their book, or are unwilling to get out in the trenches and sell them.
You have to have the entrepreneurial spirit to pull this off. Even if you’re conventionally published, you have to do this.
Time will tell if this Barnes & Noble feature works out for the self-publishing crowd…or even the small publisher crowd. We’ll see.
Whichever path you choose, the best of luck!