Series vs. Standalone

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

My wife and I watched the first episode of TRUE DETECTIVE the other night (HBO original). The new series stars Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. We were captivated with last year’s show by the same name, the one starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was unique, moody and unnerving. We looked forward to every installment of the back-bayou, gritty Louisiana crime story. Great writing, acting, photography and setting. I haven’t formed a solid opinion of the new one yet, but I can tell you one thing: it is TOTALLY different from season one. I mean, other than the title, there is no resemblance to the first TRUE DETECTIVE. In fact, you could change the title to ANYTHING else and it would make no difference.

Don’t get me wrong. Farrell and Vaughn are great actors. In fact, they’re really movie stars that someone convinced to be on TV. And their acting is top drawer. I always enjoy it when a comic actor takes on a dramatic role and excels in it. Vince Vaughn does just that. And Colin Farrell has never let me down.

But watching the opening episode of TRUE DETECTIVE, season two got me thinking. As an author of thrillers, what’s the best choice for me—writing a series or a standalone? TRUE DETECTIVE is a series—that’s why there are two seasons with the same name. If it were the equivalent of a standalone, it would be called a movie. So as a writer, should I be writing a series or single novel? What are the pros and cons of series vs. standalone?

First let’s look at genre fiction (thriller, mystery, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, police procedural, horror, romance, etc.). Genre fiction gives us both series and standalones. Which should I write?

tgcTruth is, I’ve done both. My first published novel was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes), the first of a 4-book series. Our fifth book was a standalone called THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Both TGC and TPA went to #1 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. Now we’re finishing up THE TOMB, the last of a 3-book series. Next up will be a standalone. I believe both work for us.

But it’s important to see the pros and cons of the two. Feedback from our readers helped me put together these points.

phoenix-apostles-webProbably the single biggest advantage to a series, for the reader and writer, is that it’s comfort food for the imagination. Even though the story is a new one, it’s a chance to revisit an old friend(s)—the protagonist and repeat characters. For years, picking up a Clive Cussler or Terry Brooks novel always gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was back with my buddies. I knew those guys, trusted them, and couldn’t wait to see what they had gotten into this time. It was like meeting up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a year and catching up on the latest news.

Of course, every pro comes with a con. Writing a series means that every installment must be as good as or better than the last. No rehashing of a theme. No cookie cutter plots. No formulas. Readers must come away feeling their appetite for the the next adventure was satisfied, and they can’t wait for the next in the series.

Another con to writing a series is backstory. Can the reader pick up a book in the middle of the series and get enough backstory for it to make sense? Or do they have to start with book one? How much backstory does the author include in subsequent books without boring the dedicated series fan or confusing the mid-series pick-up reader?

Finally, what if a series goes too long? What if the protagonist keeps falling into the same old danger (formula) time after time? This can result in the B word: boring. You don’t want to go there.

The advantage of writing a standalone, especially if you are known as a series author, is it can bring on a breath of fresh air for you and the reader. You get to stretch your legs without the confines of your established characters, and your reader gets to see a new side of your talents. You get to try new stuff, experiment with voice, tense, POV, etc. A standalone for a series author is an experimental science lab. Just don’t blow the place up and go too far over the line that your fans won’t even recognize you.

One interesting technique is to touch on something in your new book that appeared in a previous series. In THE SHIELD, book 2 of our Maxine Decker series, the OSI agent was interviewed by Cotten Stone, the heroine journalist from our first series. It can bring an unexpected smile to your reader’s face or produce enough intrigue that they will seek out the other books.

So whether you’re interested in writing a series or a standalone, think ahead to what might be the pros and cons once you’re done. And give the new season of TRUE DETECTIVE a try. It’s good if not different from its predecessor.

What do you think, Zoners? Do you prefer reading or writing a series or standalones?

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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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Zoning in TKZ

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

I’ll be flying most of the day and may not get to respond to your comments. In case I don’t, here’s wishing all my TKZ blogmates and friends a wonder Thanksgiving Holiday.

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Someone once asked: “I’ve heard writers talk of being ‘in the zone’ regarding their writing, which I take to mean being in an altered state of extreme creativity. But how, without drugs or other stimulus, do you get into that state?”

In fact, we hear the term in the zone used often, not only with writers, but athletes, artists, and just about any activity that requires skill, creativity and deep concentration.

So what is “the zone” and how do we enter it? Why is it so hard to remain there for extended periods of time?

Being in the zone can last for a few minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day. For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so. Sort of like when we stop trying to solve a problem, the solution suddenly comes to us through our subconscious.

Let’s try to define what being in the zone means, especially when it relates to writing. For me, it’s a mental state where time seems to disappear and my productivity greatly exceeds normal output. It might start after I’ve finished lunch and sat down at my PC to work on a new chapter. Without any feeling of the passage of time, I suddenly realize a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve produced 1000 words or more. I don’t remember the passage of time or anything that deals with my surroundings. I only remember “living” or becoming immersed in the story’s moment, having the words flow from a deeper source, and “awakening” from the writing zone as if only a few moments have passed.

I’ve never been hypnotized, but I can assume that being in the zone is somewhat like self-hypnosis. My body remains in the here-and-now, but my creative senses somehow find a hidden room inside my mind, a place normally under lock and key. And I’m able to enter it for a short time to let what’s there emerge into the light of day.

It can also feel like driving down the Interstate on a long trip deep in thought and suddenly realize I can’t remember the past ten miles.

I’ve never been athletic, but I bet it’s a similar scenario: a golfer is able to tune out the surrounding crowd of tournament spectators, the dozens of network cameras, the worldwide audience, the cheers from the distant gallery as his opponents make a great putt, and he’s able to enter a place where only his game stretches out before him. The rest slips by in a blur. Personal mind control.

So what is a good method for getting into the zone? Some writers use the “running start” technique by reading the previous day’s work or chapter. It gets them back into the story and hopefully the new words start to flow.

Others listen to music. This is something I often do. Nothing with lyrics, though. I listen to movie scores or piano and guitar solos. I find that it can help set a mood or become background “white noise” that blocks out other audible distractions. That’s because, for me, the biggest obstacle to zoning is distractions. It’s important to reduce interruptions and distractions by creating an environment where they are minimized. This means shutting my office door, closing the drapes on the windows, unplugging the phone, disconnecting Internet access, and most of all, choosing a time to write when those things can be fully managed. Doing away with distractions is no guarantee that I will enter the zone at will, but it does give me a fighting chance to at least knock on the door to one of those dark, hidden rooms upstairs and let my story flow out.

How about you Zoners? What’s it like for you to write in the zone? And do you have a method to slip easily into the zone?

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“Cotton Stone is a heroine for the ages.” – Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author.

3D-collection1Less than a week to go until the release of THE COTTEN STONE OMNIBUS. The collection includes the complete series: THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY, THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT and THE 731 LEGACY. All 4 thrillers for only $7.99. Pre-order now!

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Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

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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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Top Three Tips for Getting Published

Today we welcome our guest, friend and TKZ emeritus, Michelle Gagnon filling in for Jordan Dane.

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By Michelle Gagnon

On the road to publication, I was fortunate to receive many tips and pointers along the way. Today I wanted to offer the three pieces of advice that had the biggest impact.

high res Michelle_Gagnon color Perseverance

Getting published was an extremely long and tortuous process for me.

More than a decade ago, I started compiling a series of short stories into a novel. Like many debut novels, it didn’t have much of a story arc, and was largely autobiographical (sounds great, right? J). Convinced that it would be an instant bestseller, I immediately send it off to dozens of literary agents.

Then the rejections started rolling in. I seriously must have set some sort of record; by the end, more than 50 agents had passed on it.

A few wrote lovely letters, encouraging me to try again. But frankly, I was heartbroken. By that point, the book represented years of my life; time I would never get back.

So I stopped writing for a few months. Then by chance, I attended an author event. Lee Child spoke about how it usually took a decade to become an “overnight success story.” And he explained that in his opinion, the authors who succeeded were the ones who didn’t give up.

I’d come close to doing just that. But the next day, I started writing another book. That book became THE TUNNELS; the first literary agent I sent it to offered to represent me (and mind you, this was an agent who had rejected my first novel).

So tip #1: never give up

Don’t pick up that red pencil until you’ve reached the end

I meet a lot of writers who have written 50, or 100 pages of a book. And that’s precisely when a lot of them give up. Listening to them, I’ve figured out why: when they got to that point, they went back and started editing their work.

Granted, everyone has a different process, but here’s my advice: don’t start editing AT ALL until the bones of the story are in place. I’m currently finishing the rough draft of my 12th novel; and when I say rough, believe me, it’s no exaggeration. The manuscript is riddled with typos, overwrought metaphors, and clunky dialogue. I accept that much of the time, I’m going to despise what’s appearing on the page. But I grit my teeth and keep going, because the rough draft is called that for a reason. It’s all about getting the bones of the story in place. Later, I’ll end up reworking it chapter-by-chapter, scene by scene; I usually make between 15-20 passes on every book I write. So there’s plenty of time to fine tune it later.

The problem with editing as you go is that it’s a much slower process. I usually write 10 pages a day; during the editing process, I’m lucky to get through 3. So when a first time writer finally gets back to page 50, after perfecting those opening chapters, it’s daunting; like looking up at Everest, and realizing that you’ve barely reached base camp. Many, many people give up at that point. Avoid that by not stopping until you reach the end.

You don’t have to write every day

Stephen King famously claims to write 4 hours a day, and read 4 hours a day. Every time I hear that, all I can think is that he probably never has a day that starts with driving carpool, followed by a PTA meeting, then returning home to discover that the water heater burst and somehow he has to get that fixed and clean all the water up off the floor.

Or maybe he does, I don’t honestly know. But the truth is, we’re not just writers, we’re people too; with families and pets and homes to maintain. We need to go grocery shopping and pay the bills. We need to take care of the people in our lives, and sometimes that doesn’t leave a lot of extra time to work on our manuscripts.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because here’s the thing: even if you only write one page a day, by the end of a year, you’ll have a book. And if you manage to write five pages one day, and nothing for the next four days: same result.

I write when I can, for as long as I can. And there are days—heck, weeks—when I don’t write at all. I don’t bring a laptop on vacation; I don’t take it with me for family visits. It’s not always easy to get back into the groove of a story after a long absence, but it’s manageable. And preferable to not writing at all. So don’t buy into the myth that a “real” writer spends every spare minute slaving away at their keyboard, because by and large, that’s not the case.

I hope these three tips are helpful; I honestly wished that I’d known them when I was starting out. So persevere, plow through your rough draft, and know that skipping a few days doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

We all take different paths to publication; the important thing is that we all end up at the same place.

Michelle Gagnon

www.michellegagnon.com

Michelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and Dont Let Go_jkt_des6.inddadults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity,” her YA PERSEF0NE trilogy was nominated for a Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writer’s Association, and was selected as books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The final installment, DON’T LET GO, was just released. She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Finding Your Voice part II

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

On Monday, Clare posted a great blog on Finding Your Voice. She pointed out that it’s critical for a writer to have a distinctive voice that fits the genre and helps pull the reader into the story. Along with her post, Clare got a number of excellent comments. Check them out when you get through with my post.

Today I want to add some additional thoughts on developing writer’s voice by comparing it to performing music.

If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only doesmusic one instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.

In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.

So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.

First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.

Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.

The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.

Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.

It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.

Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.

Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.

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