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CHAPTER LENGTH

September 25, 2019

The other day, my good friend Toni asked a question on our writer’s group forum about chapter length. It was no surprise that she got a bunch of different answers.

I’ve discussed chapters before in several articles and alluded to length but this time, I want to specifically deal with how long a chapter should be.

WHY HAVE CHAPTERS AT ALL?

The big question pertaining to this subject is: Why have chapters at all?

It harkens back to the reason we have punctuation. There was a book published in Spain decades ago, that I’ve mentioned here at Fred Central periodically. The book is a couple of hundred pages long and is one sentence. The only punctuation mark in the entire book is a period at the end. That’s it. I’ve never seen the book, but have heard plenty about it. Can you just imagine a single sentence two hundred plus pages long?

I can’t stand to read a single paragraph that takes up half a page, let alone a full one.

I can’t stand a book with only a couple of chapters, and few scenes.

Why?

Pauses for thoughts – breaks to regroup, rethink, like scenes in a movie, or on TV.

Commercial breaks (though I despise commercials).

THAT’S why we have chapters.

It’s the same reason we not only have punctuation, but sentences and paragraphs. To break the story down and make it more manageable and digestible.

SHORT OR LONG?

I don’t completely buy into this “it takes whatever it takes” thing.

Why?

That gives the author free reign to ramble. When a chapter or scene is too long, it becomes tedious. Period.

I’ve been reading for a little over sixty years. Sitting down for long periods has never been comfortable without some kind of break, especially when I was a young’un. Then those bursts of reading got longer as I got older, and now they’re getting a little shorter again.

Why?

Not only does my body insist, but my mind needs a break, and I have a lower tolerance for bullshit and rambling.

When a chapter or scene is too long, that tells me (consciously and subconsciously) that the author doesn’t know when to shut up and get organized.

Long chapters means the author doesn’t know how to pace correctly.

On the other hand, super-short chapters can either be seen as hyperactive and disjointed, or perfect for reading during commercials.

I’m perfectly fine with short chapters as long as they have a beginning, a middle and an end. If the chapter is a single paragraph, with nothing but a burst of thought, THAT’S a bad chapter. I’ve seen it before, plenty of times.

On the other hand, I’ve seen seventy and eighty page chapters with one and two-page paragraphs and they were pure torture.

To me, moderation is the key.

YOU KNOW WHAT?

On the other hand, your book DOES need to take as many chapters as necessary, but you have to consider your reader, and whether you want to punish them, or not let the writing get in the way of the story.

Think about it.

I tend for short chapters, or long ones with short scenes.

I’m quite happy with moderate chapters broken up with scenes.

You know what? I’m not at all alone in this feeling. In my unofficial polling, which I do all the time, I get unprompted comments from non-writer readers about books (in other words, our potential audience). I hear all kinds of things, and pertaining to this discussion, a biggie is “I thought that chapter would never end.” “That guy (or gal) doesn’t know when to shut up.” “That was just plain tedious.”

SUMMARY

You don’t have to have 80 chapters in your story, but you also don’t have to have 3. You can be reasonable and keep the PACING going so the reader doesn’t get bogged down.

A book should have as many chapters as it takes, but the key is keeping the pacing up so you don’t punish the reader.

Happy writing!

DRAGONS

September 18, 2019

Right off the top, I want to say this isn’t an instruction article on the how to’s of dragons. Also, if you’re not into writing fantasy, this probably isn’t going to be your thing. Or is it?

STANDARD OF THE FANTASY GENRE

If you write fantasy, the dragon, noble or otherwise, is probably a standard creature, or even a trope of your world. These critters can be from the subject to just a minor distraction. They might not even be a part of your world, just to be different.

On the other hand, it’s almost come to be expected from most fantasy worlds. What’s fantasy without some kind of dragon?

There are some fantasy worlds out there that don’t have them.

WHAT ARE THEY THERE FOR?

Quite often, the story is based on dragons. These mythical creatures are the basis for whatever story you’ve written. With magickal powers, breath emissions like fire, ice, and acid to name a few, tremendous strength, the ability to mesmerize, and a range of other superhuman abilities, they’ve earned their status into almost godlike realms.

With that in mind, many stories are woven around this type of world.

They could also just be another “monster in the manual,” something to be dealt with. Usually, they’re one of, if not, the most difficult beasts to fight, if they’re not key to the story or plot.

Then again, maybe they’re neutral, and have little to do with anything, except being peripheral to the rest of the story.

GIVING THEM ABILITIES

Many go right to the D&D Monster Manual for abilities, or the author may research real-world legend. Some make up their own design from a meld of stuff they’ve heard or read.

There are no real rules for what your dragons, if you choose to use them, have to be. It’s your world, so it should be up to you to decide what their abilities and appearance are going to be. You’re not bound by any genre rules that require you to make them so and so.

I’m certainly not going to try to tell you or dictate those parameters for you.

Some are going to call bull if you “break the rules,” but who can say what they are for a mythological creature?

PHILOSOPHICAL – NON-FANTASY DRAGONS

This section is for you non-fantasy fiction writers.

Who says a dragon has to be a dragon?

A dragon can be a protagonist or an antagonist?

A dragon can be a character of mythological proportions. Some person with almost mythological abilities. This someone can sweep into your story and either help save the day, or create havoc in a way that may seem mythological. You, as the author, will have to lay out the logistics for the reader. Leave a little mystery, a little mythology to the character, without making the reader suspend their disbelief too much.

Yes, you non-fantasy writers can have your dragons as well, in the form of real people.

SUMMARY

In most cases, dragons are either key players, or above-the-norm creatures (or people) in a story. They’re meant to be so. Some authors choose not to use them at all. Those that do, tend to elevate them into something mythological, something above all other creatures or people in their story. It’s not just a matter of size, but intent.

Happy writing!

REDEMPTION

September 10, 2019

In today’s cancel culture, redemption seems like an impossible goal. As I was sitting at the breakfast table sipping coffee the other morning, I thought about recent TV shows I’ve been watching. It hit me how many books I’ve read not only lately, but over the years about redemption.

Folks, countless plots in literature are all about redemption.

Why is it that it’s so easy to write about redemption, yet in real life, especially lately, all of a sudden, there’s no such thing?

THE CLASSIC PLOT DEVICE

Redemption is a classic plot device. Hands down, it’s woven into the thread of countless stories.

Hero comes from a downtrodden past. They reached some pinnacle, did someone or something wrong, crashed and now the story begins. They have to work themselves out of the gutter.

The story, in one way or another is all about redemption.

Am I wrong?

I recently read a book by David Baldacci called Redemption. When it’s right in the title, well…

CHARACTER COLOR

The story may not be directly about redemption at all. It’s possibly a minor plot thread. Maybe it’s just a feel-good sideline added in to sweeten the pie.

Get it? Sweeten the pie?

Doesn’t it feel good when someone redeems him or herself?

WHY IS IT SUDDENLY TABOO NOW IN REAL LIFE?

I’m not bringing this up for political reasons but there have been a lot of people who have done some bad stuff in the news lately. Their offenses have ranged from seriously bad to minor discretions of youth.

The newsies, talking heads and others are either digging in or questioning how long that individual has to hide their head in the sand before they can come out and play again.

Are they banned for life?

It seems like no matter how minor the offense, some people just can’t get a break.

On the other hand, some who have committed pretty bad stuff are given unwarranted breaks.

Is all this due to money, fame, politics, or a combination?

The reason I bring up this ugly real-life stuff is simple. It’s not my personal feelings. It’s because it doesn’t seem like literature reflects that at all…well, most of it.

LITERATURE– OUR WRITING – REFLECTS A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

When it comes to redemption, at least from the genres I’ve read so far, I have yet to come across any fiction that reflects the true state of reality as it exists today. Not only the cancel culture of society as it stands right now, but the banned who should be truly banned and who should never be redeemed.

Those that should be locked away and the key thrown away, or the ones banned for life?

Literature is exaggerated reality. It’s not real life. Then again, I don’t read books for real life, so maybe that’s the whole point.

Maybe I don’t want to read the ugly truth. I want to read about worlds that take me away from the true ugliness that’s the real world.

Eventually, there will be books out there that exaggerate the reality of the cancel culture. They’ll be the upcoming thrillers.

SUMMARY

While forgiveness and redemption is nothing new, neither is unforgiveness.

I could cite examples in the past where someone did something unforgiveable and they never recovered. It’s old news when you get right down to it. It’s just that there seems to be more of it now with the various movements going on around us in society.

Now THAT’s great fodder for stories to come.

Happy writing!

FAMILIES

August 28, 2019

In your writing, how much does family life play a role in your story/plot?

No matter what your world, family, in some form, provides plenty of plot fodder.

MAJOR OR MINOR CONTRIBUTION?

I’ve recently read books where family had from major to negligible influence on the plot.

In a recent one, it was all about family. In fact, while the main plot was about a murder, the reason for the murder was because the victim disrupted a family.

In the book before that, the hero didn’t have a family. However, he was protecting civilization so everyone else COULD have families. In this case, the contribution was indirectly about families.

SNEAKY WAYS

Most people like that sense of belonging. Of course, there are a few who could care less, and a few who dislike families for whatever reasons. The majority desire some sense of belonging. Stories that provide a sense of belonging usually work better.

Incorporating some sort of family into the characters of your novel can be done in sneaky ways. A partnership is one example. The staff of an agency is another. How about a team that becomes close through trial and tribulation? Maybe everyone hates each other at first, but through adversity, learns to rely and respect each other? They become “family” by the end of the book.

This sense of family is a sneaky, if not overt way of incorporating that into the story.

OF COURSE…

When you cite the solo adventure such as the Old Man And The Sea, or something of that nature, it’s hard to have a family involved when the main character is the ONLY character in the story! Then again, quite often throughout the story, the character thinks about their family.

Some people love these loner stories, even if there’s a cast of many. The main character stays to him or herself despite any interactions with others. THIS is the same isolated feeling that drives these people. There is no family because they either don’t have one or are trying to escape one. The reader can relate to that, or wants to.

In other words…

Stories like these could be a refreshing break from the miseries or stresses of everyday life for some people. It’s a natural thing.

On the other hand, the majority of us celebrate family, much of the time despite the family pressures and stresses of everyday life.

SUMMARY

Have you ever stopped to consider what role family plays in your writing? For some of us, it’s an unconscious thing, while for others, it may be deliberate.

It wouldn’t hurt to step back and see where you stand, just for a hoot. It may help you understand and improve your story.

Happy writing!

FEEL LIKE QUITTING?

August 20, 2019

It’s bound to happen to many, if not most writers. You get that built-up frustration, and want to give up and quit. That’s especially true if writing is a hobby and not a passion. Why do you get this way?

LEARNING TECHNIQUE

It’s no secret that English is one of the hardest languages to master. Not only that, but to write and tell a story properly is even more difficult. There are many nuances to consider, and when one is trying to construct a meaningful and marketable novel or even short story, you’re bombarded with rule after rule after rule.

Things can get frustrating. It takes a lot of perseverance to stick with it.

If you’re not in for the long haul, you might as well stick your toe in, and if the passion doesn’t strike, take up knitting.

CRITICISM

Of course, one can’t get into writing and expect nothing but sunshine and butterflies. To get good at it, you have to not only accept, but absorb a lot of criticism. Not all of it’s going to be kind, and some of it, even if so, may be a blow to your ego.

Look at it this way. No matter who you are. You weren’t a writer before you started this. Or even if you were, you weren’t seriously into this world. Now you are. However, despite all, you’re still new at it, so that means you have to learn stuff and that means you aren’t going to be perfect. You’re going to make mistakes and others are going to let you know.

Grow a pair and accept that!

GETTING PUBLISHED

By whatever avenue you try, getting published isn’t just doing it. There’s a lot more to the process and it can be very frustrating. You need to go into it with open eyes.

MARKETING

To me, marketing is the worst part of the entire process.

Whether you’re traditionally published or self, you need to get out there and let people know you have a book, and need to convince them to buy it.

It’s simple as that.

This can be extremely frustrating to have people nod and pass you buy, simply ignore you, hate what you write, or make promises they never follow through with.

It’s all part of the process.

SUMMARY

If you want to quit, no matter what stage you’re in, whether you’re still creating, or all the way to the marketing side, you have think of why you write in the first place.

Is this a passion or a hobby?

If writing is a passion, you’re going to continue regardless of all the challenges, because none of that matters. Writing is what you do. Period.

If writing is a hobby. Oh well, you reached a roadblock and it took all the joy out of why you do it.

Quit and take up knitting.

The choice is yours.

Happy writing!

BUILDING A CHARACTER

August 7, 2019

I’ve talked quite a bit about characters here at Fred Central.

As a coincidence, since I wrote this last week, we just had an outstanding presentation on building a character from the ground up at our Henderson Writer’s Group Meeting by my buddy Donald Riggio.

So, with that in mind, how do you make a character interesting?

How do you make a character relevant?

What steps do you take, or what method do you use to go about actually creating said character?

Unless you’re a multitasker, let’s consider just one at a time. Maybe you can do many simultaneously like I do, on the fly, but I’m going to break it down into a single, step-by-step process and you can take it from there.

PURPOSE

It would seem the character’s what, where, when, why and how would be automatic, but let’s step back a minute.

Why is the character there in the first place? What’s his or her purpose?

Main character (MC)?

Antagonist (bad guy).

Sidekick?

Peripheral?

One-off?

These factors determine how elaborate you go with the rest of the details. Of course, you want to spend the most real-estate on the MC. Less on the sidekicks and even less on the peripherals.

Depending on your style, you need to spend some time on the bad guy or gal. Some readers want motivation. Some could care less. Here’s where you need to do a delicate dance with your real-estate.

Now, the peripheral and one-off characters are where some authors get into trouble. They can spend an inordinate amount of time on trivial characters, especially if they have some agenda and want to leak that into the story through one of these characters. Much of the time, this just wastes space.

The author uses the excuse “adding color to the story.” Ahem…that only goes so far, and unless you’re a literary writer, where words count more than action, you’re going to bore and lose your reader. This is what’s called fluff. It wastes the reader’s time. It waters down and distracts from the plot and story movement.

APPEARANCE

This one can be a tough call.

On one side, you have the author that describes each character in detail, down to every stich of clothing and every mole on their face, every hair out of place. The reader can often get bogged down in details they either absorb or skip over, like me. As a rule, I instantly forget more than the most vivid or general descriptions and fill in my own blanks. I’m not alone in that.

What’s worse is comparing your characters to some celebrity, especially a main character. If it’s a minor character, that’s less of an issue because if the reader hates the celebrity, the minor character can be brushed off without them putting the book down.

For the most part, general or little to a vague description does the trick. Let the reader fill in their own blanks. Most of them are going to do it anyway.

FAMILY HISTORY

Nobody comes from a vacuum. Everybody has a history of some kind, so it’s only natural to give your characters, especially the main ones and even the sidekicks a bit of family history.

I don’t mean entire chapters, but a few paragraphs here and there. Drop in character-building things to give life to your characters. Everyone has or had a mom and dad, maybe siblings, or some kind of uncles and aunts. Maybe they were an only child, and their family died. Maybe they ended up in the foster care system. Who knows?

HEALTH ISSUES

Whether mental or physical, no character is perfect. Reflect that in your narrative and dialogue. Give your character life by giving them a health history.

My character Detach in the Gold Series has Limnophobia. That’s a fear of fresh water lakes. I use that as a plot device throughout the series.

What issues do your characters have? Give them aches and pains. Give them fears, phobias, things that make them human or inhuman if they’re critters (after all, some of you write fantasy and science fiction).

HABITS & FOIBLES

Aside from mental health issues, each character, whether major, minor or bad guy, has habits and foibles that make each one different and interesting.

What do they do that not only makes them different, but makes them interesting?

What’s their moral code?

MAKE THEM RELATABLE

Finally, except for unusual circumstances, every character should have something relatable to the reader. People like to identify with the characters, especially the main character. There are, of course, certain characters that are so far out in left field nobody can relate to them. That’s a given in some cases. However, someone in the story has to be there for the reader to draw onto to ground them. If not, they become lost.

Even in an alien or fantasy world, one character can be relatable to us. Either by their personality or actions, there’s something they have, a spark, a habit…something we all have that we can grab onto. You’ll know it when you see it.

OUTLINE OR ON THE FLY?

The eternal question.

First off, you don’t slam the reader with all of these details in the first chapter. You leak it out, bit by bit. Maybe it’ll take several books. In fact, it SHOULD take several books if it’s a series. The reader should always be learning something new about the characters in each installment.

Now you, as the author don’t have to come up with all of this before you start. Some of you might do just that, and outline everything. However, some of us, like me, do it on the fly. We have a vague idea of who our characters are and things develop as we go along.

That’s exactly how I do it. I know what I want from my characters, but I don’t outline it or write it down. I let it flow out as I write. I leak it out a bit at a time. Sometimes I get an inspiration to throw something else into the mix. I’m very fluid with that.

Some of you may be very rigid with your characters and that’s fine.

Some of you may be a mix, inbetween both extremes. That’ll work just as well.

Whatever the case, build your character into something dynamic and interesting.

Happy writing!

DISNEYLAND

July 31, 2019

Since I was knee high to a…well, for those of you old enough to remember that cliché…I practically grew up in the shadow of Disneyland. I visited not long after the park first opened and distinctly remember Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. To this day, it’s still my favorite ride, bar none. I remember visiting my cousins in Whittier and seeing the fireworks going off in the far distance, back when the smog was not so bad and you could still see long distances. We used to go there a couple of times a year, and I still recall the original parking lot before it became California Adventure. I also recall the orange groves that used to surround the place.

I may even have a vague tie-in to the Disney studios through my mom. When she was a teen back in the late thirties and early forties, during the war, she had a dance partner who used to drag her, under age, to dances all the time. He went on to become an animator for Disney studios. He also may or may not be related to an infamous actor that’s still active today.

I grew up with Disney shows, Disney toys, Disney books and records. Who of a certain age can forget the Wonderful World Of Color? The Mousketeers? When I needed my imagination sparked, along with all the reading I did from a very early age, Disney was at the forefront. My inspiration, muse, or “polka-dot sewer,” was right there. It’s never left me.

MODERN TIMES

I’ve covered inspiration several times here at Fred Central and people often talk about that and about muses. If I were to venture into that territory, I cannot go far without a big shout out to Disney. They’ve been a big part of my life. Even when I went off and joined the Air Force, left California and the You Ess And A for Europe, that spark of imagination never quite left me.

When we finally moved back west to Las Vegas, we had a chance to revisit the original, and to me, the only real Disneyland. While I can’t really knock the other parks around the world, the original still holds the best memories and inspiration.

On visiting my parents, while still on active duty, we had a chance to go to Disneyland once in the 80’s and once in the 90’s. It helped inspire me to start writing.

To this day, when we visit the park, something about the place stirs my imagination. Something always indirectly gives me an idea for one of my books.

HOW ABOUT YOU?

While I’ve described a particular place, for each of you, it might be something different. Is it a place like Disneyland? Is it a person? Is it a city? A house? A vehicle? A train? Family life?

For some of you, maybe there is no one thing that inspires you.

In general, everything around me inspires me. I’ve talked about that a lot. However, the key, the root, especially after thinking about it, goes back to Disneyland.

Does that mean that everything I write is sparkly and G-rated?

Of course not!

However, there are certain things that you’ll always find in my work.

The bad guy always loses. The hero always wins. The hero always survives at the end.

Those are just givens for any book I write, and if they’re spoilers, so be it. Since I write mostly in series, that should be evident from the outset anyway.

My stories have positive outcomes. Always.

THAT’S Disney influence in a nutshell, regardless if I’m writing fantasy, thrillers or icky bug. That’s also regardless of the subject matter, body count or any colorful metaphors.

For you, what’s your major influence, above all, and how has it affected your writing?

SUMMARY

We don’t write in a vacuum. Our inspiration and influences come from somewhere. It filters through our personalities, experiences and whims and becomes something unique.

That’s what makes the world turn.

Happy writing!