Getting Your Rocket Fizz Going

rocket fizz

Photo (c) Columbusunderground.com

There is a nationwide chain of stores named “Rocket Fizz.” We have had one in the Columbus area for a little over a year. It’s not on the Weight Watchers approved list, for sure, which means that it is a fun place.  I have watched people walking by the place who seem to hit an invisible shield when they see the front window, which promises a party inside. They come in, too. The store layout gives you an excellent idea of what Rocket Fizz is all about from that first glimpse inside. The front has candy that I haven’t seen in a half-century or so, items like Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, Sugar Babies, Teaberry Gum, and Bit O’ Honey. The periphery displays all freaking sorts of bottled soda (Judge Wapner has his own root beer. Who knew?),  taffy (about fifty or so different flavors), posters, tintypes, toys (I almost — almost — laid down thirty bucks for a set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beanie babies), and novelty pranks that will remind you of what you do in your office when no one is around (you’ll know it when you see it).  There are tables piled with merchandise but none higher than five feet or so, the result being that even someone of my very normal height can see the entire expanse of the establishment from the front door. The back of the store displays all sorts of imported items like Japanese Oreos (those folks know how to do Oreos) and English toffees and chocolates of all types and configurations.Wonders beckon.

I take my granddaughter, the eight-year old antichrist, to Rocket Fizz on occasion. While she is respectfully prowling the place, looking for new opportunities for me to spoil her, I like to stand in the corner of the store furthest from the entrance and watch people as they come in. The face of each and every person lights up as they break the plain of the front door. This is true even of grumpy old me, and it’s true every time I visit there.  It’s pure entertainment. A youngster sees unfamiliar types of candy that looks like fun; those of us whose boots first hit the ground in the middle of the last century remember going to the drugstore and paying a quarter for a box of Fizzies (yes, they have those too, and no, they aren’t a quarter anymore). You hear lots of “Oh wow!’s and oohing and ahhing from people of all ages as they walk through. I have never seen anyone step inside of Rocket Fizz and turn around and walk out. No. They walk in, going deeper and deeper. They spend time and yes, they spend money.

Someone did a lot of work figuring out what would work for Rocket Fizz, and it shows. There are fifty odd Rocket Fizz stores scattered across the country and that number will double in a year or so.. I don’t know if the people who came up with the concept of Rocket Fizz sample their own wares or not, but they want their customers to be happy and have fun and hopefully spend money. And we, as authors, can learn from that. I sometimes forget who I am writing for and have to remind myself that if I am writing for me then a diary would serve the same purpose. If I am writing for someone else — or a whole bunch of someone else’s, hopefully — I need to make my book attractive to my audience, not just to me. “I couldn’t get him to stop screaming” is a stack of twelve ounce cans of cola by the front door; “He kept screaming. He didn’t stop, even when I caved his head in” is a twelve ounce glass bottle of Mighty Mouse Blue Cream Soda, made with real cane sugar. It attracts attention, and makes the reader wonder who, why, and next. As far as that next thing goes…you don’t want displays of generic animal crackers. You want gold foil chocolate coins or candy flavored cigarettes (OH, THE HUMANITY!) or Star Wars JellyBellys. This is where you start introducing characters, which you can base upon everyone from the uncle no one ever wanted to sit by to the really, really strange woman who works in the produce department of your local supermarket who won’t meet your eye and just points to what you want. As for your ending…you want exotic. Endings are dessert, at the back of the store. A creme sandwich cookie is okay, but what does a small box of double-fudge covered Oreos with Asian lettering all over it say to you? It says that it’s something familiar, but different. It’s at the back of the store, and is more interesting than anything that came before it. That’s what you want to shoot for. Even if, like me, you miss more often than not. You can’t hit something if you don’t fire.

Have you read anything recently that puts you in the mind of Rocket Fizz, as described? I have a couple of examples, one being THE HOT COUNTRIES by Timothy Hallinan, the latest and best in his Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. The other is THE GOLEM OF PARIS by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, the genre-bending sequel to last year’s THE GOLEM OF HOLLYWOOD. It has it all, from exotic locales to explosions, romance, history and religion. And if you haven’t read anything recently that fits the bill…do you have a Rocket Fizz in your city? Have you been there? What did you buy?

 

 

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How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Subplots

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

One of the most dreaded parts of a book to write is the middle, or what I call the “muddle”. Beginnings are fun and somewhat easy, and endings can be, too. But the tar pit in the middle can bog a writer (and reader) down, sometimes to the point of no recovery. One method of beefing up the submarine-clipart-Submarine-Clip-Art-24.jpgmiddle is the use of subplots.

But just knowing about subplots and their importance is not enough. Many writers are not completely sure what a subplot is, much less how to weave one into the story so that the subplot strengthens the main plot and its characters. Here are some tips to help understand how subplots play a role in your story.

What Is A Subplot?

A subplot is a secondary story that runs parallel to the main plot. One of the easiest methods to understanding subplots is to look at the different layers of your own life. From the moment you awaken in the morning until you fall asleep at night, the plot of your life story is to do what needs to be done to maintain your existence—go to work, do your job, take on and complete tasks, go home and spend time with your family, end your day with plans to repeat and improve your plot tomorrow.

Possible subplots

1. Your car is old and prone to breaking down. On the way to work, it dies for good. You don’t have the money to fix it.

2. Your son calls from college with bad news—he’s failing and needs to move back home.

3. The neighbor’s dog barks constantly but the owner won’t do anything about it.

These are simple subplots, but they can help to provide additional conflict to your story and generate suspense when needed, especially in the muddle. Dealing with them can also help to develop your main character so his actions are more believable concerning the main plot.

When choosing a subplot, make sure it has something to do with the main plot. It might be interesting to have your main character decide to go sky diving, but unless doing so provides an opportunity to have him face his fear of heights or build up his courage for what’s to come later in the main story, it would be a waste of time.

When should you start a subplot?

If the subplot is about your protagonist, you should introduce it as soon as possible. If you intend to have multiple subplots, their starts can be staggered later in the story. Let’s take subplot #3 in the suggestions from above—the barking dog. Your protagonist could be awakened by the dog at the beginning of the story. It could be a cause for constant irritation whenever he’s home and could come up a number of times throughout the plot as the protagonist tries to deal with the neighbor. The barking dog subplot has nothing to do with the main plot other than to show the protagonist’s ability to cope with the problem and his skill at dealing with hostile people. These characteristics will come in play later when dealing with the big events of the plot.

Moving between plot and subplots

An obvious back and forth between plot and subplot can come off as contrived. It’s better to weave the subplot into the main plot so that they seem one and the same. For instance, the protagonist is awakened by the barking dog on the day of the big corporate presentation—the main thrust of the plot. If they don’t get the account, he could be let go. The barking puts him in a foul mood. He phones home after the meeting to let his wife know how it went only to hear the dog barking in the background of the call. He gets home, thankful that the dog is not barking. But at 3:00 AM his peaceful sleep is once again interrupted by the barking. Solving the issue of the dog and its owner is not the main plot of the book, but it is a character-building opportunity and a cause for conflict.

So when things get bogged down in the muddle, rely on the subplot(s) you’ve already introduced and built upon to fill the gaps and move the story forward.

How about you? Do you use subplots? Any additional tips to define and utilize them?

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tomb-coverMax is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

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The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

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Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

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Just One More Chapter

By Joe Moore

Welcome to 2015. All of us at TKZ wish all of you the best of New Years. From a writing perspective, I hope you produce your best work yet. And from a reader’s perspective, may you discover a new author that thrills you beyond expectations.

As some of you know, I write supernatural thrillers with co-author, Lynn Sholes. We are at the midway point of THE TOMB, book 3 of a series. It is the eighth novel we’ve written together. We’re often asked how two people can write fiction. It’s pretty much a mystery, but I’ve pulled back the curtain in a previous blog post to answer the question.

What I want to reveal today are some of the secrets and tricks we use to keep our readers turning the pages to our thrillers. It’s important to remember that these are the techniques we use; they may not be right for you. They might even make you feel uncomfortable, but our job is to write the best, most exciting story we can. Here’s how we do it.

Probably the number one technique is short chapters. And when I say short, I mean SHORT. With few exceptions, we try to max out each chapter at around 1000 words. Many chapters are only 500-700. Now you’re probably thinking: What can you do with 500 to 1000 words? Answer: Only tell what’s important. Leave out the rest. What moves the story forward or develops the characters? That’s the questions we ask. Then we write it in 1000 words or less.

Number two technique is to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. Leave the reader hanging. Give them a taste of what’s to come, then stop. Here’s an example—the last paragraph from the opening chapter of THE TOMB.

I grabbed the binoculars and searched in the direction of La Pampa for Marquez and his driver. They were standing in front of the restaurant with their backs to me; the colonel talking on his phone. If I called him, he would see my caller ID and no doubt ignore me. For all I knew he was giving the command to start the assault. I thought of blowing the car horn to attract his attention, but that would also attract the attention of the two targets in the restaurant. The same problem if I got out and started yelling for the colonel’s attention. My last option was the one I chose. I pulled up the right leg of my jeans and removed the Walther PPK strapped to my calf. Slipping out of the SUV, I moved at a quick pace to the door on the side of the building. I reached for the knob, determined to follow the most wanted man on the planet.

Technique number three is to keep them hanging. The next chapter should take them someplace else, probably the continuation of the cliffhanger from two chapters ago. The reader finishes the chapter, knows it’s late and she should be in bed, but takes a peek at the next chapter and sees it’s the answer to a previous cliffhanger. And it’s only two or three pages. What does she do? She reads just one more chapter.

The fourth trick we use is to ask ourselves what the reader thinks will happen next. Then we do something different.

Writing in this fashion creates fast pacing, dynamics, and the unexpected. I love to read books like that. And I like to write them. I want to be placed in a position where I have to read just one more chapter. And I love doing the same thing to my readers.

How about you guys? Any secrets and tricks you want to share?

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Why do you write books?

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

At one of my recent fiction workshops I asked the attendees why they want to write a book. The responses varied, and all were interesting. Then I pointed out which responses I felt were good reasons and which were not so good. First the not so good.

Fame. Fame is fleeting and almost never comes quickly if at all. For all those striving to become famous, only a few ever achieve it. We’ve all heard stories of writers who self published and became rich. They make the news because they’re rare. If you’re writing for notoriety, reexamine your goals and objectives.

Money. I know a few professional writers who make a good living at the craft. I know many others who make money at writing, but not enough to support themselves and their families. They must be creative in supplementing their writing income—the most common form is to maintain a day job. The rest make so little money at it that one wonders why bother. If you’re writing to make a fortune, call me when you do so I can borrow from you.

Influence. There are some new writers whose main goal is to impress their readers, perhaps with their ginormous brains or voluminous vocabularies. If that’s the motivator you rely on, stick to scientific papers with limited circulation before your brain explodes in frustration.

Agenda. You have a moral crusade and you want to preach it to the masses. You figure you can do it through a novel and no one will figure out that it’s your personal agenda you’re expressing and not your protagonist. Readers are smart. They’ll see you coming a mile away.

Now the good.

No alternative. We write novels because we can’t think of a good reason not to. Wanting to write is not a reason—needing to write is. We simply need to get our stories told. Even if there is no one to read them. Even if we never make a penny. Even if they are for our eyes only. Although it is visually gross and probably tasteless, I always think of the baby alien bursting out of the crewman’s chest in the movie Alien. The story is coming out and there’s nothing we can do about it but sit down and start typing.

As a dear friend and mentor of mine once said, “We write because we’re ate up with it.”

So, TKZers, why do you write?

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Cotten-Stone-Omnibus-DP-TKZComing October 15, from Sholes & Moore: THE COTTEN STONE OMNIBUS. The complete Cotten Stone international bestselling collection—THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY, THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT and THE 731 LEGACY. Download from your favorite e-book store for only $9.99.

“Cotten Stone is a heroine for the ages.”
~ Douglas Preston, #1 NYT bestselling author

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

Today I welcome author, blogger and fellow ITW member, Kristen Lamb, to TKZ. I asked Kristen to share her thoughts on the pros and cons of prologues. Enjoy! Joe Moore

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To prologue or not to prologue? That is the KL1question. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me. Smile That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

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Kristen is the author of the best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World in addition to the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Kristen is the founder of the WANA movement, the CEO of WANA International and creator of WANATribe, the social network for creative professionals. She is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post and the official social media columnist for Author Magazine.

Follow Kristen on Facebook, Twitter at @KristenLambTX and on her regular author blog.

To contact Kristen, e-mail kristen at wana intl dot com.

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Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, it would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

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Nail it with Just the Right Word!

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. And verbs are the heavyweights in your sentences, so pay particular attention to them. Especially avoid the very common but tired, overused verbs like walked, ran, and looked. Instead, find a synonym that shows how that action is taking place.

Say you’ve got a character going from one place to another. How are they moving, exactly, and why? Convey their physical and emotional state at that moment by using a strong, precise, evocative verb. Readers will envision the character and situation much differently, depending on whether you show them strolling or striding or skipping or shuffling or sauntering or slinking or strutting or sashaying or slogging along, just to name a few “s” movement verbs, for example.

For help in zeroing in on the very best word to convey the tone and mood you’re after, it’s a good idea to use both a thesaurus and a dictionary (either online or print). Use the thesaurus to find a wide range of possibilities, then if you’re not 100% sure of the meaning, check with the dictionary to avoid embarrassing slip-ups.

But avoid choosing words your readers will need to look up in a dictionary.

Just make sure to choose a word that really nails the meaning you’re looking for, not one that will impress your readers with your literary prowess. Choosing obscure words that just draw attention to themselves is a sure way to distract readers from your story and annoy them. So read your story out loud later to make sure the words you’ve chosen sound natural and are words your characters would actually say or think in the given situation. (And remember that narration is really the viewpoint character’s thoughts and observations!)

Example from my editing:  She heard a stridulous sound coming from the basement.

I’ve never heard the word “stridulous” before, so it conjures up no image or meaning whatsoever to me. That’s the danger for a lot of your readers, too – no image, no impact. And a mild irritation at having to look a word up in the dictionary if they want to know what it means.

If you’d like to introduce some interesting words your readers might not know, it’s best to use them in context, so readers can guess at the meaning.

Choose words that enhance the tone, mood, and voice of your scene.

Find vivid verbs

Verbs are especially important, as there are so many variations in the way someone can move or speak or eat or whatever, depending on their personality, mood, age, gender, size, background, health, fitness level, and of course the circumstances. So it’s worth the effort to find just the right verb that nails the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A verb that doesn’t quite fit can be jarring and turn a reader off, whereas finding a stronger, more specific verb can really strengthen a scene.

Words for “walked”:

I’ve compiled a handy list of synonyms for “walked” to fit various situations and characters:

– Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

– Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

– Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

– Tired: trudged, plodded, slogged, clopped, shuffled, tramped

– Rough terrain, hiking: marched, trooped, tramped, hiked

– Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

– Showing off: strutted, paraded, sashayed

– Other walking situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended, tiptoed

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe.

But don’t grab that synonym too quickly! Watch out for show-offy or silly words.

After you’ve found a list of interesting synonyms, choose carefully which one to use for the situation, as well as the overall tone of your book. For example, for “walk,” don’t go to extremes by choosing little-known, pretentious words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or overly colloquial, slang, or regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”

And beware of words that just don’t fit that situation.

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had a few author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted – or half-asleep.

Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about wartime, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers “striding” across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them “strutting.” To me, you wouldn’t say “he strutted” unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It’s definitely not an alternate word for “walked with purpose” as is “he strode.”

Or, disguised from another novel I edited:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

The verb “sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or even “stumbled” back to his office.

For similar lists for the verbs “ran” and “looked,” as well as lots of other tips for writing compelling fiction, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction.Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers

Here are two recent quotes from two different contest judges about Fire up Your Fiction:

“This should be on the booklist for Master’s Programs in Writing for Publication.” ~ Writer’s Digest Judge

“FIRE UP YOUR FICTION is the Strunk and White for writers who want to be not just mere storytellers but master story-compellers.” ~ Judge, IndieReader Discovery Awards

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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